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What Impact Would Ed. Dept. Rules Have on AYP?

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Here's a question I'm trying to answer:

Would the rules proposed by the Department of Education make it easier or harder for schools and districts to make AYP?

If you have a theory, post a comment or e-mail me.

1 Comment

I doubt the rules changes would make any difference and it seeems that researchers with greater expertise than I are saying basically the same. But the real reason is that the new system draws on the same human dynamics, so slight improvements in methodology won't make a difference.

I was impressed by the discussion by experts from the Spencer and Joyce foundations, Tom Toch and others at the Rockefeller Institute.

The fundamental "people" flaw of NCLB I or II (as proposed) was illustrated by
Susan Traiman, of the Business Roundtable. She illustrated the basic shame and blame or “gotcha” dynamic with the standard "gotcha" reply to criticism of the “gotcha” accountability system, arguing “Tom, there isn’t one shred of evidence that instruction is worse since No Child Left Behind. There’s this myth somehow spread frequently by teacher’s organizations that creativity was flourishing in our classrooms before No Child Left Behind.”

I was especially impressed by John Merrow’s reply, but of course I would be because I left the professional world for an inner city high school because I heard all of those reports of the wonderful conditions that we bestowed on our poorest children. ...

Merrow described his own experiences, “you see drilling, drilling, drilling, and its particularly with poor kids,” and he described the Teachers of the Year who say that they would not go into teaching today. I am our district’s runner-up teacher of the year and I’ve won other awards for classroom excellence, but I have to worry whenever we get a new superintendent, Regional Executive Director, or principal. Any August they may unilaterally announce a “reform” and I would have to put my keys on the desk and hug my students and leave the profession I love rather than betray my principles. Before NCLB, my #1 priority was improving instruction for my students and our schools. Now my main priority has to be resistance to destructive top down mandates.

This discussion led to a couple of insights. Merrow wisely rephrased the question as being not “prove that No Child Left Behind made things worse,” but “Is this the way you want schools to run. I suspect that Traiman also revealed an insight when she complained that much of the destructiveness of testing comes from the litigiousness of American society.

The discussion got even better as participants were nearly unanimous in agreeing that, “as long as the Adequate Yearly Progress thing is there, it’s going to limit the creativity and exploration that’s available for tests and assessment development.” Several worried that school would continue to degenerate into the study of 2,000 to 10,000 test prep questions. This discussion culminated in Wanye Camara illustrated the ultimate logical absurdity which occurred when SAT produced essay tests, “And who is going to memorize 200 essays? Well guess what? We did a quick survey and we discovered that ... there are not a small number of schools that would be memorizing, not the verbatim answers, but the rubrics to try to answer 200. ... So I think, unfortunately, if you put 200 or 2,000 items out there, there will be educators and parents who will insist that their kids memorize them.”

A couple of participants would not concede even the absurdity of even that extreme in test prep. Then Traiman agreed that “if you teach a rich curriculum, you don’t have to worry about the tests,” but she also commented “It has to do with whether educators ... are smart.”

This dynamic was discussed in a more subtle manner by Scott Martin and Tom Toch. Marion explained, “standards are hard for teachers to make sense of. ... Teachers look at a test item and say, ‘Oh, you want the kids to be able to do that? That’s what the standard means.’ In the best set of circumstances, tests could be used to clarify ... In other cases, they could result in narrowing and a race to the bottom.”

Even in the glory days before NCLB, how many teachers in high poverty high schools could read and comprehend their subject’s standards? In my field of social studies, standards require evaluation, analysis, and synthesis of the great themes of World History. Before we create ambitious tests for students, shouldn’t we recruit, train, and develop a core of teachers who could meet such a challenge?

It’s at that point that Traiman’s and others’ comments about litigiousness become enlightening. I suspect she can recount chapter and verse a set of anecdotes where litigation produced litigiousness in the testing industry. But that does not mean that pyschometricians aren’t smart. Does she think that litigiousness doesn’t extend into public schools? Much of our “To Do Lists” came from litigation, and in theory we could have done our best to address those challenges without creating a Cover Your Ass culture of compliance. But does she have any idea of how long our checklist is? If she would walk a mile in our shoes she would realize that the issue is not being smart; the issue is being flesh and blood human beings. We teachers are just as imperfect as members of more respected professions.

In theory, her profession could have responded to litigation without becoming litigious, and educators could have responded to testing without creating a “testing culture.” Perhaps it is because I was once a historian but I keep returning to the history of civil rights litigation in order to make sense of true believers in NCLB-type accountability. They keep recounted decades of experience in fighting Jim Crow, and give “blood and guts” oratory about how the struggle must continue for decades until they can get accoun6tability right. Yeah, as in the movie, “our blood, their guts.” Give us enough time, and we will devise a system that does not degrade poor children.

Ironically, I don’t deny that a constructive system data-driven accountability can be created over time. I just can’t stand it when our kids are used as guniea pigs in developing such a system. That’s why we should listen to Tom Toch and others who explained how using “tests as a lever of reform” means that “if you focus on low-level skills, teachers are going to do that stuff.” The best of several good suggestions would be to create a sort of Consumer Reports.

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