Saturday, January 31, 2015

We Didn't Start the Fire But We Will Fan the Flames

For at least a year, teachers around the nation have been talking about the travesty that is high-stakes testing. As required by the US Department of Education, all students from grades 3-11 must take annual tests that need to show constant improvement. Indeed, with NCLB, the idea is that ALL children will be able to pass these tests or else. “Or else” means sanctions, which can include extra professional development, additional personnel, smaller class sizes, constant documentation of progress, and possible “reconstitution,” that is, replacing the principal and at least 50% of the staff at the non-improving school. Transferring the school to a private for-profit charter organization is also a last-resort possibility along with closing the school and sending the students to neighboring schools or existing charter schools.

Having taught at a school that was identified as failing and received the extra professional development, personnel, and constant documentation, I feel qualified to have an opinion about what works. When we were tagged as a failing school, our scores hovered at the 20% to 40% range for proficient students. We knew our situation was not good but had begun to make changes to improve. Our teaching staff was heavily involved in writing curriculum for math, writing and social studies for the school district. We had changed our Math program to one of 5 that were identified as “reform programs.” We felt a need to do this, as our current math series did not help the students or teachers to “do” meaningful math. We spent two years training our teachers in the new methods of teaching math and had begun to see some success especially in the open-ended questions. We wanted to change reading series but it was an either-math-or-reading budget situation.

When the school district put us in the failing category, we were beneficiaries of tens of thousands of dollars worth of new books for every subject. Luckily, our math series was on the School District’s list of approved series. We received extra professional development in reading and math during the school day to tutor us in the new methods. Our school also got an assistant principal, a Parent Liaison, and an assigned substitute teacher to insure delivery of the curriculum. Class sizes in the lower grades were decreased to a 17:1 ratio.

That was all well and good but with the extra resources came a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth when the District evaluators did their Walk-Through each year. Eight to ten people would fan out across the school with their clipboards and pop in on classes throughout the school. They stayed for 30-45 minutes, observing, checking off items on the checklist and asking kids about what they were learning. Later in the day, teachers would meet with them and get feedback on what they saw. Not much of the feedback was useful but most of it was given in an “I gotcha!” manner of thought. One year they bemoaned the lack of words on the word wall, while the next year they told us word walls were obsolete. Much of the advice given to us was not useful for our students or their teachers. Each year the teachers and principal dreaded their visit.

After three years of walk-throughs and extra supplies, books and personnel our school finally showed the progress demanded by NCLB and we were removed from the restructured schools region of the district. Unfortunately, along with the removal of the label of failing school, came the removal of all of the supports we had been given, and within 8 years, we were back in the failing category.

Back to high-stakes testing, what had helped our teachers be able to improve the scores of the students? It was the extra professional development, the smaller class sizes, the assistant principal to handle discipline, the Parent Liaison who set up educational programs for parents, and the assigned substitute teacher who knew the kids and their potential. These were the things that helped us boost our scores. When they were removed, so was our progress. Why?

It was not because we had bad teachers, who became good then bad again. It was because children who live in high-poverty situations needed extra help to get them on a path to educational success. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods start school behind their middle class counterparts and then continue losing ground as school continues. Because of poor pre-natal care, healthcare availability, unstable families, trauma and violence, and insecure home and food situations, our students need safe schools that provide the care and support that they need in order to succeed. Testing them without providing the support is not going to give them what they need. Hanging promotion and graduation on these tests will not make the students perform better if they don’t have the extras.

Some students will still have trouble passing the tests even with the extra supplies and personnel because they are in Special Education classes or are English Language Learners. Children with certain disabilities need instruction and assessment that comes from their specific learning methods. Taking a bubble test in material that is two or more years above their instructional level will not lift them up to their grade level. It will only serve to frustrate them and decrease what self-esteem they have left. English Language Learners are required to take the tests after only one year of instruction in English. Imagine moving to a foreign country, being immersed in the new language and after only one year being required to read and write at the level of the rest of your grade-mates. They are doomed to fail the tests and so be denied promotion or refused a diploma. And their teachers will be evaluated on their scores.

Teacher evaluation is but one reason that high stakes tests are damaging. I have personally witnessed special ed kids and emotionally fragile students crumble under the standardized test format and lack of appropriate accommodations. Students who had come a long way during the year, from not completing any assignments to being able to do half of what the other students did on grade level, were completely frustrated during the test and ran out of the room, unable to take the rest of the test. These students were capable of doing grade level work without the great stress of the high-stakes tests, but unable to show progress having to take the tests without accommodations. How many children need just a pat on the back, frequent breaks, fewer questions, or a confident “You can do this!” to complete the tests, none of which we can offer because of test security. Yet, their school success is incumbent on their ability to do the tests. Limited-English students are forced to read passages that are far beyond their level of understanding and answer questions that are tricky and vocabulary specific. What chance do they have of succeeding in school if this is the only way they are assessed that matters?

Last year, tens of thousands of parents refused to allow their children to take the standardized tests. This year, the city of Chicago decided not to administer the PARCC test to its students this year for the above reasons. The movement has spread across the nation and finally has caught up to Philadelphia. Last year only 16 students opted-out of the testing, while this year100 parents from one school, Feltonville, have chosen to refuse the testing. Many of the students are ELL or special ed students who have little chance of passing and much chance at frustration. Six teachers at the school have taken it upon themselves to educate the parents to their rights to opt-out their children. Although the parents are sent reams of information about the tests, they are not told about their rights to opt-out. The teachers passed out flyers and held meetings off school property so as not to take school time.  

Why did they do this? Because their students are the most educationally vulnerable and they have no one else to stand up for them besides their parents and teachers. The School District has set up some disciplinary actions against the teachers to be announced at a future date. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Caucus of Working Educators, the Badass Teachers Association, and some members of Philadelphia City Council have expressed their appreciation and support of the efforts of the Feltonville 6.

The rest of the school faculties in the city schools need to fan the flames of the fire that the Feltonville 6 started. The fire needs to spread throughout the state of Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation to grab education back from the corporate education “reformers” and put it back into the hands of educators, who have the knowledge and the welfare of the students at heart.

Still learning!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Standards Don't Require Standardized Testing

While reading an article on LinkedIn the other day, I was taken aback by the author's acceptance that standardized tests follow naturally from standards, and that teachers should accept that reality and quit complaining.

The author stated,  "As teaching methods and content changed through the centuries, along with the number and type of students, so too the assessment methods have also had to change. From the informal testing of Socrates, to more formal testing such spelling and math tests as called for by Horace Mann, to the creation of what we know today as the College Board in 1900, the creation of more in-depth standardized testing seemed almost inevitable. " 

I take umbrage with that thought that standards can only be measured by standardized tests and are the great, modern way to assess learning, especially the annual high-stakes testing perpetrated by Bush's NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and Obama's RttT (Race to the Top).

National Standards have been in place long before 1994. I am very familiar with the Math Standards from the 1980s when I began 20 years of remedial math teaching. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)had wonderful standards way back then and offered alternate assessments and instruction for students who needed it. The most important difference between the NCTM standards and the Common Core (CCSS) standards is that TEACHERS wrote the NCTM standards, piloted them and revised them as needed. The Common Core standards were very short on input from teachers, relying mainly on non-educators to write them. In fact, not even ONE early childhood educator was involved in the K-3 standards as evidenced by the inappropriate developmental demands of the CCSS. In addition, the states can only revise 15% of the standards. And it's a laugh calling them the Common Core STATE Standards because the only thing the states did was rubber stamp them even before they were fully written.

With the emphasis on differentiation and the prominent place it occupies in the various teacher evaluation rubrics, it is curious how a standardized test can be the be-all and end-all of testing. Standardized tests cannot measure how persevering a child is when solving a problem, how creative they are in thinking of alternate solutions, how compassionate they are to fellow students, how joyful they are when reading a good book, how the finally got enough self-esteem to participate by raising their hand and giving their opinion, How well they are able to connect math and science, etc. They only measure one small aspect of what a child learns. Standardized tests are good only for that part of the population who are good at that form of testing. Differentiated learning requires differentiated assessment, like presentations, discussion, power points, writing a book, play, letter or newscast, explaining to a peer, drawing and art work, singing or acting out, building something, etc. The current tests do not cater to any of the strengths of children who may learn differently than just reading and writing, and today's teachers are required to use what is appropriate for the children in their class, using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strategies like the above to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

 Another problem with the current trends, is that standardized tests results are currently being used to evaluate teachers, despite the American Statistical Association insisting that the test can only be used to measure information on students, not teachers. In addition, the Value Added Metric, which is used to make the standardized testing results “equitable” has been also debunked by the same statistical organization. It’s is junk science. Indeed, the Department of Education is even extending the test results to evaluate the teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities. If you can't statistically extend the results to teachers, then extending them even further would make the junk science junkier.

 But the fact that standardized testing follows along 'naturally' from the Common Core is really not far fetched at all considering the fact that David Coleman recruited standardized test makers. David Coleman is NOT an educator but a businessman, as are many of the standards writers for the CCSS. In fact, he is inextricably linked to the College Board as he is its president.  Coleman wrote the ELA standards and will profit from them, not only for K-12 but beyond. Even more curious, David Coleman is intimately connected to Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, which promotes VAM, using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, and privatizing public schools. He only has to profit from the Common Core Standards and the subsequent tests, which will be used to close public schools and fire good teachers.

 So no, standardized testing does not have to be accepted without protests by teachers, students and parents. Life-altering decisions should not be based on the results from a test given on 10 days out of 180. the 40 days of high school testing account for only 5% of the time the students are in school. How can you place so much emphasis and the treat of not graduating on 5% and ignore 95% of the work the student has done in school? One test should not be the only thing graduation requirements should look at, day-to-day performance and portfolio work will give a better indicator of high school learning. There is nothing good in using high-stakes standardized testing for schools, students, or teachers - only for the corporations who are profiting from them.

Still learning!

Friday, January 9, 2015

No Soldier Left Behind, budget woes

Normally, I write about education topics, but today is different. It did make me think about the educational act with the misnomer No Child Left Behind, though. Like NCLB, this situation with the military needs to change. Here are my thoughts.
While looking at a pie graph of spending categories on the US Budget, I couldn’t help but notice that the budget for the military eats up about 23% (if you count retirees & medical) of the total US monies available. ~20% of this is set aside for the various wars the nations is involved in. Education sits down there at 2.6% of the available funds. The war effort uses more than 8 times what is allotted for education. The total military budget is 240 times the education budget.

I realize that the Federal government doesn’t have much control over education, or didn’t until No Child Left Behind and its evil sister, Race to the Top. The Feds oversee certain aspects such as Special ED through the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The IDEA establishes procedures and timelines for teaching, testing and evaluating students with disabilities. But even the IDEA has recently been watered down to eliminate some of the responsibilities of the government, and ultimately the school, for those children. However, the US Department of Education (DOE) continues to mandate changes to curriculum, assessment, and teacher training and evaluation, that require additional funds without providing the states with sufficient money to implement those federal mandates.

Both the military and education budgets are part of the 39% total set aside for “discretionary” money that must be voted on each year by Congress. Many important things are in this discretionary portion – military expenses, federal and military retirees, veteran affairs, environment, justice, international affairs, for example. Except for the military slice, the money allotted to the rest of the categories ranges from 1% (Science) to 2.8% (Transportation).

During the high strung budget talks in Congress each year, there is always talk of decreasing funds for the military personnel, medical, education and retirees, even though these items only comprise about 4% of the total military money available. Indeed, the price of one specialized military plane will take care of all vets and their needs for decades at this point.  Why can’t we lessen the funds available for military hardware and contractors, and put it toward the veterans’ benefits and military pay? So many military families make so little they qualify for food stamps.

I think it’s time to rethink the allotments to current and former military personnel and reduce the rest of the military budget, redistributing that money to the discretionary items sitting at only 1% to 2.8% allotment. Just increasing each of those by 1% would enable them to do their jobs thoroughly and efficiently and perhaps even create jobs, especially in the needed transportation infrastructure.

Right now, all we have is a series of yearly cuts to the budgets of the departments that desperately need more funding. It’s as if we took education’s No Child Left Behind (which really resulted in Every Child Left Behind), and have instituted No Soldier Left Behind (NSLB). It seems it’s working just as well as NCLB.

Time for a change. No Soldier Left Behind has to go.
To see one of many critiques about No Child Left Behind, click below.

Still learning!