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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NAEP Test Scores Show How Stupid We Are… To Pay Attention to NAEP Test Scores

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Brace yourselves!

 

America’s NAEP test scores in 2019 stayed pretty much the same as they were in 2018!

 

And the media typically set its collective hair on fire trying to interpret the data.

 

Sometimes called the Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is given to a random sampling of elementary, middle and high school students in member countries to compare the education systems of nations.

 

And this year there was one particular area where US kids did worse than usual!

 

Our scores went down in 8th grade reading!

 

To be honest, scores usually go up or down by about one or two points every year averaging out to about the same range.

 

But this year! Gulp! They went down four points!

 

FOUR POINTS!

 

What does that mean?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

They’re standardized test scores. They’re terrible assessments of student learning.

 

You might as well compare the relative body temperatures of randomly selected students and wonder why we aren’t bridging the body warmth gap with the somber hummingbird! I mean it has an average  temperature of 114 F! And the best we can do is a measly 98.6 F! Why won’t enough kids get a fever for America!?

 

If test scores have any meaning at all – it’s parental wealth. Rich kids tend to score higher than poor kids. That’s partially because of the inequality of resources each receive, but also because of racial, cultural and economic bias embedded in the questions.

 

So the NAEP shows us what any study of parental income would show. America has a lot of poor kids and underfunded schools.

 

Thanks, NAEP! There’s no way we could ever have figured that out without you!

 

But having this information come to us via test scores allows us to deflect from the real problem and instead continually blame the victim.

 

Why can’t these poor kids from impoverished schools score as well as kids from richer countries with more well-funded schools?

 

I can’t imagine!

 

Typically politicians used the results to push their pet policies.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used the scores to wash her hands of the entire public education system. I know – isn’t her job to safeguard public schools? It’s like a zoo keeper complaining that the penguins aren’t bringing in enough visitors and then refusing to feed them.

 

DeVos proposed we improve test scores by cutting $4.8 billion from public schools in 2020 and instead pumping $5 billion to a tax credit school voucher scheme that props up private schools.

 

I know that sounds dumb, but before you judge her, realize she also proposed cutting federal funding for afterschool programs, teacher professional development, student support and enrichment programs.

 

So there.

 

Education Blogger Peter Greene claims that this move is based on a reading comprehension problem the Education Secretary is having, herself.

 

She says that the NAEP results mean that 2/3 of American students read below grade level. However, Greene points out that she is conflating two different things – grade level proficiency and NAEP proficiency.

 

Here’s what the NAEP wrote:

 

“The NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade-level proficiency, but rather competency over challenging subject matter. NAEP Achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.”

 
Which kind of begs the question of why we need these scores in the first place.

 

There is much clearer data out there.

 

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that 29 states spent less per student in 2015 than they had before the Great Recession.

 

And the federal government has done little to help. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So to ensure our students had the same quality of service children received only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

If we looked at realities like these instead of test scores – which at best provide us data at several removes – we might actually be motivated to reach solutions.

 

For instance, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

 

If we want to compare the US to other countries, this is a perfect place to start.

 

But a focus on test scores obscures the differences.

 

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

 

These scores just mirror back to us our child poverty rate – that more than 1/3 of our students live below the poverty line and more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

 

But this myopic focus on standardized tests also blinds us to the ways our system is superior to that of many other countries.

 

We do something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

 

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

 
This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools are monetary. Pure and simple.

 

At least House Democrats passed a Labor-HHS-Education funding bill to increase public school funding by $3.5 billion. Even if it were somehow passed by the Republican controlled Senate, that’s a drop in the bucket after decades of neglect – but it’s something!

 

It’s certainly better than DeVos who claims that funding somehow doesn’t matter for public schools – only for her pet charter and voucher schools.

 

A 2018 review by Northwestern University found that in 12 out of 13 studies increased spending had a positive effect on student outcomes. And that result has been verified by studies since then in California, Texas, Wisconsin and other states.

 
Money makes a difference.

 

Money spent on students – not more testing.

 

So why the drop in this year’s 8th grade reading scores?

 

Who knows? It could be a spike in the rate or effect of child poverty in the middle school years.

 

It could be the impact of decades of high stakes testing on middle school curriculum – narrowing what is taught and muscling out authentic instruction.

 

Frankly it doesn’t matter because the data is suspect.

 

Standardized testing will never give us an accurate picture of what is going on with our students or our schools.

 

And until we, as a society, finally realize that and focus on things that actually matter, we will continue to fail the only test that matters – how well we provide for our children.

 

 


 

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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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

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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Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

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Sometimes the truth is not enough.

 

Especially if you misunderstand its meaning.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How exactly do you use growth to drive achievement?

 

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

 

Does it actually work?

 

The results have been pretty inconclusive.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

2) It Doesn’t Fit with Current Education Policies

 
We live in a fixed mindset world.

 

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

 

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

 

It doesn’t.

 

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

 

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

 

Moreover, it’s incoherent.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3) It Ignores Student Needs and Resources

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

4) It Can Make Kids Feel Disrespected and Disparaged

 
No child wants to be remediated.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claimed in 2011:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

5) It is Not Suitable For All Kids

 
Everyone’s minds don’t work alike.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We’ve got this growth mindset thing all wrong.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

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

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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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