Sunday, October 23, 2011

Issue #30 October 23, 2011- The Economy, Recall Unions and Testing

Issue #30- October 23, 2011
In this issue: The Economy, Recall, Union Building, Occupy, and the Effects of Testing

It's the Economy, Stupid…
As we move further into the presidential election cycle the differences in economic philosophy between the two parties becomes clearer.  I won't pretend to believe that the Democrats are exempt from the influence of big money.  We all know that both parties are heavily lobbied and that the 1% have a huge say in the actions of politicians at all levels and from both major parties.  That being said, there is at least a small difference between the parties and what they are proposing to help our country's economy recover.

The major difference centers on the role of government in the economy.  The Republicans continue to move farther and farther down the path of less government and a more unregulated business/industrial environment.  The idea that we should be taxed less and have more freedom plays well to the sound bite crowd.  Yet, there is a different underlying (or is it underlieing) reality at work here.  When you look closely at most Republican ideas there is a specific group that benefits from their proposals.  For example…

It's true in Washington D.C. and it's true in Wisconsin.

Guess what, the trickle down idea doesn't work and should be fully discredited by now.

While politicians argue details and position themselves for electoral success, the American Public suffers.

Recall Walker…
The excitement in Wisconsin is growing as we near the November 15th recall kickoff date.  The reasons for recall continue to multiply (unlike the jobs available in WI).

Be sure to keep your eye out for opportunities to work towards a successful recall.  This is a high stakes political move for the progressives in Wisconsin and deserves everyone's best effort.  We know the conservatives will be pulling out all the stops to save Walker.  State election law allows for unlimited fundraising for elected officials targeted in a recall.  The spending in this race should be astronomical and progressives will need to rely on volunteer efforts to combat the corporate money.  Remember that even with the "fat-cat" unions giving money to the summer recalls the Republican candidates still outspent Democrats by a relatively slim margin.  With the centerpiece of their attack on the middle class under attack I imagine the contributions to Walker's campaign will flood in.

We can't forget that we need to get enough signatures to recall Walker first.  Another issue is to make sure that all people have the necessary documentation to vote.  Organization becomes vital and progressives must use the strong networks they built over the summer to make this effort a success.

Union Building
With all the "big picture" political and economic issues taking the forefront, it can be easy to forget the common everyday individual.  As unions and other organizations gear up for the recall of Walker and the presidential elections they can't turn their attention away from their membership.  Look at the data from all the actions Republicans have been implementing and it is clear that the workers on the lower end of the pay scale have been hit the hardest.  These workers typically have the fewest resources and rely on the safety nets currently being slashed. 

Unions exist to protect their membership and provide hope and opportunity for their members.  They work to create safe and positive work environments for the workers.  The political activism that unions are engaged in is very important.  Without a positive political climate unions will struggle to  engage in the necessary actions to improve the status of their membership.  Nowhere is that more clear than here in Wisconsin.

At the same time union leadership must remember that many of their members are under significant financial and emotional stress.  They must work to maintain the safety nets and social networking that help workers make it through tough times, like those that currently exist.  This is a critical time period for labor unions in America.  By joining together and supporting workers the union movement can rejuvenate and even gain strength.  However, the possibility also exists that unions could suffer serious setbacks and even be destroyed in the current climate.

It is not just union leadership that is responsible for the success or failure of the union movement here.  All union members must work to support each other and promote their union.  A union is its members and all of us must work together to rebuild the power of the worker in the political and economic spheres.  We must look for ways to support each other and build for a positive resolution to our current crisis.  Now is the time for all workers who want to preserve their rights to step forward and get involved in rebuilding the labor movement.  It starts with each individual and the movement will not succeed without active worker participation.       

Wall St. and Protests…
The "Occupy" movements continue to experience growing pains, yet are still an increasing force in political and economic discussions.  In many ways the movement looks like Wisconsin in February.  People gather together and protest in a positive and peaceful manner.  What appears different is the fact that the Wisconsin protests started with a relatively specific focus, to preserve collective bargaining rights for public employees.  It's true that the Wisconsin movement grew to encompass many more issues and groups, but the initial efforts focused on that central point. 

It appears that the "Occupy" protestors have a more wide ranging set of concerns.  Much has been made of the supposed lack of focus in the media.  Reports paint the protesters as a group of people who are simply upset with current conditions in America.  At worst they label the protesters as lazy, unmotivated people who want the government to provide for them what they won't work for.  Once again, we can draw parallels to what has been said about public workers in Wisconsin.

The protests are drawing attention toward the widening gap between classes in America.  We are becoming a nation of a small number of elite "haves", and a large number of "have nots".  Every issue raised by the protesters comes back to the central point, our nation is divided on class lines.  The examples of this are too numerous to even begin to mention.

When one looks at the vast amount of information that is being shared about the stratification of our society it is difficult to understand why anyone could possibly support the agenda that is currently being promoted by legislators and executives in all 50 states and at the Federal level.  How is it that the American public can buy into deregulation of the financial and industrial sectors?  How can the people support privatization of vital services? 

The general public is being mislead by the use of fear and hope.  Fear of the unknown, fear of those different from "us", fear of change, fear of…  These fears lead to a response where individuals try to hold on to what they have and know.  They cause division between groups and make it easier to control the masses.  Hope is used to counter the fear and provide the idea that anyone can become one of the elite.  It is interesting that the very wealthy are portrayed as regular hard working types and the middle class public worker is portrayed as lazy and un-American.

I feel that one of the major impacts that mass protests can have is to force the media to begin to discuss the current problems we face in America.  Without mass movements it is too easy to simply sweep our challenges under the rug.  A typical news report could just mention an unpleasant item and then move on to a human interest story.  With mass protests the media is slowly being forced  to continue mentioning the unpleasant reality of the current social, economic and political situations in our nation.
Testing and Teacher Accountability…
There is no question that high-stakes testing has changed the way we educate our children here in the United States.  I really want to believe in the good intentions of the legislators who passed laws like NCLB.  I hope that their motivation was truly to improve the quality of the educational system here in America.  In many ways, their intentions don't really matter, what matters is the reality that educators are being forced to deal with in the present day.

That reality is one where schools are being forced to have all children reach a level of proficiency that is unattainable.  If schools and school districts don't meet that goal of 100% proficiency then they face a serious of increasing punishments.  Schools must spend valuable time preparing for and administering tests.  The curriculum must be altered to provide students with the best opportunity to succeed in testing.        

The debate over testing has been raging for many years.  Those who favor testing speak of the need to hold schools and educators accountable for making sure our students are prepared to compete in the global marketplace.  They argue that it is the educators who are standing in the way of progress and true reform of our antiquated school systems.  Schools should be run like a business with clearly defined goals and measurement tools available to demonstrate our success or failure in educating children.  The cornerstone of the business model is testing.  Test scores become the bottom line in education, they show our "profit" or our "loss" for any given student.

The results have not been positive.  Using the "bottom line" of test scores, American schools are clearly failures.  Gains in test scores have been marginal and identified problems like the achievement gap between different groups has remained wide.  These results are then used to document the "crisis" in our educational system and are used to push for reforms.  These reforms take the shape of sanctions and choice. 

Once again, there are many, more scholarly, works out there that document the statistics around the effects of testing and NCLB.  I risk sounding like Herman Cain with his, "I don't have facts to back this up," statement, but I encourage anyone interested to research the facts about testing and the numbers associated with it.  I do have facts to back up my statements about testing but in the interest of brevity simply want to share what I know and what I've seen (in my 16+ years of teaching) to be the destructive effects of testing on our schools.

Standardized Testing and Its Victims

The major complaint that I have about testing is that it has become the only measuring stick used to evaluate a school.  Debate over what or how to teach now ends with whether we will see gains in student test scores.  We worry about the effect that a new idea will have on test scores and fail to worry about what should really matter.  Whenever I see any information about schools, test scores are almost always used to determine if a school is "good" or "bad".   

 The other side to this is that the tests that we use fail to meet the criteria I established to be effective.  Educators don't see the results of state testing until the end of the year.  The data we receive takes significant time to evaluate and is usually simply given as a raw score that is of little value.  The timing of the testing in Wisconsin (November) means that students are tested on material that they may not have studied in depth yet.  Students are tested in a format that they aren't as comfortable with. 

Many students are "bored" by the testing.  It is a long process that disrupts almost 2 weeks of their school year.  My most creative students struggle with multiple choice answers and often try to think about the answers in different ways.  They don't like being forced to accept one answer, especially when answering questions about their reading.  A great example of what a creative student did during testing happened in my room a few years ago.  A student spent a great deal of time computing the amount of paper wasted in the test booklets.  They added all the pages that were "intentionally left blank" in their booklet and figured out how many 4th graders were in the school.  Then they estimated how many schools there were in Madison and proceeded to try and figure out the waste for the whole state.  I doubt this activity improved their test score, but I could certainly see the educational merit in their pursuit.  It involved more mathematical thinking than anything that appeared on the test.  We actually did some more research after the test and the student was engaged in their extra project for over a week.

The questions are often either culturally insensitive or misleading.  A question on a past math test showed this clearly.  The graph asked students to name the most reasonable range for the age of a 4th graders grandparent.  Many students of poverty got that one wrong on the test, but correct based on their personal experiences.  Test questions that are biased and this can cause "minority" students to do worse than their "majority" counterparts.  Different cultures put emphasis on testing in different ways.  Language barriers also present a challenge to accurately assessing a student's knowledge.  Idioms and other figures of speech can be misleading for students who either don't understand the context or who lack experience in using language in the manner they are being tested in. 

Somehow, we have lost sight of the reason we are educating our students.  We are educating students so that they can become happy and productive members of society.  We are giving them the background and the skills to live a successful life.  This success is measured to a great extent by the individual.  Each student is a human being with different strengths, skills and interests.  Not every student is going to be successful on a standardized test, and this is true for many different reasons.  It is sad to note that those who speak strongly about the need for individual freedom seem to want to define success for others in such a coercive way.

As testing has become more widespread and entrenched in our educational system we have seen a decline in the amount of teaching done in areas outside the ones that "count".  Reading, language arts and math are the content areas used to evaluate schools.  Not surprisingly these are the areas that are emphasized in terms of time and training.  We now have so much time mandated for these areas that many teachers don't have time to teach science, social studies or other topics on a regular basis.  The arts, physical education and other areas also are devalued by testing. 

The format for teaching students becomes more and more geared to teaching basic skills.  Students can decode words, find details in a story, solve computation problems in math, etc.  But, they don't get as much exposure to creative problem solving and issues that exist in the "real world".  The students who struggle the most and who have the fewest (typically) out of classroom educational opportunities are penalized the most.  They are drilled and their interest in learning is killed as their teachers prepare them for testing and not learning.

In the end, whatever the intentions of the proponents of testing intended, the overall effect of standardized testing has been destructive for our schools.  We have devoted a huge amount of energy toward solving a problem that we've created.  The amount of time and effort used to try and improve test scores (and not succeed in the attempt) could have been better used by educators in the classroom.  Some of our best education policy minds have devoted their energy to testing and not to education.  We have spent the better part of two decades "Tilting at Windmills" and have not used our resources to work for the betterment of all students.

While I truly believe that the effects of NCLB and standardized testing have been harmful to our schools, I don't believe that our schools are failing.  Whether a school is failing or not is a very difficult thing to assess.  A school, teacher, curriculum, etc. may have a positive effect on one student and a negative effect on another.  It is the fact that we don't have any real quantifiable statistics to measure school success that causes our policy makers such difficulty.  Test scores, graduation rates, etc. are all statistics that are easily manipulated to show any result.  Once again I direct you to look at the data available and see how different studies use the same data to reach different conclusions.  These conclusions are typically based on the researcher's bias and are used to justify a certain point of view. 

We do have significant difficulties in our education system.  However, the majority of those difficulties are mirror images of the challenges in our larger society.  Poverty, race issues, gender issues, etc. all make educating students more difficult and also "test" our society as a whole.  We all want a quick fix that will make everything work smoothly for everyone.  That just doesn't exist.  No amount of testing will ever make a difference when it is used to punish the people who are working to help someone out of a challenging situation.

What testing does do, is force large numbers of students who were already struggling to either conform to a monolithic way of learning or else leave the system.  Students who enter school already must make extra progress or be identified as "in need of improvement".  Once again, we are using test scores and not necessarily using a true measure of their ability.  As the years go by those students are continually remediated and taught the basics.  Their counterparts who are testing at an acceptable level are given more opportunities to experience real world situations and learn in more creative ways.  I have seen students who can solve very difficult problems using appropriate strategies in their classroom work struggle with the format of a test.  Maybe it is a single word that trips them up, maybe they think in a different way about the problem, whatever the case their score doesn't reflect their overall knowledge and progress. 

What testing also does is work to create an atmosphere where we are preparing students for work that isn't engaging or creative.  Once again, schools exist to get students ready for their lives and to provide them with the basic knowledge and skills that will allow them to have choices in their futures.  It is interesting to note that our national discussions on education focuses so much on the "fact" that American children aren't prepared to compete in a global economy, yet our tests don't prepare them to become entrepreneurs.  Our testing system prepares them to follow instructions and to try and identify what others think is important.

I could add much more about the concept of competition with schools internationally.  However, once again everything that is published is skewed by the bias of the researcher or author.  We also have limited, and I believe invalid data to base our comparisons on.  I would simply say that comparisons between schools in the United States and those in other countries are typically comparisons of apples to oranges using different units of measurement (perhaps metric and standard?).

I always try to provide some potential solutions when I discuss a problem.  I can certainly complain with the best, but simply stating a problem doesn't help us make progress toward solving it.  The issues confronting education are vital to our long term success as a society and must be addressed in positive ways.  So what can be done to "fix" the current system?

Testing must be returned to its proper place in education.  It can't be used as the sole evaluation of educational progress, nor can it be used as a way to identify schools for punishment.  Instead assessments must be used by the educators on site to identify areas that schools need to address when improving the overall education of all students.  Administrators and educational leaders should help use their expertise to develop appropriate and useful assessments.  The atmosphere of a school or district must be one where teachers are allowed to admit the shortcomings of their curricula so that they can be addressed.       

Unfortunately, here in Wisconsin we seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

How can we get the policy makers and the general public to change their attitude about testing?

There is an existing movement to have families opt out of testing.  Could a mass boycott of testing be a way to attract attention to the issue?  Certainly organized protesting seems to be a wave that is sweeping through many areas of our society.  What would happen if a majority of families requested that their children aren't tested? 
From the Wisconsin DPI website:
When is parent opt-out allowable?

When a parent or guardian requests that the student be excused from participating in the WKCE or the WAA-SwD, this request must be honored at grades 4, 8, and 10, per Wis. Stats. 118.30 (1r) 2.3. This request may come at anytime during the testing window. While not directly addressed by state statutes, districts may choose to honor parent requests to excuse their child from the WKCE or the WAA-SwD testing at grades 3, 5, 6, and 7, at their discretion on an individual basis. All students excused by parent opt-out count as “not tested” students for determining Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The parent opt-out excuses the student from participation in the entire WKCE or WAA-SwD.

You may notice that opting out of the testing will impact the school and the school district.  A school with a high number of students opting out will be targeted for sanctions under the current system.  However, opting out is an option that could be used effectively as a method of drawing attention to the ills of testing. 

      Back to School Advice: Opt out of Standardized Tests - emPower ...

At the very least educators and families need to work together to begin to shape our nation's education policy in more positive ways.  Given President Obama's current ideas for reform there is some potential for us to have an effect on policy.  However, the current administration still seems to have a reliance on testing and choice that continues to give educators reason to doubt Obama's credibility regarding education policy.

Obama Announces No Child Left Behind State Waivers : NPR

 No Child Left Behind Bills Proliferate After Obama Announces ...

 Now is the time for all citizens to become informed about our education system and be ready to vote for candidates that understand what is necessary to support and improve our schools.  School board elections, long overlooked, become very important.  Citizens who are informed and who truly want to improve our schools need to be advocates for the students and families who rely on our public education system to improve their economic and social situations.  Too many politicians and uniformed citizens have had their say in shaping education policy for our country.  There is no way to "de-politify" public education, but there is a need to have informed, committed leadership making policy for American schools.    

As citizens are educated about education they will begin to see the absurd nature of comparing schools to businesses.  That analogy has been used to try and justify the reforms to education and the need for competition between schools.  Schools are the opposite of business in almost all ways.  The idea that a business model will work for education has moved education backwards and will continue to decimate public education.  Our educational policies must reflect a total change in thinking and only then will true "reform" occur.  Until then it is the job of all educators and families to work to make sure each child is respected and educated.

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