Sunday, September 22, 2013

#131- More Contract, Less Data

Collective Bargaining…
MTI, AFSCME and MMSD have agreed to begin bargaining for contracts that will run beyond the end of the current school year!!  While hailed as good news by most who work in the schools, this is sure to raise the ire of citizens who believe that Act 10 and other policies are positive steps in "reforming" our state's budget and labor relations policies. 

Conservatives have put significant effort into promoting the ideas that unions are irrelevant and unwanted, and that public educator unions actually stand in the way of improvements in our public schools.  To a large extent it would appear that they've been successful in their efforts.  In 2010 the, over 400 public school systems in Wisconsin, were each operating under collective bargaining agreements.  In 2013 only 4 such agreements are in effect.  By 2014 there could only be 1 if MTI is able to negotiate successfully with MMSD.  The remainder of the school districts will employ handbooks that are created by administration and school boards with educators on the outside looking in at their creation.  Along the way we've heard many lies about the opinions of workers in our state, lies about the impacts of Act 10 and hateful rhetoric designed to inflame public opinion against public educator unions.

MTI and AFSCME members have conflicting emotions around the negotiations.  There is no doubt that the vast majority are hopeful that we will see a contract emerge that continues to provide the benefits, conditions and protections that members deserve.  There is also the pride in our union and the confidence in our leadership that I hear expressed on a daily basis. 

Along with these positive emotions, come the fear that we will lose more of the things that we value in our contracts.  Things like planning time and educator independence have all been reduced in previous negotiations, held under less than favorable circumstances.  We also dread the inevitable educator bashing and union bashing that inevitably accompanies any public discussions involving our union and the district.

Yet, the positives in a new contract outweigh the negatives by a wide margin.  Among the most significant are the legal protections that a collective bargaining agreement provide school district employees.  We need these protections if we are to continue the fight to advocate for ourselves, and more importantly, the students and families we serve.  New evaluation systems, expanding efforts to "reform" our schools and other policy changes leave us vulnerable to the whims of the current educational environment.  Something that doesn't benefit the majority of those who work and learn in our schools.   

In the end we may not achieve all that we want in our negotiations, yet we do achieve two vitally important things.  We hold on to hope, and we maintain our ability to continue the struggle on terms that we have had a voice in creating.  A voice that our school board and administration need to listen to, and to respect.  If our staff is truly the resource that we hear those in authority say they believe it to be, then we deserve a contract that gives us the "tools" we need to do our jobs well and lets us know we are valuable parts of the school system.    

Data Driven, In the Wrong Direction…
The latest buzzwords and trends in education focus around the theme of data.  We collect data, we analyze data, and of course we are supposed to use data to improve the quality of education for our students.  Data is supposed to be the central justification for any action that educators make.  We should be able to use data to identify problems, plan solutions and determine if our efforts were successful. 

It all seems to make perfect sense and turns educational efforts into easily understood and readily evaluated enterprises.  Educating students becomes a series of "if, then" statements.  If we do this, then we will see students respond and achieve in this way.  Educational policy makers from all sides of the issue are being swept along in this flood of data.  Well meaning advocates for students and public education find themselves joining the call for using data to drive instruction.  This type of thinking is not revolutionary.  Educators have been using data to help guide instruction and to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts forever.    

Merriam-Webster defines data as, "Factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation."  In other words, data is concrete, measurable and can be clearly defined.  Traits that reduce education to a series of points on a graph, or a collection of facts that we learn.  We can identify a good student because the data tells us that they are proficient of advanced, and we can recognize problems when students fall into basic or minimal categories. 

What then is the problem that educators are having with data in our current educational climate?  For me, there is a distinct difference between data from assessments being used as a part of planning curriculum and evaluating student progress, and the idea that our educational efforts will be "Data Driven".  In the former, data is one piece of the puzzle.  In the latter, data is the entire picture and it eliminates any other potential tools that can be used to improve the educational outcomes for all of our students.     

When we define success purely by data we face the potential to turn the quest for knowledge into a linear progression that centers on the acquisition of facts.  Learning becomes a step by step process, the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers piece of artwork.  Students become trapped in a system that doesn't allow for growth in other directions or in leaps that move them outside of accepted pathways.  We narrow our definitions of intelligence, limit student achievement, reduce educator effectiveness and simplify our analysis of educational outcomes to the point that they are rendered meaningless.   

There is a distinct difference between assessments that guide instruction and the belief that assessment drives instruction.  To me, guiding instruction implies a place for assessment that is equal to other aspects of the educational process.  A guide is a person or resource that is with a group of equal and equally committed partners.  Guides lead us, where we all want to go.  Guiding is gentler and more responsive to the needs of those being directed.  On the other hand, driving seems to imply a more forceful and less cooperative approach.  We drive cattle, we don’t guide them.  When we drive in any direction we have a direct and specific purpose.  I return to the days of long family trips where the driver chose the radio station, the destination, the pace and the stops along the way.  A driver is in total control and dictates the journey, a guide is a leader who facilitates a journey. 

Assessment has become the driver of virtually everything in our schools.  Instead of being a part of the process, it is the process.  We have become so fixated on identifying problems and quantifying our efforts to address these issues that we have forgotten about meaningfully educating our students.  We ignore the multiple intelligences that exist in our students.  By focusing on testing we miss the brilliance that exists, and the sheer joy of learning new things.  I watch my students struggle to answer A, B, C, or D when they really want to talk about the possibility of E.  I hear from families that, because of the need to address academic concerns identified by assessment, their child hasn't received science or social studies instruction during previous school years.  I hear that my instruction should focus on using literature to validate teaching points and expand skills, not to build my students ability to really read and think for themselves. 

Educational decision makers can speak all they want about the importance of assessment, they can trumpet the need to make sure we close every Gap.  What they can't do is convince me that the scores on my students achievement tests define my students as learners, or more importantly as people.  The drive to close our Achievement Gaps focuses on the wrong place.  We want our students to test well, even if they don't learn well.  Education becomes a job.  A job with clear pathways and outcomes.  Scoring proficient or advanced on an achievement test doesn't make a student well educated, but it does give the appearance of success.

The emphasis on testing impacts the curriculum and climate of a school in many ways.  The time taken gathering data to drive our instruction, eliminates time to give instruction.  Educators in my building are grappling with the reality that there are more tests to administer, less support given to administer these tests and less time to build the sense of community that will allow our most challenged students a chance to thrive.  Imagine coming to school as a child and having the majority of your initial interactions with adults at school be based around individual assessments, not on learning.

The pressure on our schools and our students to achieve on tests is very real.  Take for example the DPI School Report Cards.  These are issued at the beginning of every year and rate schools based on a variety of criteria.  The public sees the scores, but little deep analysis is done.  A significant portion of the report card is based on testing.  Testing that is done in November of every school year.  A month that follows the initial wave of assessments in September and the MAP testing that occurs in September and October.  Students are tested before they are instructed and schools are judged on the results.  No matter how much we say we are going to not "teach to the test", the reality is that our educational environment is shaped by these assessments.  We have little choice, but to give assessment a prominent place in our schools.  

Assessment takes resources away from education and transfers it to testing.  Our efforts to refine assessment don't come without a hefty price tag.  Yet, these valuable funds don't really end up helping students, they go to the makers of the tests. 

All the assessment and data in the world won't address the root causes of our student's struggles.  Knowing what they don't know isn't the answer to improving educational outcomes.  All of the assessments don't provide us with significantly more information than educators can already gather as they work with students.  Instead, the assessments cement a sense of failure in our students who already have a fragile sense of self in school.    

As assessment gains more and more power in the educational system we find that it eliminates educator responsibility, educator creativity and puts students in categories that are difficult to escape.  Educators give assessments and then respond to the assessments using prescribed methods of addressing concerns that are raised by a student's scores.  We turn education into a bureaucracy and a formulaic delivery of isolated skills.  Students who test well are allowed some latitude in learning because they have achieved basic "core" skills.  Students who don't test well, are trapped in a cycle of remediation.  We use data to reassure ourselves that we are correct in our instruction of students, even if the data measured may not consistently provide information of significance. 

Educators who speak out against this new data driven system are criticized and soon will be evaluated on their adherence to the prescribed methods of educating students.  Half of our evaluations will be based on "Professional Practice".  As we lose the protections that we've negotiated over the years we are vulnerable to discipline if we don't adhere to the programs that our districts purchase and promote.  Of course the other half of the evaluation will be based on student achievement, another way that data drives our system. 

Data driven instruction, and multiple assessments also are used to justify the "reforms" that are promoted by policy makers.  We use data to make broad policy decisions that supposedly improve the quality of instruction.  Yet in the years following NCLB, with all the emphasis on trying to close the "Test Score Gaps" we haven't succeeded.  Instead we've created a culture of assessment and remediation that promotes stagnation and segregates our schools.  As we slowly have eliminated NCLB we find ourselves trapped by Race to the Top, Common Core and other reforms. 

Data driven schools are more segregated and the "reforms" do little to help students who have traditionally struggled in our schools.  Most of my students who are part of the Achievement Gaps, are people who learn in less traditional ways.  By testing them endlessly, identifying what they don't know, battering their self esteem, and then putting them in situations where they are asked to learn skills in isolation, we do little to improve their performance, or their attitudes about learning. 

Can, and should, schools improve?  Of course, there are many things that we could be doing better in our public education system.  Are we currently headed in the correct direction, using the best "drivers" available?  The general consensus among professional educators is a resounding, NO!

Closing Achievement Gaps, and improving educational outcomes for all students isn't an easy task.  If it were, we wouldn't have the Gaps and the disparity that currently exists.  That is, if we are truly putting all available resources and best efforts into improving our public school systems.  It certainly appears that there is a concerted effort to try and "reform" our schools, not for students or education, but for profit and maintaining a social structure that is segregated and stratified.      

It is vital that parents, educators, and community members join together to become informed and involved in issues that impact our public schools.  If not, we may well see that we've been "driven" off the road and have become lost in a maze of data that obstructs and obscures our vision of education.  A vision that must always be focused on promoting equal opportunity and student achievement, but that must also be based on the use of a wide variety of strategies to accomplish these goals. 

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