Grit is Sh!t – It’s Just an Excuse to do Nothing for Struggling Students

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Let’s say you’re out in public and you see a crying child alone in the street.

 

What would you do?

 

Would you run up to her and help? Or would you just shrug, mutter some derisive comment about the brat and walk on?

 

Our public school policymakers want us to do the later. In fact, they have a whole pedagogical justification for ignoring the needs of children.

 

It’s called “academic tenacity,” a “growth mindset” or “grit.”

 

And it goes something like this:

 

That child isn’t learning? If she just worked harder, she would.

 

It’s the political equivalent of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” applied to the classroom.

 

And it’s super helpful for politicians reluctant to allocate tax dollars to actually help kids succeed.

 

The idea and the euphemisms used to describe it were coined by Carol Dweck as early as 1999. It was subsequently popularized by seventh-grade math teacher and psychologist Angela Duckworth.

 

In the early 2000s, Duckworth realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating successful students from those who struggled. There was also the tendency to overcome adversity or not.

 

Hey, Angela. Darwin called. He wants his Theory of Natural Selection back.

 

You know Survival of the Fittest was never meant to be prescriptive. As human beings, we’re supposed to be better than mere animals that typically leave the pack’s sick and injured behind to get eaten by predators.

 

But whatever.

 

The term “grit,” is defined as a “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” according to Frontiers in Psychology. And it’s become one of the buzziest of buzzwords in academia.

 

So much so, that as you’re reading this, standardized test manufacturers are working to develop an assessment to find it in students.

 

The agencies that administer the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are close to including character assessments as a measure of student performance.

 

Oh goody!

 

They foresee a brave new world where multiple-choice tests will determine not just the entire scope of human knowledge but character as well!

 

But what no one wants to admit is that grit is… well… shit.

 

It’s just an excuse for a society that refuses to help those most in need.

 

In our world, there are haves and have-nots. But if we stop there, we ignore how and why this situation came to be.

 

Who places kids into segregated schools? WE DO.

 

Who allocates funding based largely on parental income? US.

 

We set kids up to succeed or fail before they even enter the school system with an economy that rewards the already rich and punishes generational poverty.

 

Yet when anyone suggests offering help to even the playing field – to make things more fair – a plethora of policy wonks wag their fingers and say, “No way! They did it to themselves.”

 

It’s typical “blame the victim” pathology to say that some kids get all the love, time and resources they need while others can do without — they just need more “grit” and a “growth mindset.”

 

Life’s tough. Get over it.

 

That’s easy for YOU to say! Because it’s the have’s who make the rules, it’s the people at the top who are telling the people at the bottom they’re to blame for their own suffering.

 

So you forget all the ways society has helped you and yours. YOU deserve all the credit for your successes.

 

But for those people over there, let’s forget all the ways society has refused to help and instead blame THEM for not overcoming the obstacles (we put) in their path.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying effort counts for nothing. But it’s part of a complicated matrix of nature and nurture.

 

Our environments shape us, but we have some control over what we do with what we’re given.

 

Yet as a society, we can’t simply ignore our responsibilities toward others and throw it all on the individual.

 

Good teachers know how to get the best out of their students. We know that most kids – if given a safe, encouraging environment – can succeed.

 

The key often is to scaffold that success. Give them something to do that they can actually master. Then give them something slightly more challenging.

 

You teach them that they have the ability to succeed and success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – and not the opposite.

 

However, the teacher – and even the school, itself – can only do so much.

 

As a society, we need to change the environment in which these kids grow up.

 

We need to fully fund our public schools to meet the needs of all students. That means more funding, services and opportunities for the underserved than for those who already have the best of everything and don’t need to rely as heavily on the school system for support.

 

We need wraparound services, counseling, tutoring, after school programs, community schools, jobs programs, continuing education for adults and other services to help heal the trauma of growing up poor in America.

 

But leaving it all to this magical thing called “grit” is just ignoring our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.

 

When you see someone suffering, you need to help them – not comfort yourself with excuses for ignoring them.


 

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

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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

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!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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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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!

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Resistance to High Stakes Testing Persists as Media Celebrates Its End

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There has never been more opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

 

Yet the corporate controlled media is pretending that the resistance is over.

 

Parents are refusing to let their kids take these tests at the same or even greater numbers than ever.

 

Fewer states require high stakes tests as graduation exams and/or use them to evaluate their teachers. Across the nation, states are cutting the size of standardized tests or eliminating them altogether. And more state legislatures passed laws explicitly allowing parents to opt their children out of the tests.

 

Yet Education Week published an article a few days ago called “Anti-Test Movement Slows to a Crawl.”

 

I think we have different definitions of “Slows” and “Crawl.”

 

That may not be surprising since we also seem to have different definitions of “Anti-Test.”

 

The Opt Out Movement is not “Anti-Test.” It is anti-high stakes standardized test.

 

It is against the federal government forcing states to use corporate written, corporate graded and corporate remediated standardized assessments.

 

It is against the federal government requiring each state to participate in a corporate boondoggle that not only wastes billions of tax dollars that could be better spent to educate children but also unfairly assesses their academic progress and feeds the push to privatize public schools.

 

Most people against high stakes standardized testing, however, have no problem with authentic teacher-created assessments.

 

Calling these folks “Anti-Test” is like labeling those pushing for stricter gun regulations “Anti-Gun” or smearing those protesting government corruption as “Anti-Government.”

 

And that’s just the title!

 

The author Alyson Klein further misdirects readers by conflating opt out rates and test resistance.

 

She implied that the only measure of opposition was the percentage of students who opt out. However, as noted above, there are multiple measures of resistance.

 

 

Moreover, few states advertise their opt out rates. Especially after the movement began, states made that information harder to come by to dissuade more people from joining it.

 

Of those states where information is available, Klein puts the most negative possible spin on the facts in order to make her point – a point that it seems to me is not at all justified.

 

For instance, Klein writes:

 

“At least some of the steam has gone out of the opt-out movement in states such as New Jersey and New York, considered hotbeds of anti-testing fervor.”

 

Really?

 

In New York, Opt out numbers remained at approximately 20% – the same as they have for the past three years.

 

And New York is one of our most densely populated states. That percentage represents more than 225,000 parents across the Empire State who refused to let their children take the tests despite threats from many administrators and district officials for doing so.

 

 

In New Jersey, opt out rates were marginally lower this year than last year. They went from 7% to 5%. But once again New Jersey is a populous state. That percentage represents about 68,500 students.

 

In addition, this is after massive opt outs three years ago that forced the state to change its federally mandated assessment. Testing boycotts pushed the state education association to get rid of four PARCC assessments and allow students who fail the remaining two tests to take an alternative assessment. And this is in a state where there is no law explicitly allowing parents to opt out of the tests.

 

I don’t know if I’d call that running out of steam.

 

Moreover, opt out rates have increased in other states for which we have data. For instance, test refusal is on the rise in heartland states like Minnesota.

 

And it nearly doubled in Utah over the past two years to about 6%. In some schools in the Beehive State, rates are much higher. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 1 in 5 students in the Park City school district refused to take the tests.

 

 

Though my own state of Pennsylvania has been mum on last year’s opt outs, from my own personal experience as a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh, I never had more students boycott our federally mandated standardized test than I did last year.

 

There were so many they had to be quarantined in a special room.

 

Moreover, an increasing number of parents ask me about the issue, express concern and wonder about their rights.

 

So even when examining just the rate of opt out, I don’t see any reason to assume the movement is slowing down.

 

On the contrary, it is picking up steam with multiple victories.

 

As recently as 2012, half of all U.S. states required high school exit exams in order for students to graduate. Today that number has dropped to 12. The reason? Exit exams don’t raise student achievement – they raise the dropout rate. At least that’s what The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences tells us.

 

Another positive sign – seven states have stopped using value added measures (VAM) to judge teachers. This is the highly controversial practice of assessing educators based on their students test scores – a practice that has never been proven fair to teachers or effective in helping students learn. Six states have dropped this requirement altogether: Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Connecticut still gathers the information but cannot use it in the teacher’s “summative rating.” And other states like New Mexico still use value added measures but have reduced the weight given to student test scores.

 

Moreover, let’s not forget how many states have slashed the size of the high stakes tests they’re giving to students. After the recent wave of opt outs and public outcry, state education departments have ensured that testing at least takes up less time. This includes New York, Maryland, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, Illinois, West Virginia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some of this is because the PARCC test used in 21 states was slashed by 90 minutes.

 

And when it comes to opt out, two more states – Idaho and North Dakota – now have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to refuse the test for their children – in whole or in part. That brings the total number of states up to 10. It would have been 11, but Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed an opt-out bill. The federal government still wants us to penalize these districts for non-participation in flagrant violation of its authority. But as more states respect parents’ rights on this matter, it will be increasingly difficult for the U.S. Department of Education to continue trampling them.

 

And speaking of the federal government, some states are taking advantage of the wiggle room in the federal law that governs K-12 education – the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – to allow students to avoid standardized testing entirely. Some states are implementation performance assessments instead. Kids can use a portfolio of classwork to demonstrate learning instead of getting a grade on a corporate-written standardized test. New Hampshire, for instance, has pioneered this approach with a program that now involves half the state’s districts.

 

These are not the signs of a movement that is slowing to a crawl.

 

It just makes sense that some of the rhetoric of the movement may have become less forceful with the enactment of the federal ESSA.

 

Many had hoped for a better law – one that did away with federally mandated testing altogether.

 

And that could still happen sooner than many think. Next year it will be time to reauthorize the law again.

 

It took Congress six years to reauthorize the federal education law last time. Perhaps our duly elected representatives can be coaxed into doing their jobs a bit quicker this time.

 

There is already some proposed legislation to make positive changes. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation last year to replace annual assessments with grade-span tests. The United States is, after all, one of the only countries in the world – if not the only one – to require students be tested every year. These proposed changes are not nearly enough, but they’re a step in the right direction.

 

One of the biggest obstacles to abolishing federally mandated testing last time was that some of the oldest and most well funded civil rights organizations opposed it. Many of them get their money and support from the same billionaires who profit off of the standardized testing and privatization industries.

 

However, that support for testing was short lived. Already the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has revoked it returning to a call for opposition to testing.

 

If our nation survives the many crises of the Donald Trump administration, there is no reason our future cannot be bright.

 

We have the support, we have the tools, we just need the chance to do right by our children.

 

And the pendulum is swinging back our way.


 

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

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

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And that’s good news.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But who teaches that way?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

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

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The State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

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

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

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

 

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

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In short, we integrated.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

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

 

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

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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