Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning. For additional information on Cody's work, visit his Web site, Teachers Lead. Or follow him on Twitter.
Four years ago, one out of three science teachers in Oakland was a first year teacher. Due to a combination of the lowest pay in the Bay Area and some of the most challenging conditions as well, we have had a tough time retaining teachers, especially in the field of science, where well-educated individuals have so many options. Many of our science teachers enter through an internship program that only asks for a two-year commitment. Three years after they begin, 75% of these interns are gone.
This high turnover creates serious problems. Novice teachers have energy and spirit, but usually lack the curricular and management tools to teach well. We have many small schools, so it is not unusual to have a school where the science department chair is a second or third-year teacher. When I started teaching, I survived in part because of a few experienced colleagues who shared tips and lessons with me, and reassured me when I had a tough day. Our novices are often surrounded by other novices, and lack that reservoir of expertise.
In the year 2008, we formed a partnership with the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, and, with funding from the Sidney Frank Foundation, launched TeamScience. We recruited twenty veteran teachers from across the District, and assigned them each one or two novice teachers to support. Our goals were to increase collaboration and collegiality across the District, to build the leadership of the mentors, to increase the effectiveness of new teachers, and to reduce the level of turnover.
Each mentor is expected to meet weekly with his mentee, and work with them closely to develop lesson plans, observe them teaching, reflect on student work and figure out ways to be more effective. We use the induction process that is embedded in California's Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) system, which has a powerful set of tools that support this work. We hold mentor forums where we meet to practice and develop our skill as mentors, and occasional weekend retreats to build our sense of community. This video shows some of our work.
In the first year, we were focused on learning basic mentoring skills. How do we talk to our teachers about the issues they are facing? How do we use these mentoring tools? We had to learn to be good mentors first. Now that we are in our third year, we are learning what we can do as science mentors. Many of our beginning teachers have been trained to "cover" large amounts of material, because that is what is on the test. Sometimes they do not understand how to teach or assess their students' deeper understanding. So we have spent time this year probing how much our students are really grasping, and developing strategies to deepen this.
I have served as a mentor myself to more than a dozen teachers over the past three years. It is amazing to watch a teacher grow from those nervous and awkward beginning months into confident practitioners by the end of their second year. And several mentees have made the transition to becoming mentors themselves, in their third or fourth year of teaching.
We have seen our mentors grow in their expertise, and they are true leaders in our District. And we have started to see some results in the level of turnover. In the year prior to TeamScience, 32% of our secondary science teachers were in their first year. This year, we have that portion down to 13%. Some of this may be due to hard times in the economy, so we cannot take all the credit. But we feel as if we have had a real impact, and our mentees indicate that they feel more effective as a result of our work. And while the state tests in science are not a full indicator of student learning, we have seen the portion of tenth graders proficient in science rise from 20% to 30%, and eighth graders go from 35% to 45% proficient, just in the past two years.
The greatest credit for this success goes to our mentors, who, as full time classroom teachers, take on the responsibility of supporting their colleagues, sometimes even at school sites across town. Sarah Young and Mike Russo of the New Teacher Center have worked closely with us from the start to develop our mentoring skills. And my colleagues, Caleb Cheung and Phil Cotty have provided steady leadership to the project.
Retaining science teachers in an urban district such as Oakland is a tough task. TeamScience draws on the most precious resource we have - the expertise and dedication of our own teachers. It has indeed taken a team effort to make a difference here.
Have you experienced the challenge of teacher turnover? What do you think of the TeamScience model?
I had a strange experience earlier this week. I sat in a room of school district coaches and managers, and watched the following video featuring Sir Ken Robinson, who gave a short lecture, illustrated here with drawings, about the destructive sinkhole our current educational paradigm has led us into. Robinson offers us a compelling critique.
The strange thing was, after this video, a panel took the stage and spoke in entirely positive terms of the new Common Core Standards, suggesting these would lead us in the direction Sir Ken was indicating. There was an empty chair, so I joined them, and suggested that, in fact, the new standards are the direct descendants of No Child Left Behind, and are designed to create a new generation of tests that will be similarly flawed. But I think most of us are so enmeshed in our current paradigm that the implications of Sir Ken's talk are difficult to apply.
So I want to take time here to examine the key points he makes, and see if we can have some dialogue around them.
When we went to school we were kept there with the story, which is if you worked hard and did well and got a college degree you'd have a job. Our kids don't believe that, and they are right not to by the way. You are better having a degree than not, but it's not a guarantee anymore. And particularly not if the route to it marginalises most of the things that you think are important about yourself.
What does this mean? The emphasis on college and career readiness is built on an illusion. The middle class jobs we are promising our students are dwindling at the same time the number of applicants to college is rising. We are not going to "educate our way to a better economy," in spite of Duncan's rhetoric. And Sir Ken is aware that there is sometimes a conflict between the aspiration to college and a healthy sense of identity on the part of our students. They may be wise to reject this tradeoff.
Next, Sir Ken takes on the way we have come to think of intelligence since the rise of the Industrial Age and the Enlightenment:
The real intelligence consisted in this capacity for certain type of deductive reasoning, and a knowledge of the Classics originally, what we've come to think of as academic ability. And this is deep in the gene pool of public education. There are really two types of people. Academic and non academic. Smart people and non smart people. And the consequence of that is that many brilliant people think they are not, because they've been judged against this particular view of the mind.
Sir Ken then decries the exploding use of psychotropic drugs to anaesthetize our children, to get them to sit still long enough for us to pour all this academic knowledge into their heads. And he questions why it is that the Arts have been lost from so many of our schools.
The Arts especially address the idea of Aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you're present in the current moment. When you are resonating with the excitement of this thing that you're experiencing. When you are fully alive. And anaesthetic is when you shut your senses off, and deaden yourself what's happening. And a lot of these drugs are that. We're getting our children through education by anaesthetising them. And I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn't be putting them asleep, we should be waking them up, to what they have inside of themselves.
But then he gets to the part that really challenges our paradigm.
We still educate children by batches. You know, we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? You know, why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are. You know, it's like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture. Well I know kids who are much better than other kids at the same age in different disciplines. You know, or at different times of the day, or better in smaller groups than in large groups or sometimes they want to be on their own. If you are interested in the model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality. This is essentially about conformity. Increasingly it's about that as you look at the growth of standardised testing and standardised curricula. and it's about standardisation. I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction. That's what I mean about changing the paradigm.
How can we wrap our minds around THIS? How could we possibly NOT put children through in batches? How could we allow them to choose to study things that actually interest them? Or group them by ability rather than age? Shouldn't we make sure they learn the things they are BAD at first?
This is indeed a completely different paradigm. It is not about "raising the bar." It is not about Algebra for every 8th grader just because studies show that students who were most successful in college passed Algebra in the 8th grade. It requires us to toss every structure out and start from the ground up, with a fresh eye that values lots of different ways of learning, and of expressing understanding. This is HARD! It is not about releasing all control and letting everyone do what they please. It might be more like the hidden structure we see in a well-run Montessori classroom, where five year-olds busy themselves on a variety of self-chosen tasks, learning far more than if they were forced to recite phonemes in unison.
But I heard an interesting rebuttal to this at my meeting. "If we make changes along these lines, our students will be at a disadvantage." Wow. Here we are in a district where the dropout rate for African American males is close to 50%. How is the current paradigm providing them with any advantage at all? The current paradigm offers a huge advantage to children raised in homes of college-educated parents, surrounded by books and words. We can do our best to shore up our students' skills, but most of the wonderful cultural assets these children bring to school with them are not "standard," and do not help them succeed on the tests by which they are judged. In some ways, the pressure placed on low-performing schools to raise their scores is actually making the gap between well-to-do students and the poor even wider.
Of course there is a legitimate point here, that it is tough to be the one place that makes this paradigmatic shift. Our students are still enmeshed in a system that expects test scores and college degrees, whether or not they are meaningful. And there is a great deal of work we need to do as educators to elaborate a clearer picture of what schooling might look like in a non-standardized paradigm. But we have got to push for change, and we have got to be clear that this change will serve our students much better than the standardized test paradigm we find ourselves in now.
What do you think? Is Sir Ken's new paradigm one that appeals to you? How can we develop a clearer vision of it?
Earlier this week, I posted an essay that offered some examples of meaningful student outcomes that I feel we ought to offer as part of our response to the question "If you do not like standardized test scores, what DO you want to use to measure student achievement?" The comments have been interesting, and one, from Pio, was as follows:
I reject the false tradeoff of teaching BASIC skills at the expense of teaching critical thinking, increasing student engagement, etc. Very good teachers and great teachers teach the basics and these other important components of learning as well.
Standardized tests like NAEP set a pretty low bar for what is labeled "Proficient." The general public rightly demands that this low bar be achieved. (Note: It is a fair criticism that teachers are not the only players in getting students to achieve this low bar - parents, neighborhoods, school administrators, and others need to do more too).
The idea that there are millions of students for whom teachers have instilled a love of learning and the ability to think critically but these same students aren't NAEP "proficient" and can't score higher than a 400 on each part of the SAT is just silly.
Very good and great teachers have always rejected this false tradeoff and I suspect they always will.
Being "data-driven" is not some mindless, robotic task. It means using data to improve instruction and to improve student outcomes. Being data-driven doesn't imply using only one source of data or one kind of data as bsmith points out below. However...
bsmith: You want to get rid of the word "accountability"? Your idea is far, far out of step with the mainstream. I do agree that the transparency you are promoting could result in a better-informed public who, perhaps, would focus less on standardized test scores. But the drive for accountability will still persist.
Anthony, your article proposes some excellent models to improve student outcomes. I challenge you to use, for example, the Oakland history teachers example to both teach the basics as well as go beyond.
There are very few kids who can write a decent paper "respond[ing] to a question while drawing on evidence from a selection of primary historical documents" yet not be proficient on very, very basic tests. It's not a tradeoff.
This is a familiar argument in defense of the standardized testing regime. The tests represent a floor, not a ceiling, and there is nothing to prevent teachers from teaching more advanced skills, such as critical thinking and analysis. All we ask is that they teach the basics - and we have tests that hold them accountable for that.
Now it is true that you may get better overall scores if you do NOT teach to the test, especially if the tests extend beyond simple recall and multiple choice. There was a fascinating study released in England last summer that sheds light on this. The researchers cited several experiments that help us understand what is occurring.
In one study, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn.
Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students' learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils' exam results.
A further study, of 4,203 students, showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.
So why don't teachers simply do what is right, and what Pio and Arne Duncan suggest, and stop teaching to the test?
Chris Watkins, one of the researchers in England, offers a clue:
Ministers have placed teachers under so much pressure to ensure students perform well in national exams that they increasingly talk at their pupils, rather than talk to them and ask them open questions, he said. The latter leads students to deepen their learning and perform at their optimum.
The troubles stem from the ever rising stakes we attach to test scores, in the false belief that if we simply apply more and more pressure, results will follow. If you say you want A, B and C as outcomes, but you only attach high stakes to A and B, guess what happens to C in a pressurized environment? At schools where the socioeconomic environment prepares students to do well in school, teachers can attend to all aspects of learning without sacrificing as much - although many report things deteriorating here as well. But in many schools which are under the NCLB hammer, on the ticking timetable whereby if they do not meet ever-rising proficiency targets within a few years, the principal and perhaps half the staff will be fired, the pressure to increase scores begins to drive every decision. This explains why many schools have eliminated PE, Art, even history and science, because they do not weigh much on the tests. And instruction even in tested subjects hews closely to the test, so as to be of maximum efficiency.
I do not write about this from some ivory tower position, speculating about what might be happening in our schools. I have worked in a district with many low-performing schools for the past 24 years, and served as a mentor and coach for many teachers. Last year, the school board took the extraordinary step of telling each elementary school that they ought to schedule at least an hour of science a week. This was necessary because many low-performing elementary schools had schedules that included no time for science at all. History and art have no such mandates, and are not a part of the curriculum at many schools.
This year we have a Science/History Project-Based Learning Collaborative program, where we have a group of science and history teachers working together to plan rich projects for our students. One of the participants has students who were in the classroom of a test-focused science teacher last year. Her students complain about all the work they are asked to do for their projects. They say "It was much better last year. Ms. X told us what would be on the test, and we studied it, and we did really well. Why don't you just teach us what will be on the tests. This is too hard!"
Unfortunately, in our current paradigm, often it is the teacher that emphasizes test preparation, assuming he or she "teaches like a champion" and gets good test scores, that is regarded as the most effective. The ability of our students to work autonomously and in collaboration with others, to communicate and think critically is not often measured or rewarded by any of our current "accountability" systems. That is why it is necessary for us to advocate alternatives like the ones I have proposed.
What do you think? Can we avoid a trade-off between test preparation and deeper instruction? Or do the high stakes attached to tests make this inevitable?
This week a colleague at Teacher Leaders Network raised a provocative pair of questions.
1. In an era where numbers are currency, what alternative set of metrics and numbers (beyond assessment) can we suggest that reformers and policymakers consider when weighing teacher/school effectiveness? (ie: parent/student satisfaction surveys, levels of funding, graduation rate, rate of enrollment in AP classes, rate of employment or enrollment in college after graduation)
2. Given the limits of numerical accountability, what alternatives can we offer to reformers that are open to considering results that cannot be accounted for by a number? What are the softer variables that cannot be easily measured? (ie: student engagement, attitudes towards school, divergent thinking)
I have heard different forms of this conversation several times over the past few weeks. On the one side we have people, largely from the world of business, who have developed what seems to them a perfect way to improve our work. This method amounts to a four step cycle. First, set some measurable goals for ourselves. Then do our best to meet our goals. Then review our outcomes and see where we fell short and where we succeeded. Use this data to guide a revision to our methods so that our outcomes will improve.
This logic, coupled with the accountability mechanisms built into No Child Left Behind, have amounted to an almost irresistible set of pressures on teachers to become "data driven." Some have succumbed, but many of us still resist, clinging to quaint ideals about the value of the whole child, the need for critical thinking and curiosity, and other things which are difficult to measure on standardized tests. But then we face a challenge, which my colleague has captured in these two questions.
What could possibly be wrong with the improvement model offered above? Lots of things. First of all, the data most readily available for measuring outcomes is usually standardized test scores. This leads us into the test preparation sinkhole most of our high needs schools find themselves, where instruction is continually narrowed to focus on improving those scores - to the detriment of many other learning goals that we value.
So then we get to the next question, which my colleague posed above. If we do not accept the test scores as an adequate marker of our effectiveness, what do we wish to offer in their place, since we must be accountable for student learning in some concrete and measurable way?
I believe that any answer to this must encompass the complexity of learning, and of our goals as educators.
The way I get my mind around this is to think about the ways that I have seen teachers take responsibility for student learning in meaningful ways. I cannot discuss this in the abstract. So here are some real models of authentic assessment.
Lesson Study: In this process teachers begin by discussing what it is that they desire for their students. What do they value most? What do they want to see from their students at year's end? But this is a truly open-ended question. It is not "which standards do we want to choose to emphasize." If the teachers are most concerned about how their students are treating one another, this would be a perfectly acceptable focus for their lesson study. Once they select the focus for their work, then they collaborate to create a set of lessons that will result in students learning this. The lessons are taught, and carefully observed, with close attention being paid to evidence of student learning. This, to me, is an example of teachers taking responsibility for student outcomes.
National Board certification likewise asks candidates to gather solid evidence of the impact their instruction has had on students, and document this with student work samples. Candidates must show concretely how student work reflects growth over time, and how their instruction made a difference. Videotapes of student-teacher interactions also shed light on this.
Oakland history teachers have been working for more than a decade on an assessment system where teachers district-wide give their students a common writing task, to respond to a question while drawing on evidence from a selection of primary historical documents. Students are given editorial cartoons, photographs, and written documents from the period in question, and asked to apply what they have learned about the events as they answer the question. Teachers then bring samples of their students' work to district-wide scoring sessions, which allows them to compare the work their students are doing to work being done elsewhere in the district. This has helped to create a rich environment for collaboration and the sharing of strategies, as teachers whose students' work is especially strong, can share the techniques they found effective.
In the mentoring program I help direct, TeamScience, we use the Formative Assessment Tools associated with the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program (BTSA). Central to this process is a protocol called Assessment of Student Work, in which we collect all the student work from a given assignment, sort it into different levels of accomplishment, then work with our mentee to figure out how to move students at each level forward, based on the evidence we see.
All four of these are meaningful ways that teachers are learning about their teaching from looking closely at the work their students are producing. This is raw data come to life, as we delve into what our students are producing, and seek to overcome the obstacles we uncover.
From my point of view as an educator, the best reason to look at data is in order to get useful feedback to guide us in becoming better as teachers. We want to know, if we have a goal that our students are able to write a coherent analysis of a historic event, citing evidence, what is it they are actually able to do? Where are they falling short? How can we build these skills so they are successful?
The entire structure of No Child Left Behind has created a whole other purpose for gathering and looking at data, and that is to hold teachers and schools "accountable" for student test scores. Thus we have high stakes consequences - and ever more of them - for student achievement. This is a different purpose than we have as teachers, and unfortunately, when accountability drives assessment, we get a whole host of unintended consequences that we have become all too familiar with.
Assessment for accountability is, by necessity, going to look very different from assessment for the improvement of instruction. It must be standardized, it must be taken by large numbers of students at the same time in order to allow "fair" comparisons, and it must be cheap to score. Teachers are far more interested in the more authentic assessments I describe here, because they actually help us improve and better serve our students. But we are deeply concerned with data that shows how our students are learning, and our best professional growth often revolves around collaborative reflection on our instruction and the student work that results from it.
This does lead us in an improvement cycle similar to the one offered by the business model. But in the test-score driven cycle above, the question is almost always the same: "How can we boost these scores?" In the inquiry cycle that is represented by the examples I offer, the questions really vary, according to the challenges we have identified as teachers. The collection of data remains a critical step, but the data is more varied, and sometimes more qualitative. The teachers' role as an active agent of change is much stronger, as they must play an active role in determining the focus of their inquiry, and figuring out the strategies they will pursue in order to improve their outcomes. We must look at student outcomes, but we cannot let the constraints of assessment for accountability purposes determine the nature of those outcomes.
And what might an evaluation look like connected to this? How about one that asked, as National Board portfolios do, for a teacher to share a collection of student work that demonstrates growth over time? How about one that took into account evidence that a teacher is engaged in the reflective processes described above? How about an evaluation where the evaluator spent time in the teacher's class to see how he was applying the lessons he learned from examining last year's student work?
What do you think? What sort of "measurable outcomes" should we be seeking as teachers?
I have tried, in recent months, to strike a balance between hope and concern about where we seem to be headed in education. Today I am going to sound an alarm bell. The pensions of teachers and other public employees are in jeopardy because a wealthy elite have decided they have better things to do with our money.
On Wednesday, listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR, I heard an expert on the auto industry, Paul Ingrassia, talk happily about the "tough love" the Obama administration had shown for auto workers. Using the device of bankruptcy to break contractual obligations to their employees, the US car makers have reduced their labor costs from 30% of the cost of a car to just 6%. Now, even though they are selling fewer cars, the car makers are raking in the billions again.
Ingrassia explained it this way:
So if we can, you know, at least address the problems of Detroit with promises, the promise of improvement, or even a cure, why can't we apply the same tough-love methods to the federal budget deficit and the whole entitlement structure that we have in this country that has helped produce that deficit, and also to the public employee pension plans that are threatening to bankrupt many of our states? Those are huge problems that will swamp this country if they're not addressed.
There was a very interesting op-ed piece a couple of days ago in The Wall Street Journal by a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that Congress should pass a law that allows states to declare bankruptcy. And, you know, it's not a bad thought. And there's no way that GM and Chrysler would have made it through this restructuring without the ability to renounce contracts and, you know, to renounce their financial obligations that they have accumulated over the years that they could not afford to meet.
And the shoe dropped just a day later, when the New York Times reported that "Policy makers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers."
The New York Times story indicates that there is not yet legislation for this purpose, and that there are concerns that if states declare bankruptcy, holders of state bonds might suffer. This would create instability in financial markets - which is of course intolerable to the bankers who are apparently running America. But apparently robbing teachers of our pensions is quite acceptable - so the clever lawyers are hard at work to come up with a scheme that will allow the states to default on their obligations to pensions, while preserving their obligations to bondholders.
It is interesting to note Ingrassia's use of the phrase "tough love." In Michelle Rhee's plan to fix the schools she simplisticly declares are, she says we must "Ensure that the government exercises discipline in pension and benefit programs." So there must be tough love and discipline - we are being treated as if we were children bingeing on ice cream.
We are not children. We are adults who have chosen to teach, a not very well-paid profession. And those of us who have chosen to make it a career look forward to the day when we can cease grading papers and calling parents, and enjoy a few years of hard-earned rest before we go off to the teacher's lounge in the sky. Our pensions are a form of deferred compensation. That money has already been earned, and the obligation to us is very real.
This is one more step towards the destruction of our profession. We need people to choose teaching as a career because it is complex work that deepens year after year. The first or second year intern may have good test scores, but they have a great deal to learn - as most of them will tell you. But when we make everything about test scores, and base everything - pay, hiring, evaluations - on these scores, we have lost the foundation for our profession, and any intern with a repertoire of test prep techniques is as "effective" as a seasoned veteran. This crass definition of effectiveness allows the embrace of policies that devalue experience and seniority, and things like pensions that promote career longevity, in favor of cost-cutting measures. We need a profession that creates stability in our schools, not the constant churn that makes the veteran teacher a rarity, and robs us of the dynamic mix that results when novices and veterans collaborate together to learn how innovative practices can meld with traditional ones.
But take careful note, when Mr. Ingrassia talks about the "entitlement structure we have in this country," these are code words for Social Security, the other target in the sights of the billionaires. So we are in good company. It is not just public employees that stand to lose our pensions - it is every person who does not have an independent means of supporting themselves when they retire. And this is both the greatest danger, and our greatest hope. We need to help our fellow Americans understand - they are coming for ALL of our pensions. Teachers and other public employees are taking some big hits, but the biggest pot of gold of all is Social Security, and that will affect every wage earner in the nation. We need some good old fashioned solidarity. And we need to get ourselves into the streets for some old fashioned protests. I am headed to Washington, DC, this summer, and it looks like I have some company.
What do you think? Are our pensions in jeopardy? Can we gather enough allies to protect them?
In our work as educators, we spend much of our time discussing how to get young people on track to enter and complete college, and thus be ready for those wonderful careers in science, math and technology. But sometimes I have a disturbing sense of unreality. Sometimes it feels as if we are working so hard to get our students on a conveyer belt that leads - where? California's community colleges, already operating on a bare bones budget, face a cut of another $400 million. The State University and UC systems are losing $500 million. These cuts will mean the elimination of classes, increases in fees, and fewer available spaces for incoming students.
And we are told "you cannot fix problems by throwing money at them." It is so odd then, that when wealthy Americans run into problems, the first thing they demand is that money be thrown their way. Didn't we "fix" that banking crisis by throwing money at it? Haven't we fixed the terrible threat to the wealthiest Americans by preserving their 36% marginal tax rate - which was about to rise to the extortionary level of 39%? And those executives that raked in record bonuses apparently also appreciated the throwing of money in their direction.
It seems as if the problems of our schools could indeed be solved by some accurately thrown money. The trouble is, all the money is being thrown to those who already have it. And they are bribing those doing the throwing so there is no interruption in the flow.
But we still come back to the bigger question. What are we preparing our students FOR? Even assuming that college is accessible, does the bachelor's degree offer all that is promised? All the energy around education reform seems to hinge on some implicit assumptions. Our students are doomed to lives of poverty if they do not receive a good education, meaning attend college and get trained for the jobs of the future. Turn this around and you get the following assumption: If our students ARE well-educated and trained for these jobs, they will find good-paying jobs await them.
It seems as if we could look around at our current economy and see if there is evidence to support these assumptions. Lawrence Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute makes some solid inroads here in a recent report entitled "Education is Not the Cure for High Unemployment or Income Inequality."
One of the theories offered as to why we have unemployment is that there is a mismatch between available jobs, and workers with sufficient skills to fill them. Mishel's research does not support this theory. According to him, "trends do not support any notion of this recession's higher unemployment being fueled by those with the least education."
Mishel also discusses the often heard claim that America must dramatically increase the number of students who attain four year college degrees.
... the trends in the 2000s indicate that the relative demand for college graduates is growing much more slowly than in prior decades. Plus, the wages for college graduates have been flat for about 10 years and running parallel to those with high school degrees, and they have been growing far more slowly than productivity. The implication of these trends is that a surge of college graduates, whatever the benefits (and there are many), can be expected to drive the college wage down. Wage inequality would diminish, but by pressing college graduate wages down (not just in relative terms), which is not the picture frequently painted of the future.
This is not to say that education offers no advantage - it does. But sending more and more of our students to college is not some sort of panacea for poverty. And there does NOT appear to be an increasing market demand for more college graduates - perhaps the opposite.
.... the rapid growth of the need for college graduates is not a juggernaut launched in the early 1980s that continues to this day: rather, the relative demand for college graduates has been slowing down in each decade since the 1980s and is now growing at a historically slow pace. It is this slow pace of the most recent period that might be the best clue to the future needs for college graduates.
Mishel concludes by suggesting that, rather than promoting more education as a panacea, we should pursue a
...much broader path to prosperity, one that encompasses those at every education level. The nation's productivity has grown a great deal in the last 30 years, up 80% from 1979 to 2009, and such productivity growth or better can be expected in the future. Yet with all the income generated in the past and expected in the future it is difficult to explain why more people have not seen rapid income growth. It is not the economy that has limited or will limit strong income growth, but rather the economic policies pursued and the distribution of economic and political power that are the limiting factors.
We will not educate our nation out of poverty - as seductive as that vision might be for us. Poverty will be reduced when we figure out how to get some of the tremendous wealth our economy is generating flowing back towards those who need it most, and stop throwing it at the wealthy.
What do you think? Are we in danger of creating false expectations with the push to get everyone into college? Can our economy deliver?
For those of us that have dedicated our professional lives to education, it is unbelievable that powerful people like Bill Gates, Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, Arnie Duncan and others are attempting (and succeeding in places) to dupe the American public into believing that our public education system is in crisis. Yes, there are serious problems in some schools, but films such as Waiting for Superman and The Cartel use teachers and unions as a smokescreen that hides the real problem. Children in some inner city, and rural, and suburban schools are failing. However, the failure most of these students experience is directly related to poverty.
I know it is easier and more palatable to put the blame on teachers and unions, but unless we (Americans) address the issue of poverty in this country we will continue to see children "fail." However, by refusing to address poverty, it is the reformers who are failing children--not teachers. Before we go any further with a reform agenda that will dismantle our public schools I wish President Obama (who should know better) would take the time to read Gerald Bracey, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Anthony Cody. The "crisis" is manufactured!
However, just when you thought it could not get any worse. Leave it to Peggy Noonan (Meet the Press, January 16, 2011) to remind us of an issue all Americans supposedly support. As our Nation mourns the loss of life in Tucson a week ago and when the President and other pundits remind us not to use this tragedy for political gain, Ms. Noonan slipped in a whammy that I'm sure will go unnoticed by most media outlets.
While discussing the nature of and the new direction of political discourse after the Arizona shootings in a round table forum, the participants all agreed that bipartisanship and collegial respect should dominate the new discourse. When asked about an issue where Congress and the President might be able to set the example for the public and demonstrate how political discourse might be seen as civil, Ms. Noonan quickly pointed out education reform. According to Noonan, since the release of the films Waiting for Superman and The Cartel, Americans all agree that our public education system must be reformed. Boom! So much for not using Tucson for political gain.
To be fair, I should also mention that President Obama's State of the Union address will most likely take advantage of this tragedy too. In an effort to demonstrate bipartisanship and set the example of civil discourse, the President will renew his call to "reform" the American public education system. He will remind us that this is an issue in which all Americans should agree. And Republicans and Democrats (some of them sitting together for the first time) will stand and cheer.
However, can somebody please tell President Obama and Ms. Noonan that now is not the time to use the Tucson tragedy or any tragedy to promote a bogus reform movement that will harm our Nation's public school system?
Timothy D. Slekar is an Associate Professor of teacher education and Head of the Division of Education, Human Development, and Family Studies at Penn State Altoona. He has also worked as an elementary school teacher. Dr. Slekar co-hosts a local talk radio show in central PA focused on education reform issues. (Tuesdays at 11:00 am eastern on WRTA 1240 am)
What do you think? Is it time for bi-partisan unity around education reform? Or is President Obama listening to the wrong advisers?
Michelle Rhee has been everywhere that education is discussed for the past few months. Oprah declared her a "warrior woman." She appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, holding a broom, presumably to sweep the trash out of our classrooms. Her trajectory faltered a bit when the mayor who appointed her chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, was defeated -- and many voters cited Rhee as one of their reasons for their choice. But two weeks ago she launched her latest venture, a website that aims to build a movement to support her vision of change, Students First. She proclaimed the intent of raising a billion dollars and recruiting a million members. On January 10, she offered her detailed plan to "fix America's broken education system." This plan is positively Orwellian in the way in which it turns things into their opposites.
Priority One: Elevate the Teaching Profession by Valuing Teachers' Impact on Students.
Under this plan, the way to "treat teachers like professionals" is to
Base the following things on test scores (euphemistically described as "student results.")
Evaluations of teachers
Evaluations of principals
Evaluations of teacher preparation programs
Hiring, transfer and layoffs of teachers
Furthermore, we should eliminate due process (referred to as tenure.)
It is bizarre to portray this as a way of elevating the teaching profession. Under the system Rhee describes, teachers will be subject to annual reviews based on their test scores, and if these scores are unsatisfactory, teachers can be dismissed. In the absence of due process protections, an administrator can use test data to "prove" that one is "ineffective" and that is the end of your career. As has been recently shown, the "value added" methods used for these purposes are highly unreliable, and are likely to result in many good teachers being mislabeled as ineffective.
There is so much wrong with this, it is hard to know where to begin. As has been shown time and again, teachers are not the primary reason for the disparity in achievement between students in wealthy versus poor schools. Poverty itself is the culprit, and it will do no good to "hold teachers accountable" for things beyond their control. What it will do is intensify the process underway as a result of No Child Left Behind, where classrooms in impoverished communities are turned into places where teachers use every available minute to teach students the material that will be on the test. And if we evaluate teacher preparation programs in this fashion, it will ensure that this narrow mindset is part of every incoming teacher's induction to the profession.
Priority Two: Empower parents with real choices and real information.
This section advocates making public the test scores of schools and individual teachers, and calls for giving parents the right to choose the teacher and school for their children based on these scores. I asked parent activist Leonie Haimson, one of the founders of Parents Across America - and the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, for her thoughts in response to this. She replied,
Parents want the most basic choice of all: a good public school that their child has the right to attend. All children need the guarantee of a quality education, not just for a select few. That means improving all of our schools by providing them with sufficient and equitable funding, small classes, experienced teachers and a well-rounded curriculum.
Michelle Rhee's organization is not supporting any of these important goals, but is undermining them by offering the promise of false "choices" through the further expansion of charter schools and vouchers, that starve our public schools of resources by taking taxpayer money to fund schools run by private organizations that are not accountable to the public. Charter schools do not take their fair share of the neediest students, suffer from extremely high student and teacher attrition rates, and in national studies, have no better results.
A strong public education system is essential to our democracy. The proliferation of charters and private schools will undermine the health of the public schools as a whole.
Priority Three: Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely to Get Better Results for Students.
This is where things get really nasty. We are told,
Over the past 40 years, per-pupil funding has more than doubled, but students have little to show for it. Student achievement has remained flat. This funding/achievement disconnect exists because in many cases states have spent money on some "feel good" things that have not been proven to increase student achievement, such as smaller classes or raising salaries based on advanced degrees instead of effectiveness.
According to Rhee's plan, "...funding decisions must be made through the prism of student learning and family empowerment rather than adult political and parochial interests." The plan says, "All spending should tie to student achievement and the structures in place should be directly accountable for the results."
Once again, as if it were not obvious, the "prism of student learning" and "student achievement" actually mean "based on test scores."
Some of the strongest education research available supports small class sizes as being crucial for meeting the needs of all students. Private schools attended by the wealthy have, on average, class sizes roughly half those of public schools.
Teachers currently receive higher levels of pay for gaining more education themselves. When teachers collaborate with their districts, they can find interesting ways to improve compensation systems, to align them better with meaningful growth - as was done in Minneapolis. However, systems that base teacher pay on test scores have NOT been shown to work -- even for that narrow purpose.
Lastly, Rhee suggests: "Ensure that the government exercises discipline in pension and benefit programs. "
In today's fiscal climate we know what that means. Rhee's idea of elevating the teaching profession is to make every single facet of our working lives entirely dependent on test scores. Teacher's retirement funds are rather difficult to justify in this regard. Many of us have chosen to work in a relatively poorly paid profession for deferred compensation in the form of our retirement. Never mind that, it doesn't help the test scores, so forget about it.
Who will choose to work in America's neediest schools under this regime? Rhee herself is an alumni of Teach For America, but this organization only provides a few thousand teachers to our schools every year - and we need millions. Furthermore, we need people to choose teaching as a career, not a two or three year-long temporary gig before going on to Med school. I have worked as a mentor for many Teach For America interns, and they are just getting on their feet in their second year. By their third year, those who stick around are becoming very good teachers. By their fourth year, however, 75% of them are gone, at least in Oakland. This is no way to "elevate a profession." Many baby boomers will be retiring soon. Who will take our places? If teacher pay and evaluations rest entirely on test scores, the corruption of our school system will be complete. Perhaps we teachers and parents need a grassroots movement of our own! (see here where we are doing just that.)
What do you think? Will Rhee's plan elevate or degrade our profession?
A year ago I got the first of what would become many missives from a veteran teacher at Fremont High in East Los Angeles. We are being told by certain billionaires and the economists in their employ that the reason test scores lag at some schools is they are staffed by "bad teachers," who have low expectations for their students, who go through the motions, and ought to be fired for the good of the students. This description does not fit Chuck Olynyk very well, but he was treated as if it did. We have come to know him through his writing, and his passion for his students comes through clearly. This is a man who came to class many days wearing period chain mail and helmet, corresponding to the historic period under study. But chain mail would not protect him from the slings and arrows of Los Angeles Unified, once they were determined to reconstitute his school. His experience is a microcosm of what is happening to our profession in the name of "reform." Today, as the error is about to be repeated at yet another Los Angeles high school, Chuck offers some words to the wise, based on his experiences last winter and spring at the Mont.
"Carry On, Wayward Son."
Today is Wednesday, January 12, 2011 and I would have called it Day 198 PF, but things have been happening and people have asked me very good questions and made statements about when I will stop thinking in terms of Post Fremont. So, I'm not sure what to call today. Tomorrow and Friday are that Old Slavic/Orthodox New Year. And, according to me I wrote Day 168 "Somebody Had To Say It"
and sent it out January 14. According to Anthony Cody, It was Jan. 13. Still makes it a year ago, so I'm mulling on just how to label the new calendar.
The old calendar is through--for a number of reasons. One of which is what is happening at Jordan High School. A day after a breathy robo-call from School Board president Monica Garcia announcing Dr. John Deasy was "enthusiastically approved" to become the next Superintendent of LAUSD, the current Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines decided to demonstrate that he was not a lame duck. Today he announced the reconstitution of David Star Jordan High School in Watts. On Friday, October 8, Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, went to Jordan, and told the faculty they had four choices: (a) Reconstitution (b) Green Dot (c) the Mayor's program or (d) a plan created by the faculty, I wrote about that in Day 107 PF "Everything Must Go."
I also wrote that Dr. George McKenna, III announced that reconstitution would not take place: "You're just going to do what I tell you to." Which was what the Fremont people were told. Superintendent Cortines, some twenty-two days later, told the faculty NOT to choose the options of Green Dot (going charter) or the Mayor's PLAS group;. Instead the only options available were to write a plan in one month which he would weigh in on.
We now know that to be a sham.
When I texted folks, here are some of the responses I got: "(Expletive)... he learned nothing!!!" "Because Fremont was such a success???" "So he said 'f*** your plan.'"
It should not be a surprise to anyone.
After all, Fremont was given three months to write their plan, one with LAEP involved; it was still gutted. It was supposed to happen from the very beginning. So what today's post is about is what we at the Mont learned.
We learned that we should have stuck together. Some of us learned it right away, that it was burned into our souls. Trust your buddies. Some of us learned it later, by breaking ranks; they did okay for a time--some even got coordinatorships or lead positions with the new regime, telling themselves they could still create positive change. The "positive change" is some questionable bragging about a rise in 'periodic assessment scores."
There were problems staffing the school; people were promised all sorts of things (the carrot); they were also threatened (the stick). Repeatedly. They were lied to, so that the threats carried greater might (anyone from the Mont remember how we were all going to be shipped to Bethune en mass? Or how we wouldn't be paid over the summer?) When the tissue of lies was shredded, we had the lies explained away as "misunderstandings" or "miscommunications" or "misinterpretations." Don't fall for it.
You will be told to reapply, even though you are the problem (at least you're being told you are the root of all evil), and that many of you will keep your jobs. You might even be denied letters of reference, as we were. Hey, Mr. Balderas [principal] talked to Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times "Balderas was able to retain the 'best and the brightest' and able to fill slots as needed with equally able educators." That probably means there hope for an SIG grant. Don't fall for it. Ask around. We had many who reapplied, only to get cast aside as soon as they provided signatures or gave the administration what they wanted.
Don't get used.
Staffing the school will be a nightmare. And they don't want a bunch of qualified, experienced folk. Mr. Balderas made statements to the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Blume in his December story that "It turned out the union was correct." Maybe they'll have to put up one of those giant inflatable gorillas on the roof that you see at car dealerships and appliance stores in order to get people to stay.
They aren't staying at Fremont. They are leaving, by ones and twos, but they are leaving, either to another school or leaving the profession entirely. And the administration will be prepared to state that those who replace them "are as good or better." But why lie about the numbers? And how is it the district doesn't know exactly who or even how many teachers work at a school?
They lied to us at Fremont from the beginning. Be prepared for the same.
That is, if you want to fight it. Just tonight I saw from one of the students whose fate I care about state that I'm a Pathfinder in my heart.
I discovered there was life after Fremont. If -no, when--many of you get moved, you will be sent to other schools. You yourself may feel strange about it. Most people will welcome you with open arms. Just this morning I was in the Main Office and was asked how I liked it at Roosevelt. I said what was in my heart, which echoed what many saw in me December 9th: I was told I "looked ten years younger" (hey, I'll take that). That's how I feel, too. Then I got asked in the office, "Where did you come from?" I gave the one word reply and was greeted with the same response I always get, "Oh. Ohh."
And you will have to explain.
You didn't do anything wrong. You're being blamed, being put on trial at a drumhead, but you didn't do anything wrong.
Just have faith in each other and stick together. And that means not reapplying.
You are not alone.
I guess I'll call this Year 2 Day 1, because it is a new year for me.
What do you think? Do any of Chuck's experience correspond with yours?
There are a great many fallacies swirling around our schools, and perhaps the biggest among them is that more testing, and ever higher stakes attached to tests, is inevitable, and thus resistance by teachers, students and parents is futile. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proponents of educational reform have committed the greatest error of the powerful. They have promised far more than they can deliver, and their enterprise is already failing by the markers they laid down.
The original vision of No Child Left Behind was the rather absurd plan that every single child in the nation would be proficient by 2014. Every day we move closer to that date, and more and more schools are labeled failures as a result of its relentless and irrational timetable. These failures belong not to the schools and teachers who work there - they are taking on the challenges in their community and usually working hard to meet them. These failures belong to those who, from the comfort of their offices, made the supposedly "courageous" decisions to hold someone else accountable for fixing problems society does not care to address in meaningful ways.
According to reformers like Michelle Rhee, we have the opportunity to "fix our broken education system." She cites our recent performance on the PISA to prove her point. But as many have pointed out, this data proves just the opposite.
Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.
The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results.
Serious scholars and educators have known this for years.
And Rhee had very little results to show for her years as the tough-minded Chancellor of Washington, DC, schools, similar to her counterpart in New York City, Joel Klein. These are stubborn facts, and they will not go away with another round of new and better tests, nor when we have fired the teachers supposedly responsible for the low scores. Until we are prepared to invest in our schools and communities, and until our students have very real opportunities as a result of the education they are receiving, our schools in impoverished communities will not magically improve.
It is, in fact, inevitable that this test-driven reform will fail. It will fail because it cannot deliver on its lofty promises. The only reason the project totters forward is because of the steadfast sponsorship by an alliance of billionaires and the politicians and policymakers they employ, directly and indirectly.
The challenge for those of us who see that these emperors and empresses of reform are naked is to stay clear on our own vision of what school should be, and continue to call it out. Continue to speak the truth, and shame those who claim to have all the answers. And we must work with parents and students and our fellow teachers, so they understand that our schools will not improve when we have fired ten percent of the teachers, base evaluations on test scores, eliminate tenure and seniority, and expand privately run charter schools.
Instead, they will improve when we seek stability and growth in our struggling schools, and support the teachers there so they are retained, and have time to collaborate and learn together. We will improve these schools when we have small class sizes that allow teachers to give individual attention to students, and differentiate for diverse learners. They will improve when we give teachers professional autonomy and challenge them to authentically assess their students on meaningful work, not do endless test preparation. They will improve when they have strong connections to the parents and communities in which they sit, and serve their aspirations. These are the things that must be priorities for our schools -- not more and more money for more and more sophisticated tests and data tracking systems.
It is perhaps inevitable that when we have a society in which one percent of the population has more than a third of the wealth, these billionaires will believe that they have that power due to their wisdom and intelligence - and thus are entitled to tell the rest of us what to do. But it is also inevitable that some of us will continue to think for ourselves, and continue to fight for schools that serve our communities.
What do you think? Is more high-stakes testing inevitable? Or should we continue to resist?
P.J-D takes issue with another commenter, jfon, who wrote;
The tests offer little diagnostic information... offer little or no evidence they enhance or acurately measure learning.
Depending on the test, these critiques may be true, but they also apply to the classroom grades generated by teachers. Until another method for legitimizing classroom grades is presented, state testing will be the go-to option.
This is an interesting rebuttal, in which P.J-D concedes that test scores are no better than teacher scores, but insists that teachers must meet some higher standard, demonstrating even greater value.
RE: "...I do not believe that any test that is mechanically graded, or even graded by low-paid humans, can successfully measure critical thinking and problem-solving."
Fortunately for all of us, reality is not dictated by beliefs. As automated essay scoring pioneer Ellis Page pointed out, we should be satisfied with automated scoring if we cannot distinguish human-generated scores from machine-generated scores. Ironically, human and machine scorers can be distinguished because the automated scoring engine scores more consistently with humans than the humans score with each other.
This remain true even when the task involves critical thinking. Complex, open-ended performance tasks administered as part of the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the College and Work Readiness Assessment are primarily scored by Pearson's Intelligent Essay Assessor (IEA) program. IEA's agreement with human scorers is consistently higher than human scorers' agreements with each other.
Who would you trust to score such tasks? Low-paid teachers?
First of all, it is ironic that J.T. Steedle seems to think the pay teachers receive is relevant. This seems rather a circular argument, where our profession is discredited as being untrustworthy and thus unworthy of decent pay, and then this low pay is used as a REASON we should not be trusted, because, presumably, who but an intellectual midget would agree to work in such a poorly rewarded position?
When I work with a teacher to design a Project-Based Learning unit, we create a series of activities and challenges that build up students' expertise in a subject. Then the students are usually challenged to write about what they have learned, and perhaps create a presentation or display of some sort to share what they have learned with others. This sort of assessment builds learning in multiple dimensions. As the project unfolds, we are able to assess how the student collaborates with peers. In science, our projects often include elements of the scientific processes of inquiry and investigation, so we can assess our students' ability to ask good questions, and design experiments that will reveal new information. When our students design their displays or presentations, we can assess their ability to communicate their ideas and knowledge to others. And in their reports, we can assess their deeper understanding of the science involved. In the most ambitious projects, students delve into ethical and social issues, and think critically about the possible solutions to issues they have encountered. These open-ended explorations are what give real life to this work.
This does not preclude other means of assessing student understanding, and often teachers assess students with more traditional means, as a way to make sure that they have, indeed, learned the basic content as well as the deeper understandings we aim for with more complex tasks. But when we go to the tests, we lose the capacity to explore these deeper understandings, especially when they go beyond our conventional thinking.
I must plead to a bit of ignorance when confronted with Pearson's Intelligent Essay Assessor. I have not met the mighty machine, nor seen it in operation, except on some very limited samples. I tried to test it out at the site where a demo is offered, but I could not make the text box accept my writing. It may be of some limited use in scoring student essays on pedestrian topics. But if it's job is to relieve our concern that teachers can reliably score complex work, I think I have a rather deep mistrust.
Another commenter, PL Thomas, makes an interesting point in this regard.
Consistency, like standard, is not what matters, especially when trying to offer valuable feedback about writing. . .
The use of computers and machines and automation -- all the WRONG GOALS to dwarf authentic goals. . .That's the inherent problem with a century of pursuing "standardized" and so-called "objective" tests. . .
To increase consistency, we lose the most important element--the human element. . (read more of Paul's thoughts here).
I want teachers capable of challenging their students intellectually. I want teachers to challenge student's thinking. But I also want students to be able to challenge the teacher's thinking. How does one challenge the thinking done by the Pearson's Intelligent Essay Assessor?
What do you think? Do you think we should rely on the Pearson Intelligent Essay Assessor? Or should we trust our teachers -- regardless of their pay?
Recently a comment to one of my posts caught my attention. I asked the author, a veteran teacher named Mike Dwyer, from Illinois, to write a bit more, and I share his post here.
Lots of people are jumping up and down and saying that teachers ought to be paid for the "value" we add to our students. Salesmen get paid for how much they sell, fruit pickers get paid for how much they pick--why shouldn't teachers be paid for how much our students learn? Basing the performance of a teacher on students' test scores sure seems quick, efficient, understandable and expedient in the age of instant data. But there are some big reasons why this cannot be trusted, any more than the guy at the water cooler can be trusted when he describes how HE would have delivered victory in the past week's bowl game or NFL playoff contest. Value adders believe that because they have been students in an elementary, middle school/junior high, high school and college, they know how to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and the art of teaching. Like the Monday morning quarterback who has watched thousands of games, they think this vicarious experience qualifies them as experts.
After my second year in attempting National Board Certification I was able to become Board Certified. I had earned a Master Teaching Certificate which every state education body recognizes as a valid teaching license/certification. I felt my first year's portfolio videotapes of both my large and small group classroom instruction were good as were my written portions describing my students and lessons. One reason I scored 266 the first time through had to do with my hunt and peck typing skills that did not fare me well in the timed essay response portions of the exam. However, the most valuable learning lesson from my first attempt occurred when it dawned on me that I had not asked my students to self-assess their learning. So, in year two I continually practiced word processing and included time for student reflection throughout my lessons. My year two submission to the Nation Board surpassed the cut score by more than 20 points. Shockingly to value adders, although I had to show how I assessed students' growth in learning and how I reflected on my own teaching methodologies, I did not have to submit any local, state, or national test data to show my value or effectiveness as a teacher.
Educators' insights to value added ideologues are spot on--it's an attempt to measure teachers by people who seem to be either clueless about what goes on in the classroom or want what on the surface seems a quick, easy solution or have a hidden political agenda to bash teachers. My analogy for the clueless and those who value expediency more than effectiveness is that value added espousers are similar to people who, because they watch a sport on TV, e.g. football, they think they know how to coach and how to evaluate someone who is coaching. All these judgmental people see is the outcome--the final score--and not the hours of teaching and preparing the athletes to perform. Monday morning quarterbacks have no sense of the nuances of running a pro set or the wildcat or the I-formation or the T-formation. And let's not even get into the blocking schemes to use predicated on the multiple defenses the team will face. Consequently, evaluating a coach's effectiveness solely on the outcome of one game is as ludicrous as yearly evaluating a teacher solely on the outcome of one high stakes exam.
In what other profession is an evaluation of a person's effectiveness based on a three hour snapshot of people taking an exam in a high stakes environment? Should the teacher be scrutinized and evaluated at work in the classroom using Charlotte Danielson's model? Or, how about a checklist of effective teaching behaviors based on Danielson and Robert Marzano's behavioral descriptors of a new teacher, a master teacher and a teacher who has mastered the art of teaching? Should video tapes of the teacher in action be viewed, studied, and evaluated by a group of mentors? Should the teacher being evaluated have the right to present a written reflection on what he sees in his on video? Only air traffic controllers make more daily on the spot decisions than teachers. Why don't we figure out a method to evaluate the multitude of daily decisions teachers make in and out of the classroom? Why? Is it because all these aforementioned alternatives to the snapshot test take hard work, intense training, and a lot of time to do effectively? But the snapshot test sure is expedient and can provide plenty of topics for Monday morning water cooler meetings.
The underlying false assumption of the value added folks is that they think because they have been students in classrooms, they believe they know how to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers. Student success or failure on a high stakes test is no more indicative of a teacher's skill sets than basketball coach Ray Meyer's won and loss record was in 1971. Eight years later when Coach Meyer was listening to the media's accolades about what a great coach he was because his 78-79 team was going to the NCAA Final Four, Coach asked the reporters where they were a few years earlier when he was a better teacher and coach with a team that ended up 8-17. An effective teacher or coach knows how to lead with a team full of stellar performers. It is the teacher or coach who systematically improves mediocre performers who truly deserves the accolades despite the test scores or the won-lost record. But under the value added scheme these teachers who choose to work with underprivileged children will be publicly humiliated when their names are published in local papers. Will flawed value added thinking be then applied to the dedicated police officers who choose to work in high crime district or applied to the firefighters who choose to work in a hot district? What about the physicians who choose geriatrics or oncology as their specialty--will failure be determined by what percentage of their patients survive over a four year span when compared with plastic surgeons? Will police officers' names be published in local papers if by 2014 the crime rate is not reduced to zero? Will firefighters' names be published if the rate of house fires is not reduced to zero by 2014? Will doctors' names be published if they don't reduce their patients' death rate to zero by 2014?
Let's stop the lunacy of offering unfounded solutions to real issues. Of course everyone is entitled to his opinion when discussing a game, the crime rate, and poor student performance, but let's not let the clueless determine policy.
Mike Dwyer describes himself: This is my 34th year as a high school English teacher. I have taught every grade level and ability level except honors/AP sophomores and juniors. I coached high school boys and girls teams for 21 years and had been a varsity head coach for 13 of those years. Since 1993 I have been the English Department chair at Waubonsie Valley High School, a comprehensive high school in Aurora, Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago. I am responsible for writing informal and formal evaluations of the more than 20 English teachers currently on staff and in the past I also did informal and formal evaluations of Music and Art teachers. Prior to becoming a department chair, I served as a consulting teacher for the Illinois State Board of Education and mentored a teacher who was placed on remediation. My wife and I live in the school district where I teach and our daughter is a 2010 graduate of Waubonsie Valley HS.
What do you think? Are the Value Adders guilty of Monday morning quarterbacking?
Albert Einstein once famously said "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is proving that in spades. In his recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Duncan acknowledges widespread dissatisfaction with standardized tests, and the way they have narrowed the curriculum. He then asserts that these problems will disappear under his guidance:
That is why many people across the political spectrum support the work of 44 states to replace multiple choice "bubble" tests with a new test that helps inform and improve instruction by accurately measuring what children know across the full range of college and career-ready standards, and measures other skills, such as critical-thinking abilities.
So we will fix the problem of over-reliance on tests by producing new and improved tests, which we can then rely on even more.
The plan presented in the Department of Education's Blueprint for Reform calls for an astonishing amount of testing, far more than we have now with No Child Left Behind. The only people I know who support the testing plan have spent very little time in schools, haven't read the Blueprint, or just aren't listening to real education professions or students. Or all three.
We are about to make a mistake that will cost billions and make school life (even more) miserable for millions of teachers and students. The only ones who will profit are the testing companies. We should be talking about reducing testing, not increasing it.
Wolf Blitzer of CNN interviewed Duncan yesterday, and pressed him to respond to Krashen's critique - which he did by restating his assertions:
Teachers, parents, students want real information. They need to know, are students learning? Where are they improving? Where are they not? Where do they need more help?
Those next generation of assessments are going to help us to get there. That leadership is being provided at the local level, not by us in Washington.
According to the Department of Education Blueprint, it will include summative (end of year) testing, interim testing, and will encourage testing more subjects. Since the Blueprint also calls for value-added testing, we can also expect pre-tests at the start of the school year. And this "leadership" comes from Washington, from the Department of Education, not for the local level.
We are being told that we can fix the problems with tests by making them more frequent, and more able to measure critical thinking. My problem is I have no confidence that this is true. I believe there are economic interests at work here - powerful and wealthy publishing companies who will greatly profit from a whole new generation of assessments, who are pushing for this behind the scenes. I do not believe that we will get less teaching to the test when we give the tests more often, and attach even more importance to them by tying teacher evaluations and pay to them. This is nonsensical. I have not seen the new tests being generated by the consortia, but I do not believe that any test that is mechanically graded, or even graded by low-paid humans, can successfully measure critical thinking and problem-solving.
Duncan calls for a greater investment in teachers, but the Federal government is not in a position to fund teachers, so this talk is cheap. Teachers are funded at the state level, and many states are facing huge deficits, and we are about to see a further disinvestment in schools and teachers. Meanwhile, for all his talk of local control, the next generation of tests will essentially be another unfunded federal mandate, because federal funding will be made contingent on their adoption by states. And these tests will impose a significant NEW expense on school systems across the country, just at the time when the bare bones of our schools are being dismantled due to budget cuts.
There may indeed be bipartisan support in Washington, DC, for Duncan's agenda. But as the costs for these tests become apparent, I believe leaders at the local and state levels will see the choices that we are being forced to make. We must connect the dots here. Billions of education dollars spent on tests are billions taken away from the classrooms where learning actually occurs. And more tests will NOT improve the trouble we have with over-reliance on testing.
What do you think? Can we solve the problems associated with high stakes tests by increasing their frequency and quality?
Prior to taking up education reform as his hobby, Bill Gates was known primarily for achieving a virtual monopoly over the operating systems running computers around the world. Microsoft Windows runs on well over 90% of the computers, and software applications must be written in alignment with it. This provides some great efficiencies. Windows works reasonably well, and once one has learned to use it, one can now use any other computer similarly equipped.
We are now several years into a process that Mr. Gates has been funding to create Common Core (national) standards. I wonder if these standards are analogous to the Windows operating system? Once in place, all curriculum (software) will need to be written in alignment to these standards. Then, a carefully developed set of tests will measure how well students have mastered the curriculum, providing irrefutable evidence of their accomplishments and the effectiveness of their teachers. We can then incentivize performance by students and teachers alike, and make sure that the best are rewarded, and held up to be emulated by others.
This is a technocrat's dream of the perfect system. But for several reasons it fills me with dread.
We have here a perfect means of replicating the status quo. In fact, the very definition of success is that one has mastered the canon embodied in the core standards. I have read the standards, and many of them are unobjectionable. However, once the die is cast, the curriculum defined and assessments created, the process has reached the end of its creative life. Excellence, once defined, is a captured bird. It immediately begins to age and whither.
Others, such as Yong Zhao, have written of the economic impact standardization is likely to have on our vitality and capacity to innovate. I look at this issue from the perspective of the classroom teacher. For me, what made my classroom an exciting place was not the efficiency with which I covered a great many standards. It was the pursuit of the topical, the intriguing, the unknown. The year after I spent a summer in the rain forests of Ecuador when my students learned about adaptation and biodiversity. Our exploration of dry ice - in far more depth than would have been allowed by any District timeline. I want the opportunity, as a teacher, to be able to focus my class on whatever particular aspect of science emerges as most relevant and engaging for my students. I want to be able to seize upon teachable moments, and string as many of them together as possible - to create instruction that actively engages and excites my students.
I do not object to some basic standards. As a science teacher, I believe it is my task to make sure that my students understand how to ask good questions, and conduct careful experiments. In Earth Science, we must understand the nature of plate tectonics, the history of the Earth, the cycles of the seasons and the systems of weather and climate that rule our planet. But most sets of standards prescribe lists of facts and concepts that must be mastered - this is all part of "raising the bar." They do this in order to ensure we have what is defined as "rigor," which has come to mean a large quantity of facts and concepts that can be measured by an inexpensive multiple choice test.
I think that in this case I am looking at this from the bottom up, and as usual, find myself seeing things very differently from those looking from the top down. As a teacher, I want to have some agency in what I choose to focus upon. I want the freedom to collaborate with colleagues at my site to create thematic units, or spend a semester investigating the local food supply. When Daniel Pink investigated motivation for complex tasks such as teaching, he found that one of the most important features was what he called autonomy - the ability to govern one's own work.
Students best learn critical thinking and problem-solving when it is actively modeled for them by their teachers. That means their teachers must stretch themselves into the unknown - try new things, be creative. If the classroom becomes a place where everyone, from the teacher down, is going through a predetermined course of actions, it becomes intellectually lifeless, and students begin to view school as merely preparation for the next set of exams, instead of an open-ended pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Our world is changing so fast, our students need to be prepared for problems we cannot even anticipate. More than ever, they need to be able to think for themselves.
Under the technocratic model Gates and Duncan are pursuing I see my role as a teacher shifting away from that of an autonomous professional entrusted with crafting engaging but occasionally idiosyncratic lessons, and towards a standardized, curriculum-centered enterprise, in which videotaped lessons show us the most effective mode of delivery, and our practice is in turn videotaped to evaluate our use of the prescribed methods.
I can understand how Bill Gates arrived at this vision. It worked so well with computers! But our classrooms are run by millions of thinking, autonomous teachers. They will do far better if we ask them to do more thinking rather than less, even if the students we produce are a bit less uniform. I do not want common core standards and assessments to become the new operating system for our schools. I believe an open source model will serve our students much better.
What do you think? Are national standards going to become our new operating system? Will this be good for our students?
In the narrative being driven by "education reformers," the "bad teacher" has emerged as the greatest threat to our future. This threat is being used to justify a wholesale attack on the teaching profession. With our rights and even the institution of public education in danger, why have teachers been so slow to respond?
Educators are unlikely warriors. In our classrooms we depend on the authority of the school as we exert our own authority to maintain order. Accustomed to our place in the hierarchy, we serve "under" the supervision of our principals, as our students work under our supervision. This deference to authority is perhaps one reason teachers have been so slow to understand the systematic attacks we face as a profession. But make no mistake, our profession, our retirement funds, our schools, even the classrooms in which we teach - all are under a systemic and coordinated attack.
In the next 12 months we are likely to see:
Class sizes increase dramatically
More public dollars going to privately managed charter schools
Teacher retirement funds attacked as being overly generous
Due process for teachers done away with in order to get rid of "bad teachers."
Seniority eliminated since expensive experienced teachers do not raise test scores any more than novices proficient at test preparation.
But our foes will never admit they are attacking us. They will smile in our faces, as Oprah did last fall, and sweetly reassure us that they LOVE good and great teachers. It is just the louses responsible for poor test scores that they despise. One of the academic architects of many of these policies is the Hoover Institute's Eric Hanushek. Dr. Hanushek authored a rather discredited study in 1992 that purported to prove that class size was not a critical factor in student achievement. Recently Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have both given speeches suggesting that class sizes be increased to cut costs. More recently Dr. Hanushek has been focusing on teacher quality.
This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. If that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance.
Those of us who spent hundreds of hours documenting the effectiveness of our teaching to achieve National Board certification were apparently wasting our time. Hanushek does not need such overkill. Last February, he explained how we could tell good teachers from bad ones:
"Good teachers are ones who get large gains in student achievement for their classes; bad teachers are just the opposite," explained Hanushek, who said he uses a simple definition of teacher quality. Looking at data from a large, urban school district, he found that effective teachers at the top of the quality distribution got "an entire year's worth of additional learning out of their students, compared to those near the bottom."
Here are the problems I see with his approach.
Problem One: He assumes that test scores alone are an appropriate means of determining who the best teacher is. This ignores the fact that students are not randomly assigned to teachers, that some students are much more difficult to teach than others, that small changes in student composition can have a large effect on the average scores a teacher achieves, and that recent analyses of value added models have shown that as many as 20% of the teachers in the top group one year are in the bottom group the next year. Furthermore, attaching these stakes to test scores will result in further intensifying the focus on test preparation that is responsible for the narrowing of our curriculum.
Problem Two: He assumes there is a ready supply of highly effective teachers to replace the bottom rung he suggests we cast aside each year. I have worked in an urban district for the last 24 years, and spent the last four years running a program to try to retain science teachers. Our problem is not how to get rid of people - it is how to retain them. Most of our vacancies are now filled by interns who have received a crash course in the summer. They struggle to learn the ropes the first year, and by the end of their second year are becoming effective. The trouble is, 75% of them leave by the end of their third year. Our mentoring program has made a difference, but we still struggle to retain people, especially those recruited for a two-year commitment. Our pay is low, conditions are challenging, and the emphasis on test scores makes it even harder to keep our teachers.
Problem Three: He proposes that we improve by focusing on the negative. I really wonder what sort of environment Dr. Hanushek grew up in. In my classroom, I encouraged my students by focusing on the positive, by grouping students together so weaker students could learn from leaders. The teaching profession is no different. We can gain so much more by focusing on creating a collaborative culture where teachers are observing one another teach, sharing and reflecting together through processes such as Lesson Study and Collaborative Action Research.
This is not to say that teacher evaluation is perfect, and cannot be improved. Many of us have worked to offer constructive ideas to do just that. But recognizing this willingness to embrace change would clash with the narrative - unions exist to protect the bad teacher, simple as that. And the reason ineffective teachers persist is because unions are protecting them.
Of course, Dr. Hanushek does not see this as a "war on teachers." He is one of the architects of this campaign, and he sees it as a sort of purification process. He is not against ALL teachers, only the "bad" ones with low test scores.
I was on a panel at a forum last fall focused on "grading teachers," and Dr. Hanushek was on the panels before and after mine. I directly confronted his line of reasoning, and accused the LA Times of being part of a war on teachers. I believe this encounter is one reason he wrote this defensive piece.
You can watch Hanushek on the panel that followed mine here:
At about minute 27, he says "As a nation, if we could be Finland, which is at the top of these scores, there's pretty strong evidence that the present value of future gains to the US economy is $100 trillion dollars." At this point I interrupted him from the audience to point out that Finland has a child poverty rate of about 2%.
Hanushek responded by saying:
There is no doubt, no researcher that I know that has ever said, that family background [note that he refuses to use the term "poverty."] is not extremely important. It's not an issue. We understand that. We don't have the means to change families. Or we're not willing to use that as a nation. We DO have the means to adjust what our schools do. That's our public policy instrument. That's why some of us spend all of our time not looking at how to change families, but how to change the schools. There's absolutely NO evidence that if we gave $10,000 a year more income to poor families that the achievement of those kids would increase. There's absolutely none. That's not to say we might not, for societal purposes, and I believe it, that we should worry about the income levels of the poor people. But not because that's the way to solve our school problems, or that we have to wait until we equalize incomes to address some of these achievement problems that are extraordinarily real.
Richard Rothstein was also on this panel, and offered this rebuttal:
I'd like to take up Rick's comment, that the choice is between equalizing income or improving educational achievement. That's not the choice. The choice is between doing SOMEthing about the family circumstances of children who come to school not ready to learn, and not doing anything about it. We'd get a lot more purchase out of doing something about it then we would out of many of the school reforms that are being advocated. If I had the money to reduce the principal/teacher ratio to a reasonable level where you could evaluate teachers, you'd get much more bang for the buck from taking that money and building a health clinic in those schools than you would by putting more principals in the schools.
This is precisely the issue. Leaders like Hanushek systematically lead us away from real solutions that they have decided society is unwilling to contemplate. His views are guiding the education "reformers" - you will hear him cited by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. Reducing class size is too expensive. Likewise quality pre-school, libraries, dental care, health care, nutrition, etc. They actively ignore the many things along these lines that their chosen role model, Finland, has done. Simply offer a bonus for higher test scores, fire the bottom five percent, and you have the perfect combination of carrot and stick. And vilify anyone, especially our teachers' unions, that say this is not the best way to improve our schools, by accusing them of protecting bad teachers.
A year from now, if we do not confront these attacks, our classes will overflow, our retirement funds will be decimated, and our due process rights removed. Our public schools will be de-funded, even as the billionaires funding "school reform" insist they are acting in the interests of the poor. This is a fight for the future of education in America, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
What do you think? Is the teaching profession under attack? How should we respond?