Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

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

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The Six Biggest Problems with Data-Driven Instruction

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

 – Educator Dan McConnell

 

 

“Make your instruction data-driven.”

 

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

 

In the last week.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

  1. The Data is Unscientific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. It Has Never Been Proven Effective

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

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

    The answer is an unequivocal NO.

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

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

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

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

    But that’s just one study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4. The Data Doesn’t Capture Important Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. It’s Dehumanizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What baloney!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    No more data-driven instruction.

    Focus instead on student-driven learning.

 

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


 

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

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

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Every Public School Teacher Should Support Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Education-not-testing-chicago-protest

 

Over the last few years, educators and parents have built up a wall of opposition to high stakes testing in the Opt Out movement.

 

But now it seems some teachers are starting to tear it down.

 

Not so long ago, tens of thousands of parents refused letting their children take the tests – with full support of their teachers.

 

Yet today you hear some educators question their involvement or even if they’re on the right side.

 

It’s almost like an anthropomorphic red pitcher smashed through the bricks and offered beat down educators a drink.

 

koolaidman1

 

And far from refusing that rancid brew, some are actually gulping it down.

 

“OHH YEAH!”

 

You hear things like these:

 

“Opt Out’s dead. Stealth assessment schemes like Personalized Learning and Competency Based Education have replaced the federally mandated tests.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The tests often take up fewer days now so there’s no reason to opt out.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The kids who opt out aren’t doing it for the right reasons. They just want to get out of work.”

 

GLUG. GLUG…

 

Blargh! I can’t drink any more of that artificially flavored propaganda crap!

 

I’ve even heard of some teachers in New York State agreeing to call families who have refused testing in the past and asking them to reconsider!

 

What the heck!? Have we all lost our minds!?

 

We’re educators!

 

If anyone knows the problems with standardized testing, it’s us.

 

We know in intimate detail how these assessments are biased and unscientific.

 

So let me counter some of this dangerous disinformation going around.

 

1) You say the tests take up less time?

 

Marginally, yes. There are fewer test days.

 

But we’re still being pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test just about every other day!

 

2) You say stealth testing has made the traditional standardized assessments irrelevant?

 

Okay. Competency Based Education is a real problem that threatens to make everyday test day – I’ll go with you there. In fact, schemes like Personalized Learning could transform every app into an opportunity to test kids without them even knowing it.

 

But that doesn’t mean the old fashioned high stakes tests have gone away!

 

Far from it. The federal government still requires all states to give these assessments to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

Let’s say the feds required teachers to give rich kids higher grades than poor children.

 

Or say the state commanded teachers to copy down sensitive information about students and give it to private corporations.

 

Imagine if the school board instructed teachers to put minority kids in slower classes than white kids.

 

If any of that happened, there would be wide scale revolt!

 

Yet standardized tests do all of these things!

 

They dishonestly give higher scores to rich kids and lower scores to poor kids.

 

The apps used for preparation and remediation often steal student data and sell it to third parties.

 

They are used to justify increased segregation within school buildings because implicit testing bias means white kids generally score higher than children of color. So the white kids get more advanced courses and the brown ones get test prep.

 

3) You say the Opt Out kids are just trying to get out of doing work. It’s just laziness.

 

First, of all, it is the parents who are opting their children out of standardized testing – not the students. Second, who are you to question their motives?

 

We serve the parents and children of the community. If they say they don’t want their children tested in this way, we should listen to them.

 

Third, why are you defending these tests? They are used by charter and voucher schools as “proof” that the public schools are failing.

 

These tests are used to justify unfairly evaluating YOUR work, narrowing YOUR curriculum, repealing YOUR union protections, reducing YOUR autonomy, cutting YOUR funding, and ultimately laying YOU off.

 

Why are you standing up for THAT?

 

So why are some teachers wavering in their opposition to high stakes tests?

 

I think it has to do with who we are.

 

Most teachers are rule followers at heart. When we were in school, we were the obedient students. We were the people-pleasers. We got good grades, kept our heads down and didn’t make waves.

 

But the qualities that often make for the highest grades don’t often translate into action. That, alone, should tell you something about the limits of assessment which are only exacerbated by standardized test scores. When it comes to complex concepts, it’s hard to assess and even harder to determine if success on assessments is a predictor of future success.

 

Bottom line: Every teacher should be in favor of the Opt Out movement.

 

And I don’t mean quietly, secretly in favor. I mean publicly, vocally in favor.

 

Many teachers are parents, themselves, with children in the districts where they teach. Every educator should opt out their own children from the tests.

 

If we can’t at least do that and lead by example, what good are we?

 

Next, we should force our unions to do the things that we can’t as safely do as individuals.

 

Call parents and ask them to opt IN!? We should be doing just the opposite, but that would put a target on our backs.

 

As a teacher, I can’t unilaterally call or send a letter home to my students’ parents explaining why they should opt their kids out. If I did that, I could find myself in administration’s cross hairs and face grave repercussions.

 

But isn’t that why we have a union? To stand up as a collective and do the necessary things we can’t do as individuals?

 

Imagine if every teachers union in the country routinely sent open letters to all parents asking them to opt their kids out! What an impact that would make!

 

Imagine if the unions put pressure on the school boards to pass resolutions against testing and in favor of opt out! What effect would that have on state legislatures and the federal government?

 

How could the feds continue to demand we give high stakes tests when nearly every school board across the country objected and advised parents to refuse testing for their children?

 

Taken individually, these aren’t really all that difficult things to do.

 

They require a certain degree of moral courage, to be sure. And teachers have been beaten down by a society that devalues their work and begrudges them just about everything.

 

But what do we have to lose?

 

Our backs are already against the wall.

 

We are being slowly erased – our numbers dwindle more every year while policymakers shrug and point to a teacher shortage that they refuse to explain by reference to the way we’re treated.

 

The tech moguls and the testing giants are salivating over the prospect of replacing us with apps and low-skilled, low paid babysitters to oversee students hunched over computers and tablets. (See? Told you Personalized Learning was poison.)

 

We shouldn’t be helping them destroy our own profession by advocating for the same tests they’re using as a tool in our destruction.

 

It’s high time teachers get some backbone.

 

We may all end up on the unemployment line, but that’s where we’re headed already.

 

I’d rather go kicking and screaming.

 

Who’s with me?

The Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Businesswoman shouting through the megaphone in the open air.

 

Everybody wants to fight the good fight.

 

Until the battle begins.

 

Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before.

 

To paraphrase Thomas Paine:

 

 

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman.

 

I see this almost every day in our schools.

 

Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face.

 

They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore.

 

The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy.

 

To which I say – Amen, Sister!

 

Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest.

 

Two conflicts of interest, actually.

 

First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell.

 

Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools.

 

So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks.

 

But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors.

 

What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today.

 

Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests.

 

We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment.

 

I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight.

 

But I find myself standing there alone.

 

“You can’t do that,” I say.

 

“It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.

 

(Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.)

 

Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote:

 

If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…”

 

Or how about subsection (d) (3):

 

“School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians [have]… (3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.” (Emphasis mine)

 

In other words, parents have a right to excuse their children from the tests and/or instruction such as test look-a-likes.

 

If we go forward with requiring students who are opted out to take tests that are just like the ones their parents instructed us NOT to give, we will be violating parents’ rights under state law.”

 

That seems pretty airtight to me.

 

But the administrator disagrees.

 

And I look around at the assembled mass of workaday teachers for support.

 

Not a peep.

 

Instead I get this:

 

-We’re being evaluated on these standardized tests, we have to make sure kids take them seriously.

 

-I see where you’re coming from but we have to do something about these kids who are opting out just to get out of doing the work. They don’t have any real intellectual objection. They’re just lazy.

 

-We’ve got to do something about grade inflation.

 

Oh. Em. Gee.

 

Yet after the meeting, some of them cautiously walk up to me asking my opinion of what went down.

 

YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR MY OPINION RIGHT NOW!

 

Take my word for it.

 

Tomorrow or the next day or the next week, they’ll be complaining again.

 

I’ve seen some of these people reduced to tears by administrators unfairly manipulating them based on their students’ test scores.

 

Yet none of them have the guts to stand up and be counted when the moment comes.

 

I say again – everyone wants to fight. But no one wants to do the fighting.

 

They want someone else to do it for them.

 

Does that make you angry?

 

It makes me furious.

 

But if you feel that way, you’ve got to do something about it.

 

You think teachers are too cowardly? What have YOU done to fight corporate education reform today?

 

You think too many administrators are quislings. You think the lawmakers are bought and sold. You think the public schools are under attack.

 

Well, get off your ass and do something.

 

I am tired of being the lone voice of dissent here.

 

All across the country there are people like me – people willing to stand up and fight.

 

But it’s a big country, and we’re usually spread pretty thin.

 

We need people willing to put their money where their mouths are – right here, in our hometowns.

 

Put up or shut up, America.

 

Do you want a school system that serves the needs of children?

 

You’ve got to make it happen.

 

I can’t do this all by myself.

Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it gets worse.

 

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

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

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

 

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

 

Business is.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

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

 

Why is that?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

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Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.

 

Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.

 

It’s cutting edge stuff.

 

Except that it isn’t.

 

It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.

 

It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.

 

But it sounds nice.

 

Personalized Learning.

 

I like that.

 

That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.

 

I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.

 

However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.

 

It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.

 

It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.

 

Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.

 

And somehow this is personalized?

 

I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.

 

This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.

 

Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:

 

“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.

 

If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.

 

If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”

 

What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.

 

Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.

 

Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.

 

And what’s worse, we already know this.

 

We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.

 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.

 

This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.

 

The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.

 

Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.

 

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.

 

However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.

 

The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.

 

But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.

 

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

 

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

 

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

 

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

 

In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.

 

And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.

 

Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.

 

Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.

 

Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.

 

Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.

 

Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.

 

But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?

 

No, thank you.