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 Best Way to Prepare for School Shootings is to Reduce the Chances They’ll Happen at All

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I participated in yet another active shooter drill at my school this week.

 

“Death to the infidels!” shouted Mr. O’Grady, one of my fellow teachers, as he stormed the classroom with a Nerf blaster rifle.

 

I had stuffed myself under a table in another teacher’s reading nook.

 

But it did no good.

 

One of the soft yellow balls came sproinging out of the gun and bounced off the carpet into my groin.

 

Then someone blew a whistle and the scenario was over.

 

The classroom full of teachers collected ourselves from behind overturned tables and under desks before uncertainly getting to our feet.

 

“Who got hit?” asked the principal as he poked his head into the room.

 

A flurry of hands went up including mine.

 

The students had been dismissed about an hour earlier. The body count was made up entirely of faculty and staff – teachers, administrators, security guards, substitutes, lunch ladies, etc.

 

The lesson we were supposed to take away from the activity was that hiding was a losing strategy.

 

“Do something,” one of the police officers conducting the drill said.

 

They wanted us to swarm the shooter, throw things at him (Nerf balls in our scenario) or make a run for it. Anything but simply staying put and being sitting ducks.

 

It made me wonder why our lawmakers don’t heed the same advice.

 

Do something?

 

Yeah. Why doesn’t Harrisburg do something? Why doesn’t Washington?

 

That’s where you can make a real difference to keep our schools safe.

 

Instead of making the world safer for our kids, we’re trying to lock them up in a castle and keep the violence out.

 

But it’s impossible. You can’t keep out human nature.

 

The same things that cause shooters to enter the school and go on a killing spree are already in our classrooms.

 

O’Grady may have imagined he was a member of Al-Qaeda as he pretended to blow his co-workers away, but if a shooter ever enters our building, he’s more likely to be a co-worker, parent or student.

 

We don’t need more ways to keep them out. We CAN’T keep them out and still do our jobs!

 

All we can do is try to alleviate the pressure, to counsel mental distress, heal physical trauma, guard against societal hurts.

 

And if that doesn’t work, we can lower the stakes and limit the amount of damage done.

 

Turning the school into a prison will not help. Turning teachers into guards (armed or otherwise) will not solve anything.

 

Back in 1999 in the wake of the Columbine school shooting, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education warned against all the things we’re doing now – police officers in the schools, metal detectors, cameras, etc.

 

Instead, they advised us as follows:

 

“Specifically, Initiative findings suggest that [school] officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:

 

  • developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,

 

  • employing the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.”

 

 

That means prevention over disaster prepping. Homeland Security and education officials wanted us to pay close attention to our students, their needs and their struggles.

 

We keep our schools safe by looking to the humans in them and not new ways to barricade the building or watch the whole disaster unfold on closed circuit TV.

 

The fact is that our schools are actually much safer than the communities that support them. Numerous studies have concluded that students are more secure in school than on the streets or even in their own homes.

 

If we want to make the schools safer, we need to make the communities safer.

 

And, no, I’m not just talking about high poverty neighborhoods populated mostly by people of color. I mean everywhere – in our society, itself.

 

There are too many guns out there. We have more firearms than people!

 

According to the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Americans now own 40 per cent of all guns in the world – more than the next 25 countries combined. And with every mass shooting and the hysteria trumped up by gun manufacturers with each surge in profits, that number continues to climb.

 

You can do whatever you want to the schools, but you’ll never increase safety until you deal with THAT problem.

 

The fact is countries with more guns have more gun deaths. States and Countries with more rigorous gun control have fewer gun deaths.

 

(If you doubt it, see Florida’s “The Geography of Gun Deaths,” and a 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews.)

 

We need sane, sensible gun regulations. We need government buyback programs. And we need to smash the NRA’s stranglehold on our political process.

 

These ridiculous safety drills are simply whistling in the dark.

 

They’re not harmless. They’re HARMFUL.

 

They actually make our schools less safe.

 

Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and resource officers do not create safer schools. According to a study released by the National Association of School Psychologists :

 

“There is no clear research evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence (Addington, 2009; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010; Casella, 2006; Garcia, 2003). In fact, research has shown that their presence negatively impacts students’ perceptions of safety and even increases fear among some students (Bachman, Randolph, & Brown, 2011; Schreck & Miller, 2003). In addition, studies suggest that restrictive school security measures have the potential to harm school learning environments (Beger, 2003; Phaneuf, 2009).”

 

At this week’s active shooter drill in my school, one of the student aides asked the principal when he thought the state would be arming teachers.

 

For him, it wasn’t a matter of if. It was a matter of when.

 

And if you listen to the cowardly garbage spewing out of our lawmakers mouths, you can certainly understand why he believes that.

 

However, arming teachers or even adding more armed police to the school will not make our classrooms more secure.

 

There is overwhelming evidence that it will do just the opposite.

 

As Melinda Wenner Moyer reports in Scientific American, “guns are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide”—but not with greater safety.

 

Just look at the facts.

 

Security cameras were present at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. They didn’t stop anything from happening.

 

Armed resource officers were present at Columbine and Parkland. That didn’t stop anything from happening.

 

All these measures do is criminalize our students. It turns them from prospective learners into would-be prison inmates – and as we know, our prisons are not exactly the safest places to be.

 

“How’d I do?” asked Mr. O’Grady, my co-worker who had posed as the shooter during the last scenario.

 

“You shot me in the dick,” I said.

 

He laughed. And I laughed.

 

But it was the kind of laugh that dies in your throat and leaves a taste of ashes.

 

School safety is a joke in 2018. Not because of what teachers and districts are doing.

 

When society fails to meet its obligations – as it does time-and-again – it’s our schools that continually step up to take the slack.

 

The problem is that we can’t even pretend to do this one on our own.

 

We can’t keep the schools safe if you won’t do anything about the community – if you won’t reduce poverty, violence and trauma.

 

We can’t keep the schools safe, if you won’t do something about the river of guns that flow through our nation like a high caliber Mississippi.

 

Do something?

 

Take your own advice, America.


 

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

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The Six Biggest Problems with Data-Driven Instruction

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

 – Educator Dan McConnell

 

 

“Make your instruction data-driven.”

 

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

 

In the last week.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

  1. The Data is Unscientific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. It Has Never Been Proven Effective

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

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

    The answer is an unequivocal NO.

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

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

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

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

    But that’s just one study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4. The Data Doesn’t Capture Important Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. It’s Dehumanizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What baloney!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    No more data-driven instruction.

    Focus instead on student-driven learning.

 

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


 

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

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

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It’s test time.

 

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

 

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

 

Another hand.

 

“It keeps kicking me out.”

 

Another.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“The Website just kicked us all off.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is not a mandatory test.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Do you understand it now?

 

No.

 

Do you understand it Now?

 

No.

 

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

 

 

Of these, the most common is the CDT.

 

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

 

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

 

Moreover, the CDT test is cumbersome to proctor.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But that’s not even the worst part.

 

Why are we doing this in the first place?

 

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

 

Answer: No.

 

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

 

One test from K-12!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You need refer to the same part of the law:

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

That includes the CDT.

 

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

 

“Dear Principal/Teacher(s):

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

Sincerely,”

 

 

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

 

 

Your child’s teacher would like nothing better!

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 


 

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

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There is Virtually No Difference Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Charter Schools

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Stop kidding yourself.

 

Charter schools are a bad deal.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re for-profit or nonprofit.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re cyber or brick-and-mortar institutions.

 

It doesn’t matter if they have a history of scandal or success.

 

Every single charter school in the United States of America is either a disaster or a disaster waiting to happen.

 

The details get complicated, but the idea is really quite simple.

 

It goes like this.

 

Imagine you left a blank check on the street.

 

Anyone could pick it up, write it out for whatever amount your bank account could support and rob you blind.

 

Chances are you’d never know who cashed it, you’d never get that money back and you might even be ruined.

 

That’s what a charter school is – a blank check.

 

It’s literally a privately operated school funded with public tax dollars.

 

Operators can take almost whatever amount they want, spend it with impunity and never have to submit to any real kind of transparency or accountability.

 

Compare that to a traditional public school – an institution invariably operated by duly elected members of the community with full transparency and accountability in an open forum where taxpayers have access to internal documents, can have their voices heard and even seek an administrative position.

 

THAT’S a responsible way to handle public money!

 

Not forking over our checkbook to virtual strangers!

 

Sure, they might not steal our every red cent. But an interloper who finds a blank check on the street might not cash it, either.

 

The particulars don’t really matter. This is a situation rife with the possibility of fraud. It is a situation where the deck is stacked against the public in every way and in favor of charter school operators.

 

But most people don’t want to take such a strong stance. They’d rather find good and bad people on both sides and pretend that’s the same thing as impartiality.

 

It isn’t.

 

Sometimes one side is just wrong.

 

Policymakers may try to feign that there are good and bad charter schools and that the problems I’m talking about only apply to the nefarious ones.

 

But that’s a delusion.

 

There is no good way to write a blank check and leave it on the street to the whims of passers-by.

 

Most apologists want to draw the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit charters.

 

But as Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

The law is full of loopholes that allow almost any organization – not just charter schools – to claim nonprofit status while enriching those at the top.

 

We live in an age of philanthrocapitalism, where the wealthy disguise schemes to enrich themselves as benevolence, generosity and humanitarianism.

 

So-called “nonprofit” charter schools are just an especially egregious example. No matter what label you pin to their name, they all offer multiple means to skim public funding off the top without adding any value for students.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

 

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

 

All I have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then my management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

It’s really that simple! I turn over nearly all of my public tax dollars to the management company that then uses it to operate the school – and keeps whatever it doesn’t spend.

 

 

Heck! It doesn’t even matter who owns the company! It could even be me!

 

The law actually allows me to wear one hat saying I’m nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat I’m wearing at the time!

 

SO I get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

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SOURCE: Florida Sun Sentinel

 

I may even be able to buy things with public tax dollars through my for-profit management company and then if my “nonprofit” school goes belly up, I get to keep everything I bought! Or my management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and I reap all the reward. And I’m still graced with the label “nonprofit.”

 

Oh, and speaking of spending, being a “nonprofit” doesn’t stop me from the worst kind of real estate shenanigans routinely practiced by the for-profit charter schools.

 

Both types of privatized institution allow for huge windfalls in real estate. If I own property X, I can sell it to my charter school (or management company) and then pay myself with tax dollars. Who determines how much I pay for my own property? ME! That’s who!

 

And I can still be a nonprofit.

 

Think that’s bad? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Thanks to some Clinton-era tax breaks, an investor in a charter school can double the original investment in just seven years!

I can even get the public to pay for the same building twice! And even then taxpayers still won’t own it!

 

But that’s the complicated stuff. There’s an even easier way to get rich off the public with my “nonprofit” charter school, and operators do it all the time: write myself a fat check!

 

After all, I’ve gotta’ pay, myself, right? And who’s in charge of determining how much I’m worth? ME!

 

I can even pay myself way more than my counterparts at traditional public schools who oversee exponentially more staff and students.

 

For instance, as New York City Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza is paid $345,000 to oversee 135,000 employees and 1.1 million students. Meanwhile, as CEO of Success Academy charter school chain, Eva Moskowitz handles a mere 9,000 students, for which she is paid $782,175.

 

And this is by no way a unique example.

 

There are just so many ways to cash in with a charter school even at a so-called “nonprofit” – especially if I want to dip my toe into legally dubious waters!

 

I could do like the almost exclusively “nonprofit” Gulen charter schools and exist solely as a means to raise money for an out-of-favor political movement in Turkey.

 

I could use charter funds to finance other businesses. I could decide to discontinue programs that students receive in traditional public schools such as providing free or reduced lunches but keep the cash. I could fake enrollment and have classes full of “ghost students” that the local, state and federal government will pay me to educate.

 

Fraud and mismanagement are rampant at charter schools because we don’t require them to be as accountable as their traditional public school counterparts.

 

If a traditional public school tried this chicanery, we’d almost certainly catch it at the monthly meetings or frequent audits. But charter schools don’t have to submit to any of that. They’re public money spent behind closed doors with little to no requirement to explain themselves – ever.

 

And all of this – nearly every bit of criticism I’ve leveled against the industry – doesn’t even begin to take into account the educational practices at these types of schools.

 

There is plenty of evidence that charters provide a comparable or worse education than children routinely receive at traditional public schools.

 

Where it is comparable, the issue is clouded by selective enrollment, inadequately servicing students with special needs and generally encouraging the hardest to teach to get an education elsewhere. Where it is worse, it is colossally worse, robbing children not just of funding but what is likely their only chance at an education.

 

But we don’t even need to go there.

 

We only need the issue of fiscal responsibility to bring down this behemoth.

 

Charter schools are no way to run a school. They are a blatant failure to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.

 

Traditional public schools are the best way to run a school. They protect the public’s investment of money and resources while providing a quality education to students.

 

So all this talk about nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is either a mark of supreme ignorance or a ploy for weak willed politicians to weasel their way out of taking a stand on an issue whose merits are obvious to anyone who knows what really happens in our education system.

 

It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on this expensive fraud.

 

 

It’s time for the charter school experiment to end.

 

 

And it’s way passed time to support fully public schools.


 

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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Public School is Not For Profit. It is For Children.

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Betsy DeVos doesn’t get it.

 

But neither did Arne Duncan.

 

Whether right or left or somewhere in between, the person sitting at cabinet level tasked with advising the President on education matters invariably knows nothing about the purpose of public schools.

 

Duncan thought it had something to do with canned academic standards and standardized tests.

 

DeVos thinks it involves vouchers to religious or private schools.

 

But they’re both as wrong as two left shoes.

 

Public schools exist for one reason and one reason only – to meet the needs of children.

 

They aren’t there to enrich the private sector or even provide the job market with future employees.

 

They exist to teach, to counsel, to inspire, to heal.

 

And all these other schemes favored by Dunce Duncan and Batty Betsy that purport to meet kids needs while somehow enjoying the totally unintended side effect of enriching wealthy investors completely misses the point.

 

Public schools serve one purpose – to help the kids enrolled in them.

 

That’s all.

 

If someone is getting rich off that, there’s a huge problem somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, the Secretaries of Education of Donald Trump and Barack Obama aren’t the only ones to get it wrong. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have lost sight of this fact.

 

So have pundits and media personalities on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. So have CEOs and tech entrepreneurs and economists and anyone – really – whom our society seems to take seriously.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Take the latest pronouncement from DeVos, our Secretary of Education.

 

She announced recently that she was looking into using federal funds to buy guns for teachers to better protect their students from school shooters.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not in the best interests of children.

 

Teachers with guns mean a MORE dangerous environment for children, not less.

 

It means escalating the chance of friendly fire much more than boosting the possibility of a kindergarten teacher turning into an action hero.

 

It means heightening the chance of children getting their hands on these firearms and doing themselves or others harm.

 

And given the disproportionate murders of people of color even at the hands of trained professionals in the police force, it means children of color being legitimately terrified of their mostly white educators – or worse.

 

The reason given by DeVos may be to make children safer. But the measure she’s proposing really has nothing to do with them at all.

 

It’s a boondoggle for private industry – one private industry in particular – gun manufacturers.

 

Instead of sensible regulations on a product that’s at least as dangerous as items that are much more heavily controlled – such as cold medicine and automobiles – DeVos is doing the only thing she can to protect what she really cares about – corporate profits.

 

She is using money earmarked “safety” to increase danger.

 

Or as she sees it – she’s using a government apparatus that could harm the gun industry to instead pad its pockets.

 

You’ll hear some progressives and moderates decry this move with passion and fervor – and for good reason – but what many fail to realize is that it’s not new.

 

It’s really just a continuation of a sickness that has crept into our society about how we conceptualize the very idea of school.

 

We have moved away from the proposition that everything must be done in the student’s best interest and have replaced it with an imperative to benefit business and industry.

 

After all, what is the push for academic accountability through standardized tests and Common Core but corporate welfare for the testing and publishing industry?

 

What is the push for charter and voucher schools but government subsidies for school privatization?

 

High stakes standardized testing isn’t about helping students learn. Neither is Common Core, value-added measures or a host of top-down corporate policies championed by lions of the left and supply-side patriots.

 

They are about creating a problem where one doesn’t exist: accountability.

 

“How do we make sure students receive a quality education?” As if this has ever been hard to determine.

 

In general, the schools with greater needs than funding are where students struggle. The schools where everyone has more than they need is where they excel.

 

But they try to sweep the issue of inequitable funding and resources under the rug by framing the question entirely about teachers and schools.

 

In short, instead of asking about an obvious inequality, they hide a preconceived answer in the question: “How do we make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids?”

 

Wrong question. But here’s the answer, anyway: Administrators observe teachers and determine if they’re doing their jobs. And school boards evaluate administrators.

 

In general, the staff isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of resources we give them to work with – everything from crumbling buildings, large classes, narrowed curriculum to a lack of wraparound social services.

 

It doesn’t take much to see we’re shortchanging our neediest students.

 

You don’t need standardized tests to tell you that. You don’t need new academic standards. You don’t need to evaluate educators on things beyond their control.

 

But doing so creates a new market, a need that can be filled by corporate interests unrestrained by the conviction that public schools are not supposed to be a profit-making venture.

 

People providing services for schools are supposed to make a living – not a killing – off the public’s dime.

 

The same can be said for school privatization.

 

Public schools are in no way inferior to institutions that are privately managed. Tax dollars administered by duly-elected representatives in the light of day are in no way less effective or more corrupt than the alternative – letting bureaucrats behind closed doors dole out the money however they choose even into their own pockets.

 

In fact, just the opposite!

 

Nor have charter or voucher schools ever been shown to increase student learning without also selecting only the best academic students and shunning those most difficult to teach, providing fewer resources for students and/or operating with greater funding.

 

But pretending that privatization is a better alternative to democratic rule creates a market, it opens the door so the system can be gamed for profit at the expense of student learning and wellbeing.

 

That’s why we look in awe at LeBron James, an athlete who uses his fortune to open a school providing all the things society refuses for students of color. A basketball player who refuses to usurp the public’s leadership role in administering that fully public school.

 

He’s a shinning example of actual philanthropy in an age of bogus philanthrocapitalism. But he’s also proof that his solution is not reproducible large scale.

 

The rich – even if they are well intentioned – cannot save us. Only the public can support all public schools.

 

And to do that, we must understand the purpose behind these institutions.

 

Otherwise, we’ll continue to be trapped on a runaway train where the conductor seems to possess no sense of urgency about slowing down.

 

We would never have been in this situation – and in fact could right the course even now – if we just took the time to clarify what we were doing and why we were doing it.

 

We could save generations of children if we stopped cashing in on public schools and realized the reason for their existence.

 

We could ensure both our present and our posterity.

 

If only we remembered that one thing.

 

Public schools are not for profit.

 

They are for children.


 

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

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No One Ever Remembered a Teacher for Raising Standardized Test Scores

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It’s the day before school begins.

 

I’m out to eat with my family and have just taken a big bite of a juicy beef taco.

 

That’s when I notice someone standing right next to me at the restaurant.

 

So I raise my eyes upward, a meat filled tortilla overfilled with lettuce and beans hanging from my mouth, and I’m greeted with a familiar face.

 

“Mr. Singer!” the woman says with a nervous smile on her lips.

 

“Do you remember me?”

 

I think for a moment but realize I have more pressing concerns. I couldn’t reply with an answer to the woman’s question even if I did remember her.

 

So I chew and swallow and then look again.

 

“It’s me,” she says. “Tamarind.”

 

And then it hits me like a flash.

 

The face in front of me ages backward. The adult eyes soften. The taut cheeks become chubbier. And her whole figure shrinks three feet closer to the ground.

 

“Oh my God! Tamarind! Of course I remember you!” I say.

 

She smiles and blushes. I’m surprised by how nervous she is. I’m no one to inspire anxiety. I’m just a guy out with his wife, daughter and father-in-law shoving a taco in his face.

 

“When I saw you here I just had to come up to you,” she said. “I was in your 6th grade class.”

 

“I think it was 8th grade, wasn’t it?” I said.

 

“Yes! That’s right! Eighth grade!”

 

“How old are you now? My gosh I remember you when you only came up to here off the ground.”

 

“I’m 22. I’m doing really well. I just wanted you to know that you taught me how to write. If it wasn’t for you I never would have made it anywhere. I just wanted to thank you so much for everything you did for me.”

 

We chatted a bit more and then she left us to finish our meal.

 

But, of course, the whole interaction got me thinking.

 

As a teacher, you are something of a minor public figure.

 

When you’re out and about – especially if you’re somewhere in your district – you’re bound to be recognized and invariably someone will want to chat.

 

I remember one time at the bakery counter a former student gave me my order and told me he threw in a few donuts.

 

I remember laughing and telling him he didn’t need to do that.

 

“Nah, Mr. Singer, you never wrote me up for falling asleep in your class. You knew I was watching my brothers and sisters at home and never gave me shit for it. You keep those donuts.”

 

Another time at the theater I was almost late to my movie because I was listening to a former student at the concession stand catch me up on her life and what all of her friends from my class were doing these days.

 

So many students. So many kids that have now become adults.

 

You lose track of how many lives you’ve had an impact on.

 

The first few days of school are always filled with endless administrative meetings. The superintendent welcomes you with testing data. Then your principal breaks it down by building and subject.

 

You find out which diagnostic exams you have to give your students and when. You find out what your Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment Score (PVAAS) is – how good a teacher you are based on how well your students from last year did on the state standardized test.

 

On the one hand, I suppose I have no reason to feel like much of a good teacher.

 

Most of my students didn’t pass the test. They rarely do.

 

The same number of 7th graders (that’s what I taught last year) passed the reading test as in previous years. However, many more passed that were expected to fail.

 

The state uses a mystery metric based on Classroom Diagnostic Assessment (CDT) data to come up with a prediction of who they expect to pass and who they expect to fail. No one really knows how they calculate this. For all we know, the state secretary of education could examine a pile of chicken entrails before entering it all into the system.

 

Does all that data mean I’m a good teacher or not?

 

I don’t know.

 

But I do know what Tamarind thinks.

 

And I know what a host of former students have told me. I know how they react when they see me out in the wild, just living my life.

 

I’m sure there are probably former students who don’t like me. There must be those who hold a grudge for getting a 59% on an assignment. Or maybe they remember me yelling at them for something. Or – who knows – maybe they just didn’t respond to The Singer Charm.

 

But an awful lot of people come up to me who don’t have to.

 

Yesterday was the first day of classes for the year.

 

For the first time, all my classes were looped. I taught 7th grade Language Arts last year and I’m teaching the 8th grade course this year.

 

When those kids came into the class on Friday, it was like a homecoming.

 

So many smiles. So much laughter and joy. And, yes, impromptu hugs.

 

It felt like a family gathering, not a school function.

 

As I left the building feeling more exhausted than I have in months, another teacher stopped me.

 

“Steve! I wanted to catch you before you left!” she said.

 

She told me that she gave her students a survey in her class as an icebreaker. One of the questions was to name their favorite teacher from last year. My name came up a lot.

 

What can you say about that?

 

I’m actually getting choked up just typing this.

 

In my years in the classroom, I’ve helped a lot of kids get better test scores.

 

But that’s not why they come up to me. That’s not why they remember me.

 

I touched their lives in some meaningful way.

 

And they have done the same for me.

 

I’m just a guy who should really take smaller bites of his tacos.

 

But they make me feel like a hero.

 

I am so grateful.


 

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?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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