The NAACP Once Again Opposes High Stakes Standardized Testing!

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The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization has come out against high stakes standardized testing.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) distributed an issue brief yesterday at its national convention in San Antonio, Texas, titled “NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING.”

 

The brief stated that the organization has concerns about using a single standardized test as a graduation requirement, as a prerequisite for advancement to the next grade or otherwise blocking students from receiving various educational opportunities. In its place, the organization favors the use of multiple measures, which may include standardized testing but should also include other assessments such as student grades and teacher evaluations.

 

In short, the brief concluded:

 

“Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

This is a huge policy shift from where the organization was just three years ago.

 

In 2015, the NAACP along with several other larger and older civil rights groups changed its position against testing to one in favor of it.

 

At the time, Congress was getting ready to pass a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The civil rights organizations – many of whom had just asked Congress a year earlier to reduce standardized testing – suddenly demanded it be kept a federal accountability standard and that taking these tests was, itself, a civil right.

 

At the time, many education activists were shocked by the turnaround obviously coerced by the standardized testing and school privatization industry. For instance, see this email from Teach for America alum Liz King giving organizations an ultimatum to sign.

 

The new issue brief is more in-line with the NAACP’s history of opposition and activism against corporate education reform.

 

Once again we have the NAACP that advocated against standardized testing in the Debra P v. Turlington case (1981), where the Florida legislature made passing a single standardized test a graduation requirement. The NAACP supported black students who had a disproportionate failing rate on the test and claimed the Florida legislature was violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The courts eventually ruled against the plaintiffs but the issue has remained contentious to this day.

 

The new issue brief isn’t just a return to form. It builds on concerns that are still plaguing our schools.

 

Of particular note in the new issue brief is the caution that, “…when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children.”

 

Many would argue that the new batch of Common Core aligned tests being used by states do not meet this requirement. They do not test what students have been taught – they test students’ ability to spit back the same kind of thinking of the person who wrote the test. Moreover, special needs students are rarely afforded the same accommodations on federally mandated standardized test day that they are allowed during every other assessment they take during the school year.

 

The brief continues:

 

“Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

This, itself, is a nationwide problem. Administrators are pressured to make district policies “data-driven” and thus deny students the chance to take advanced classes or go on special field trips because of performance on one multiple choice test.

 

The NAACP certainly could go farther in its criticism of high stakes testing.

 

Organizations like the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing. In 2015 while the NAACP and other well established groups defended testing, JJA was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations asking Congress to stop requiring standardized tests at all.

 

Standardized testing violates students civil rights – especially the poor and students of color.

 

It is nice to see the NAACP returning to the activism on which it built its justly deserved reputation.

 

What follows is the full text of the new NAACP issue brief:

 

 

 

“ISSUE BRIEF

 

Date: Summer, 2018

 

To: Concerned Parties

 

From: Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau

 

NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING

 

THE ISSUE

 

Many states are relying on a single examination to determine decisions (such as graduating from high school or promoting students to the next grade), despite the fact that leading education experts nationwide recommend multiple measures of student performance for such decisions. While these “high-stakes” tests serve an important role in education settings, they are not perfect and when used improperly can create real barriers to educational opportunity and progress. Furthermore, one-time, standardized tests may have a disparate impact on students of color, many of whom have not had the benefit of high quality teaching staff (urban school districts have the greatest challenge in attracting and keeping high qualified teachers), adequate classroom resources, or instruction on the content and skills being tested by the standardized tests. Considering additional measures of student achievement, such as grades and teacher evaluations, adds not only to the fairness of a decision with major consequences for students but also increases the validity of such high stakes decisions.

 

Due to our concerns about the fairness of such testing, as well as the potential impact these tests have on the lives of our children, the NAACP has supported legislation in the past that would require that States follow the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, the bills require that High Stakes decisions be based upon multiple measures of student performance and, when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children. Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

The NAACP will continue to promote the initiatives that ensure equal opportunity, fairness, and accuracy in education by coupling standardized tests with other measures of academic achievement. Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

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Special thanks to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig who first released the issue brief on his education blog.


 

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 Necessity and Importance of Teachers

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Are teachers necessary?

 

 

That’s the question big business is asking.

 

 

Well, “asking” isn’t really the right word. They’re implying an answer.

 

 

Hedge fund mangers and ed tech soothsayers are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that educators aren’t really all that important.

 

 

They’re planning a future where real live people play a much smaller role in student learning.

 

 

They’re mapping out a world where kids don’t even have to go to school to grasp the basics, where learning can be accomplished anywhere but instigated, tracked, and assessed on-line through various computer platforms.

 

 

It’s called a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education. With little to no guiding principles, management or oversight, kids would engage in educational tasks on various devices in order to earn digital badges.

 

 

Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

 

It’s a brave new world where investors hope to make a bundle by reducing the cost and pocketing the savings.

 

 

Since teachers are the biggest cost, they’re the first things to go.

 

 

Since their rights as workers and human beings are a roadblock on this learning superhighway, they’re the first to go.

 

 

And since they’re in a prime position to see exactly what’s going on and to object when this ed tech paradise exploits the students it ostensibly is being built for, they MUST go – now, as soon as possible.

 

 

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v AFSCME is part of that process. It’s another way to weaken labor and clear the path for business – the collusion of politics and corporations to steamroll the rest of us and swipe more of our money regardless of the children in the steamrollers way.

 

 

So when I ask “Are teachers necessary?” it’s not a purely philosophical question.

 

 

The answer will have a major impact on both the education of today and where we go in the future.

 

 

If teachers are not necessary, that removes one of the biggest obstacles to this frightening and uncertain future.

 

 

Unfortunately, no matter how much I want to answer in the affirmative that teachers are necessary, I can’t do so.

 

 

Even after thousands of years of recorded history, learning remains a mysterious process. Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that it can take place without the presence of a teacher.

 

 

Some things can be figured out solely by the learner in the right circumstances.

 

 

 

In fact, many academic studies have shown that teachers are not even the most important factor in the process.

 

 

Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

 

 

Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.

 

In short, teachers are not necessary to student learning.

 

But neither are doctors necessary to healing or lawyers necessary to acquittals.

 

Necessity is a very high bar.

 

To survive, you need food, shelter and clothing. However, having all three does not mean you have a good life. Slaves had all three – no free person would choose to trade places with someone in generational servitude simply because they had everything they needed to survive.

 

The same with medicine. If shot in the arm, you could provide me with all the medical equipment necessary to remove the bullet, but I would still have a difficult time doing it by myself. I COULD. A doctor is not NECESSARY for that operation. But without a doctor present, my chances of getting the best medical care drop dramatically.

 

Moreover, you could pop me in a courtroom without the benefit of legal counsel and it’s not impossible that I could argue my way to the dismissal of all charges against me. But the likelihood of doing so is infinitesimal – as undocumented youngsters are discovering when forced into the courtroom to defend against deportation without an attorney or even their parents present.

 

The same is true of education.

 

Though teachers are not necessary to learning, they are vital to it.

 

Having a teacher dramatically boosts a student’s chances, and the more disadvantaged that student is, the more he or she benefits from an educator.

 

The academic schemes of the corporate class amount to changing the field into the equivalent of an automated teller or a business robocall.

 

You can purchase your groceries through the self-checkout line. You can get your customer service from an automated list. But neither of these are the highest quality service.

 

They are cheap alternatives.

 

They are ways for the business to cut costs and boost profits. Neither have anything to do with making things better for the customer.

 

And when it comes to education, eliminating (or even drastically reducing access to) the teacher will decrease the quality of the service beyond recognition.

 

A 2009 report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, released by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice outlined several real world solutions to increase academic outcomes. None of them involve the elimination of teachers.

 

They are:

 

1. Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans

2. Reduce drug and alcohol abuse

3. Reduce pollutants in U.S. cites and move people away from toxic sites

4. Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens

5. Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity

6. Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households

7. Improve mental health services among the poor

8. More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities

9. Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children

10. Provide high-quality preschools for all children

11. Provide summer programs for students from low-income homes to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement.

 

These are ways you improve education FOR CHILDREN.

 

This is how you make things better FOR THE LEARNER and not necessarily for the investor class.

 

And when it comes to teachers, there are numerous ways you can help them provide support for students.

 

First of all, hire more of them!

 

Today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country 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.

 

And if you want to improve the quality of the teachers in those classrooms, here’s an easy fix – pay them.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

If you want to attract the best candidates to the profession, you need to make it more attractive. One way to do that is to increase the salary.

 

And finally, stop micromanaging everything teachers do and stomping on their rights. To do their job effectively teachers need autonomy. They need the ability to make decisions on the ground based on the empirical evidence gathered in the classroom.

 

Moreover, they need the freedom to speak out when something is going wrong in their buildings or districts. When software packages are purchased that spy on students for corporations, they need the ability to sound the alarm. When high stakes standardized testing is out of control, they need to be able to voice their objections. When shoddy, second-rate academic standards are forced onto them by politicians and business people, they need to be able to blow the whistle.

 

To do that, they need their union protections. They need collective bargaining rights to give them the power to counterbalance the forces of greed and corruption that have always been at the schoolhouse door.

 

As a country we have taken our attention away from what’s really important. We’ve stopped focusing on how to make education better and instead equated it with how to make it more profitable for those who are already wealthy.

 

Teachers are vital to education. They are lifelines to struggling students. We should find ways to support them and not constantly undercutting their social standing, autonomy and rights.

 

The importance of teachers is beyond doubt. As is the importance of society in supporting them.

 


 

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Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

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Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

 

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

 

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

 

It’s nothing new.

 

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

 

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

 

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

 

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

 

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

 

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

 

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

 

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

 

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

 

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

 

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

 

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

 

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

 

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

 

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

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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African Immigrants Excel Academically. Why Don’t African Americans?

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The presence of melanin in your skin shouldn’t affect your academics.

But in America, it does.

On average, black students achieve less academically than white students. They have worse grades, lower test scores, meager graduation rates and fewer achieve advanced degrees.

The question is – why?

Why does pigmentation matter so much in this country? What about it brings such negative academic consequences?

This is especially apt since it doesn’t apply to foreign born black students who come here to study or those who recently emigrated here.

In fact, they see just the opposite effect – they earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.

This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.

According to a report by Christine Gambino and associates at the Census Bureau, 41% of the African-born immigrant population earned a bachelor degree compared with 28% of the overall foreign-born population in the US.

The four African birth countries with the highest percentages of bachelor and higher degrees among their expat populations in the US are Egypt at 64%, Nigeria at 61%, South Africa at 57% and Kenya at 47%.

So why the difference?

Obviously, it’s not skin color.

Part of it seems to be qualities selected for in the immigration process, itself.

We don’t let just anyone come to the U.S. We have rigorous qualifications and prerequisites that have to be met. For instance, students who want to study here must get high marks on the SAT, Act and/or the TOFFEL – the language proficiency test. To do that, they need the money and resources to study for these exams. They are already some of the best achievers in their native countries.

Moreover, there is a huge cultural difference coming from Africa as opposed to coming from the United States. Native-born Africans have to deal with the effects of post-colonialism. It wasn’t so long ago that European nations conquered and plundered the African continent for gold and resources. That era has mostly ended, but those living there still have to deal with lingering consequences. This has an effect on everything from gender, ethnicity, class, language, family relationships, professions, religions and nation states.

However, native-born Africans do not have to navigate the world of American white supremacy. The affects of being black in this country may be much more harmful than negotiating post-colonialism.

For instance, most mainland Africans enjoy intact cultures. They are not the product of families that were torn apart, religions that were displaced and entire belief systems, world views and genealogies that were stolen.

Nigerian cultures, in particular, highlight the importance of learning.

One typical Nigerian saying goes like this:

“The best inheritance that a parent can give you is not jewelry or cash or material things, it is a good education.”

This is why academics in Nigeria are widely supported, mandatory and free.

Meanwhile, in America native-born black students grow up in a much more stressful and unstable environment. This translates to academic struggles.

For one, they are the victims of educational apartheid. Brown v. Board is more than 60 years old, but American schools have become increasingly segregated by race and class. Black students receive fewer resources than whites and their schools struggle to provide the same quality of education. Moreover, they are the target – either directly or indirectly – of privatization schemes that result in less control over their own schools and the further reduction of resources through charter and voucher schools that can cut services and pocket the savings as profit.

However, the problem is not just systemic. I hate to say it, but sometimes even American teachers put up obstacles to black students success due to (often unconscious) bias.

Most teachers are white. They have certain societally reinforced expectations of black students. When these children struggle, they are more often put into special education and stigmatized for their differences.

It is no doubt that black students are more often disciplined and suspended than white students – numerous studies have shown this.

I think this is due at least partially to white teachers’ expectations. It is tempting to see black student behavior as negative in the default. We too often label them “bad kids” and then try to find evidence to support it instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt or assuming they’re smart and well-behaved until proven otherwise.

African immigrants don’t have to deal with these stigmas to nearly the same degree. They don’t get the same negative label. They have more support from close-knit families. They have more positive role models including more college graduates in the family.

Another obstacle for American born black students is a cultural imputation against academic achievement. Doing well in school can be seen as “acting white.” In order to maintain popularity and prestige, they are steered away from the exact things that immigrant Africans are steered toward.

The poverty of American blacks plays a huge factor, too. Even in moderately successful African American homes, parents or guardians are often working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet. This reduces their ability to oversee their children’s homework and monitor academic progress.

It seems then that the so-called proficiency gap between native-born black and white students in this country is due to generational poverty, white racism and coping mechanism in their own culture.

If we want to help American-born black students, we need to realize, first, that this problem is not due to inherent racial deficiencies. It is the product of class warfare and white supremacy.

As such, it can be cured through progressive economic policies and anti-racist efforts.

The strongest argument for reparations comes from a recognition of the lingering effects of our history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

These are daunting problems, but they can be solved.

It just takes an honest appraisal of the issues and the social will to make things right.


 

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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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

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

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

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

 

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

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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 State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.