Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

Who is Responsible for Student Achievement?

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Billy is an average middle school student.

 

He sits down and takes a test.

 

The grade comes back.

 

Who is responsible for that grade?

 

This should be the dumbest question you can ask in the field of education.

 

The answer should be obvious.

 

Billy is responsible.

 

Billy did the work, he took the test, he earned the grade.

 

But all across this great country of ours we’re giving the wrong answer.

 

We’re saying teachers are responsible for that grade.

 

This is ridiculous. Teachers could not do the work for the student. Teachers could not take the test for the student. How can you possibly assume the teacher is responsible for the grade?

 

In fact, if the teacher really were responsible – if she did all the work and took the test – how could you rationally say this grade belonged to the student? No, it wouldn’t be Billy’s, it would be his teacher’s.

 

The truth goes something like this: You are responsible only for things within your control. The greater your degree of control, the greater your degree of responsibility.

 

This is not complicated.

 

It is simple logic. Cause and effect.

 

But ignoring it is perhaps the most virulent, incorrigible, fact-resistant mistake in the entire field of public education.

 

Lawmakers are getting it wrong. The media is getting it wrong. Superintendents, principals – even teachers are getting it wrong.

 

And the reason is somewhat pernicious.

 

We’ve been sold a lie.

 

We’ve been told for so long that educators are responsible for their students’ work that we’ve begun to accept it without question.

 

Just today at a training in my district, I was shown a spreadsheet of student test scores and told in no uncertain terms that this was something I have control over.

 

I DON’T.

 

I don’t have control over the raw scores. I don’t even have control over how much a student improves from one year to another.

 

The student does.

 

HE controls how hard he works on assignments. HE exhibits the most control over the results of his assessments.

 

This doesn’t mean I’m completely helpless.

 

I do have control over certain aspects of students’ academic experience.

 

I control what work is assigned, when it is assigned and to whom.

 

I control whether there is extra credit, what counts as homework, who gets extra help, etc.

 

In many cases, I even get to decide whether students have completed their work and if assessments have been completed successfully.

 

As long as I am exhibiting best practices, giving age-appropriate work and evaluating it fairly, I’m doing my part.

 

It is not then justified to assume I am solely responsible for the end result.

 

I raise the hurdles, but the student actually goes through the obstacle course.

 

The teacher is a factor, but not the largest one. That is the student, Billy.

 

Yet he is not alone here. Besides, me, his teacher, there is also the principal, the student’s parents, his friends and even society as a whole.

 

All of these and more contribute to student success.

 

The principal controls school policy. He determines what discipline the student receives, the clarity of school rules, etc.

 

Likewise, students’ friends are part of their social network. They can help with homework, form a study group, or distract from school work, denigrate work ethic, etc.

 

Society also plays a role. If a student is part of a community that values education and work ethic, that student will more likely put forth more effort. If the student lives in a community where school is seen as unimportant and teachers are not respected, that will have a negative impact, etc.

 

And the number one factor other than the student, himself, that contributes to his success is parents. They control home life, emotional support, tutoring, nutrition, etc.

 

All of these complex factors combine to add up to an individual student’s success. However, at the end of the day, it is the student, himself, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he does.

 

That’s why we call it HIS grade and not someone else’s.

 

This is the most obvious thing in the world, but it has certain consequences for education policy.

 

For instance, it immediately invalidates the majority of teacher evaluations given throughout the country. The reason? Most evaluations are based at least in part on student test scores.

 

As we’ve seen, this misrepresents the student-teacher relationship. It blames the teacher for things well beyond his or her control.

 

It turns students into passive objects acted on by magical super teachers who can somehow make them learn simply by – what – endless repetition of test prep materials?

 

Why would students put forth their best in this scenario? If they’re failing, it’s somehow not their fault. It’s their teachers!

 

But even worse than this misrepresentation, it completely ignores a plethora of vital factors in the education process.

 

Parents, for instance, are crucially important, but we’re leaving them completely out of the loop.

 

When parents struggle to fulfill their responsibilities, why is there little to no help? The answer: because we’ve hidden the fact that such responsibilities even exist. We’ve thrown it all on the teacher and the school.

 

All these out-of-school factors are obscured, yet taken together they are almost determinate. After all, this is why poor and minority students disproportionately struggle academically.

 

You can demand every student jump six feet straight up, but those with the best resources will meet this goal much more frequently than those without.

 

And who is in control of those resources? Who decides which children get the smallest class sizes, the best home environments, the most conducive social networks, etc.?

 

The myth of teacher accountability is what stops such resources from being sent.

 

We’re told all you need is a good teacher.

 

But this is not true.

 

You need much more.

 

The ultimate responsibility may rest with the student, but until we all realize and acknowledge our collective responsibilities to all students, success will always be out of reach for far too many of them.

 

Billy may take the test, but it is society that is failing to meet its responsibilities.

Florida Looks to Hide Minority Students with Accountability Waiver

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What do you do with minority students?

 

The state of Florida is looking to hide them under the rug.

 

The state is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – a move that has some civil rights groups alarmed.

 

The request goes something like this:

 

Federal Government: How are your English Language Learners doing?

 

Florida: Dunno. We lumped them in with everyone else.

 

Fed: Are there any big discrepancies between white students and poor, black or Latino students?

 

Florida: Dunno. We don’t look at that.

 

Fed: Do you at least allow English Language Learners to take tests in their native language?

 

Florida: Nope. They need to speak English or fail.

 

Aaaaand scene.

 

The waiver hasn’t even been fully drafted yet and submitted to the federal Department of Education.

 

However, civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and several local activists are asking that the state reconsider sending it and/or the federal government categorically deny it.

 

These organizations are worried that such measures, if approved, would allow Florida to ignore the needs of minority students.

 

In fact, lumping minority students’ test scores in with the majority white population would obscure whether they were struggling at all. So would explicitly ignoring any achievement gaps between the majority and minority populations.

 

And forcing students to take tests in a language with which they aren’t even proficient yet is just plain cruel.

 

But it highlights several conflicts at the forefront of the public education debate.

 

First, there’s the question of who controls our schools – the state, local or federal government.

 

Second, there’s the question of what is the best way to ensure every child is getting a quality education.

 

The first question is at the heart of a disagreement between many on the political left and right. Democrats generally favor more federal intervention, while Republicans favor more state control.

 

Which side will end up victorious is hard to say. In situations like this, it’s even hard to say who SHOULD be victorious.

 

In general, local control is better than administration from a far. But it’s kind of hard to stand up for a state legislature that has no problem segregating minorities, under funding their schools and then trying to hush it all up.

 

It’s kind of like parenting. It’s better that children stay with their parents, but if their mom and dad are abusive jerks, perhaps all bets are off.

 

Secondly, we have the question of accountability. What is the best measure of whether a school is providing a quality education?

 

Like the No Child Left Behind legislation before it, the ESSA specifically uses standardized test scores for this purpose.

 

However, test scores are terrible at determining accountability. They’re economically and culturally biased. Rich kids tend to pass and poor kids tend to fail. At best, they show which students have been the most economically privileged and which have not.

 

But we don’t need test scores to see that. We can simply look at students’ socio-economic status. We can look at whether they’re living below the poverty line or not. We can look at their nutrition and health. We can look at whether they belong to a group that has historically been selected against in this country or not.

 

And once we find that out, we shouldn’t punish the school for having the audacity to teach poor and minority children. We should give them extra funding and resources to meet those students’ needs. But the current test-based accountability system doesn’t do that. Instead it cuts off funding to schools that need it most while pushing public schools to be closed and replaced with charter and voucher institutions that have a worse record of success.

 

In short, accountability is vital in our public schools, but the way we determine who needs help and what we consider help are drastically out of step with student needs.

 

These are two issues that desperately need resolution, and we’re putting them on the desk of the one Education Secretary in our nation’s history least equipped to deal with them – Betsy DeVos.

 

Fed vs. states? She’s for whichever pushes school privatization.

 

Test scores? She loves them!

 

Civil rights? Her administration is infamous for expressing doubts that such things even exist.

 

But at the same time, some on the corporate left may use her dunderheaded opposition to justify test-based accountability.

 

“See?” They’ll say. “We need standardized tests to protect minority children!”

 

Um. No. You don’t.

 

Likewise, some on the right might try to characterize Florida’s attempted waiver as an act of defiance against test-based accountability.

 

It’s not. Officials in the Sunshine State aren’t concerned with undoing the testocracy. They’re perfectly fine with high stakes testing – so long as they don’t have to do anything special to help black and brown kids.

 

It’s a situation where blatant self-interest can easily be hidden under a fake concern for children.

 

On balance, civil rights groups’ concerns are justified in relation to Florida’s drafted ESSA waiver. But they’re wrong if they think test-based accountability is in the best interests of the minorities they serve.

 

If you’re going to use standardized tests to hold schools accountable for providing a quality education – and that’s a Big IF – it’s unfair to obscure data about minority students and possible achievement gaps. Moreover, it’s reprehensible that you wouldn’t even bother to test them fairly by letting them take these assessments in their native languages.

 

However, it would be even better to dispense with test-based accountability in the first place. It would be better to see student needs directly and not as a reflection of test scores. That would more easily allow help to reach the students and not the vulture industries circling above our public schools waiting to pick them apart in the name of accountability.

I Am Not A Hero Teacher

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I’m sorry.

 

I am not a hero teacher.

 

I am not stronger than a locomotive.

 

I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound.

 

I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot.

 

Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.

 

I am not bullet proof.

 

If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die.

 

Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman.

 

I am just a man.

 

I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once.

 

When students ask a question, I need time to answer it.

 

When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.

 

During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.

 

At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest.

 

At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.

 

At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.

 

I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.

 

Sorry, but it’s true.

 

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.

 

I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.

 

And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.

 

What do I need? My union, for one.

 

I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.

 

I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.

 

And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint.

 

And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.

 

Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman.

 

Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all.

 

But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.

 

That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.

 

According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.

 

That’s right – 9 percent.

 

If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.

 

There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success.

 

Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all.

 

I’m sorry, America. I can’t.

 

More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.

 

I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives.

 

I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.

 

I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom.

 

But much of this is beyond my control.

 

I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.

 

I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.

 

I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.

 

There’s nothing super about any of it.

 

But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.

 

However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to.

 

And that’s reason enough for me to stay.

 

The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.

 

Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!

 

I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else.

 

It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I know I’m making a difference.

 

So, yes, I’m no superman.

 

I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself.

 

But I help to make the future.

 

That’s why I do what I do.

 

Thank you for letting me do it.

Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

School Accountability Without Standardized Testing

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Q: Is it possible to ensure educational accountability without giving standardized tests?

 

A: Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

 

In fact, we will never have accountability while we continue giving standardized tests.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy.

 

High stakes testing is seen as the only tool that can ensure schools operate correctly when in reality it is the very thing that blocks true responsibility.

 

Pundits and policymakers cry crocodile tears as they draw up elaborate ways to punish teachers and students for low test scores. Meanwhile they ignore some of the most basic facts about how education works.

 

FACT: Students and teachers are not the only factors.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t decide how much funding their schools get.

 

FACT: Students and teachers don’t get to decide education policy.

 

FACT: An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments.

 

FACT: High stakes testing ensures that teachers and students are held accountable for the entire education system including the vast majority of factors beyond their control.

 

So let’s stop pretending that standardized tests hold schools accountable. They don’t. They just point the finger without offering anything to help.

 

True accountability would be about diagnosing problems so we can fix them, not trying to fire your way to the top. When you break your arm, the doctor doesn’t immediately suggest you chop it off. He sets the bone and puts it in a cast and sling so it can heal.

 

When it comes to true accountability, we need to look beyond the school at all the factors involved. We also need to look to the legislature, the taxpayers, parents, the community, the media, and all stake holders.

 

However, this does not mean there are no ways to assess if schools, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and students are doing a good job.

 

In fact, it’s not even difficult to achieve. And we don’t need a single standardized test to do it.

 

We need a two-pronged approach. We must assess student learning, but we also must assess the adequacy of school funding, where it’s going and where it needs to go.

 

These measures are most often ignored in accountability discussions. When it comes to adequate funding, we usually blame the poor for being unable to provide for their children. And since many states allocate education funding based largely on local property taxes, we have rich schools with oodles of cash and poor schools that are falling over. True accountability would ensure all students – both rich and poor – start from an equal playing field. When society neglects this, it is society that is failing, not poor children.

 

When it comes to how funding is spent, we either throw up our hands that there’s no way to evaluate school funding or we pretend that school directors will be transparent just because. Both are untrue.

 

I still believe that local control is the best way to ensure true accountability. When school directors are not elected but appointed– as they are in charter schools – there is no reason to spend wisely. In fact, the laws are set up to shield charter school boards from having to show the community how they are spending taxpayer money. And since most are set up for-profit, there is an incentive to reduce services for students while keeping the saving as profit for themselves and their shareholders.

 

When school boards are elected and are required to hold deliberations in public, accountability is built in. Voters decide who gets to make decisions and if those decisions made in the light of day are in the best interests of their children. Moreover, elected school directors who come from the community have an incentive to make that community in which they live the best it can be and to provide the best quality education they can.

 

This isn’t to say that elected school boards are perfect. They are made up of human beings and are therefore fallible. You don’t have to go far to find local school directors who try to deliberate important decisions in private without notifying the public, circumvent the bidding process, make backroom deals, etc.

 

But there are ways to hold them and the community accountable for providing a quality education.

 

California has come up with an ingenious plan.

 

For the second year, the Golden State has been engaged in a bold experiment. Policymakers have initiated a new K-12 finance system: the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that go with it.

 

Basically, California public schools use multiple-indicators to determine where funding needs to go and how to hold schools accountable for spending it wisely.

 

It’s not perfect. It certainly has some bugs in it, and I do NOT recommend we simply extend the program nationwide as is.

 

For instance, the program still uses standardized testing as one of many multiple measures of success. This is better than having testing be the sole measure or even the most important one. But – as you shall see – we can do better.

 

The law requires each district to identify specific goals and spending priorities in eight areas. I would modify them as follows:

  1. Basic services such as equipped classrooms, qualified teachers, textbooks and materials. It is essential to know if these needs are being met so we can budget accordingly. If funding is lacking, assessing the deficiency in this way helps make the argument for an increase of cash.

 

  1. Implementation of District Created Standards for all students, including English Learners (ELs). California specifically denotes Common Core standards here. I think that is a mistake. Accepting wholesale a set of unproven standards made by non-educators who have never been inside a district building or in front of a classroom is a recipe for disaster. Instead, teachers in each district should develop their own standards and then test whether they are achieving their goal. Many policymakers are in love with the idea of national standards but that’s like suggesting all restaurants must have some version of the McDonalds value menu. Standards should be locally developed to meet the needs of real students not idealized ones.

 

 

  1. Parental Involvement. This simply cannot be ignored. Schools need to know if parents are invested in the district, and if not, administrators and faculty need to work to find ways to bring them in. Schools can institute family game nights, community picnics, parent-teacher nights with food and babysitting services. No school can ever achieve greatness without parents. We must find ways to increase involvement where it is lacking and encourage increased involvement where it is present at all. We must work to make parents feel welcome and make them a part of the decision-making process for school activities and functions.

 

  1. Student Achievement as measured by district assessments, English Learner reclassification to fluency, and other criteria. California includes Common-core aligned standardized tests in this area. I think this is a mistake and that we can find better assessments here. I’ll return to this in a moment.

 

  1. Student Engagement determined by rates of attendance and absenteeism, dropout rates, and graduation. We must gauge how well students are buying in to what the school has to offer. And if it is lacking, we must take steps to improve it. Schools shouldn’t just provide a prepackaged product. They should actively engage students and provide classes and services suited to their needs. Student engagement is one way to determine if schools are successfully doing that.

 

 

  1. School Climate evident in rates of suspension and expulsion, as well as other locally-identified measures. Discipline is very important but must be conducted judiciously. It must be fair and not unduly harsh. It must serve the purpose of improving academic outcomes. Moreover, we need to make sure there are no racial or cultural biases at work – even if they are unconscious. We want to create an inviting atmosphere, not a stepping stone to the prison system.

 

  1. Access to a Broad Curriculum evident through student enrollment across grade levels and subject areas. We know high stakes testing narrows the curriculum. We must work to actively broaden the curriculum and offer students a wide range of classes to maximize their educational experience. This includes arts, music, foreign languages and extra curricular activities. If we don’t have the funds to make that happen, what better tool to help argue for an increase than a detailed account of what’s missing and why it’s important?

 

  1. Other Student Outcomes as identified locally, which may include locally chosen tests and assessments. This could include participation in AP exams, college courses, etc. No accountability system would be complete without an “Other” category. Districts should be free to customize to meet the needs of students, parents and the community.

 

Which brings us back to testing.

 

We’ve got to have it. There must be some way to assess student learning. But we needn’t resort to money-making corporate products.

 

Teachers have been creating tests since the beginning of time. No one ever thought there was anything wrong with that until giant corporations discovered they could make huge profits selling us their standardized assessments.

 

We need to trust teachers again to assess as they see fit. But we can do more than that. We can have district-wide assessments systems that are not standardized – that are personalized – yet comparable across the district.

 

Performance or portfolio-based assessments.

Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports, papers and portfolios of work collected over time. These provide much more accurate reflections of student learning than snapshot tests developed far from the classroom. Moreover, if properly coordinated by departments and administrators, these assessments are comparable across the district.

 

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is leading the way. It consists of 28 schools, including grades 6-12, throughout the state that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests.

 

And the results have been tremendous! These public schools have higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools. We say we’re looking for innovations that work. This is it!

 

Just imagine a school that used such an accountability system. It would have a plethora of data about what’s working, what isn’t working and what needs to be done to correct deficiencies.

 

We forget that accountability systems show our values. High stakes testing pretends that the only thing that matters is the results of a standardized test. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

A system like the one I’ve described would ensure every student receives a robust education that is assessed fairly. It would invigorate children, parents and the community. And when students graduate from such a school, they would be prepared for whatever comes next.

 

Moreover, there’s not a single standardized test necessary in the whole system!

 

Our policymakers need to start thinking along these lines. These aren’t pie in the sky suggestions. Most of these ideas already have been tested and proven effective.

 

We need to free our minds from a reliance on the testing industry. We need to think outside the bubble and free our children from corporate servitude as education policy – a system that ensures they won’t receive a quality education – all under the guise of “accountability.”

 

Can real accountability exist without standardized tests?

 

Yes. That’s the only way it can.