Sunday, October 7, 2012

Issue #82 October 7, 2012- Testing and New Contracts

What This Is…
Issue #82- October 7, 2012
In this issue: Standardized Testing, MMSD Educators Under Fire

Testing, "Mapping" a Road to Nowhere
Assessment is a vital part of the educational process.  Educators need to know what their students know and we use assessment to guide our instruction as well as inform us about student progress.  Parents and other adults in students lives want to know where their child stands in their educational development.  Educators share information gathered from assessments, student work and other observations with families in an ongoing effort to support student learning of important skills and information. 

Unfortunately, assessment has become a "tool" used for an entirely different purpose.  So called, "reformers", want to assess children in order to rank and evaluate educators and schools, not to make education better, but to somehow document our success or failure in educating young people.  In doing so, they've turned education into a form of competition where we can identify schools that are successful by their numerical rank or by some other formula based on data collected by standardized testing. 

We have an epidemic of testing that has broken out in our nation's schools and it is deadly to learning and student achievement.  I could spend some more time looking at this issue from a "big picture" perspective, but there is another reality that is much more important than the political or sociological one.  That reality is the one that I work in on a daily basis.  It is populated by a cadre of dedicated educators and caring families.  The primary inhabitants, in fact the ones for which this environment is created for, are the students who come each day to work and learn in my classroom (and in classrooms around our city, state and nation).

We can debate issues and policy forever and never come to a satisfactory conclusion that will please everyone.  However, on an individual basis in classrooms everywhere the success or failure of our public schools is easier to define.  Every year I sit down with families and students and we identify needs and goals for the year.  Over the course of the year there is constant assessment, evaluation and a flow of communication between home and school about the students I serve.  All of us work together to try and find the best ways to make sure that students are learning necessary skills and information that they will need in the future. 

In many cases this isn't a smooth or easy process.  Growth is rarely linear and constant, but the important thing is the collective effort and cooperation between home, school and the community.  We may agree or disagree about the methods we use to educate any given student, but in the end it is the student whose needs take the highest priority.  We try different ideas and utilize different resources, all while maintaining the focus on the child.

This is true for a majority of the school year, but there are too many times where this cooperative effort is disrupted and undermined by the intrusion of mandates from outside sources.  Sometimes these interruptions are simple, isolated problems that are resolved quickly, but there are also some that are symptomatic of a larger pattern that is emerging in our public education system. 

An example of these types of disruptions are the changes implemented for elementary school educators Monday afternoon planning time by MMSD administration.  By taking time that had been available for educators to use independently and using a significant amount of that time for formal professional development or other meetings we lost time to communicate with families and other educators.  In the last round of contract negotiations our district's administration offered the idea of changing staff hours and making us have planning time in the morning, before school.  That is another time when many educators are able to communicate with the families of their students.       

Educators in Madison have fought to try and preserve as much of our previous schedules as possible, and to some degree have been successful.  However, there is another, more disruptive, intrusion into our time with students and our communication with families…standardized testing.  This testing takes up a significant amount of instructional time, undermines student's efforts and results in misleading information that confuses and frustrates families.

How much time is significant?  I knew we spent a lot of time testing, but recently was asked exactly how much and added up the hours.  Between the three MAP sessions, the WKCE, the COGAT and additional testing required by MMSD to meet guidelines imposed by legislation and education policy the number is too high.  You can't forget the amount of time spent preparing for testing in this number as well.  The result?  Specific numbers vary by grade level, but the amount of time used for standardized assessment is extensive.     

More time must also be considered lost as schedules are altered to accommodate testing as well.  Students at this grade level don't just test and then switch to another topic without needing time to recover.  We also want to make sure that they are performing their best so we change our curriculum during these testing periods and reduce their workload.  This results in more lost instructional time for students at all elementary grade levels.  Because different grade levels have different testing requirements and many Madison classrooms have combined grades this adds to the disruptive effects of testing.   

The time lost becomes more significant at lower grades where students are not capable of taking individualized standardized tests and therefore must be tested individually by trained professionals, usually teachers.  The result is that these students who are most in need of instruction lose the learning time with their teacher in exchange for assessment time.    

In many school buildings a tremendous amount of effort is put into attempting to minimize the impact that testing has.  The results are a cobbled together, "best of a bad situation" solution.  What is missing from the current discussion in most schools is not, "How do we make this work" but instead should be, "Why are we contorting our schedules and disrupting our student's educations for these assessments?"  As soon as we move the focus of our discussion away from asking whether our assessments are useful and good for students we lose the true meaning of education and assessment.  We become proxy advocates for testing by adapting our curriculum and schedules to fit the tests not the students. 
The assessments affect individual students in different ways, but the results are rarely positive.  Educators are under pressure to administer these tests and often the testing environment is quite different from the daily classroom environment.  In most Madison classrooms students are encouraged to ask questions, challenge ideas and work cooperatively to learn about any given topic.  Standardized testing is an entirely different situation and many of our students struggle to adapt, even with significant test preparation instruction.

In fact standardized testing creates a negative atmosphere and reduces each student to a number, or box to be filled in.  Exactly the type of situation that we are trying to avoid as we work to engage and motivate our highest risk students.  Because we can't leave any child "behind" we must force students who already have fragile and tenuous connections to school to sit isolated and prove that they are struggling academically.  I won't mention specifics (to protect student anonymity) but I have seen testing negatively impact many students in my years of teaching, and the effects are increasing as the testing becomes more intense and more value is placed on the scores.  Watching students take a standardized test and seeing their heads drop, the tears flow and their frustration build hurts me as an educator. 

Standardized testing forgets that these are children who have a very different idea of what they are doing during the testing than the adults who create the tests do.  I have many examples of this that I have seen during my 15+ years as an educator.  In fact my own experience with standardized testing offers an insight into why we need to take all testing results with a "grain of salt".  I have always tested well, usually scoring quite high, but I remember my mindset wasn't optimal during testing.  As a big baseball fan (and unfortunately for me a Cubs supporter) the A/B/C/D/E choices became the Astros, Braves, Cubs, Dodgers and Expos.  Naturally my default answer was "C", Cubs. 

I've heard my own students talk about their thoughts during testing and the discussions don't increase my faith in the test results.  A recent student said their favorite part of the MAP testing (done on the computer) was "clicking" (believe it or not, this student needed repeated interventions to stay focused during testing).  I've heard many teachers talk about their difficulties in getting students to perform their best on tests that mean little to them personally.  The lack of direct connection to topics we are working on, the seemingly random nature of the questions and the disruptions to school routines all contribute to student's disconnect with the tests.    

We often seem to forget that we are taking students who are young and just developing their skills and shaping their ideas about education.  For the majority of the school year we work closely with them and encourage their progress.  Then during these testing sessions we change our interactions, enforce a whole new strict set of rules and emphasize their performance in different ways.  This makes students feel uneasy and magnifies the importance of the tests in their minds.  It certainly doesn't help that those students who stay up on current events see the importance that adults outside of their school experience place on the test results either. 

The reporting of results provides another set of variables that decreases the usefulness of standardized tests.  It is difficult to convey to families and students what their scores mean.  After students finish their MAP test, their score appears on the final screen.  As we leave the computer lab I find myself besieged by students clamoring to know what a 214, 201, 197, etc. means.  Of course their WKCE scores have an entirely different scale, and other assessments also use different values to measure scores.  As educators we are placed in the position of translating numbers to families when we really should be talking about other aspects their child's education.

The way the test results are used is also troubling.  I have had students who were struggling in significant ways denied access to additional support or Special Education evaluations because their test scores were not low enough.  At the same time I have seen students offered or excluded from TAG recommendations based on these scores.  These things happen even when multiple educators and student's families speak up and advocate for students needs.  The test score becomes the most valued data about a student, while those who know the child best and who have professional experience are left trying to justify their opinions that have been formed by observing the student on a daily basis. 

As an educator I have no problem with accountability.  I expect the most from myself and my students.  I want feedback and constructive opinions from families and welcome evaluations from my administrators.  Accountability isn't the issue here, the real issue is that I want to be held accountable for the right things.  I want my students to be able to lead happy, productive lives and to have an educational background that will support their efforts.  That is what I work towards, not higher test scores that measure vague, ambiguous skills whose value is determined by some source far removed from the lives of my students and their families.    

In the end, the test scores become another way to divide people who attend, support and work in public schools.  Programs and educators are evaluated on the merits of their ability to improve a student's test taking ability while ignoring the fact that these tests are only on measure of student progress.  We have huge issues with equality of opportunity in our society and our educational system reflects the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots". 

Testing our students won't eliminate the Achievement Gaps, but it certainly provides ammunition for those who would radically change our educational system.  Standardized tests can provide some useful data, but shouldn't be employed at the expense of other forms of assessment that will help improve the instruction that students receive.  Until educators, students and families unite to challenge the dogma that standardized testing is a valid and valued way to evaluate our schools and students we will find ourselves continuing down a path that leads to educational ruin.             

Madison Educators, Between a Rock and a Hard Place…
It's difficult to know how to react to the recent negotiations and ratification of contracts for all MTI bargaining units and the AFSCME units who work in MMSD.  On one hand there is relief that we were able to get a contract that protects us through 2014.  On the other hand is the bitter taste left after seeing what the future of public educators in Madison will look like unless we are able to change the existing climate that surrounds our schools.

There is no doubt in my mind that we didn't receive the respect or the contract that we deserve.  I know that conservatives would agree with this statement, but for different (less friendly) reasons.  The contracts that were negotiated leave Madison educators still well off when compared to other school districts or public employee unions in other parts of Wisconsin.  Our negotiating teams were able to preserve many parts of our collective bargaining agreement and even were able to remove the threat of wage reductions for our hard hit hourly employees.  

The protection of a contract for another year gives us more time to work on building support for our efforts to protect public education and more time to work to educate the general public about what is happening in education "reform" movements.  We have an obligation to define our positions regarding education reform and to take the lead in creating an atmosphere that allows for change, while still protecting educators and public education.  It allows educators in Madison a reprieve from the immediate threats of a handbook and the challenges that new policies would bring to our daily labors with students.    

That this was accomplished while we were backed against a wall and had a short negotiating window with little leverage to bargain with is truly remarkable.  It is also a testimony to the support that Madison educators enjoy from the public and from some of the School Board and parts of our administration.  We shouldn't forget that the district didn't have to bargain, but could have waited for the legal challenges to be decided.  Their refusal to consider some of MTI's proposals or to budge on some of their demands showed the disparity in power that exists in current labor/management relations. 

While it would be wonderful if district administration and the educators they employ could work together, it is clear that there are different agendas which make cooperation difficult.  This is extremely unfortunate.  Now is the time when all those involved in public education from the top administrator down should be finding common ground and not fragmenting in the face of the attacks by "reformers".      

There are several troubling things about this current round of negotiations. 
Bargaining with employees should be a reasonable expectation and not considered an act of generosity.  The concept that we were lucky to even get a chance to negotiate a new contract shows just how distorted things have become in Wisconsin. 

Many of the MMSD proposals read like a blueprint that would be supported by educational "reformers" who look to privatize public education.  As it ended, there is still the potential to change the way our schools operate under this new contract.  The antipathy that developed during the Madison Prep debate appeared during the negotiations as MTI was portrayed as an obstacle to student achievement by some MMSD negotiators.

Under current labor conditions it is very difficult to adapt existing contracts to new or different ideas.  In the past contracts could be altered by both parties agreeing to do so and creating formal "amendments" to the contracts.  Now, under Act 10, unions and school districts have lost that flexibility.  Who knows what MTI and MMSD would be able to do if real bargaining could be done. 

The educators who make up MTI are committed to improving student achievement and it is insulting to assume that we aren't.  We are also committed to making sure that educators are treated fairly and that working conditions are reasonable for all educators.  This can sometimes cause difficulties as new programs are implemented, but often results in good dialog that makes for stronger proposals in the long run.  

It is clear that there are those in MMSD who would like to see MTI disappear and be given complete freedom to control the employees in the district.  Some of the sticking points in negotiations showed this to be very true.  For example, all MTI represented employees could pay up to 10% of their health insurance premiums under the new contract.  Teachers, the largest number of MTI members, offered to pick up the entire cost of any insurance premium increases for the other units.  These units have been the most impacted by recent reductions in take-home pay.  However, MMSD refused this, even though it didn't affect student achievement and would not have impacted the district's budget.

The initial proposals offered by the district were a terrifying look into what an employee handbook might look like in the future.  The proposals take us in a direction that leads towards privatization and the struggles that other urban school districts have already encountered.  It is clear that public education in Madison is facing dire threats to its survival. 

Public education needs to be just that, public, and part of this public nature of things is the participation of groups representing all concerned parties.  In the case of public education this means that input from many sources, including educators, needs to be heard.  We can't run our public schools like a business and ignore the concerns of the professionals who staff our schools.  The process that existed prior to Act 10 may not have been perfect, but it allowed multiple perspectives to be heard when issues were bargained.  I hope that future discussions will keep this in mind and that we don't allow any single group to dominate the conversations as we work to improve our schools for all students.

As educators we need to keep this in mind as we work to build connections with the communities we serve.  In some cases MTI is seen as an impediment to progress and we must make it clear that our concerns are presented in ways that reinforce our commitment to making schools good places for everyone to work and learn.       

It is said that in every cloud is a silver lining and that is how educators here must approach the negotiation and ratification of our contracts.  Our negotiating teams and MTI staff won us another year to continue the fight to protect public education and to preserve our labor rights.  Madison has often been a leader in both of these fights and we have the opportunity to be in the forefront again. 

We must use this extra time to build support within the community and to share our message with the general public.  It is distressing that so few in the community know about or understand the importance of public education.  We need to build connections with all parts of the Madison community and develop working relationships with the people who live, work and raise children in this city.  We have to listen to them, recognize their needs and work to build a school district that serves all parts of the population effectively.

We need to clarify our positions and demonstrate the willingness to work with different groups while still protecting the things that we value.  The issues around Madison Prep provide an example of how different organizations that want the same thing can come into conflict.  By clearly articulating our points of view and connecting with other groups, compromises and discussion can occur.  If all parties operate in good faith, with the interests of the students as the primary focus, then positive results will occur. 

Of course all actions have consequences and we can't sacrifice future generations of students by gutting our public education systems in the present.  We have seen how privatization has negatively impacted schools in communities across the nation.  The "tool" used by supporters of privatization has been the need to address a "crisis" in public education.  We should be wary of these quick fixes and look towards building sustainable reforms that are focused on the good of the most students possible.       

MTI's membership must also work to develop solidarity and strength.  Too many of us have been content to let a small number represent our interests.  We are all ambassadors for our union and for public education.  We also can't forget that the things we are losing took years and significant struggle to gain and concessions now mean a repeat of these battles.  We have time, it may be "borrowed", but we do have the opportunity to build an even stronger organization to represent public education and public educators in Madison.  Our efforts will provide support and motivation for other educators around the state, just like the Chicago teachers inspired us. 

We may be tired, we may be angry, we may be disheartened, we may be all that and more.  However, at the same time we are educators and we are proud of our profession, our schools and our union.  The solidarity exhibited during negotiations spread through all MTI and AFSCME units.  Now we need to work on strengthening the bonds that unite us while spreading our solidarity to our community.  Each of us owes our best effort to each other and to our students. 

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