Let me put that in perspective – a scandal-ridden investment firm that made billions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bought one of standardized testing’s big four and then added the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to its arsenal.
This almost certainly means the cost of state testing is going to increase since the providers of the tests are shrinking.
“It used to be if you put out a [Request for Proposal] RFP for state assessment, you get five, six, 10 bidders,” said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment. “Now you’re lucky to get three. When you’re doing that, there’s maybe not as much expertise and certainly the cost will go up” (emphasis mine).
You can just imagine how this will affect the marketplace.
NWEA serves about 10,000 school districts and HMH estimates it works with more than 50 million students and 4 million educators in 150 countries, according to a press release about the proposed acquisition.
After all, if these sorts of assessments can be gamed by increased access to materials created by the same corporate entities that create and grade the tests, are we really assessing knowledge? Aren’t we just giving students a score based on how many books and software packages their districts bought from the parent company? Is that really education?
Then in February of 2022, New York-based private-equity firm Veritas Capital acquired HMH at a price of $21 per share, or about $2.8 Billion. And under Veritas, HMH acquired NWEA and the two companies will work together to do many of the things that HMH used to do by itself – like a golden dragon perched atop the standardized testing treasure trove.
All for the benefit of Veritas Capital.
Make no mistake, the investment firm wouldn’t have become involved if it couldn’t make a profit off the situation. That’s what it does – through scandal after scandal.
Founded in 1992 by the late investment banker Robert McKeon (who died by suicide after mounting improprieties came to light), Veritas Capital began its life buying up government contractors and forming close ties with former senior government officials. Of the company’s many defense-related investments, the most infamous was its 2005 purchase of DynCorp International, a shady company involved in the US’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In 2006, the firm acquired MZM Inc., an intelligence contractor, which was investigated for providing bribes to Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., in exchange for help obtaining Pentagon contracts.
Throughout its history, Veritas has fostered close ties to government officials. Campaign finance records show executives at the investment firm have given over $100,000 to various politicians, mostly Republicans. In 2014, Veritas paid Bill Clinton $250,000 for a speech.
The New York Times reported in 2001 that numerous retired generals were on Veritas’ payroll and the company used such ties to the Pentagon and frequent appearances in the media to boost Veritas-owned military contractors, including DynCorp.
Musallam focuses on technology companies like HMH that operate in sectors dominated by the US federal government such as standardized testing. After all, the only reason public schools throughout the country have to give these assessments is federal law. It’s a captive market paid for by tax dollars.
The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.
At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.
Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.
The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.
Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.
So what exactly is Propel celebrating?
Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).
I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?
In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.
For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.
According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.
When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.
However, individual attention is even harder to verify.
Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.
Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.
So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.
Unfortunately, it is definitively false.
According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.
So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.
Award Winning Arts Programs
Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.
In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”
What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?
Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.
Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.
In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.
Which brings us back to the beginning.
Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?
Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.
However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.
indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.
First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022 I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being. Pros Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits Cons Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure
Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022 My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.
In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one. Pros There were no pros. I can’t even make one up. Cons Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.
Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021 Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare. Pros There is not one pro I can think of. Cons Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”
Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022
Hr treats you bad Teachers treat you bad You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen Pros Nothing Cons You will be treated like you are worthless
Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021 Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible. Pros Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance. Cons Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff
Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021 Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator. Pros Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum Cons Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021 Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this. Pros Dedicated cohorts Cons Work-life balance off
teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020 There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment. When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.
Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020 Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.
Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020 Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.
Teaching children, benefits and compensation
Bad work/home life balance
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The problem is one of speed and instant gratification.
Today’s children have a multitude competing for their attention.
Video games, social media, TikTok videos – they haven’t the time to sit down with a book.
Doing so seems like something an old person would do or at least something too hard for them to enjoy.
I remember when I was growing up, my father always read Stephen King paperbacks. I still remember the covers of some of those books. The snarling Saint Bernard of “Cujo.” The empty boy’s face of “The Shining.” And “Night Shift” with its creepy bandaged hand slowly coming unraveled to reveal eyes growing under a knuckle…
I wanted nothing more than to read these books and understand what it was that lurked inside the covers.
But today a lot of novels are eBooks. If they have covers, they aren’t visible in the hands of those reading them. They aren’t left on display on a shelf. They’re nearly invisible.
The very idea of books seems like something beyond the reach of many adolescents.
Luckily there are some classics of young adult literature that rarely disappoint – S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, Lois Lowery’s “The Giver”, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”, Louis Sachar’s “Holes”, etc.
Each child has his or her own experience, but it is enhanced by the thoughts and comments of others. Trying to solve the secrets of the society in “The Giver” isn’t just something you do alone – it’s a shared endeavor with your peers. Trying to decide what you’d do in the place of Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” isn’t just an academic thought experiment – it’s a way of expressing your thoughts and values and seeing them reflected, absorbed or enhanced by those around you.
However, this can’t always be done in a group setting. And the teacher can’t be the only person guiding the experience.
Let them choose books from the library and read them silently in class. There can be a culminating assignment like a book report or a book circle at the end of the month, but it has to be driven by individual curiosity.
This is all easier said than done.
Some years the books I pick for my students are a hit. Some years they aren’t.
Things are especially difficult now as we’re just healing from the Covid-19 pandemic. Students are just starting to get back on track and relearn all the social and academic skills they lost in years of quarantine and uncertainty.
I’m finding “The Giver” to be a harder sell this year than in most previous years. Many students want a more immediate and personal story. But some are entranced by the mystery and way the society deals with budding adolescence.
“The Outsiders”, though, is a raging success. My students don’t want to put it down or stop discussing the story. In fact, their enthusiasm is turning into rumors that have spread from grade-to-grade. However, they also aren’t as interested in racing through it toward the end as students from others years have been.
The very idea of sitting down with a book and quietly reading it is entirely alien to some kids. They look around the room or try to sneak their cell phones out of their pockets – anything but turn their eyes to the pages in front of them.
It comes down to (1) finding a book that will interest the individual, and (2) one that they can easily read.
However, I don’t know the entire spectrum of children’s literature as well as a dedicated middle school librarian would. My school used to have one of those and she was brilliant at accomplishing the goal of suggesting books to students. These days, though, we have one librarian for the middle school and high school. That’s just too much ground to cover for any individual. Moreover, when you don’t dedicate your library to reading or research, you lose an incredible resource. There is far too much time when the library is closed for standardized testing or the librarian is asked to teach a class or proctor a study hall.
So this year, my blog had the fewest hits since I started – 124,984 in 2022. By comparison, last year I had 222,414.
I’d write an article, post it on social media and see it reposted again and again. You’d think that would mean it was popular, but no. The people who saw it liked it enough to suggest it to others, but it went little further. With each share, fewer people saw it. Like someone put up a wall in front of it.
In truth, I’m lucky as many people had the opportunity to read my work as did.
Description: My school’s football team is mostly black. They played a mostly white football team and were greeted by racial slurs and an allegedly intentional injury to one of our players. However, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) blamed both sides for the incident.
Fun Fact: It’s one of those decidedly local stories that community newspapers used to cover before almost all went bankrupt or were sold to the media giants. Having this platform allowed me to call out an injustice when most voices were silenced. The injured player’s mother thanked me for doing so. Stories like this keep me going.
Description: At the beginning of the summer, governments were so shaken by the exodus of teachers from the classroom that they were discussing raising our salaries or giving us bonuses. Parents were so adamantly against distance learning they demanding in-person classes with real, live human teachers. What a shock to the super elite education “experts” who had been pushing ways to eliminate teachers for decades and ignoring our consistent march out of the field under these conditions.
Description: Charter schools are inequitable because they have charters. These are special agreements that they don’t have to follow all the rules other authentic public schools funded by tax dollars must follow. That’s unfair and it applies to EVERY charter school because every one has a charter. Hence, the name.
Fun Fact: Criticism of charter schools in general usually degrades to defense of individual charter schools avoiding whatever general criticism is leveled against the industry. The argument in this article has the benefit of avoiding any such evasion. All charter schools are guilty of this (and many are guilty of much more). All of them.
Description: Just a list of many things classroom teachers know about schools and education but that the general public often ignores. These are the kinds of things missing from the education debate because we rarely include teachers in the discussion about the field where they are the experts.
Fun Fact: For a few hours people were talking about this article far and wide. And then – boom – it got shut down with a bang. This one was so universal it should have been popular for weeks. But it just disappeared.
Description: Charter schools are colonial enterprises. They loot and pillage the local tax base but without having to be governed by school boards made up of community members – otherwise known as local taxpayers. They can be run by appointed boards often made up of people who do not come from the community in question. They are outsiders come merely for personal profit. These invaders are quite literally taking local, community resources and liquidating them for their own use – the maximization of personal profit. The public is removed from the decision-making process about how its own resources are utilized and/or spent.
Fun Fact: It’s an argument from consistency. If we’re against the colonial enterprise, we must be against charter schools, too. I’m particularly proud of the graphic (above) I created to go with this article.
Description: Dr. Mark Holtzman, the Superintendent from the district where I live, left under strange circumstances. He resigned and took a new contract in a matter of hours so he could get a raise from a lame duck school board without having to wait for the people the community elected to decide the matter to take office first. Then when it all came to light, he left the district for greener pastures.
Fun Fact: More than any other news source, I documented what happened in detail. Without a series of articles I wrote on this, most people would have had very little idea what happened. It would have just been rumors. This is why we need local journalism. It shouldn’t be left to bloggers like me.
Description: This was social media’s latest crackdown on edu-bloggers and other truth tellers. I used to get 1,000 readers a week. Now I’m lucky to get a few hundred. There’s a strict algorithm that determines what people get to see on their Facebook pages. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance. It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service. Money wins over free exchange of ideas.
Fun Fact: There used to be so many other education bloggers like me out there. Now there are just a handful. This is why.
Description: Standardized tests were supposed to improve our public schools. They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources. They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students. But after more than four decades, these assessments have not fulfilled a single one of these promises. In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.
Fun Fact: Pundits still talk about standardized testing as if it were innovative. It’s not. It’s the status quo. Time to end this failed experiment.
Description: Let’s examine some charter school propaganda – one piece at a time – and see if there’s any truth to these marketing claims. Charter schools are actually not public schools in the same way as other taxpayer funded schools. They do not save money – they waste it. Their students do not outperform authentic public school students. They are not innovative – they are regressive. They do not protect children’s civil rights – they violate them.
Fun Fact: I designed the title and picture to trick readers into thinking this was a pro-charter school article. So many people were butt hurt when they read it! I just hope it helped clarify the matter to those who were undecided.
Description: The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon. Some states require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in my home state of Pennsylvania, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it. What a waste! Why do we need a test BEFORE the test? The assessment’s job is to show how our students are doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker. How does that help? I don’t teach average test takers. I teach human beings. Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.
Fun Fact: I think this article was as popular as it was because people could relate. So many teachers told me how relieved they were to hear someone else expressing all the frustrations they were experiencing in their own districts with the MAP and other tests like it. If administrators and school boards would just listen to teachers! If they’d even bother asking them!
Description: When it comes to dumb ideas that just won’t go away, there is a special place in the underworld for the demand that teachers post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom. It presupposes that teachers control everything their students learn in the classroom and can offer it to them on a silver platter. It’s not just a useless waste of time but a dangerous misunderstanding of what actually happens in the learning process.
Fun Fact: This isn’t exactly news, but teachers were relieved to hear their truth finally given voice. So many of us still have to abide by this nonsense when we could be doing something that actually makes a difference. It’s nice to have your sanity and frustration confirmed. If only administrators could admit they were wrong and stop demanding this crap!
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.
ChatGPT is no different.
As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”
The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.
The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.
“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”
Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.
However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.
Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.
This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.
“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.
Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!
So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.
First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.
It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”
However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.
I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.
The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.
You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.
Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?
Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?
When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.
Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!
So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.
When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.
They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.
I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.
What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.
Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.
Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).
Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?
Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction.
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state.
Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation!
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously.
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing.
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics.
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks!
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product.
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful.
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.
She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.
After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.
To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.
They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.
One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.
I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!
When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.
I stumbled. I stammered.
I really had no way of judging such a thing.
They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.
And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.
Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019.
This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.
However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009.
It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.
Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.
Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.
Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.
So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.
And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.
Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.
Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.
In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.
We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.
Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.
However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.
To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.
I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.
At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.
‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.
I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.
Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.
When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.
When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.
It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.
So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?
Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.
My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.
My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.
Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?
Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?
But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.
It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!
And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!
For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.
How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?
If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.
Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.
However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.
Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.
Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.
Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!
I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!
So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?
Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.
Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.
One of the many ironies about the situation is how the idea has been pulled almost directly from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”
Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime” to describe a person’s politically unorthodox thoughts – anything that runs counter to the party line. In criminalizing thought and even tasking the Thinkpol (i.e. thought police) with monitoring things people say, write or how they act, Orwell could be describing MFL.
In the fictional country of Oceania, the party controls all speech, actions and thoughts of citizens. This is pretty much what MFL is trying to do here.
It’s a strange way to love “liberty.”
These right-wingers actively harass people on the left for their politics, but cry foul when anyone dares to call them out on theirs.
The Florida-based organization claims to be just “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” Yet it’s infamous for encouraging a “mass exodus from the public school system” while disrupting that same system at every turn.
There have always been a few petty people in nearly every community willing to scroll through teachers feeds looking for trouble. Frankly, it’s why new educators are warned to keep their personal lives off the Internet or to keep their information private.
The only difference now is how concentrated these spying efforts may become.
We’re not talking about just the local crank looking for photos of teachers drinking or engaged in the crime of living an adult life.
We’re talking about well-funded ideologues out to destroy the public school system, one teacher at a time.
They have the money to go through your Web footprint with a fine toothed comb.
So what should teachers do about it?
As a public school teacher, myself, the way I see it, there are two things we can do:
1) Lock down or disengage from social media
2) Keep doing what you’re doing
Your response will depend on your own situation.
If you live in a so-called Right to Work state or where worker protections are few and far between, you should probably get a tight grip on your online presence.
Make sure your personal Facebook account and any groups you belong to are private and secure. Ensure that anyone invited into these groups is verified through either questions or personal invitation. Check that everyone has agreed not to screen shot any discussions happening – and even then be careful what you post because nothing is ever 100% secure.
Use a privacy audit to make sure you don’t have something embarrassing out there. This guide from Violet Blue is a good starting place to ensure your private information is not easily findable online.
On the other hand, if you live in a state with strong union protections, you have a reliable union at your school, etc., then you have less to worry about.
In that time, there have been a lot of folks mad at me for what I write. I sometimes get hate mail (usually email) calling me everything you can think of and more you can’t. And when some of these folks find out where I work, they sometimes call up to complain and demand I be let go with haste!
Nothing has come of it.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow. But I refuse to live in fear.
I am who I am.
I shout it to the world.
And if someone wants to fire me for it, then fine.
There are lots of things I could be doing other than this.