Adam Grant’s NYTimes op ed essay asserting that we should stop grading students on a curve focusses on his experiences as a graduate school professor at the Wharton School of Business. His point is that grading on a bell curve in a graduate school compels needless competition among individual students and effectively teaches them to compete with each other instead of working collaboratively to gain a deeper understanding. I wholeheartedly agree with this premise and the conclusion he draws… but felt that he missed a much larger and important point. In the article he writes:
“If your forced curve allows for only seven A’s, but 10 students have mastered the material, three of them will be unfairly punished.”
The bell curve is forced and arguably meaningless in a select college or graduate school where most entrants can master the skills taught in the time provided. In public schools where everyone must master skills, the bell curve is a natural consequence of differences in learning aptitude. Because some students require more time to master the skills taught and time is seen as a limited, whenever a bell curve is used in public education all who get low grades because they cannot learn in the limited time provided are unfairly punished. As long as we accept the premise that time is a constant and learning is a variable we will needlessly punish students who cannot grasp material quickly by labelling them as “failures”. When this premise is imposed on learning in general, we end up claiming that “schools are failing”. Maybe we need to look at our premises about education before we jump to conclusions about the efficacy of public schools. Until we do, we will continue grading on a curve based on time limitations and confusing the RATE of learning with the CAPACITY to learn.
Restorative Justice Boosts Self-Awareness, Builds Community, and Builds Skills Needed in a Democracy
This Sunday’s NYTimes will feature an article by Susan Dominus on how the use of restorative justice in an urban high school in NYC has dramatically lowered the suspension rates. Ms. Dominus’ article vividly describes the daunting challenges an administrator faces when trying to replace the criminal justice model of discipline with a restorative justice model. Teachers and deans who are accustomed to swift and automatic consequences for specific forms of misconduct are thrown when they are expected to deal with small offenses on their own and expected to help students learn to manage their own conduct. After reading the description of how the Principal at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District implemented restorative justice model over a period of years, Ms. Santos noted that:
“While studies have shown that restorative practices curb suspensions, research on their influence on test scores and grades is inconclusive.”
It’s a sad reality that schools are assessed based on standardized test scores and students progress is measured by grades— because both are based on the premise that time is fixed and performance is variable. Moreover, test scores and grades measure what is easy to measure but ultimately not that important. Restorative justice, as this article shows, tackles the toughest and most important issues. If we want to graduate students who are ready to thrive in a community, who are self-actualized learners, who are self-aware, who understand the skills needed to function in a democracy, we need to ignore their standardized tests and change our thinking about grades. We need to show them the same patience in the mastery of academics as restorative justice affords them in the management of their emotions. If we continue to focus on seemingly objective and precise metrics like standardized tests and grades we will continue ignoring the emotional well-being of children. Given our obsession with tests and grades Is it any surprise that we are reading countless articles about disaffected and disengaged young adults?
Ms. Dominus illustrates the difficulty of changing the dominant paradigm of school discipline and, in so doing, illustrates how difficult it is to change the dominant thinking about test-based accountability. Her article is aptly titled “An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High School Suspensions”. What Ms. Dominus fails to acknowledge is that our current practice with school discipline is IN-effective but equally exhausting. As is our practice in batching students in age based cohorts and expecting them to progress in lockstep.
In a victory for common sense over spreadsheets, Justice Roger D. McDonough of State Supreme Court in Albany vacated the value-added calculations that were the basis of NY teacher Sheri Lederman’s unfavorable rating “…in part because of the difficulty in measuring growth for students who already perform above grade level on state tests.” The NYTimes article explaining the court decision described the basis for Ms. Lederman’s “unfavorable” rating as follows:
For the 2012-13 school year, Sheri G. Lederman, a longtime teacher in the high-performing Great Neck public school district, on Long Island, received what was known as a growth score of 14 points out of a possible 20; the score was meant to calculate student progress over time. Her students scored substantially higher than the state average on annual standardized tests in English and math, and her score put her in the “effective” range.
The next year, her students scored a bit better on the math test than they had the year before, and slightly lower on the English exam. But her growth score plummeted to one out of 20, or “ineffective.”
This phenomenon results when a standardized test based on a bell curve is used since it is mathematically impossible for high performing students to “grow” on such a test due to the lack of “head room”. If one teacher’s class gets 48 out of 50 correct on a test in the baseline year and another teacher’s class gets 25 out of fifty correct that same year, in the subsequent year it is impossible for the high performing students to get 3 or more questions correct and, thus, impossible for them to show as much “growth” as the low performing students. Despite this inherent flaw, NYS, goaded on by Race-to-the-Top, decided to use “growth” as the primary metric for determining teacher performance. After all, test scores are an “objective” and “quantifiable” means of measuring the effectiveness of teachers. Fortunately for Ms. Lederman, the judge who heard her case— unlike the Board of Regents who adopted the evaluation system— understood basic statistics ad saw the flaw in the methodology.
While the judge limited his decision to only Ms. Lederman, as Carol Burris notes in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog the decision was based on the evidence presented by academics who pointed out flaws in the system, evidence that could undermine the basis for all evaluations based on VAM. Here’s hoping other teachers in other States will follow Ms. Lederman’s lead and challenge their unfavorable ratings based on VAM and help drive a stake through the “testocracy” that drives public education today.
Over the past week I read two articles that dovetail: “To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions“, Jessica Lahey’s NYTimes Well blog post; and “Student Planners in Vermont“, an editorial praising Vermont’s requirement that all rising 7th grade students develop Personalized Learning Plans to help them navigate their way through middle and high school.
Ms. Lahey’s article cites research by neuroscientist Dr. Immordino-Yang whose findings led her to this conclusion: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about“… and this applies to ALL subjects:…”Even…in subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.” Ms. Lahey explains how is is possible to make students care:
Creating this emotional connection might sound like a daunting task, but research has shown that the investment reaps huge dividends in the form of increased learning and better grades. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals, learning improves.
The emotional connection that can result when teachers make learning personally relevant to students is what differentiates superficial, rote, topical assimilation of material from a superlative education marked by deep mastery and durable learning. While there are no silver bullets in education, emotional engagement and personal relevance is the tool that has the potential to improve the educational experience of every child, in every school in America.
This is no surprise to me. As a high school administrator for six years I found that students who knew what they wanted after high school were far more engaged in the life of the school and far more successful in each and every class… and this applied to vocational education students as well as college bound students. Given this bias, I was pleased to see that Vermont passed legislation that requires students entering 7th grade to work with their parents and school staff to develop Personalized Learning Plans as described concisely in the Valley News editorial:
With the help of families and teachers, students will be encouraged to identify what careers or areas they are interested in, and to seek “pathways’’ that would help them prepare. In addition to traditional high school courses, they might look at online courses, cooperative work experiences, part-time college courses, or even attending college full-time in their senior year of high school.
The editorial doesn’t mention a key reform measure that Vermont instituted simultaneously: the abandonment of graduation standards based on “seat time” and “course completion”. Instead, students in Vermont must demonstrate competencies in broadly defined areas that will equip them for life as well as careers and/or college. The closing paragraph of the Valley News editorial echoes the findings Ms. Lahey identified in her blog post:
To the extent that schools can encourage students to be more fully engaged in their education by setting goals and joining in planning, rather than being passive participants, young people will be developing a life skill that will serve them well. That is a tall order for teenagers — given that many adults never master it — but it’s encouraging that educators are seeing the big picture and the challenges ahead. Here’s one reform that seems to have students in mind.
The taller order will be getting parents, the public, and— yes— teachers to adopt the shift away from the factory model of schooling implicit in seat time and collecting “credits” and moving in a more wholistic direction, one that will require that “teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals”…. and when that happens, as Ms. Lahey notes, learning will improve.
NYTimes reporter Jessica Lahey recent column, “Three Things School Counselors Want You to Know About Their Jobs”, describes the shift in thinking about their roles in schools, a shift that, unfortunately, is not reflected in the overall mission of education. To offer insights on what counselors want to share with the general public, Ms. Lahey drew from in depth interviews she conducted with partitioners, one of whom wanted to make sure that we called them by the right name:
Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda, Md., told me: Don’t call them “guidance counselors.” The proper title is “school counselor,” she explained in an email. “School counselors chafe at the outdated term ‘guidance counselor,’ a relic from the past that no longer reflects our role,” she wrote. The profession was vocationally oriented and counselors had inconsistent educational backgrounds and levels of certification until the American School Counselor Association published “The ASCA National Model: A Foundation for School Counseling Programs” in 2003 in an effort to standardize the field. (emphasis added)
I wish schools Ms. Fagell’s belief that school counselors role was no longer vocationally oriented was correct. But, alas, as long as the mission of K-12 schooling is to prepare students for work or college counselors will be expected first and foremost to prepare students for entry into college or to help students secure employment after they graduation. Ms. Lahey goes on to elaborate on the expanded role of counseling drawing from quotes of other counselors before returning to the email referenced above, where Ms. Fagell concludes:
Ms. Fagell emphasized the role school counselors play in teaching “soft skills,” like negotiation, compromise and planning. “School counselors care deeply about educating children to be whole, happy people with the social-emotional skills needed to navigate life. It’s not enough to be good at math or history. Students need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to be able to work in teams, to manage change, to take risks and to lead.”
Children learn these skills best when teachers, counselors and parents work cooperatively. Ms. Fagell concluded her email to me with this very sentiment. “When parents openly share their child’s stories and struggles, counselors can be effective advocates, helping build teachers’ empathy and desire to engage in problem solving with the student and her family.”
Reading this a day after writing about Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker article on AltSchool, it struck me that in an ideal school their might not be any need for counselors, because in an ideal world teachers would teach soft skills like “…negotiation, compromise and planning” and teachers would be expected to work with parents to gain a deeper understanding of each student’s “…stories and struggles”. But as long as we envision schools as places where teachers are only expected to deposit knowledge into the minds of students we will need counselors to serve as intermediaries between students and teachers, students and administrators, and students and parents.
Teachers Opinions on Standardized Tests Unwelcome in NYC and “Unethical” According to NYS Commissioner
Kate Taylor’s NYTimes article this morning reports on the unified effort to squelch public dissent by teachers, an effort supported by the NYC Superintendent, the NYS Commissioner, and the teacher’s union. This unlikely alliance is in place because 20% of the parents in NYS opted out of the standardized tests last year and changes at the Regents level and changes to the tests provide evidence that the politicians in Albany have been responsive to the outcry that resulted from the Governor and former Chancellor of the Regent’s overreach on the use of tests. Why did these changes compel public education leaders to squelch dissent? The short answer is “politics”.
In the case of Ms. Farina, NYC’s Superintendent, she wants to make certain the her schools continue to have a high participation rate so that her boss, Mayor de Blasio, can continue to assert that his administration is committed to the kind of “rigorous accountability” his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, put in place. Last year NYC’s participation was 98% over all, and Ms. Farina wants to keep it that way.
In the case of the NYS Commissioner, the silencing is reflexive— but could help her retain her assignment despite the changing of the guard on the Regents. Long a supporter of test-based reform, Ms. Elia stated last year that is was “unethical” for teachers to speak out against the tests. But, as the Times notes, at that time she was parroting the Regent’s party line and now that the majority of Regents members are opposed to the over-emphasis on testing she may be ratcheting her language down a tone or two.
In the case of the unions, they believe the system has worked for them and want to make certain that the media gets the clear message that parents, not teachers, drove the opt out movement. While their position on this is politically astute, it is somewhat disappointing that they are supporting the suppression of free speech in the name of politics… but as teacher’s unions have become more and more politically wired they have become increasingly insensitive to their rank and file. (I offer the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton by the AFT and NEA as exhibit one in this argument!)
As one who is unalterably opposed to the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for measuring student, school, or teacher performance, I have a workaround for like-minded parents. Ask your child’s teacher if the tests are helpful in gaining an understanding of what motivates your child to want to learn… because in the end public education should encourage each child with a desire to learn more and the skills to do so… and I doubt that preparing for a standardized test or poring over the results of a test will help a teacher gain any insights on a child’s thirst for knowledge.