Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Happy Birthday Standardized Tests!!!! Um...yeah.

My dad pointed out something to me on Facebook today: June 17 marks the 113th birthday of the American standardized test. I have to say that our country's education system has never really been the same since.

While China has had standardized tests for centuries, introducing them in America has been fraught with issues, which are well documented. The most important to me, frankly, is whether they actually predict future life success, or merely tell us who is set up to succeed in the first place.

For example, using an Excel regression analysis, I can predict 3 out of 4 Ohio school district standardized test performance ratings on the state's Performance Index Score. All I need to know is a district's percentage of children living in poverty, or their median income.

And despite the fact that American kids have never done well on international tests, the last 40-50 years has been dominated by the American economy (still #1 on GDP), we won the Cold War, and America has dominated the production of intellectual property.

So do these tests scores really tell us that we suck, or are in crisis? Do they tell us anything that's useful or predictive?

My son, who is 9, already has test anxiety because of the number and importance of these standardized tests. I'm seriously considering opting him out of future tests until high school.

However, not all testing is necessarily bad. Used to assess kids so teachers can better direct learning toward individual student needs is a great use, for example. Using them to assess teachers and classrooms? Not so obviously great.

However, I have great sympathy for the many parents I have met whose children were ignored until standardized testing -- and the accountability that came with them -- forced schools to pay attention and teach them. That has always been the standardized testing result that has kept me from advocating their immediate burning, though I certainly have a book of matches at the ready.

Then there's the promising work of Robert J. Sternberg, who was at Tufts University  for awhile (my alma mater -- shameless plug. By the way, we took him from Yale. How's that taste, New Haven?). Sternberg has developed tests that assess the creative, analytical and practical skills of students. One study from his work in the 1990s found that the students who did well on the analytical portion of the tests had the background of those who perform well on our standardized tests today -- more wealthy and white. However, on the creative and practical portions, the results showed a great mix of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Other studies have verified those results.

Imagine if our high-stakes regime measured the other two categories? Maybe, then, traditionally low-performing Cleveland wouldn't qualify for Vouchers and Charters because their students do so well on creative and practical skills, while perhaps traditionally high-performing Hudson would qualify because their students don't?

Imagine that paradigm shift, eh?

As our testing regime becomes more high-stakes, and more importance is placed on succeeding on these things, perhaps it's time to develop tests that measure the whole student, not just their ability to analyze things and memorize. There's more to life than that, and there's more to schooling than that.

Until that happens, though, I fear all our testing regime will do is narrow curriculum, minimize the importance of the kind of thinking that can lead to true innovation and success, and force us into becoming a nation of rote learners who can't come up with ideas, but sure can tell you everything you need to know about someone else's.

Unless, that is, parents, administrators, teachers and others stand up and say, "No more!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

CA Court Whiffs on Key Question

A California judge ruled yesterday that so-called "first in, last out" teacher laws violate students' equal opportunity to have Great Teachers. And while many commentators have found this to be a much-needed repudiation of the "old guard" teacher labor paradigm, dominated by unions, I can say that as the son of a former teacher who actually would have been laid off under a "first in, last out" system at a newspaper, the ruling is amazing for its exceptional blind spot: 

We have no idea what a Great Teacher for these kids would look like. 

While there are scant few obviously Great and obviously Bad teachers, the overwhelming number are neither. Yet we act like there's a Platonic Form of a Great Teacher out there that will be Great for Every Kid in Every School, and the only thing standing between our kids and that Platonic ideal is a Teacher's Union.

But is that the case?

I mean, we all know that Aristotle was a Great Teacher for Alexander, but would Aristotle have been a Great Teacher in front of 60 kids, 7 times a day in an 8th Grade building on the South Side of Chicago, or in Boone County, West Virginia, or in Beverly Hills? 

I don't know. 

And this is the huge logical hole that remains at the core of all this "a Great Teacher for every kid" argument. We talk about Great Teachers like we know what one actually is, or some magic metric can tell us, or that we actually agree on the Platonic Form that teacher would take. It's a given that Great Teachers should be teaching our most at-risk kids just as frequently as our most privileged. However, the assumption many make is that Great Teachers for privileged students would be just as Great teaching at-risk kids. The ideal, Platonic teacher for one kid is the ideal for every kid, so goes the assumption.

Yet nothing could be less certain. Ask parents who request teachers for their kids based on sterling recommendations from well-respected friends and educators, then realize their kids aren't a match a month into what ends up being a very ordinary school year. 

Subjectivity in teacher quality is the wild card in determining teacher effectiveness. And sometimes, kids aren't aware of how Great their teachers are until far down their life road.

For example, I had two high school teachers that I really didn't like at the time. They demanded that I practice, work, study and do all the things an immature teenager doesn't want to do. I mean, I really hated going to Mr. Appling's music and Mrs. Pryce's French classes. Because I knew I hadn't done enough preparation to their standard, but I did enough to get by, so why wasn't that good enough? They're so mean!

Well, they knew I could do better. They expected more from me, even if I didn't expect it from myself.

Now, if you let me do a teacher evaluation of these two phenomenal teachers at the time, I would have excoriated them. I would have hammered them for their tough teaching styles and "unreasonable" expectations. And I wouldn't have been alone. Everyone I knew would have given them the same marks.

Today, I recognize that they were Great Teachers because they showed me how hard I had to work. But if they were being judged on student evaluations, as many want us to do, they wouldn't have lasted a year.

Likewise, I have witnessed teachers who spend their entire years drilling their students for state achievement tests, with very little other curriculum. Their kids will score off the charts and show great growth. They actually brag about how highly their students score. But is that a Great Teacher? Or is it just Great test preparation? Under the proposed tying teacher evaluation to test scores regime, those teachers will be considered Great Teachers. 

However, I beg to differ.

The more I think of what a Great Teacher is, the more I think of the famous quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he described pornography: "I know it when I see it."

And what's even more complicated about evaluating teachers is one student's Aristotle is another's Elizabeth Halsey (look at IMDb for that reference). I can't tell you how often I would defend teachers I loved to classmates who hated them. And vice versa.

Adding more complication is that some Aristotles are Great Teachers in one environment and not so Great in others.

Some of the best teachers I ever had would have been far less successful in larger classes, for example, because they thrived on interactive discussions. I've had fantastic teachers in 300 student lectures, but they would have been not nearly as successful in smaller settings because they didn't like interaction at all.

Which brings me back to the California case. I have deep sympathy for kids who are in schools where they feel they're being denied access to the Great Teacher they deserve because of some outdated, union protection. But there is no guarantee that these "Great Teachers" will be Great teaching these students. They might even be worse. 

We just don't know.

The "first in, last out" paradigm is actually better than any we've come up with yet because it's about as objective as can be. It doesn't play favorites. It doesn't require a friendship with a principal. It doesn't force teachers to do combat with each other about who gets which kids so their test scores can be the highest on their evaluations.

Is it perfect? Far from it. It produces inequities. It lets go of good, great teachers even. But absent a truly substantive, thorough evaluation system, it's the best, most objective system we've got. That's why I didn't complain much about potentially being laid off at the newspaper I worked at because I was more junior than others. I didn't have to worry about whether I had a certain number of bylines, or whether my work led to a certain numbers of legislative changes. Or whether I won awards (which I did several times). Or whether I dangled too many participles. I just did my job the best I could, and if the economy wouldn't support my employment at the paper, so be it. 

That fact spurred me to go to law school so I would have something to fall back on if the layoffs did happen. Luckily, I found an exciting new career before the layoffs hit my level of seniority. 

Likewise, when you get into substantive evaluation of teaching excellence, it is so much more complicated than how a teacher's kids score on tests, or whether the kids like them, or whether the parents feel like the teachers are their friends. 

It's really, really complicated. Really.

The best system I can imagine is one that does take test scores, teacher and parent evaluations into some minor account, but is overwhelmingly driven by close evaluation by principals and lead teachers. They'll be best able to identify teachers who are best matched to each environment. 

It is through deep, meaningful evaluation that teachers will be placed most effectively in the classroom, or let go. However, without proper resources to accomplish these meaningful evaluations, principals will be stretched to their limits, evaluating teachers quickly because they simply don't have time to evaluate everyone the way they need to be. 

And that will lead to inequities as well, equally as egregious as the ones mentioned in the California case.

(Need I mention that the greatest inequity is how schools are funded? But that's another story for another day.)

The silver lining I see in the California case is this: It could force policymakers and educators to figure out a more thorough, meaningful evaluation system that provides a better, more complete picture of what a Great Teacher looks like for which kids, and where they're best placed. Yet without financial backing, I fear these systems won't be implemented properly, and we will have continued inequities in the system, with children being denied access to the Great Teacher they need and deserve.

Because right now, if you asked me, "What makes a Great Teacher?" I would have to give the Potter Stewart answer, with a twist:

I know it when I see it. Even if I don't realize it until 10 years later.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Another Day, Another FBI Raid of an Ohio Charter School

I have to admit, I'm kind of amazed by this. Apparently, the Concept Schools, which run Horizon Academies and other Charter Schools, primarily in Ohio, are under FBI investigation for issues with a federal grant meant to go toward upgrading technology in their buildings.

As I've said many times before, I'm not opposed to Charter Schools, just the way they operate in Ohio. I've been especially concerned about how the taxpayers can't find out how for-profit operators spend public dollars, and other transparency and accountability issues. Now, perhaps, you understand why.

In a non-scientific experiment, I did a simple Google search on "FBI Ohio Charter School" and here's what I found:

  • The FBI looking into a Pittsburgh Charter for using money to build another operation in Youngstown.
  • The FBI looking into a shady accountant who was the financial officer for several Charters.
  • The FBI looking into the Mary L. Dinkins Charter for financial and academic irregularities.
  • The FBI receiving the eventual conviction of a Dayton Charter CEO for stealing $1.8 million from his Charter School.
  • An Ohio-based Charter consulting firm is raided by the FBI as part of the investigation into the Pennsylvania Charter Cyber School.
And those are just since 2011. The only story that popped up under "FBI Ohio 'Public School'" was the 2012 probe into alleged data scrubbing at several school districts.

Now Google searches aren't nearly as thorough as some other databases. But what you should notice is this FBI investigation stuff happens a lot more in Ohio's Charter School system than it's traditional public school system.

I'm just guessing here, but my guess as to why that is? Perhaps it's because people in traditional public schools operate in the open. People in Charter Schools do not. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, after all.