Sunday, April 26, 2015

#208 April 26, 2015- Testing and Reform Madness

In many ways it seems that an educator's job should be straightforward and concrete in nature. We should be keeping our students safe, our classrooms orderly and engaging, and instructing our students in the basic skills that they will need to have in order to become productive, happy members of society. Seems so simple on the surface, and all of us have a perception of what this should entail. Our perceptions may be based on our own experiences, the experiences of those close to us, and are also influenced by the culture we live in, and that is where the basic expectations we have for our schools, our educators and our students begins to get more complex.

Just look at what we expect of those who work and learn in our public schools and you can see why we find ourselves struggling to define what education should look, sound and feel like in our public schools. Suddenly even the basic statements that our schools should be safe, orderly and at the same time engaging become problematic. This is especially true when we are dealing with a diversity of cultures, experiences and expectations. What looks safe and orderly to one person may feel uncomfortable and rigid to another. I can think of countless examples of just how complex and confusing it can be to try and accomplish the impossible task of making the perfect environment, designing the perfect curriculum and honoring the needs of every student.

An engaging environment may seem chaotic to some. As an educator I've been instructed to make my room's walls colorful and welcoming for students, simple and plain so as not to distract my students, and to keep them relatively bare to avoid fire hazards. Clearly an impossible task if I am trying to follow all directives and do what's right for all my students. Any activity will lend itself to the strengths of a variety of learners. Some of my students excel in group tasks, some work well alone and struggle when partnered or grouped. Some students love to explore things in an active environment while others prefer to gain knowledge from books and paper/pencil tasks.

Over my nearly 2 decades of teaching I have struggled to develop a variety of approaches to teaching any given skill and to managing the needs of my students. Like every other teacher I know I can talk about experiences that those outside of education would never believe could happen. I've seen moments of incredible joy and moments of heart-wrenching tragedy on personal, community and even societal levels. Through it all I've come to believe in the power of public education and to respect the many different values, skills and expertise that everyone who walks through my classroom door brings with them. This is true whether they are a student, volunteer, professional educator, family or community member. I have come to the realization that it take a whole village to raise every child, and it also takes a wide range of ideas and strategies to reach every student.

Along the way I know that there have been students that I've had a real impact on. Students who I have seen grow and mature into tremendous people and citizens. I'm proud to hear about their accomplishments, no matter how "big" or "small" they may be. For some it is a high school diploma, an "A" in a subject that they struggled in, a college acceptance letter, or a job in a field that I knew they loved even when they were elementary students.

Yet, I also know that there are students who learned in spite of my less than perfect efforts, and even those who I missed along the way. These stories are every bit as powerful as the positive ones, but cause significant heartache and even the questioning of my abilities as an educator. Hearing about a former student in the news, or hearing that they didn't make it through school, were trapped in some negative path or otherwise failed to reach the potential that exists in every child is incredibly painful. Teaching is truly an emotional profession filled with all of the joy and pain that come with experiencing the struggles and successes of hundreds of students and their families over the years. 

All of that makes it profoundly disturbing to see what is currently happening to our public schools in America. In an effort to make our schools accountable to everyone we have made them less accountable to those who really need them. We hear all the time that our schools are failing, our educators are self-interested and unsupportive of students, and that we need to make "reforms" to schools to make them competitive, successful and to close the gaps that exist between groups of students. This isn't to say that we don't need to continually strive to improve the quality of our public schools, and that we don't see the same disturbing gaps between groups in our schools that exist in our society as a whole. However, if we recognize that reality, we must then work to identify ways to make positive change happen for all of our students.  

This is the ultimate question that everyone in public schools face on a daily basis, but it isn't really a new one for public educators. The challenges that poverty, mental health concerns, differing abilities and disabilities along with positives like the richness in diversity of culture, experience and background of our students all mesh together in our schools on a daily basis. The difficulties that our society as a whole is facing come into our classroom and impact the ways that our students work and learn together in a myriad of ways. Yet, we've always had poverty, we've always had different learning styles and diversity is one of the hallmarks of American society. What is different is the level of expectation that we are holding our students, educators and schools to.

Of course we should have high expectations for everyone in our public schools. We should hold ourselves to the highest standards and work to achieve the best of all possible outcomes for every student. That isn't an issue of contention in our dialog around public education in 2015 America. The issues at hand are; How do we achieve the best results for all students, and how do we hold those who work and learn in our schools accountable?

To answer these questions we have created complex systems and multiple tools that are supposed to serve the purpose of monitoring student progress and to hold schools accountable for providing the best possible opportunities for our students. Yet, we have continually "failed" to achieve the results we seek. Despite the intense focus on improving outcomes and closing achievement gaps for students over the past decades, we have seen the gaps remain the same or even widen in places. In fact, the progress that was being made as we moved out of the legalized segregation of our schools has been reversed by an overemphasis on testing, standardization and a return to a system of schools that are at least as, if not more segregated than they were in the pre-Civil Rights Movement period of our history.

I've only been teaching since the mid-1990's, but in this relatively short time period I have begun to feel the full effect of the "reform" efforts on my own teaching, and have seen the effect that it has on my students. The problems that have been identified by standardized testing and the gaps that were "revealed" (although anyone paying attention knew they existed prior to the wave of testing that grew out of legislation like NCLB) spawned an effort to "reform" or "fix" education so that we could both compete on a global scale, as well as offer equity in opportunity for all students here in America. These reforms were instituted by "experts," usually from outside the community of professional educators and hinged on quantifying student progress in order to measure the competence of all involved in the educational process.

The resulting onslaught of evaluating, testing and standardizing our public schools has undermined public confidence in our schools and weakened any efforts at really reforming our practices, policies and educational procedures. We have moved from a relatively unstructured system of educator licensing and evaluation to an incredibly complex system that threatens to collapse under its own weight, even before it is fully implemented. Educators now spend hours entering "data" and "evidence" about their work, rather than actually working to improve their practice. All of this is made possible by the efforts to demonize and scapegoat public educators for the failings of a system that is societal in nature. We no longer assume that educators are working hard and doing their best, but instead operate under the premise that we need to monitor their every move and question every action and decision they make.

Not only are we changing how we evaluate educators, but we are also changing how we educate and train them. No longer are educators trusted to make decisions about curriculum or about how to manage their classrooms. Instead we are now given programs, scripts and guidelines that restrict our options when working with our students. Layers and layers of bureaucratic red tape, checklists and requirements have been added to our jobs and the result is less time focused on students and more on "checking the right boxes."    

Last Wednesday, my son, like so many youngsters around the country, began his second year of instruction at a local middle school tucked away in suburban southern California. Though the name...

This false accountability has lead to some unfortunate and harmful events. Educators shouldn't cheat on tests, but they also shouldn't be put in the situation where the tests they are administering are such high stakes in nature. If we try and run education like a business, we will end up with our educators acting like businessmen. Is that what we want and need for our students? Educators rarely, if ever, enter the field for money and linking our students' performance to financial gain is wrong for so many reasons. 

Watch the hilarious video.

here is no doubt that cheating occurred in Atlanta Public Schools (APS), and that it was systemic, pervasive and involved dozens of educators across many schools. The fact that there was extreme pressure placed on educators to obtain higher...

This increased emphasis on testing and accountability has changed the climate in our schools and negatively impacted our students. In order to maintain the confidentiality of the students I've worked with over the years I will refrain from offering specifics, but I can think of countless examples of tears, frustration, feelings of inadequacy and other negative impacts that testing has on individual students. Throw in the lost teaching time, the extra expenses caused by testing to schools, the failures in technology and inane/inaccurate questions, and the fact that I rarely learn anything new about my students and testing becomes more than just an inconvenience. It is destroying our schools and harming our students. This type of testing is designed to identify weaknesses and to have a number of students fail, not to improve outcomes or increase equity.  They occur under a veil of secrecy and are divisive, intimidating and coercive.

We’re being silenced and intimidated to protect an industry that is of dubious quality and obscene...

The companies that create the most important state and national exams also publish textbooks that contain many of the answers. Unfortunately, low-income school districts can’t afford to buy them.

The other piece of the puzzle is the standardization of our curriculum and the profiteering that occurs due to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Once again we see an educational necessity turned into a weapon to be wielded against public schools and public educators. Just like we need some assessments to guide our instruction and evaluate our students, we know that we need to have some standards to base our evaluations on and to insure that our students are progressing. The problem isn't entirely in the standards, but rather in the way they were created (without meaningful educator input), their developmental appropriateness (especially at the younger grades), and the tying of their implementation with a series of assessments and curriculum that are sold to schools and that pad the pockets of companies who have little investment in the success of actual students.

I’d rather be a noble unicorn than a mindless puppet. Dan Juneau, late of the sometimes evil empire known as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry,

This letter was written by a first grade teacher in upstate Néw York: She writes: (Un)Intended Consequences Today was the first day of the NYS ELA tests. I must state right from the outset that my ...
A teacher in upstate New York wrote me to say that the state English language arts test for 8th grade (written by Pearson) contained a passage that his students had read a week earlier---in a Pears...

These so called "reforms" have increased the tension in our schools and changed the public dialog about public education. They point a finger at the existing system and claim it is failing, while at the same time not offering viable solutions, and actually opening the door to the destruction of our public school system through privatization of our schools and other systems like vouchers. We know there are problems and we know we need to do better, but professional educators need to have a voice and to have influence in the changes that are made. Instead we are seeing educational leaders and others with decision making power take positions that directly or indirectly support those who would eliminate public education. 

Multiple Choice: The normal schedule at your child’s school will be disrupted for several days while the school administers a standardized test to all students. You think the test is a pointless wa...

Our families are beginning to see the need to take action. I'm proud to say that my school had one of the highest percentages of students opt out of our most recent statewide exam. Agree or disagree, these actions force us to discuss what is happening around public education in Wisconsin and nationally.

Some parents are opting their children out of the state’s new standardized achievement test, largely to protest what they see as excessive testing and the use of scores to judge teachers and schools.|By Erin Richards

Educator unions are beginning to see the value in addressing these issues in addition to the more traditional workplace and benefit issues they have dealt with. We know that individual educators are already acting in defense of their students and they are pushing their unions and professional organizations to follow their lead.

PAULA DOCKERY: They earned the right to say, ‘I told you so!’

Often painted as obstacles to improving schools, the unions now find common ground with conservative leaders and education reform advocates.|By KATE TAYLOR

In the end we can all agree that we need to continue to work and improve our educational system. The differences emerge in just how we accomplish this. We need to make sure that we are aware that some voices in the debate have little interest in having a majority of students succeed. There are many voices that speak only for individual students, small groups, or even private business entities. This explains why the current, corporate driven "reform, has failed to meet the needs of students and close existing opportunity and achievement gaps. Instead of focusing on students they are intent on driving an agenda of privatization and educational privateering.

The time is ripe for a new wave of reform to emerge. One where educators (and their unions), communities, advocacy groups, families and students unite to push our public education system in new directions and to new heights of success. As a nation we have the resources and the abilities to make this happen. Now it is up to all of us to become informed and engaged to truly reform all of our schools to insure opportunity and equity for all.

No comments:

Post a Comment