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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FBI Warns EdTech Puts Student Safety at Risk

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Pandora’s box may not be a heavy wooden chest.

 

It might just be a laptop or an iPad.

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) issued a warning late last week about the proliferation of educational technologies (EdTech) in schools and the dangers they pose to student safety and privacy.

 

The devices and applications singled out by US domestic intelligence services all involve software that asks for and saves student input.

 

This includes classroom management tools like Class Dojo and eBackpack as well as student testing and remediation applications like Classroom Diagnostic Tools and StudyIsland.

 

The alert cautions schools and parents that the widespread collection of student data involved in these applications could cause safety concerns if the information is compromised or exploited.

 

It’s just such technologies that have proliferated at a breakneck pace in districts throughout the country while legislation, cybersecurity and even awareness of the danger has lagged behind.

 

The Bureau is concerned about EdTech services because many are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”

 

The Bureau clarified that use of EdTech applications was not, in itself, the problem. They are a tool, and like any tool, they can be used for good or ill.

 

Advocates say when used correctly, these systems offer the potential for student collaboration, and for teachers to collect and compare information about students to help design better lessons. On the other hand, critics warn that the problems with most EdTech is essential to the way it operates and that it is designed more for the purposes of student data mining and profitization by corporations than with academic success for children in mind.

 

In either case, the dangers posed by such devices are indisputable.

 

The amount and kinds of data being collected about students has not been well publicized or understood. Many school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students may be using EdTech without a full appreciation of how it often surreptitiously collects data on children.

 

Analysts listed several types of student particulars being stockpiled:

 

  • “personally identifiable information (PII);

 

  • biometric data;

 

  • academic progress;

 

  • behavioral, disciplinary, and medical information;

 

  • Web browsing history;

 

  • students’ geolocation;

 

  • IP addresses used by students; and

 

  • classroom activities.”

 

This is highly sensitive information that could be extremely harmful to students if it fell into the wrong hands.

 

Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.

 

These concerns are not merely academic. Data breaches have already occurred.

 

According to the FBI:

 

“…in late 2017, cyber actors exploited school information technology (IT) systems by hacking into multiple school district servers across the United States. They accessed student contact information, education plans, homework assignments, medical records, and counselor reports, and then used that information to contact, extort, and threaten students with physical violence and release of their personal information. The actors sent text messages to parents and local law enforcement, publicized students’ private information, posted student PII on social media, and stated how the release of such information could help child predators identify new targets.”

 

Though the Bureau did not mention them by name, it cited two specific cybersecurity failures in 2017 at two large EdTech companies where millions of student’s private information became publicly available.

 

The FBI seems to be referring to Edmodo and Schoolzilla. Hackers stole 77 million user accounts from Edmodo last year and sold that data to a “dark web” marketplace. Likewise, Schoolzilla stored student information on a publicly accessible server, according to a security researcher, thereby exposing the private information of approximately 1.3 million children.

 

It was these data breaches that prompted the Department of Education to issue a Cyber Advisory alert in October of 2017 warning that cyber criminals were targeting schools that had inadequate data security. Criminals were trying to gain access to this sensitive material about students to “shame, bully, and threaten children.”

 

In February, another cybercrime was reported by the Internal Revenue Service. The agency released an “urgent alert” about scammers targeting school districts with W-2 phishing schemes.

 

Of particular concern to the FBI are school devices connected directly to the Internet. They offer hackers an immediate link to private student information. This is true even if a school device is in the student’s home.

 

Tablets, laptops or monitoring devices such as cameras or microphones could be exploitable by tech savvy criminals – especially since many EdTech programs allow remote-access capabilities without the user even being aware of what is happening.

 

Indeed, some EdTech companies collect information on students’ feelings; become student data brokers and use voice-activated speakers in the classroom.

 

 

The FBI listed several recommendations for parents and families:

 

  • “Research existing student and child privacy protections of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and state laws as they apply to EdTech services.

  • Discuss with their local districts about what and how EdTech technologies and programs are used in their schools.

 

  • Conduct research on parent coalition and information-sharing organizations which are available online for those looking for support and additional resources.

 

  • Research school-related cyber breaches which can further inform families of student data vulnerabilities.

 

  • Consider credit or identity theft monitoring to check for any fraudulent use of their children’s identity.

 

  • Conduct regular Internet searches of children’s information to help identify the exposure and spread of their information on the Internet.”

 

The warning concluded by asking those who have information about cybercrimes or who have been victimized by data breaches to file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

 

For some, the FBI’s warning highlights the need for greater education funding for cybersecurity.

 

“While other industries are investing in greater IT security to protect against cyber threats, many schools are facing budget constraints that result in declining resources for IT security programs,” staff members from the Future of Privacy Forum wrote on their blog. “Schools across the country lack funding to provide and maintain adequate security,” they wrote.

 

Others see the problem as one of antiquated legislation not keeping up with changing technologies.

 

The FBI memo highlights a need for Congress to update federal student privacy laws, said Rachael Stickland, co-founder and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

 

At present, these issues are covered haphazardly from state to state, a situation Strickland finds intolerably inadequate.

 

The main federal law safeguarding student data privacy, The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, should be updated, she said. It must address exactly which ways districts should be allowed to share data with EdTech companies.

 

“What we need is a comprehensive approach at the federal level to address these outdated federal laws,” she said. “We really need these modernized to address not only the cybersecurity threats but also the potential misuse of this data.”

 

However, some critics are skeptical of the very use of EdTech in the classroom, at all.

 

They see the potential dangers being so massive and difficult to guard against that any remedies to fix the problem would be counterproductive.

 

Instead of spending millions or billions more on cybersecurity measures, we should use any additional funding for more essential budget items like teachers, tutors, nurses and counselors.

 

The goal is to provide a quality education – not to provide a quality education with increasingly complex technologies. If the former can be done with the latter, that’s fine. But if we have to choose between the two, we should go with proven methods instead of the latest fads.

 

EdTech corporations are making staggering profits off public schools while almost every other area goes lacking. In the nexus of business and industry, we may be losing sight of what’s best for students.

 

The question is have we already opened Pandora’s box, and if we haven’t, can we stop ourselves from doing so?

 


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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Meet the Test Before the Test – Pennsylvania’s Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT)

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It’s test time.

 

My students are dutifully pecking answers onto their iPads before a hand goes up.

 

“Mr. Singer, I can’t log in to the server.”

 

Another hand.

 

“It keeps kicking me out.”

 

Another.

 

“Mr. Singer, what does this question mean?”

 

Then every single hand in the room pops up all at once.

 

“What’s the matter!?” I say, trying not to let the frustration into my voice.

 

A lone student in the front offers to speak for the group.

 

“The Website just kicked us all off.”

 

If that sounds like the optimum environment to assess student learning, then you must work for Data Recognition Corp (DRC).

 

It is typical of the company’s Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) test in Pennsylvania.

 

The assessment, which cannot be taken with pencil and paper but must instead be taken on a computer or personal device, has always been glitchy.

 

You type in a response and what you typed only appears after a delay.

 

When moving from one screen to another, you have to wait through a seemingly endless interval until the next screen loads.

 

And during this year’s first sessions, multiple teachers told me of students whose tests cycled through all the questions without input from the students and then gave them an unalterable grade.

 

This is not the best way to diagnose students’ abilities in reading, math and science.

 

Yet that’s what the state Department of Education strongly encourages we use it for – three to five times a year!

 

This is not a mandatory test.

 

It’s strongly suggested by administrators in Harrisburg. And that’s enough to make some local principals march wherever they’re told.

 

Ironically, Gov. Tom Wolf proudly proclaimed that he was reducing the amount of time students in the Keystone state would take standardized tests. But he’s only talking about the federally mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams which he’s cut by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

There are still a battery of suggested pretests on the state’s wish list – tests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests used to show whether kids are getting the skills they need.

 

Do you understand it now?

 

No.

 

Do you understand it Now?

 

No.

 

Do you understand it NOW!!!!!!!?

 

 

Of these, the most common is the CDT.

 

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!

 

Moreover, the CDT test is cumbersome to proctor.

 

I’ve given my students this test for about seven years now and it never fails to be anywhere from tricky to an outright disaster.

 

This week, I had a class of students on their iPads unable to log on to their accounts at DRC headquarters. In another group, five students were dropped from the server without warning and couldn’t finish.

 

Defective software and having to repeatedly log back in to the system are hallmarks of even the most successful CDT session.
Even if you like standardized tests and think they are the best way to assess students, the product and service provided by DRC is extremely low quality.

 

But keep in mind – you’re paying for it, folks! In the last 8 years alone, taxpayers forked over more than $1 billion for this service and the PSSA and Keystone tests, which DRC also produces.

 

It’s incredibly frustrating, a waste of classroom time and taxpayer money.

 

No one does their best when they’re exasperated, and this test is almost designed to make students feel that way.

 

Yet some local administrators are trying to use the assessment as part of a high stakes matrix to determine classroom placement.

 

Whether your child is registered in the remedial, general or advanced class could be determined by this shoddy excuse for an assessment. Whether your son or daughter has the advantages and esteem of the advanced class could rest on a malfunctioning data system. Whether he or she has to settle for months of mind numbing test prep instead of authentic education could be decided by defective software.

 

No matter how you look at it, this doesn’t help the teacher diagnose academic deficiencies and remediate them. That is, unless your idea of remediation is printing out a worksheet of test look-a-like questions based on the ones the student got wrong on the CDT.

 

This is bad assessment supporting bad pedagogy forced on us by bad policy.

 

But that’s not even the worst part.

 

Why are we doing this in the first place?

 

Have standardized tests ever been proven accurate assessments of student learning? Moreover, has it ever been proven useful to give pre-test after pre-test before we even give the ultimate high-stakes test?

 

Answer: No.

 

Most countries don’t test their students nearly as much as we do in the United States. Finland, which has students who routinely return some of the highest scores among developed nations, only makes its children take one standardized test.

 

One test from K-12!

 

In addition, countries like those in Scandinavia don’t have nearly the child poverty rate we do. Nor do they fund their schools based on local property taxes. They provide more funding and resources for needy students than rich ones – we do just the opposite.

 

Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between parental income and the test scores of their children. In short, kids from wealthy families who go to schools with the best of everything generally score very well on standardized tests. Students from poor homes who go to underprivileged schools do much worse.

 

So all this testing does nothing to help students learn. It simply reinforces the inequality already in place. And then it’s used as a justification for that same inequality.

 

High stakes standardized testing is not about increasing student outcomes. It’s about boosting corporate incomes – corporations like Data Recognition Corp.

 

Finally, there’s another danger we haven’t even hinted at involved with the CDT.

 

As an on-line test, it collects an awful lot of data about the children taking it. This information is kept in a database for students entire academic career so that it can be compared with subsequent results.

 

This is private student data in the hands of a private company.

 

The chances that this information and thus students’ privacy will be violated are extremely high.

 

We are putting our children’s futures in the hands of a for-profit company with little to no assurance that it is safe. There is little oversight, accountability or even awareness of the issue.

 

Therefore, any knowledgeable parent would be entirely within his or her rights by refusing to let their child take any of these tests.

 

Yes, you can refuse to let your child participate in test prep the same way you can opt out of the PSSA and Keystone Exams.

 

You need refer to the same part of the law:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d)(1)(2)(3):

(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

(1) Access to information about the curriculum, including academic standards to be achieved, instructional materials and assessment techniques.

(2) A process for the review of instructional materials.

(3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

That includes the CDT.

 

Opt Out PA has provided this helpful form letter you can use and modify to meet your needs before sending it to your local principal:

 

“Dear Principal/Teacher(s):

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(1)(2)(3) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [NAME], excused from PSSA test prep, including (but not limited to) CDT’s and Study Island because of religious beliefs.

Sincerely,”

 

 

So while Pennsylvania’s lawmakers dither back and forth about the political realities of standardized testing as an accountability measure and as they blithely ignore the threat posed to student privacy by on-line testing, parents can take matters into their own hands.

 

 

Your child’s teacher would like nothing better!

 

Imagine being able to actually teach and not have to spend days of instruction time troubleshooting a Website while corporate lackies cash our check!

 

 

Imagine students in school to actually learn something – instead of testing them into oblivion.

 

 

Imagine a student raising her hand to ask a question about the curriculum and not the software!

 


 

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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If I Were Secretary of Education – A Classroom Teacher’s Fantasy

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I will never be Secretary of Education.

Frankly, I’m just not qualified.

I’m only a classroom teacher. The powers that be don’t trust someone like me with that kind of responsibility. It’s okay to give me a roomful of impressionable children everyday, but there’s no confidence I can make sound policy decisions. For that we need someone with experience in management – not schools, pedagogy, children or psychology.

The presiding incumbent in this prestigious position, John King, somehow overcame that handicap. He had taught for three whole years at a charter school, but the bulk of his experience is in administration – administrating a Boston charter school with high suspension and attrition rates. He also was New York State Education Commissioner, where he single-handedly dismantled the state system of education and sparked one of the largest parental revolts in the nation in the state’s opt out movement.

The previous Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was much more qualified, having never taught a day in his life. Before getting Congressional approval, he was appointed to run a charter school and later was entrusted as CEO of Chicago City Schools where he likewise blundered his way to the top with policy decisions that devastated a great system of public education.

What do I have to offer compared to all that? I only have more than a decade’s worth of experience helping kids learn. I’m only one of 3% of teachers nationwide who are Nationally Board Certified. I’ve only earned a Masters degree in Education. I only help run a more than 56,000 member national education advocacy group, the Badass Teachers Association, and write a popular blog dedicated to education and civil rights.

 

I’ve never sunk a major metropolitan school. I’ve never been run out of a populous state chased by citizens armed with torches and pitchforks.

But let’s close our eyes and imagine that somehow through the magic of education bloggery I was whisked into office at the U.S. Department of Education.

What would a person like me do as Secretary?


1) Respect the Limits of the Job

Though George W. Bush and Barack Obama come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, these two Presidents did more to increase the powers of the Department of Education than any chief executives before them. They turned it into – as former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander puts it – a national school board with the Secretary was the national superintendent.

The department forced test and punishment policies on the states, cudgeled and bribed state officials to enact lousy Common Core Standards, and held federal grants hostage unless states accepted every corporate education reform scheme big business could think up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a New Deal Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat, but even I think these two administrations blatantly abused their power and overstepped their Constitutional authority.

So the first thing I would do is take a step back and follow the law. The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) sets explicit limits on federal power over education policy returning much of it to the states. As Education Secretary, I would respect the power of the states to control public education. It is the state’s job to set policy. It is the federal government’s job to provide support, encouragement and oversight.

Therefore, the role of the Department of Education is to ensure public schools are being properly funded, civil rights are not being violated and to be a repository for national data and research. I’d dedicate myself to that – not some corporate fueled power trip that both parties condemn except when they’re practicing it.


2) Push for More Federal Funding for Public Schools

Therefore, the first thing I would do is use the full power of the office to ensure the federal government is giving its utmost to help state public schools. I would use whatever grants were available to increase federal funding to the most impoverished schools. I would fully fund Title I. I would increase the federal share of Special Education – (Under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) the federal government is supposed to fund 40% of the per pupil cost of all special education students but has never met this obligation. I would seek to rectify that if possible.) I would enact a national after school tutoring initiative. I would provide funding to hire additional teachers to reduce class size.  And as far as is possible, I would forgive college students loan debt so they can begin their lives with a clean slate.

This is something that those who seek to disband the U.S. Department of Education never seem to understand. The federal government has an important role to play in our school systems. It’s not the unfounded power grab of the last few decades, but we need another robust player on the field to help the states achieve their goals and also to keep the states honest.

If we disbanded the Department of Education, as some conservatives from Reagan to Paul to Cruz to Trump suggest, what would happen to Pell Grants, for instance? What would happen to the bundles of federal money that boost our public schools? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

If we got rid of the department, at best these jobs would fall back on other government agencies that haven’t the funding, staff or ability to accomplish them. More likely, it would result in the elimination of billions of education dollars that the states simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) replace. Abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.


3) Encourage States to Enact Accountability Measures that Don’t Include Standardized Testing

Accountability has become a dirty word in many education circles because of the way the Bush and Obama administrations have perverted it to mean test and punish. It has become a boondoggle for the standardized testing industry, an excuse to close poorly funded and often urban public schools to be replaced by unaccountable charter schools. While this is a terrible misuse of federal power, states must be responsible for the education they provide their children. And contrary to popular belief, this can be accomplished without resorting to the usual corporate reform measures.

As Secretary, I would put an immediate stop to the era of test and punish at the federal level. As it stands, the ESSA allows states to determine what they will use to demonstrate their educational progress for students. This is a state decision, but I would encourage states not to use standardized testing. I would offer to help any state interested to find new ways to show accountability. For instance, districts could submit to a simple audit showing student-teacher ratios, per pupil funding, discipline data broken out by race, degree of segregation, richness of the curriculum, etc.

Let me be clear: it is up to states to make these decisions. As Secretary, I would have no power to force legislatures or departments of education to do any of this. However, I’m willing to bet that many states would be excited by these possibilities and jump at the opportunity. Helping them achieve this would be my job.


4) Stop Federal Funding to Charter Schools, Teach for America and Common Core

Speaking of encouragement, I would stop all federal help for corporate education reform policies. That means turning off the money faucet for programs that enrich corporations and big business at the expense of school children.

This means not one more federal dollar to help private companies open new charter schools. Teach for America would have to rely on its corporate donors, not the taxpayers. And the Common Core gravy train would come to a screeching halt. No more money to help states enact the standards, no more bags of cash for book publishers and test manufacturers.

If states that had enacted the Core wanted to keep it, fine. If not, fine. But they would be on their own.

(In a sad aside, opposition to Common Core is most virulent from conservatives, yet there are an awful lot of state legislatures completely in GOP control that could get rid of Common Core tomorrow but which have done – and continue to do – nothing about it. No matter who the next Education Secretary is, the fate of Common Core is in the hands of state legislatures across the country – not the President, not Congress and not the Education Secretary. There’s far too much rhetoric and not nearly enough action.)


5) Do Everything I Can to Increase Teacher Autonomy, Respect, Pay and Training

Finally, I would use my position as Education Secretary to boost the greatest resource we have to help students learn – teachers. I would speak out on the need for educators to have autonomy in the classroom so they are empowered to meet student needs. I would work to increase public perception and respect for the profession. We simply can’t afford teacher bashing, because when you disrespect educators, you reduce their power to help kids. I would boost teachers pay through matching state grants. If you want the best possible teachers, you have to pay for them. If you want to attract the best people to the field, you need to ensure they will have a reliable middle class income and not have to work a second job or use their own money to buy school supplies. I would invest federal funds in training programs so the newest crop of teachers are up to date with the latest pedagogy and techniques. I would encourage more people of color to enter the field. And I would partner with teachers unions to strengthen protections for teachers while educating the public on the meaning of due process and the reality that strong unions mean fewer bad teachers in the classroom.


 

Are there more things we need to do to help improve our national system of public education? Certainly.

 

We need to start integrating schools again and stop the constant push to segregate through charter schools and white flight. We need to ensure every student receives adequate, equitable, sustainable funding. We need to change charter school laws so that they can’t cherry pick students and are as transparent and accountable as traditional public schools. We need to stop closing struggling schools and address root causes. We need to stop state takeovers except under the most dire of circumstances and set limits on how long states can stay in control. And we need to pass strong student privacy laws – even updating the Family Education Privacy Act (FERPA) to protect our children from predatory ed-tech companies that constantly data mine students and sell millions of data points on our children to the highest bidder.

There are a whole host of things needing done. However, most of these things go beyond the powers of the Department of Education and its cabinet level Secretary. They can only be addressed by the President, Congress, state legislatures and/or the court system. The Education Department can help steer that agenda, it can be an ally to real positive change, but it can’t go it alone.

Unfortunately, no matter who wins the Presidency in November – Clinton or Trump – neither seems likely to nominate an Education Secretary who would do any of the things I’ve outlined.

 

For all his talk of reducing the size of the government, Trump proposes increasing the federal footprint with school choice initiatives turning the Department of Education into a wheelbarrow marked “free money” for big business and parochial schools while forcing states to accept his school policies. Meanwhile, Clinton is likely to continue the course set by Bush and Obama of embracing every corporate school reform package from which Wall Street benefits.

It’s a crazy time full of crazy candidates and crazy solutions, but of this we can be sure – no one is crazy enough to let a teacher make decisions about public education policy.

The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

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There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.