Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

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

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The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

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

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

 

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

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PA Officials Want to Replace Bad Keystone Exams with Bad College Entrance Exams

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Pennsylvania officials are scandalized that the Commonwealth is wasting more than $100 million on unnecessary and unfair Keystone Exams.

 
They’d rather the state spend slightly less on biased college entrance exams.

 
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and State Sen. Andy Dinniman held a joint press conference last week to introduce a new report compiled by DePasquale’s office on the subject which concludes with this recommendation.

 

Replacing bad with bad will somehow equal good?

 
Under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. However, instead of requiring all high school students to take the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Science, the report proposes the same students be required to take the SAT or ACT test at state expense.

 

This is certainly an improvement over what the state demands now, but it’s really just replacing one faulty test with another – albeit at about a $1 million annual cost savings to taxpayers.

 

The report does a good job of outlining the fiscal waste, lack of accountability and dubious academic merits of the Keystone Exams, but it fails to note similar qualities in its own proposal.

 

From 2008 to 2019, the state already paid Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. more than $426 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and Classroom Diagnostic Tools (an optional pretesting program). The federal government paid the company more than an additional $106 million. Officials wonder if this money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, like in helping students actually learn.

 

DePasquale, who recently launched a congressional bid, puts it like this:

 

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams? I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it’s been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

 

The federal government dropped its mandate four years ago and the state legislature did the same last year.

 

Originally, state lawmakers intended to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement, but in 2018 they passed legislation to make the assessments one of many avenues to qualify for graduation starting in 2021-22. Students can instead pass their core courses and get into college among other things.

 

“The Department of Education itself said they [the Keystone Exams] are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I’m always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

 

The federal government also changed its testing mandate. It used to require all public school students to take state-specific assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

When Congress reauthorized the federal law overseeing education in 2015, it offered states more flexibility in this regard. Elementary and middle school students still have to take a state-specific test. But now the high school portion can be fulfilled with college admissions tests – and, in fact, a dozen other states legislate just such a requirement.

 
Democrats DePasquale and Dinniman think the SAT and ACT test are an improvement because students who taken them are more likely to go to college. But that’s a classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

 

Students motivated to go to college often take these exams because they are required to get in to a lot of these schools. Taking these tests doesn’t make students MORE motivated and determined to enroll in post-secondary education. They’re ALREADY motivated and determined.

 

Moreover, one of the faults the report finds with the Keystone Exams is that the assessments measure student’s parental income more than children’s academics.

 

Kids in wealthier districts almost always do better on the Keystone Exams than those in poorer districts. In fact, the report notes that of the 100 state schools with the highest scores, only five were located in impoverished districts —where the average household income is below $50,000.

 

Yet the report fails to note that this same discrepancy holds for the SAT and ACT tests. Poor kids tend to get low scores and rich kids get the highest scores.

 

In fact, the College Board – the corporation that makes and distributes the SAT – recently started adjusting scores on its test in an attempt to counteract this effect thereby accounting for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

 

Does this creative scoring actually work? Who knows – but it’s kind of like being forced to swallow poison and an antidote at the same time when any sensible person would simply refuse to swallow poison in the first place.

 

And that’s the best solution state officials have for our children.

 

They’re suggesting we replace discriminatory Keystone Exams with discriminatory college entrance exams.

 

To be fair, DePasquale and Dinniman are somewhat constrained by boneheaded federal law here.

 

Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it still requires all high school students to take standardized tests.

 

Given what we know about the limits and biases of these assessments, policymakers should remove that hurdle altogether. But until the federal government gets its act together, one could argue that DePasquale and Dinniman’s policy suggestion may be the best available.

 

When you can’t do right, maybe it’s best to do less wrong.

 

But we must acknowledge that this isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s only a stopgap. We must continue to push for intelligent assessment policy that’s best for our children.

 

Standardized testing should be eliminated altogether – especially in high stakes situations. Instead we should rely on classroom grades, portfolios of student work and/or other authentic measures of what children have learned in school.

 

Accountability – the typical reason given behind these assessments – should be determined by the resources provided to students, not a highly dubious score given by a corporation making a profit off of its testing, test prep and ed tech enterprises.

 

The most we can expect from DePasquale and Dinniman’s program if it is even considered by the legislature is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

 


Read the full report, Where Did Your Money Go? A Special Report on Improving Standardized Testing in Pennsylvania.


 

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

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Will This Be On The Test?

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As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.

 

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

 

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

 

“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”

 

Seriously?

 

Will this be on the test?

 

In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?

 

What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?

 

 

I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.

 

So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.

 

It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.

 

The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.

 

But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.

 

On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.

 

Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?

 

He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.

 

I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.

 

And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.

 

If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?

 

After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.

 

Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.

 

It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.

 

It will just be.

 

And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.

 

Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.

 

Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?

 

Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.

 

But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.

 

People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?

 

When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?

 

Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?

 

Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?

 

Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.

 

It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.

 

This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.

 

This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.

 

But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.

 

Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.

 

We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.

 

So, you ask if this will be on the test?

 

The answer is yes.

 

Everything is on the test.

 

But you’re asking the wrong question.

 
That’s what I really want to say.

 
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.

 

Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.

 

“Yes.

 

It will.”

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the author and YouTube personality John Green. It was partially inspired by a speech he gave to introduce his video about The Agricultural Revolution:

 

“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.

 

It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.

 

You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.

 

The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.

 

The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.

 

And everything, everything will be on it.

 

I know right, so pay attention.”


 

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

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The Trouble with Test-Obsessed Principals

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When I was a child, I couldn’t spell the word “principal.”

 

I kept getting confused with its homonym “principle.”

 

I remember Mr. Vay, the friendly head of our middle school, set me straight. He said, “You want to end the word with P-A-L because I’m not just your principal, I’m your pal!”

 

And somehow that corny little mnemonic device did the trick.

 

Today’s principals have come a long way since Mr. Vay.

 

Many of them have little interest in becoming anyone’s pal. They’re too obsessed with standardized test scores.

 

I’m serious.

 

They’re not concerned with student culture, creativity, citizenship, empathy, health, justice – they only care about ways to maximize that little number the state wants to transform our children into.

 

And there’s a reason for that. It’s how the school system is designed to operate.

 

A new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance concluded that the lowest rated principals generally work at schools with the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

So schools serving students with the highest poverty and lowest test scores often have the least experienced and least effective principals.

 

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Now the first question I had when reading this report was “How do they measure effectiveness?” After all, if they rate principals primarily on student test scores, then obviously those working at the poorest schools will be least effective. Poor kids earn low test scores. That’s all the scores consistently show – the relative wealth of students’ parents. If you define an ineffective principal as one who works in a building with low scoring students, it would be no shock that those principals worked in the poorest schools.

 

However, researchers didn’t fall entirely into this trap. According to the working paper:

 

“We measure principal quality in two ways: years of experience in the principal position and rubric-based ratings of effective principal practice taken from the state’s evaluation system.”

 

 

In Tennessee this means evaluating principals partially on student test scores at their buildings – 35%, in fact – higher than the 20% of classroom teachers’ evaluations. However, the remaining pieces of principals’ effectiveness are determined by an observation from a more senior administrator (50%) and an agreed upon score by the principal and district (15%).

 

 

Since researchers are relying at least in part on the state’s evaluation system, they’re including student test scores in their own metric of whether principals are effective or not. However, since they add experience, they’ve actually created a more authentic and equitable measure than the one used by the state.

 

It just goes to show how standardized testing affects nearly every aspect of the public education system.

 

The testing industrial complex is like a black hole. Not only does it suck up funding that is desperately needed elsewhere without providing anything of real value in return, its enormous gravity subverts and distorts everything around it.

 

It’s no wonder then that so many principals at high poverty schools are motivated primarily by test scores, test prep, and test readiness. After all, it makes up a third of their own evaluations.

 

They’ve been dropped into difficult situations and made to feel that they were responsible for numerous factors beyond their control. They didn’t create the problem. They didn’t disadvantage these students, but they feel the need to prove to their bosses that they’re making positive change.

 

But how do you easily prove you’ve bettered the lives of students?

 

Once again, standardized test scores – a faux objective measurement of success.

 

Too many principals buy into the idea that if they can just make a difference on this one metric, it will demonstrate that they’re effective and thus deserve to be promoted out of the high poverty schools and into the well-resourced havens.

 

Yet it’s a game that few principals are able to win. Even those who do distinguish themselves in this way end up doing little more for their students than setting up a façade to hide the underlying problems of poverty and disinvestment.

 

Most principals at these schools wind up endlessly chasing their tails while ignoring opportunities for real positive change. Thus they end up renewing the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure.

 

Researchers noticed the pattern of low performing principals at high poverty schools after examining a decade’s worth of data and found it to hold true in urban, rural and suburban areas. And even though it is based on Tennessee data, the results hold true pretty consistently nationwide, researchers say.

 

Interestingly enough, the correlation doesn’t hold for teachers.

 

Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance, says that the problem stems from issues related specifically to principals.

 

For instance, districts are hiring lower-rated principals for high poverty schools while saving their more effective leaders for buildings with greater wealth and resources.

 

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As a result, turnover rates for principals at these schools are much higher than those for classroom educators. Think about what that means – schools serving disadvantaged students are more likely to have new principal after new principal. These are leaders with little experience who never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes.

 

And since these principals rarely have had the chance to learn on the job as assistant principals, they’re more likely to be flying by the seat of their pants when installed at the head of a school without first receiving the proper training and mentorship that principals at more privileged buildings routinely have.

 

As such, it’s easy for inexperienced principles to fall into the testing trap. They buy into the easy answers of the industry but haven’t been around long enough to learn that the solution they’re being sold is pure snake oil.

 

This has such a large effect because of how important principals are. Though they rarely teach their own classes, they have a huge impact on students. Out-of-school factors are ultimately more important, but in the school building, itself, only teachers are more vital.

 

This is because principals set the tone. They either create the environment where learning can flourish or smother it before the spark of curiosity can ignite. Not only that, but they create the work environment that draws and keeps the best teachers or sends them running for the hills.

 

 

The solution isn’t complicated, says Grissom. Districts need to work to place and keep effective and experienced principals in the most disadvantaged schools. This includes higher salaries and cash bonuses to entice the best leaders to those buildings. It also involves providing equitable resources for disadvantaged schools so that principals have the tools needed to make authentic positive change.

 

I would add that we also need to design fair evaluation systems for both principals and teachers that aren’t based on student test scores. We need to stop contracting out our assessments to corporations and trust our systems of government and schools to make equitable judgments about the people in their employ.

 

Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude.

 

Too many principals look at high poverty schools as a stepping stone to working at a school with endless resources and a different class of social issues. Instead, the goal of every excellent school leader should be to end their career working where they are needed most.

 

Such professionalism and experience would loosen the stranglehold of test-and-punish and allow our schools not to simply recreate the inequalities already present in our society. It would enable them to heal the divide.

 

As John Dewey wrote in 1916:

 

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

 

And that’s what’s needed – a revolution.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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

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The Six Biggest Problems with Data-Driven Instruction

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

 – Educator Dan McConnell

 

 

“Make your instruction data-driven.”

 

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

 

In the last week.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

  1. The Data is Unscientific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. It Has Never Been Proven Effective

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

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

    The answer is an unequivocal NO.

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

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

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

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

    But that’s just one study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4. The Data Doesn’t Capture Important Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. It’s Dehumanizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What baloney!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    No more data-driven instruction.

    Focus instead on student-driven learning.

 

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


 

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

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