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Montgomery County (MD) Decision to Return to Traditional Letter Grades is Evidence of Where Change is Most Resistant

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Conservative columnists complain that teachers unions are the biggest block to making changes in public education. Liberal columnists contend change is thwarted by a lack of funding. Progressives look with dismay at the standardized testing that drives decision making and reinforces the status quo and see that as an impediment to change.

But a recent decision by the Montgomery County (MD) School Board illustrates the biggest obstacle to change: parents who want to retain the system as it is. Five years ago, the Montgomery County School Board made a decision to institute a new system of reporting student progress to students. As reported by Washington Post writer Linh Bui at that time, the system would replace the traditional A-F grades on elementary report cards with ones indicating how each student was progressing.

The Montgomery County public school system is joining other districts across the country in abandoning traditional letter grades for some students and instead matching student evaluations with specific curriculum standards.

Instead of seeing A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s on report cards this November, for the first time, parents of Montgomery students in third grade will see ES, P, I or N. Those new letters will also apply to students in first through second grade, who used to get O’s, S’s or N’s.

Teachers also will mark students separately on learning skills such as “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality” with separate codes of DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident).

This kind of grading system is the natural outgrowth of switching to a standards-based curriculum whereby all students are expected to master a series of standards no matter how much time takes for the each student to do so. It is an important and necessary step to any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward mastery learning that assumes time is a variable and learning is constant instead of the other way around.

In well funded and equitable Montgomery County the teachers and the teachers union supported the change. From all appearances, a sea change was underway… but from the outset one set of parents never understood what was going on and another set of parents and the conservative media rejected the move to “standards-based” grades because the new grades were based on (gasp) the Common Core. As Ms. Bai reported five years ago, the A-F paradigm seemed to be unshakeable to parents… as did the inherent competitiveness and false sense of exactness and certitude built into the A-F system. Some parents made fallacious crosswalks between the new grading system and the old one, some saw the system as “squishy” since it didn’t have numbers associated with it, and some never saw the link between the curriculum standards and the progress reports.

The terminology itself is crucial: the quarterly issuance of letter grades is called a “Report Card”. The terminology used when districts move toward a standards-based grading is a “Progress Report”. They convey a different intent and a different purpose.

As one who sees technology as potentially assisting in the shift away from the competitive bell curve mentality inherent in standardized test driven grading, I know is now possible to completely eliminate report cards altogether. With parent portals into the student information systems used in virtually every school in the nation it is no longer necessary to issue periodic “Report Cards” or “Progress Reports”. Instead, parents can periodically check on their child’s progress through the outcomes defined for each course and schools can monitor the parent’s assiduousness in doing to to make certain it is appropriate for the age of the child. Technology makes such a change possible… and, as we witnessed in Montgomery County, it is supported by teachers, affordable, and equitably applied. The problem with instituting this necessary change? Parents who want schools to stay just the way they were when they attended.

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Don’t Know Much About History? Blame the Textbooks…

August 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Atlantic writer Matt Ford’s  What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War, an article in yesterday’s yesterday on-line edition effectively laid the blame for our President’s ignorance about the Civil War on the textbooks used in classrooms while he was in school. As a contemporary of the President, I think that the way history was taught during that era was the problem far more than the content…. and the methods used in that era persist in far too many classrooms today.

The history courses— or “social studies” courses— I took in the late 1950s and early 1960s all used thick textbooks that were stuffed with facts, textbooks that were impossible to “cover” in one year and “front loaded” so that the explorers and Founding Fathers were covered in depth. In my experience, the Civil War was taught as a stand-alone event. Contrary to the premise of Mr. Ford, I recall the context for the war was limited to the premise that the South wanted to keep slavery and the North wanted to abolish it. There were facts we needed to memorize about the Civil War, but the facts were not put into a context… a method that was typical of the way all conflicts were presented. As a result, I learned a lot about the time period between 1763 and the election of George Washington, a lot about 1861-1865, and a lot about 1914-1917. Being raised in a Republican bastion, we also learned that FDR’s programs did nothing to left the country out of the Depression. Instead it was our entry into World War II that got our economy back on track.

Throughout junior and senior high school our history teachers relied heavily on AV to deliver many of the facts we needed to recall for the tests… and one teacher in particular showed film-after-film of the battles in World War II, a favorite era for him. Because he emphasized that particular time span in that fashion, we learned even less about the economic factors that led to World War II and hardly anything about our country’s isolationist perspective prior to the war. We all learned that history was about memorizing indisputable facts and timelines.

The result of this approach to presenting material was to conflate the accumulation of facts with “history”, which deadened the subject and, in all probability, led many in my generation to be incurious about the causes and effects of the events we had to commit to memory. Clearly both recent GOP Presidents lack the curiosity needed to delve deeply into causes and effects of events that faced them. The anti-intellectualism of the GOP that has come into full bloom under President Trump dates back to the antipathy the party generated in opposition to Adlai Stevenson, the anti-Communist attacks of Joe McCarthy, and Spiro Agnew’s railing against the “pointy-headed” liberals.

Mr. Ford is right in his criticism of the material in the textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s. It was too often sanitized in order to be marketable in all parts of the country and, consequently, omitted contentious issues like slavery and racism that supported slavery. But he misses the key point that the way we were tested on those facts led us to accept them as indisputable and etched in stone. Worse, it led too many of us to stop looking deeply into the causes and effects of events and to diminish those who bothered to do so.

 

 

Un-Grading Schools to Make Performance Constant, Time Variable

May 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I read Diane Ravitch’s column today and was dismayed because in her opposition to standardized testing she is posing the wrong question, which is: “Why do we need standardized testing in every grade for every child.” The better question is this: “Why do we test students based on age cohorts at all?” The answer to this question is that it is “more efficient” (i.e. easier to administer and “interpret”) and implicitly promotes competition between students and among schools (i.e. it yields “precise” comparative data). The “standards” that the tests yield are statistical constructs: a particular cut score becomes the “standard” for proficiency even though the cut score is unrelated to the mastery of any particular information. The cut score only tells a teacher whether their students exceeded or fell short of a cut score that is defined as a “standard”.  But the standardized test scores DO yield a seemingly precise aggregate score that politicians and journalists can use to “measure quality” and statisticians can use to draw conclusions about “teacher performance”.

If we replaced standardized summative tests with individualized formative tests and batched students based on performance cohorts instead of age we could move out of the factory model of schooling that, in the name of efficiency, batches students by age cohorts and require them to advance through predetermined curricula at the same rate as their age peers in all content areas. Instead of a factory model, we could have a system that groups children based on their skill proficiency as measured by formative assessments designed for that purpose. Mastery tests require a different kind of question than standardized tests. We use mastery tests in other arenas. Drivers license tests, citizenship tests, bar exams, and medical school exams are not graded on a curve. They ascertain the baseline skills needed in each domain they measure and design assessments that  assure a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in a particular field. Moreover, many credentials, like drivers licenses and medical degrees, require performance assessments. We don’t want drivers who cannot operate a vehicle or surgeons who’ve only passed content examinations.

Our insistence on using standardized tests as the primary metric for “schooling” assumes that time is constant and learning is variable. Any standard that begins with the phrase “by the end of grade X…” assumes that students will be batched in age-based cohorts and tested at a set time. The common core was based on this assumption, which meant that the debate over it was not about whether the sequence of math skills was accurate but rather about timing of the tests to assess mastery of the skills: whether the tests on the sequence of skills matched the age cohort to be tested.

And when the stakes on the passage of standardized tests linked to age-based cohorts increased, the focus on “schooling” narrowed and the urgency to cram more content into groups of children who were not developmentally prepared to absorb the information led to the expansion of the school day, a reduction in arts, music, and hands on learning, and a diminishment of joy for teachers and students alike.

We need to test students in some fashion to ensure that they have mastered the skills we teach them and we should accept the fact that students will learn at different rates and in different ways. Anyone who is the parent of more than one child knows this is true. If we used our collective time and energy to design and use the results of formative assessments to help students progress through skill sequences at their own rate and in a fashion that matches their learning modality we could re-form education…. and with the technology available today we could readily accomplish this. But as long as we insist that all children move at the same speed through our curricula, as long as we insist on having time be constant, we can be certain that performance will vary and some children will be “left behind” for no good reason.

Heartland Institute’s Efforts to Sow Doubts Places Climate Change Instruction in Public Schools in Peril

April 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed piece by Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College in Upstate NY describing the full court press by the Heartland Institute to inject doubt in the minds of public school science teachers regarding the science behind climate change. He writes:

The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank known for attacking climate science, has been mailing a slim, glossy book to public school teachers throughout the United States. The institute says it plans to send out as many as 200,000 copies, until virtually every science educator in America has one.

The book, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” presents the false premise that the evidence for human-driven climate change is deeply flawed. To understand where the Heartland Institute is coming from, consider a recent comment by its president, Joseph Bast, who called global warming “another fake crisis” for Democrats “to hype to scare voters and raise campaign dollars.”

Stager describes the slick presentation of the materials, which were mailed “…in an envelope bearing the headline of a New York Times article about an investigation into Exxon Mobil for possibly lying about climate change”, in an effort to get climate change realists to read more. A self-professed late adopter to the position that man is the cause of changes in the climate, Stager notes with a hint of dismay that many science teachers are still open to the idea that there is not a consensus on the issue:

Unfortunately, many teachers seem unaware of this (consensus among scientists). A survey of 1,500 American science teachers published last year in the journal Science found 30 percent of those surveyed said they emphasized in their classes that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes.” Less than half also correctly identified the degree of consensus among climate scientists that human activities are the primary cause of global warming.

They may therefore be vulnerable to suggestions that they should “teach the controversy” for the sake of balance, particularly in places like Tennessee and Louisiana, where state law permits the teaching of alternative interpretations of evolution and climate change in public schools. The Heartland Institute is now exploiting this opportunity to influence the next generation on a national scale.

Knowing Heartland’s funders and the power of ALEC, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this outreach to teachers is matched by an outreach to school board members at all levels and/or potential candidates for school boards. I would not be surprised to see statehouses passing legislation mandating a “balanced approach” to climate change… nor would I be surprised to see local and State Boards of education passing policies that mandate “balance”.

And here’s what is especially frustrating: climate change realists don’t have the financial wherewithal to fight back against the climate change propagandists, who are underwritten by Big Oil… and the fight to teach the truth about climate change is especially difficult when the Executive Branch is populated with climate change deniers.

All of this means that unless grassroots activists push back, Heartland’s supporters will succeed in their effort to influence the next generation on a national scale… particularly given the sacrifices that will be necessary to address the impact of climate change.

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The Double Edged Sword of Deregulation: States Can Ignore Equity and Civil Rights with Impunity

March 10, 2017 Leave a comment

To no one’s surprise, yesterday Congress passed a bill that will effectively eliminate the regulations that the Obama administration wrote as part of the implementation procedure for ESSA. NYTimers reporter Dana Goldstein summarized some of the elements of the legislation, focussing primarily on the issue of standardized testing:

It is customary for federal agencies to issue detailed regulations on how new laws should be put into effect, and Mr. Obama’s Department of Education did so in November. But some lawmakers from both parties saw the regulations as unusually aggressive and far-reaching, and said they could subvert ESSA’s intent of re-establishing local control over education and decreasing the emphasis on testing.

The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming. The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.

Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.

“The regulations were an overreach,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a group that fights standardized testing. But, he said, “the total repeal is also an overreach,” because it targets civil rights regulations as well as testing rules.

And therein lies the conundrum of standards and regulations: how can a government at any level, including the school board level, avoid imposing standards and regulations when housing patterns and the accompanying economic and educational well-being of children is inequitable. As Ms. Goldstein writes, there is a change in sentiment about the role of the federal government in the setting of standards and measurement of performance:

Beginning in the 1980s, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans tended to agree that the federal government ought to hold local schools to tough standards, and monitor them closely to make sure they were shrinking achievement gaps between different groups of students. The ESSA repeal effort shows that center no longer holds. On the Senate floor Wednesday, Mr. Alexander said a regulatory repeal would “restore to states, to classroom teachers and to school boards decisions about what to do about the children.”

Giving states the authority over education sounds good… but history shows that when states are given that obligation racial and economic justice take a backseat and the education of ESL and handicapped students flags. The fact that 42 states have experienced lawsuits over funding equities should serve as sufficient evidence that some kind of federal oversight is needed and the relatively recent trend of resegregation of public schools should reinforce the need for some kind of federal intervention. But for now, economic and racial justice are taking a backseat. For the sake of poor, minority, ESL, and handicapped children, I hope the pendulum swings back with a vengeance.

Idaho’s Science Curriculum Exhibit 1 for ESSA’s BIGGEST Flaw

February 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Think Progress writer Natasha Geiling reported in a post today that Idaho lawmakers just adopted a new science curriculum that makes no mention whatsoever about climate change. Why?

Republican legislator, Rep. Scott Syme, argued that the original standards, which included five paragraphs about climate change, did not teach “both sides of the debate.”

In reality, there is little to no debate about whether climate change is occurring, and whether human activity — primarily through the burning of fossil fuels — is the primary contributor. There is a 97 percent consensusamong actively publishing climate scientists that climate change is both happening and that humans are the primary cause — about the same consensus among medical professionals that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.

My concern is that if you shared the second paragraph of this reportage with Mr. Syme, he would argue that the lack of 100% agreement is NOT a “consensus”… that there are two sides to the issue… split 97-3… but NOT a “consensus”.  And here’s the bad news: Idaho is far from the only state taking this position:

Idaho is not unique in omitting accurate climate science from its curriculum. According to a survey published last February in Science, 30 percent of teachers that teach climate change tell students that it is “likely due to natural causes,” and another 31 percent teach the issue as unsettled science. States like Wyoming have gone so far as to pass a ban barring schools from teaching that climate change was caused by humans, though that ban was later repealed.

So our legislators are worried that our children are doing poorly on international science examinations while simultaneously having 61% of the science teachers in the nation teaching misleading or wrong information regarding global warming. And I am willing to hazard a guess that at least a handful of legislatures will adopt curricula that incorporate Creation Science before the end or Mr. Trump’s first term.

There are some states, however, who are adopting a realistic and accurate science curriculum:

Other states, however, are choosing to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which were put crafted by 26 states and a number of science and education organizations, and include accurate climate science information. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.

How can we ever hope to agree on a way to address climate change when nearly half of the legislatures in the country deny that it even exists? How can we get people to believe in its existence if they are not taught about it.  How can we hope to be the UNITED States of America when we are not getting uniform instruction in science?

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National Debate on Public School Leadership Playing Out in NH… With One Difference: It MIGHT Be Possible to Avoid a Calamity

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Today’s Valley News features a story by AP reporter Kathleen Ronayne titled “School Choice Advocates See Ally in Chris Sununu. As noted in earlier posts, Governor Sununu, like Republican President Trump, has selected an inexperienced individual who favors guns in schools, gay conversion therapy, creationism, and de facto vouchers to head the public schools in our State. Like Ms. DeVos, who sent her children to private schools, Mr. Edelblut’s children  did not attend public schools as he and his wife homeschooled their seven children. Like Ms. DeVos, Mr. Edelblut is a millionaire… but unlike Ms. DeVos he earned it himself, making a plausible argument that he knows how to lead a large organization like the State Board. But, as one of my earlier posts indicates, he has no understanding of what the State Department has already accomplished in his “signature” reform area of “personalization”.

But here’s what may turn out to be the biggest difference between DeVos and Edelblut: his appointment might be blocked! Here’s the text of an email I received from State Senator Martha Hennessy, who represents my town:

Call Councilor JOSEPH KENNEY this week to OPPOSE EDELBLUT and identify yourself as a parent if you are one! 

Executive Councilor Joseph Kenney may still be willing to oppose Edelblut’s nomination for Education Commissioner but says he has not heard from enough parents. Please forward this information to every parent you know. Ask them to call Kenney THIS WEEK and urge him to oppose Edelblut’s nomination and to identify themselves as parents. If you have already called but didn’t say you are a parent, call again. His contact info is here: 

https://www.nh.gov/council/districts/d1/

Not only does Edelblut have no professional experience in education but as a state representative he supported legislation that would ALLOW GUNS IN SCHOOLS, and he refused to support a bill that would ban CONVERSION THERAPY FOR GAY YOUTH. Moreover, he is a CREATIONIST who wants “all theories of human origins” taught in schools. At his hearing he avoided answering important questions about his views on these issues and would not commit to staying out of partisan politics as commissioner. A good synopsis is here: 

http://nhlabornews.com/2017/02/55917/ 

By nominating Edelblut, Sununu did not uphold STATE LAW that REQUIRES that the commissioner must be qualified by reason of education and experience. This is not about political party. This is about keeping our children safe and protecting their future. Please call. Please forward. The confirmation hearing has been postponed until next week.

Here’s hoping parents across the State respond to this call and sway one vote away from the “party line” and toward a better future for public schools. The last thing NH schools need is more guns, less tolerance toward LGBT students, and a curriculum that includes Creation science.