NPR reporter Eric Westervelt’s recent report on four teachers who gave up their jobs after attaining a continuing contract illustrates everything that’s wrong with the way public schools are operating today and underscores the fact that the teachers who leave the profession are not those who struggle. On the contrary, Westervelt’s sampling indicates that teachers leave out of frustration about the lack of resources, the emphasis on testing, the toxic environment resulting from the anti-union legislation in many states, and– most sadly, because there is an emphasis on promoting students to the next “grade level” even if they aren’t actually learning the material presented in the classroom.
In each of these cases, the desire to run schools-like-a-business is driving teachers out of the profession. Schools emphasize testing and promotion because the metrics used to determine success are simple and cheap. Promotion rates and test scores, neither of which require mastery of the material by the students, are easy for the public to understand, inexpensive to calculate, and lend themselves to ranking and rating schools and— when invalid algorithms are used— teachers. Schools batch students in “grade levels” based on age and expect them to advance in lockstep through those “grade levels” because that’s the way a product that is manufactured progresses through a manufacturing process. Teachers are discouraged from being in unions and schools are starved of resources because government officials want to limit the costs to taxpayers in the same way that Walmart, for example, strives to limit overhead. The “overpaid teacher” meme is so ingrained today that asking teachers to pay for resources does not seem unfair to “cash-strapped-and-overburdened” taxpayers. The result, as Linda Darling Hammond states in Westervelt’s article, is “Teachers who are well prepared leave at more than two times lower rates than teachers who are not fully prepared”. A vicious circle is in place, especially in those districts with the tightest budgets— the districts serving the children with the greatest needs. Changing this vicious circle will be difficult. It will require the public to see the flaws in the “business model” and the merits of a developmental approach toward teaching and learning. It will require the public to have faith in “secular government schools” instead of schools operated by the “efficient” business sector or religiously affiliated schools. It will require a realization that a quality education, like any quality product, costs more than a shabby product. And it will require a willingness for affluent parents who understand all of this to be willing to pay higher taxes to help their less advantaged counterparts. Those who can afford high priced homes in districts that operate schools with robust programs and who pay teachers well will need to help out those children who had the bad luck to be born into families that struggle economically. When the minds and hearts of the public change, public schools can change for the better as well…. but it will require time, energy, and resources to effect that change.
The NYTimes ran a thought provoking and even handed article describing the dilemma faced by Brent Warthke, an Eau Claire WI middle school social studies teacher: how do I introduce Presidential politics to a group of 8th grade students in my social studies class? Back when I attended middle school (in the early 1960s when it was Junior High School), when I taught middle school (in the early 1970s), and when I led school districts (from 1980 onward) the issue of how to teach about politics was fairly straightforward: do not display any biases and try to make certain students understood both sides of the issues being debated. This year the challenge is how to present a toxic and vulgar campaign without having students sent to the office. In the words of one middle school student quoted in the article:
“We self-censor a lot,” said Connor Felton, 12. “I think if you repeat some stuff that Trump says, you could get sent down to the principal’s office. Maybe even expelled.”
Indeed, if a student teased a fellow student who was handicapped or fat or if a male student made references to grabbing a female by her genitals or sneered about her period they would be sent to the office… not because it was “politically incorrect” but because it is demeaning, bullying, and uncivil. Similarly if a teacher or administrator overheard a group of white students jeering at a group of immigrant students they would find it intolerable and put a stop to it.
Part of public education is learning how to conduct debates civilly and to gain a clear understanding of each student’s perspective on issues. This is part of the explicit and implicit curriculum because it is part of the explicit and implicit conduct we expect from each other and we expect our police to enforce. The saddest reality of this election is that the students who are being exposed to national politics for the first time are learning what Mr. Trump, Ms. Clinton, and themes media are teaching them… and I don’t believe it’s the lesson Mr. Warthke and his counterparts are wanting them to learn about how democracy functions.
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.