The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

You take a test to determine what you’ve learned and that will in turn predict what you will be able to learn in the future.

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

We don’t measure babies’ leg muscles to predict whether they’re ready to walk. We let them do what they do, possibly with some encouragement and positive models of locomotion, and they do it.

 

There are cognitive and developmental benchmarks we look for, and if children don’t hit them, we provide help. But no further prediction is necessary – certainly not based on artificial markers put together by corporate interests.

 

In most situations, predictions are superfluous. We just assume that everyone can learn if they so desire – unless something happens to make us think otherwise. And whether someone actually learns something is demonstrated by doing the thing, itself.

 

The only time we link prediction and assessment so closely is when the consequences of failure are irreversible – like when you’re going solo skydiving for the first time. If you jump out of an airplane and don’t know how to pull the ripcord to get your parachute to work, you probably won’t get a second chance to try again.

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

The world of standardized testing is very different. The high stakes nature of the assessments are what ramp out the consequences and thus the severity.

 

Testing looks at learning like two points on a map and sets up a gate between points A and B.

 

In order to cross, you have to determine if you’ve passed through the previous gate. And only then can you be allowed to progress on to point C.

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

First, you don’t need a test to determine which point you’re at. If Point B is the ability to add, you can simply add. If it’s the ability to write a complete sentence, you can simply write a sentence.

 

There is no need to fill out a formal multiple-choice assessment that – depending on the complexity of the task being considered – is completely inadequate to capture the subtleties involved. The task, itself, is enough.

 

Imagine if you were testing whether someone had learned how to drink a glass of water. You could just give them a cup filled with H2O and see if they can gulp it down. Or you could have them sharpen their number 2 pencil and answer questions about how their throat works, their digestive and excretory systems and the chemical composition of agua – all answers predetermined to A, B, C or D.

 

Observation of a skill, we are told, is not enough to determine success because it relies on the judgment of an observer. A standardized test replaces the observer with an impersonal, distant testing corporation which then assesses only predetermined markers and makes decisions devoid of any situational context.

 

This is done to remove observational bias but it doesn’t avoid bias altogether. In setting up the markers and deciding which elements of the task are to be assessed (or in fact can be assessed in such a distant manner), the testing corporation is inserting its own biases into the process. In fact, in any assessment conducted by human beings, this would be inevitable. So going through this maze of perceived objectivity is really just a matter of subterfuge meant to disguise the biases of the corporation.

 

Second, assessing people in this way is extremely unnatural because very few fields of knowledge can be divided and subdivided into two or more discrete points.

 

When writing a complex sentence, for example, you need to know not just spelling and grammar but logic, handwriting, subject matter, colloquialisms, literary devices, and a plethora of other cultural and linguistic artifacts.

 

Moreover, there is not always a natural progression from Point A to B to C. Sometimes A jumps directly to C. Sometimes B leads directly to A. Sometimes A leads to Z.

 

Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such a reductive enterprise. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education.

 

Third, this emphasis on knowledge as discrete bits of information or skills (often called standards) leads to bad teaching.

 

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

 

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

 

A focus on standardized testing or even trying to educate in a system where these tests are attached to high stakes, results in an increase in item teaching. We often call it teaching to the test.

 

I’m not saying that item teaching is always bad. But curriculum teaching is to be much preferred. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

 

So when we find students who have made dramatic improvements on standardized tests, we often don’t find equal improvements in their over all knowledge or ability.

 

Test scores are often a false positive. They show students have mastered the art of taking the test but not necessarily the knowledge or skills it was meant to assess.

 

They are more like trained circus animals who can jump through flaming hoops but would be lost in the wild.

 

That’s why certain computer modeled artificial intelligences are able to pass standardized tests but would fail preschool.

 

These reflections have troubling implications for our system of standardized testing.

 

The false curtain of objectivity we’ve set up in our assessments may also be hiding from us what authentic learning is taking place and it may even hinder such learning from taking place at all.

 

Any sane society would halt such a system with these drawbacks. It would stop, regroup and devise a better alternative.

 

To continue with such a pedagogical framework truly would be the most absurd thing of all!


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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What Kind of A—hole Ransoms School Data?

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You’ve got to be a grade A sleaze bag to steal from kids’ public schools.

 

But that’s exactly what a growing number of slime balls are doing when they hack into schools’ computer networks and hold their data for ransom.

 

Even worse – districts are paying it!

 

Just this week the Rockville Center School District in New York state paid an $88,000 ransom to get back files that had been encrypted by Ryuk ransomware.

 

The district negotiated the payment down from $176,000. School directors only decided to pay after realizing it would cost more to hire another firm to fix the problem.

 

Plus the school had insurance that covered ransomware so it only ended up losing its $10,000 deductible.

 

But this district isn’t the only one being extorted by these basement dweller bandits.

 

In July, alone, schools in New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Connecticut and another in New York suffered similar cyber attacks.

 

Nor do they show any signs of slowing down.

 

A report by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future concluded that attacks on state and local governments have reached an all time high. There were 170 cyber attacks since 2013, of which 22 occurred just this year.

 

After years of budget cuts and downsizing, hackers see local governments like wolves see the oldest and weakest animals in the herd – easy pickings.

 

And schools are particularly vulnerable.

 

They often have small IT departments, antiquated equipment and the cheapest cybersecurity.

 

That’s why in recent months schools in Lake City, Fla.; La Porte County, Indiana; and Riviera Beach, Fla. have all paid ransoms to regain access to their data.

 

If you think about it, data is one of the most financially valuable things schools have.

 

Districts are responsible for students’ privacy in so many ways – records of special services, grades, accommodations, discipline, etc. In addition, schools are large employers with privileged information on their staffs including healthcare, finances, insurance, social security numbers, etc.

 

School directors and administrators have a responsibility to safeguard this information. It’s no wonder, then, that many are giving in to these demands, especially when nefarious nonentities ensure payment is cheaper than any other alternative.

 

Even so, what a monster you have to be to squeeze schools in order to make a buck!

 

Every dollar you blackmail away from district coffers is a dollar not spent on children’s educations.

 

That’s less money for teachers, supplies, classes, tutors, nurses, counselors, etc.

 

You aren’t stealing candy from a baby. You are literally snatching away opportunities for a better future.

 

Given the stakes involved, it shouldn’t be all up to individual districts to stop cyber thieves. The state and federal government should be flexing their muscles to help.

 

One thing they can do is toughen laws against using ransomware.

 

Maryland legislators proposed a law to consider ransomware attacks that resulted in a loss of more than $1,000 as a felony, which would then be subject to a fine of up to $100,000 and 10 years in jail.

 

Current Maryland laws define such attacks that extort less than $10,000 as misdemeanors, while only a breach that results in a loss of greater than $10,000 is a felony.

 

But some argue that there are already federal laws on the books criminalizing ransomware such as The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Unfortunately, these laws don’t mention ransomware specifically and may be too broad.

 

Federal and state governments could at least offer grants to update school cybersecurity to make such attacks more difficult. Otherwise, the burden becomes an exponential increase in the cost of doing business for schools which can only be made up by increasing local taxes and/or cutting student services.

 

Another option would be setting up a federal program to step in whenever schools are victims of ransomware. After all, these are public schools! If they were under attack by armed terrorists, the federal government wouldn’t think twice before jumping in.

 

With federal resources, perhaps we could stop all schools from ever paying these ransoms again. Because that’s the only way to truly end these cyber attacks.

 

As long as schools and governments are willing to pay, there will be trolls unscrupulous enough to take advantage.

 

Public services set up to meet the public good should never have to shortchange society so they can meet some fool’s ransom demand.

 

Ransomware has been around since at least 2012. The largest incident so far came last year with the WannaCry attack which infected more than 200,000 computers in about 150 countries, including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, at a cost of about $4 billion.

 

It’s past time we got serious in dealing with these cowards.

 

As technology increases, data crimes have become more common. In fact, there are far too many legal ways to pilfer private data.

 

Schools, in particular, do a bad job of safeguarding student data by entering into unregulated and nefarious contracts with ed tech companies. Contracts with these companies commonly contain loopholes allowing them to take student data at will and sell it.

 

The situation is worsened by the supply-side economic policies governing public schools. There are already numerous roads to privatize public schools and turn tax dollars into corporate profits. Moreover, the standardized testing industry monetizes learning when their services are mandated by the state and federal government. They conveniently offer to remediate the large numbers of students who don’t score well on these same tests and cash in on both ends.

 

With so many fully legal ways to steal education dollars from practices and policies that actually help kids learn, it’s no surprise where these shadow dwellers get their ideas.

 

As repulsive and selfish as these hackers are, they’re only taking the greed of the testing, privatization and ed tech industry to its logical conclusion.

 

What kind of a—hole ransoms school data?

 

The a—holes we allow to get away with it.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

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Sometimes the truth is not enough.

 

Especially if you misunderstand its meaning.

 

That seems to be the main problem with a growth mindset.

 

It’s one of the trendiest concepts in education today, and – though it’s based on an authentic insight into how kids learn – it’s been shackled and monetized into an excuse to support a sterile status quo.

 

The basic idea goes like this: academic ability isn’t something students have or do not have. It’s a skill that gets better depending on how hard they work at it.

 

And up to that point, it’s correct and valuable.

 

But when we try to take that insight and weave it into current education policies, it becomes a shadow of itself.

 

As a middle school language arts teacher, I’m confronted with this most often in the context of standardized test scores.

 
I am constantly being told not to pay attention to the scores. Instead, I’m told to pay attention to growth – how much this year’s scores have improved from last year’s scores. And the best way to do this, I’m told, is by paradoxically examining the scores in the most minute detail and using them to drive all instruction in the classroom.

 

To me that seems to misunderstand the essential psychological truth behind a growth mindset.

 

Instead of focusing on the individuality of real human students, we’re zeroing in on the relics of a fixed mindset – test scores – and relegating the growth mindset to happy talk and platitudes.

 

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B leads to A, and if we really want A, we just need to emphasize B.

 

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea that learning is a skill that can be strengthened with hard work. I do, however, take issue with how that observation has been used to support the status quo of test-and-punish and strategic disinvestment in public schools. I take issue with the idea that growth is the ONLY factor in student learning and how we are ignoring the multitudinous ways the human mind works and what that means for education.

 

In short, I think making the growth mindset a magic bullet has ended up shooting us in the foot.

 

Here are six problems I have with the growth mindset model:

 

1) It Has Not Been Proven to Make an Appreciable Difference in Student Academic Achievement.

 

How exactly do you use growth to drive achievement?

 

You make the concept of growth explicit by teaching it. You actively teach kids this idea that anyone can learn with hard work, and the theory goes that they’ll achieve more.

 

Does it actually work?

 

The results have been pretty inconclusive.

 

It’s been tested numerous times in various ways – some showing success, some showing nothing or even that it hurts learning.

 

The best success has come from Carol Dweck, a Stanford education professor who’s made a name for herself promoting the growth mindset model in books and TED talks.

 

Just this month, she co-authored the largest nationwide study concluding that a growth mindset can improve student results.

 

About 12,500 ninth grade students from 65 public and private schools were given an online training in the concept during the 2015-16 school year.

 

The study published in the journal Nature concluded that on average lower-achieving students who took the training earned statistically significant higher grades than those who did not.

 

However, results were “muted” when students were less encouraged to seek challenges – such as when they had fewer resources and support.

 

Despite this success, Dweck’s peers haven’t been able to reproduce her results.

 

A large-scale study of 36 schools in the United Kingdom published in July by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that the impact on students directly receiving this kind of training did not have statistical significance. And when teachers were given the training, there were no gains at all.

 

In a 2017 study, researchers gave the training to university applicants in the Czech Republic and then compared their results on a scholastic aptitude test. They found that applicants who got the training did slightly worse than those who hadn’t received it at all.

 

In 2018, two meta-analyses conducted in the US found that claims for the growth mindset may have been overstated, and that there was “little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students.”

 

A 2012 review looking at students attitudes toward education in the UK found “no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)”.

 

In short, there is little evidence that any current approaches to turning the growth mindset into a series of practices that increase learning at scale has succeeded.

 

2) It Doesn’t Fit with Current Education Policies

 
We live in a fixed mindset world.

 

That’s how we define academic achievement – test scores, grades, projects, etc.

 

We tabulate data, compile numbers and information and pretend that draws an accurate picture of students.

 

It doesn’t.

 

But the concept that student achievement isn’t one of these things – is, in fact, something changeable with enough effort – runs counter to everything else in this world view.

 

If data points don’t tell us something essential about students but only their effort, connecting them with high stakes is incredibly unfair.

 

Moreover, it’s incoherent.

 

How can you convince a student that test scores, for example, don’t tell us something essential about her when we put so much emphasis on them?

 

It’s almost impossible for students in today’s schools to keep a belief in a growth mindset when test scores and our attitude toward them confirm their belief in a fixed mindset.

 

In a world of constant summative testing, analysis and ranking of students, it is nearly impossible to believe in a growth mindset. It’s merely a platitude between the fixed academic targets we demand students hit.

 

This doesn’t exactly take anything away from the concept, but it shows that it cannot be implemented within our current educational framework.

 

If we really believed in it, we’d throw away the testing and data-centricity and focus on the students, themselves.

 

3) It Ignores Student Needs and Resources

 

When we try to force the growth mindset onto our test-obsessed world, we end up with something very much like grit.

 

After all, if the only factor students need to succeed is effort, then those who don’t succeed must be responsible for their own failures because they didn’t try hard enough.

 

And while this is true in some instances, it is not true in all of them.

 

Effort may be a necessary component of academic success but it is not in itself sufficient. There are other factors that need to be present, too, such as the presence of proper resources and support.

 

And most – if not all – of these factors are outside of students’ control. They have no say whether they are well fed, live in safe homes, have their emotional needs met. Nor have they any say whether they go to a well-resourced school with a wide curriculum, extracurricular activities, school nurses, tutors, mentors, psychologists and a host of other services.

 

Putting everything on growth is extremely cruel to students – much like the phenomenon of grit.

 

Education policy should help raise up struggling students, not continue to support their marginalization through poverty, racism and/or socioeconomic disadvantages.

 

4) It Can Make Kids Feel Disrespected and Disparaged

 
No child wants to be remediated.

 

It makes them feel small, inadequate and broken. And if they’re already feeling that way, it reinforces that helplessness instead of helping.

 

Context is everything. Well-meaning educators may gather all the students with low test scores in one place to tell them the good news about how they can finally achieve if they put in enough effort. But students may recognize this for what it is and instinctively turn away.

 

The best way to teach someone is often not to lecture, not to even let on that you’re teaching at all.

 

David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claimed in 2011:

 

“…if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.”

 

Teachers cannot set themselves up as saviors because that reinforces the idea that students are broken and thus need saved.

 

I don’t think this is an insurmountable goal, but many growth mindset interventions are planned and conceived by non-teachers. As such, they often walk right into this trap.

 

5) It is Not Suitable For All Kids

 
Everyone’s minds don’t work alike.

 

When you tell some kids that anyone can achieve with enough hard work, it makes them discouraged because they thought that their academic successes marked them as special.

 

According to a 2017 study published by the American Psychological Association, growth mindset training can backfire especially with high achieving students for exactly this reason.

 

Hard work just isn’t enough for some students. Their self-esteem relies on the idea that they are good at school because of fixed qualities about themselves.

 

When we take that belief away, we can damage their self esteem and thus their motivation to do well in school.

 

The point isn’t that a growth mindset is wrong, but that as an intervention it is not appropriate for all students. In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t be using it as an intervention at all.

 

6) It Should Not be a Student Intervention. It Should Be a Pedagogical Underpinning for Educators

 

We’ve got this growth mindset thing all wrong.

 

It’s not a tool to help students learn. It’s a tool for teachers to better understand their students and thus better help them learn. It’s a tool for administrators, parents and policymakers to better understand what grades and test scores mean.

 

If you want to teach a student any skill, let’s call it X, you shouldn’t begin by telling them that anyone can learn it with enough effort.

 

Just teach X. And when you succeed, that will become all the motivation students need to learn the next thing.

 

Education is an incremental process. Success breeds success just as failure breeds failure.

 

As every teacher knows, you start small, scaffold your lessons from point A to B to C and make whatever changes you need along the way.

 

If we really want to help students in this process, we can start by ridding ourselves of the fixed mindset that current education policy is rooted in.

 

Growth mindset is a psychological observation about how human minds work. It’s not pedagogy. It’s empiricism.

 

We can use it to help design policy, lessons and assessment. But it has limited value – if any – being taught directly to students.

 
The growth mindset model has value, but not in the way it has typically been used in our school system.

 

Instead of providing justification for equitable resources and tearing down the testocracy, it’s been used to gaslight educators into obeying the party line.

 

It is not a magic cure all, but one factor among many that provides insight into learning.

 

If we can disentangle it from the profit-driven mire of corporate education, perhaps it can help us achieve an authentic pedagogy that treats every student as an individual and not an economic incentive for billionaires to pocket more tax money.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Welcome Back Letter I’d Love to Give My Students – But Can’t

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I’m a very lucky guy.

 

I get to teach language arts in an amazing urban middle school in Western Pennsylvania.

 

I have reasonable autonomy, opportunities to collaborate with my co-workers and strong union protections.

 

Even so, I know there are a lot of teachers out there who don’t have those things.

 

Yet even after counting all my blessings, I still can’t do whatever I want. I can’t even do everything that my years of academic training and experience tells me would be best for my students.

 

Every year I’m told that my worth as a professional is mainly defined by student test scores – that I should use those scores to drive my entire class, that my major goal should be increasing the scores and my every waking moment should be spent examining past scores.

 
Every year I have to watch out for this data metric and do that much more work because my district has lost even more funding to the vampire charter school in our neighborhood. Or lawmakers have compromised away another several hours of my time to do meaningless paperwork – time that I either have to take away from my students or my family.

 

I see all this and I just want to scream.

 

I want to tell everyone what’s happening so that they can help stop the madness.

 

And I do scream into the whirl of cyberspace on my blog.

 

But I can’t do the same in my district. I can’t tell those right in front of me – my school board, my administrators, the parents or students.

 

Doing so would put everything I do have in jeopardy.

 

I know this because it already has.

 

Every year on the first day of school, I give my students a welcome letter.

 
This is the kind of letter I’d love to give them – but don’t dare:

 


Dear Students,

 

In a matter of weeks you will be invited back to school and I wanted to let you in on a little secret.

 

We missed you.

 

That’s right. Your teachers missed the heck out of you over the summer.

 

Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed our time at home with our own children, time on vacation, time spent continuing to refine our craft, and/or time spent working another job. (Hey! Those extra pencils, papers, books and supplies aren’t going to buy themselves! Right?)

 

Here’s another little secret – your teachers come to school every day not because we have to, but because we want to.

 

We literally could do anything else with our lives but we’ve devoted our time to you.

 

Why? Because we love you.

 

I know that’s mushy talk, but it’s true.

 

Another secret: We know you’re nervous about your first day back. But – heck – so are we!

 

Don’t forget you’re young. We’re old!

 

We know you’re wondering who your teachers will be this year, what they’ll require you to do, which friends will be in your classes, who will sit with you at lunch…

 

We wonder if we’re still going to be able to do all the things we need to do to help you learn? Are we going to be able to provide a safe, secure environment for you? Will we be able to keep you engaged, and excited to learn? Will we be able to actually teach everything you want and need to know?

 

This is going to be a challenging year for all of us.

 

But that’s a good thing.

 

We’re in this together.

 

That’s kind of an important point.

 

You see, we know you’ll probably be asked to take high stakes standardized tests. Just know that it’s not us who’s asking. It’s the state and federal government. Lawmakers seem to think that your answers on multiple choice tests are very, very important.

 

Another secret: they aren’t.

 

We don’t care how you score on these tests. Not really. We don’t even care if you take them at all – and if your parents decide not to have you sit through this garbage, we will honor their wishes, because they are the ultimate authority on you – their children.

 

We know that standardized tests don’t assess how much you learn. The tests your teachers make do that – the work that you do in class every day shows it better than any canned corporate exam.

 

We know those scores don’t define who you are. We see you every day. We see your creativity, your intelligence, your fire, your verve, your passion.

 

We want to stoke that fire and help you become the people you always wanted to be.

 

And none of that can be shown on a standardized test.

 

THAT’S our job – not to turn you into great test takers but into the kind of people you most want to be.

 

Oh. By the way, please thank your parents for us.

 

Thank them for ignoring the hype about the flashy charter school that hedge fund managers opened on the hill – the school sucking up our funding, cutting services for students and making its investors very rich.

 

Thank them for declining the shiny school voucher to Pastor Dan’s Creationism, Anti-vaxxor, Climate Denial Academy. Thank them for passing up the tax rebate to Ivy Laurel Prep – where the rich white kids go.

 
Thank them for trusting us with the most precious things in their lives – you.

 

You really mean a lot to all of us.

 

So rest up and try to have fun for the remainder of your summer. We’ll do the same.

 

And before you know it, we’ll be back together in class expanding minds, expressing hearts and having a great time!

 

Love you all!

 

Your Teachers


 
That’s the kind of welcome back letter I would love to give my students – but can’t.

 

 

It was partially inspired by a REAL welcome back letter given by a New York Superintendent.

 
Around this time last year, he gave it to 11 principals and about 600 teachers in the
Patchogue-Medford School District before someone posted it online and it went viral.

 

His audience was teachers, but his message was the same:

 

Aug. 14, 2018

 

Dear….

 

Once again… this letter is too let you know I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is. Let me be clear… I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. You are more than a score. I’m hoping you know by now that the children and parents you serve appreciate your talents and the ability to make a difference in their lives. Keep your head up and your eye on what is most important… your students and your teaching craft.

 

The Patchogue-Medford School District fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states. You have my permission to throw it out, or use it for any creative ways you may think of. I have a feeling divergent thinking will be at an all-time high at Pat-Med. Let me know if you need anything and it is my sincere hope you have an outstanding year.

 

With Warmest Regards,

 

Michael J. Hynes, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools

 

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Cheers to Superintendent Hynes!

 

If only every teacher, administrator and school board member could be that brave and honest!

 
Here’s another letter given to year six students at Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, England, along with their results from a recent standardized exam:

 

“Please find enclosed your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your very best during this tricky week.

 

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do.

 

They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day.

 

They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school.

 

They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends.

 

They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

 

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

 

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Here’s another one to parents from a principal in Singapore:

 

“The exams of your child are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well.

 

But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there is an artist, who doesn’t need to understand Math… There is an entrepreneur, who doesn’t care about History or English literature…There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won’t matter…There’s an athlete…whose physical fitness is more important than Physics… If your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn’t…please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, its just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score…you love them and will not judge them.

 

Please do this, and when you do… watch your children conquer the world. One exam or low mark won’t take away…their dreams and talent. And please, do not think that doctors and engineers…are the only happy people in the world.”

PrincipalsLetterToParents

 
If teachers and principals were allowed to speak freely, I bet there’d be a lot more of these kinds of letters.

 

School should not be centered on testing and test scores. It should be centered on students.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

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As a middle school teacher, I have real concerns about the ways technology is used in the classroom and the effects it’s having on students.

 

That does not make me a technophobe.

 

The fact that you are reading this article on a blog – a regularly updated Website containing personal writings or a weBLOG – should prove that point.

 

I use technology in my everyday life and in many ways find it indispensable.

 

However, that does not mean I embrace all uses of technology just as criticizing some forms does not mean I think we should get rid of them all.

 

But after 17 years of teaching, I have legitimate concerns about what all this technology is doing to our students and our schools.

 

I have seen technologies come and go. Some – like a computerized grade book – have been extremely helpful, and I would not want to have to do my job without them.

 

Others have fallen by the wayside, been discontinued or proven a waste of time or even worse – they’ve become impediments rather than assistants to student learning.

 

In general, I think we have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.
So, without further ado, here are the top 7 ways technology stifles student learning in my classroom:

 

1) It Stops Kids from Reading

 

I’m a language arts teacher. I want my students to read.

 

I could simply assign readings and hope students do them, but that’s not practical in today’s fast-paced world. When kids are bombarded by untold promises of instant gratification, a ream of paper bordered by cardboard doesn’t hold much of a claim on their attentions.

 

So like many teachers, I bring reading into the classroom, itself. I usually set aside class time every other day for students to read self-selected books for about 15 minutes. Students have access to the school library and a classroom library filled with books usually popular with kids their age or popular with my previous students. They can pick something from outside these boundaries, but if they haven’t already done so, I have them covered.

 

In the days before every student had an iPad, this worked fairly well. Students often had books with them they wanted to read or would quickly select one from my collection and give it a try.

 

Sometimes when there was down time in class, when they had finished assignments or tests early, they would even pick up their self-selected books and read a little.

 

What a different world it was!

 

Now that every student has an omnipresent technological device, this has become increasingly impossible. I still set aside 15 minutes, but students often waste the time looking for an eBook on-line and end up reading just the first chapter or two since they’re free. Others read nothing but the digital equivalent of magazine articles or look up disparate facts. And still others try to hide that they’re not reading at all but playing video games or watching YouTube videos.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, the act of reading on a device is different than reading a printed page.

 

The act of reading traditional books is slower, closer and more linear. It’s the way teachers really want kids to read and which will most increase comprehension.

 

Reading on a screen is a product of social media. We scroll or scan through, seeking specific information and clicking on hyperlinks.

 

The old style of reading was transformative, absorbing and a much deeper and richer experience. The newer style is more superficial, mechanical and extrinsic. (And, Yes, I’m aware of which style of reading you’re engaged in now!)

 

To be fair, some students actually prefer reading eBooks on devices and may even experience the richness of the original style. But they are few and far between. Usually students use the devices to escape from the deeper kind of reading because they’ve never really done it before and don’t understand what it really is. And when they have this choice, they may never find out.

 

2) It’s a Distraction

 

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to focus on one thing at a time. There are situations and assignments that call for multitasking, but usually we need students to be able to look at text closely, examine an argument, identify figurative language or write creatively, etc. They can’t do that if they’re constantly checking their devices.

 

We have to admit that iPads, laptops, social media, etc. are addictive. If given the chance, many teenagers will spend hours there. Heck, many adults will, too. It’s common for students to rush through assignments to get back to watching videos about the latest on-line gaming trend Fortnite, or listen to music with earbuds, or others such things.

 

Technology is usually associated in their minds with entertainment, not education. I’m not saying that technologies don’t have their place. If you want to look up information quickly, devices are great. But the most common words I tell my students on any given day are “Apples up.” In others words, turn your iPads face down and focus on the lesson at hand.

 

3) It’s Unhealthy

 

For most students, technology is not a novelty. It is something with which they already have a lot of experience. Many studies find that kids between the ages of 13-18 spend up to 18 hours a day in front of a screen.

 

Why are we adding to that in the classroom?

 

Children need face-to-face interactions. They need to learn social skills, how to communicate with people, not screen avatars. They need time outdoors, time to get up and move around and interact with the world. Heck! They need unstructured time where they actually experience boredom and have to find ways to cope.

 

We’re robbing them of these skills by giving in to the electronic nanny. And it’s creating children who are less able to survive without that technological crutch.

 

As technology has become more widespread in my classes, I’ve noticed attention spans decreasing. So has self control, mindfulness and an ability for critical thinking.

 

4) It Costs Too Much

 

Public schools are already grossly underfunded. We have to pick and choose the most effective tools to help kids learn. Technology is often very expensive and takes away valuable money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

 

And the way these technologies are marketed is often reminiscent of the drug trade. The first uses are free. But if you want to expand, it will cost.

 

Even those that don’t demand briefcasefulls of cash often recoup their costs by collecting and selling student data.

 

In the school system, we are privy to an enormous amount of information about the children in our care – information that we are tasked with keeping safe. Ed tech software and technologies also routinely collect data on students. But they are not as constrained or legally responsible for it in the way schools and teachers are.

 

Some of the data technologies collect is indeed necessary for whatever task they perform – tabulating which questions students get correct and incorrect, etc. However, much of it is unnecessary for those tasks – information about student preferences or marketing information.

 
We have no guarantee that this data is secure. The FBI has warned schools, parents and students of information breaches at these ed tech companies. And the contracts these companies have with schools and/or users are shady at best. They don’t guarantee your data will be secure, don’t accept liability and even when they do, they routinely warn that their policies can change at any time without warning – especially if they go bankrupt.

 

These are costs too expensive to pay.

 

5) It Has Never Been Proven to Help Kids Learn

Educational technologies’ claims about student learning outcomes are based on faith not facts. There are few (if any) long-term, large scale, peer reviewed studies showing that most technologies are effective educational tools.

 
This is partially because they’re too new to have been around long enough to be adequately tested. Moreover, the field is flooded with “studies” payed for by the same companies or organizations being studied – which is like having McDonald’s tell you the McRib is nutritious. Some small-scale peer reviewed studies have been done, but the results have been inconclusive.

 

We are literally unleashing these devices and software applications on children without knowing their full effects.

 

Ed tech is a market-based solution to an academic problem. It is the triumph of big business over pedagogy.

 

Our children deserve better than this.

 

6) It Perpetuates Bad Pedagogy and Assessment

Ed tech is almost always organized around standardized testing. It takes the multiple choice test as the ultimate form of assessment and arranges itself around that paradigm.

 

Software basically teaches to the test. It shows users the kinds of questions that will be asked, how to solve them and then gauges their success by giving them test-based questions.

 

It’s ironic because the marketing departments of these corporations usually sell this junk as “personalized learning,” “individualized learning,” or “competency” or “proficiency based education.” They want you to think that the program is tailor made to the user when it’s actually just a prepackaged mess. If you can’t answer a question of type A, you don’t get to move on to a question of type B. That’s all.

 

This can be an effective method for increasing test scores – if students aren’t so tuned out by the experience that they don’t engage with what they’re being presented – which is what I often find with my students when I’ve been forced to subject them to this nonsense.

 

However, learning how to take a multiple choice test on reading is not the same as learning how to read and understand. It is not the same as interacting with, comprehending and forming an opinion about that reading.

 

This is not the best way to teach just as having students fill out endless worksheets is not, nor is even having a flesh-and-blood teacher do endless test prep.

 

It is brainwashing – teaching kids to think like the designers of a test when we should be teaching them how to think for themselves and like themselves.

 

7) It Undermines Public Schools and Teachers

 

Ed tech companies are not philanthropies. They are in this business to turn a profit. And the best way to do that is to displace and disrupt the public education system.

 

There is an entire testing and school privatization industrial complex out there trying to prove that traditional public schools are bad and need replaced with business solutions.

 

These aren’t just charter schools or private and parochial schools cashing in on vouchers siphoning tax money away from children and into their private pockets. These are ed tech companies, too.

 

The ultimate goal is to get rid of the very concept of school, itself, and to replace it with on-line cyber schooling that can be accessed anywhere without the need for any living, breathing teachers in the mix. Or at best, they want to reduce the teacher to a mere facilitator. It is the device and the software that teach. It is only the human being’s job to make sure the student is engaging with the technology.

 

This is not in the best interest of students. It is in the best interests of companies and corporations.

 

When we give away our responsibilities, our autonomy, and our humanity to these businesses, we are selling out our children.

 

I’m not saying that all technology is bad or even that it should never be used in the classroom.

 

But we must approach it with caution and intelligence. We should always know why we’re using it, what end we expect it to have and fully comprehend the consequences.

 

Otherwise our children will be left to pay for our own shortsightedness.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Six Biggest Problems with Data-Driven Instruction

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“On the dangers of being data-driven: Imagine driving from A to B ignoring the road, the weather, the traffic around you… only staring at the gauges on the dashboard.”

 – Educator Dan McConnell

 

 

“Make your instruction data-driven.”

 

If you’re a public school teacher, you’ve probably heard this a hundred times.

 

In the last week.

 

Principals and administrators use that word – “data-driven” – as if it were inscribed over the front doors of the schoolhouse in stone.

 

The idea goes like this: All lessons should be based on test scores.

 

Students take the federally mandated standardized test. Your job is to make sure they get the best possible score. Your class is nothing but a way station between standardized tests.

 

Pretest your students and then instruct them in such a way that when they take the test again, they’ll get the best possible score.

 

It’s total nonsense. And it doesn’t take much to see why.

 

No teacher should ever be data-driven. Every teacher should be student-driven.

 

You should base your instruction around what’s best for your students – what motivates them, inspires them, gets them ready and interested in learning.

 

To be sure, you should be data-informed – you should know what their test scores are and that should factor into your lessons in one way or another – but test scores should not be the driving force behind your instruction, especially since standardized test scores are incredibly poor indicators of student knowledge.

 

No one really believes that the Be All and End All of student knowledge is children’s ability to choose the “correct” answer on a multiple-choice test. No one sits back in awe at Albert Einstein’s test scores – it’s what he was able to do with the knowledge he had. Indeed, his understanding of the universe could not be adequately captured in a simple choice between four possible answers.

 

As I see it, there are at least six major problems with this dependence on student data at the heart of the data-driven movement.

 

So without further ado, here is a sextet of major flaws in the theory of data-driven instruction:

 

 

 

  1. The Data is Unscientific

    When we talk about student data, we’re talking about statistics. We’re talking about a quantity computed from a sample or a random variable.

    As such, it needs to be a measure of something specific, something clearly defined and agreed upon.

    For instance, you could measure the brightness of a star or its position in space.

    However, when dealing with student knowledge, we leave the hard sciences and enter the realm of psychology. The focus of study is not and cannot be as clearly defined. What, after all, are we measuring when we give a standardized test? What are the units we’re using to measure it?

    We find ourselves in the same sticky situation as those trying to measure intelligence. What is this thing we’re trying to quantify and how exactly do we go about quantifying it?

    The result is intensely subjective. Sure we throw numbers up there to represent our assumptions, but – make no mistake – these are not the same numbers that measure distances on the globe or the density of an atomic nucleus.

    These are approximations made up by human beings to justify deeply subjective assumptions about human nature.

    It looks like statistics. It looks like math. But it is neither of these things.

    We just get tricked by the numbers. We see them and mistake what we’re seeing for the hard sciences. We fall victim to the cult of numerology. That’s what data-driven instruction really is – the deepest type of mysticism passed off as science.

    The idea that high stakes test scores are the best way to assess learning and that instruction should center around them is essentially a faith based initiative.

    Before we can go any further, we must understand that.

  2. It Has Never Been Proven Effective

    Administrators and principals want teachers to base their instruction around test scores.

    Has that ever been proven an effective strategy for teachers planning lessons or the allocation of resources? Can we prove a direct line from data to better instruction to better test scores?

    The answer is an unequivocal NO.

    In a 2007 study from Gina Schuyler Ikemoto and Julie A. Marsh published in the Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education, data driven instruction actually was found to have harmful effects on educator planning and, ultimately, student learning.

    Researchers looked at 36 instances of data use in two districts, where 15 teachers used annual tests to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. The result was fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources – test scores, district surveys, and interviews – to reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools.

    Teachers found the data less useful if it was not timely – standardized test scores are usually a year old by the time they get to educators. Moreover, the data was of less value if it did not come with district support and if instructors did not already buy into its essential worth.

    In short, researchers admitted they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions in these two districts.

    But that’s just one study.

    In 2009, the federal government published a report (IES Expert Panel) examining 490 studies where schools used data to make instructional decisions.

    Of these studies, the report could only find 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Of these it could find only six – yes, six – that met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions to improve student achievement.

    And when examining these six studies, the panel found “low evidence” to support data-driven instruction. They concluded that the theory that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores has not been proven in any way, shape or form.

  3. It’s Harmful – The Stereotype Threat and Motivation

    Data-driven instruction essentially involves grouping students based on their performance on standardized tests.

    You put the low scorers HERE, the students on the bubble who almost reached the next level HERE, and the advanced students HERE. That way you can easily differentiate instruction and help meet their needs.

    However, there is a mountain of psychological research showing that this practice is harmful to student learning. Even if you don’t put students with different test scores in different classes, simply informing them that they belong to one group or another has intense cognitive effects.

    Simply being told that you are in a group with lower test scores depresses your academic outcomes. This is known as the stereotype threat.

    When you focus on test scores and inform students of where they fall on the continuum down to the percentile – of how far below average they are – you can trigger this threat. Simply tracking students in this way can actually make their scores worse.

    It can create negative feelings about school, threatening students’ sense of belonging, which is key to academic motivation.

    But it’s not just the low scorers who are harmed. Even the so-called “advanced” students can come to depend on their privileged status. They define themselves by their achievement, collecting prizes, virtual badges and stickers. These extrinsic rewards then transform their motivation from being driven by the learning and the satisfaction of their curiosity to depending on what high achievement gets them, researchers have found.

    In short, organizing all academics around tests scores is a sure way to lower them.

  4. The Data Doesn’t Capture Important Factors

    Data-driven instruction is only as good as the data being used. But no data system can be all inclusive.

    When we put blinders on and say only these sorts of factors count, we exclude important information.

    For instance, two students do the same long-term project and receive the same grade. However, one student overcame her natural tendency to procrastinate and learned more than in past projects. The other did not put forth his best effort and achieved lower than his usual.

    If we only look at the data, both appear the same. However, good teachers can see the difference.

    Almost every year I have a few students who are chronically tardy to class. A good teacher finds out why – if this is because they aren’t making the best use of the class interval or if they have a greater distance to travel than other students. However, if we judge solely on the data, we’re supposed to penalize students without considering mitigating factors. That’s being data-driven – a poor way to be a fair teacher.

    It has been demonstrated repeatedly that student test scores are highly correlated with parental income. Students from wealthier parents score well and those from more impoverished families score badly. That does not mean one group is smarter or even more motivated than the other. Living in poverty comes with its own challenges. Students who have to take care of their siblings at home, for instance, have less time for homework than those who have nothing but free time.

    A focus solely on the data ignores these factors. When we’re admonished to focus on the data, we’re actually being told to ignore the totality of our students.

  5. It’s Dehumanizing

    No one wants to be reduced to a number or a series of statistics.

    It is extremely insulting to insist that the best way for teachers to behave is to treat their students as anything other than human beings.

    They are people with unique needs, characteristics, and qualities, and should be treated accordingly.

    When one of my students does an amazing job on an assignment or project, my first impulse is not to reduce what they’ve done to a letter grade or a number. I speak my approbation aloud. I write extensive comments on their papers or conference with them about what they’ve done.

    Certainly, I have to assign them a grade, but that is merely one thing educators do. To reduce the relationship to that – and only that – is extremely reductive. If all you do is grade the learner, you jeopardize the learning.

    Every good teacher knows the importance of relationships. Data-driven instruction asks us to ignore these lessons in favor of a mechanistic approach.

    I’m sorry. My students are not widgets and I refuse to treat them as such.

    I am so sick of going to conferences or faculty meetings where we focus exclusively on how to get better grades or test scores from our students. We should, instead, focus on how to see the genius that is already there! We should find ways to help students self-actualize, not turn them into what we think they should be.

    At this point, someone inevitably says that life isn’t fair. Our students will have to deal with standardized tests and data-driven initiatives when they get older. We have to prepare them for it.

    What baloney!

    If the real world is unfair, I don’t want my students to adjust to that. I want to make it better for them.

    Imagine telling a rape victim that that’s just the way the world is. Imagine telling a person brutalized by the police that the world is unfair and you just have to get used to it.

    This is a complete abdication not just of our job as teachers but our position as ethical human beings.

    Schools are nothing without students. We should do everything we can to meet their needs. Period.

  6. It’s Contradictory – It’s Not How We Determine Value in Other Areas

    Finally, there is an inherent contradiction that all instruction must be justified by data.

    We don’t require this same standard for so many aspects of schooling.

    Look around any school and ask yourself if everything you see is necessarily based on statistics.

    Does the athletic program exist because it increases student test scores? Does each student lunch correlate with optimum grades? Do you have computers and iPads because they have a measureable impact on achievement?

    Some administrators and principals DO try to justify these sorts of things by reference to test scores. But it’s a retroactive process.

    They are trying to connect data with things they already do. And it’s completely bogus.

    They don’t suddenly believe in football because they think it will make the team get advanced scores. They don’t abruptly support technology in the classroom because they think it will make the school achieve adequate yearly progress.

    They already have good reasons to think athletics helps students learn. They’ve seen participation in sports help students remain focused and motivated – sometimes by reference to their own lives. Likewise, they’ve seen the value of technology in the classroom. They’ve seen how some students turn on like someone flipped a switch when a lesson has a technological component.

    These aren’t necessarily quantifiable. They don’t count as data but they are based on evidence.

    We come to education with certain beliefs already in place about what a school should do and others are formed based on the empiricism of being there, day-in, day-out. “Data” rarely comes into the decision making process as anything but a justification after the fact.


    And so we can firmly put the insistence on data-driven instruction in the trash bin of bad ideas.

    It is unscientific, unproven, harmful, reductive, dehumanizing and contradictory.

    The next time you hear an administrator or principal pull out this chestnut, take out one of these counterarguments and roast it on an open fire.

    No more data-driven instruction.

    Focus instead on student-driven learning.

 

Don’t let them co-opt you into the cult of numerology. Remain a difference-maker. Remain a teacher.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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