I just scanned a report from HarvardX and MITx, the joint venture of those two renowned institutions into the world of MOOCs and it brought to mind a conundrum public education faces in dealing with on-line courses. Here’s an overview of the dilemma:
- Teachers organizations and state school board regulations are generally opposed to awarding credits to students who earn credits through on-line courses or through any means other than “seat time” …. BUT
- Teachers need to complete coursework for re-certification.
- Teacher pay scales are typically designed to offer an advancement in compensation by accumulating graduate courses at an accredited college and, in some cases through the accumulation of “course equivalency units” set by the school district.
- Teachers are ALL pressed for time and teachers in rural areas are often a great distance away from a site where courses are offered…. SO
- Colleges, universities, professional organizations, and “edu-preneurs” have developed on-line methods for teachers to complete necessary course work to remain certified AND on-line methods for teachers to earn graduate credits AND courses that students in small rural schools can complete on line… AND
- Those same colleges, universities, professional organizations, and “edu-preneurs” developed on-line methods for other professionals (e.g. lawyers, medical professionals, any profession requiring a license) to complete necessary course work to remain certified
During my last years as Superintendent this confluence of events posed some difficult questions for us.
- If other professions grant re-certification through on-line courses why shouldn’t teachers earn their re-certification courses the same way?
- If colleges, universities, professional organizations, and “edu-preneurs” have developed on-line methods for teachers to earn graduate credits why should we require them to drive 100 miles round trip to complete graduate courses at the closest State college offering courses— especially when those same institutions were offering courses on-line?
- If we are willing to offer teachers the opportunity to earn graduate credits for on-line courses, credits that would advance their pay, why should we offer students the same opportunity to earn credit for high school courses that would enable them to graduate earlier? or enable them to expand their part-time work hours? or to devote more time to athletics? or to devote more time to playing on-line games?
As you can see, the advent of MOOCs posed some perplexing questions about the potential for technology to disrupt the usual and customary methods for schooling. The answers to these questions will define the direction of public schooling in the future… as well as the role of school boards, government regulations, and teachers in the future.
Sorry, FairTest! ESSA is NOT Going to Save the Day… and ALL Teachers are NOT Ready to Administer Well Conceived Assessments.
I generally agree with FairTest’s perspective on the overuse of standardized testing and periodically pore through and greatly appreciate their carefully archived articles describing the flaws of those tests. But I find myself at odds with Mr. Neill’s optimism regarding ESSA, his faith in the ability of all teachers to develop and thoughtfully use assessments, and his unwillingness to accept any form of computerized testing. All of this was prompted by an article of his published in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet titled “How Testing Practices Have to Change in US Public Schools”. The following is an elaboration on the comment I left on-line in response to the article:
Mr. Neill overlooks some sobering political realities in his rosy assessment of the status of standardized testing:
First, 35 states are under the control of Republican governors and/or legislatures and many of those states are of a mind to “run schools like a business”. In doing so they will likely continue their use of standardized tests as the primary metric for “school quality”.
Second, the ESSA rules are likely to be undone by the incoming administration in a fashion that might effectively encourage (or mandate) the restoration of standardized tests. Mr. Neill undoubtedly recalls that the VATs included in RTTT were not a legislated mandate; they were a de facto administrative mandate foisted on public schools and states by the USODE.
Third, there is an implicit belief that the end of standardized testing will result in the simultaneous advent of well conceived teacher developed tests. Having led public school districts from 1981 through 2011 I can attest to the fact that testing practices vary wildly from classroom to classroom and that most teachers never had training in the development of effective assessments. And despite their uneven quality and inconsistency, those teacher developed tests were always “high stakes assessments” from the student’s perspective since they were used to determine if a student passed or failed a course. Moreover, since the advent of NCLB the teacher’s ability to develop assessments has eroded. Teachers in all but the most affluent school districts are primarily focussed on improving standardized test scores. The bottom line on teacher developed assessments: if Mr. Neill hopes to rely the their use for accountability purposes it will require a massive staff development initiative.
Fourth, the call to avoid the use of computerized formative assessments is misguided. Teachers routinely give pencil-and-paper assessments and— yes even in this day and age— worksheets that are presumably designed to determine if a student has mastered the content the teacher presented. Administering those routine assignments via computer frees the time teachers use for grading those quizzes and worksheets enables them to use that time to individualize instruction. The use of well-crafted computerized formative assessments would be a huge step forward if it displaced the quizzes and worksheets that to this day are used as “seat work” in schools.
Mr. Neill’s cause is a righteous one, and I believe we ARE making progress in the way we use assessments at the national level. But I also believe we need to be clear-eyed about the ability for public schools to move in a different direction when it comes to accountability.
I was going to write yet another blog post describing how Education Week’s “Report Card” metrics prove the obvious: State’s that spend well on education and make an earnest effort to equalize spending do better than state’s that skimp on spending. But fellow blogger Mike Klonsky wrote a brief and eloquent post that does an effective job of explaining this fact. Read it here.
International Test Scores Are the Tip of the Iceberg… and What Lies Beneath Requires Immediate Attention
A post from Diane Ravitch provided a link to The Iceberg Effect, a report issued by the National Superintendents Roundtable that undercuts the notion that international test results are evidence that US schools are “failing”. The report suggests that test results are the tip of an iceberg that masks the elements of government policies that either support or work against schooling. After examining these four elements, which include equity of opportunity, support for families, social stresses, and support for schools, the writers offer a set of recommendations, which include the following set of policy recommendations:
- Minimize alarmist rhetoric around schools. Despite warnings, no country in the West collapsed when the Soviet Union won the initial race into space in 1957. Nor did the rest of the G-7 founder amidst alarms about Japan’s “rising sun” in the 1970s. On the contrary, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Japan entered the economic doldrums for 30 years.
- We ask American politicians to leave science to the scientists. Withholding funds for research on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences does not advance the well- being of the American people.
- Renew the federal government’s historic interest in school-finance equalization in the United States.
Unfortunately these three recommendations are likely to be ignored in the coming four years. The Democrat party is as guilty as the Republican party when it comes to “alarmist rhetoric”, and given the past eight years it is evident that the Democrat party is as eager as the Republican party to use the “alarm” as the basis for privatization efforts. President-elect Trump’s arrogant anti-intellectualism combined with the know-nothing Tea Party members makes it highly improbable that more funding will be made available for “…research on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences” and there is no chance whatsoever that either Congress or the Education Department under the leadership of Betsy DeVos will do anything to “…renew the federal government’s historic interest in school-finance equalization”. Indeed, there is no evidence that Ms. Clinton would have taken any action on these issues. The National Superintendents Roundtable has provided a thoughtful and insightful report with reasonable and achievable policy objectives. Sadly, nothing will happen for the next four years to bring them into reality.
Nation education writer Dana Goldstein wrote a comprehensive and, to my way of thinking, mostly accurate synopsis of public education trends during the Obama presidency. She opened her article with a description of how Mr. Obama began his term of office aligning with the so-called “bi-partisan” reform group but conclude his term of office with a better understanding: he saw that public education’s problems could not be separated from the problem of childhood poverty:
Only since 2014 has there been a détente in what many, myself included, termed the “teacher wars.”Grassroots activism from the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as from tens of thousands of parents who opted their children out of standardized testing, helped shift the terms of the debate. We now talk almost as much about school discipline, unequal school funding, and school segregation as we do about low test scores and teacher tenure. It’s a profound change in rhetoric.
Ms. Goldstein speculated that this change in rhetoric would have continued had Ms. Clinton been elected, but is very pessimistic bout the chances that Mr. Trump will pick up on this line of thinking.
The article then detailed Mr. Obama’s horrific decision to institute Race to the Top, which is described in objective and deservedly critical terms:
Race to the Top told states and school districts that if they wanted a share of the $4 billion in discretionary federal dollars, they would need to evaluate teachers using “evidence of student learning” (generally, test scores). They would also need to weaken tenure protections to remove underperforming teachers; lift caps on the number of independently operated charter schools allowed to open; and “turn around” failing schools, sometimes by removing veteran teachers and principals or handing the schools over to charter operators. There were no new federal incentives for desegregating schools, or for equalizing funding between those that served rich and poor children.
“Given [that Obama] took office at the height of the recession,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, “the most surprising thing was that he didn’t acknowledge the poverty that schools were dealing with. [His administration] never said schools are overwhelmed by kids who are hungry, whose parents lost their homes, lost their jobs…. Instead, they kind of kept on the same path that Bush had been on, emphasizing standards and accountability and accelerating it by calling for more school closures, replacing teachers and principals. They seized on very simplistic solutions to complex problems.”
Test, punish, repeat. This was the algorithm recommended by the reformers, a group Ms. Goldstein mischaracterizes as “bi-partisan”. From my perspective this group was not partisan in any sense of the word. Instead, they were seeking some means of privatizing public education, creating an “open marketplace” to replace the “monopoly” because “everyone knows” that markets will reward the best and drive out the worst.
Ms. Goldstein then recapped the unintended consequences of Race to the Top, noting that by the time 2014 came around everyone associated with public education was dismayed by the emphasis on test scores (no surprise given that teacher’s employment often depended on test results), and both the right and the left opposed the Common Core that was the basis for the tests. The left hated it because it invariably led to narrow and dumbed-down tests, the right because it was an example of federal intrusion on local schools.
Ms. Goldstein’s biggest errors in reporting appear near the end of the article where she presents ESSA as legislation that will put an end to testing. She writes:
Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA continues to require annual testing in reading and math, but removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using student test scores. The law asks states to judge school quality in new ways, by considering student-discipline policies and whether all kids have access to advanced courses.
With new research showing that poor children who attend schools with higher per-pupil funding outperform those whose schools have less cash, Obama has also sought to influence how states and municipalities fund schools. This year, he proposed a regulation that would withhold ESSA money from states and school districts that send more local dollars to schools serving affluent children than poor ones. Congressional Republicans and many local education officials from both parties are resisting the regulation, known as “supplement, not supplant.” It is simply impossible to imagine President-elect Trump, who campaigned on the premise of local control of education, continuing Obama’s fight on this front.
As readers of this blog know, I believe ESSA is grossly oversold as a means of eliminating and over-emphasizing testing. It removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using test scores based on a Federal mandate, but does not in any way discourage the use of tests to evaluate teachers and, given the preponderance of Republican Governors it is foolish to believe that there will be a wholesale abandonment of Value Added Measure. And without the supplement-vs-supplant” regulations there will be nothing to limit the use of federal funds to displace State and local funds.
I completely agree with Ms. Goldstein’s description of what went wrong with the Obama administration when it came to public education, but I don’t believe Mr. Obama EVER gave full-throated support to the notion that more money was needed to help children raised in poverty… nor did he ever give public educators, administrators, and Board members the credit they richly deserve for their hard work in the face of fiscal and psychological adversity. Mr. Obama offered way to little way too late….