Did You Hear the Education News?

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This week I was concerned by two news reports. The first concerns the new New York State standardized tests. Our children are taking the tests as I write this. But several people think the tests are different but not much better than the dysfunctional tests of the last few years and may be taking up an illegal amount of school time. See the press release from the NYS Allies for Public Education.

 

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia seems not to get it. She says that opting out of the tests is not an answer. She says tests “help educators plan for the coming school year and develop individual learning for students. The tests are the only objective measures we have to compare student progress between schools and districts.” But, I question this. Standardized tests have been shown to sometimes be anything but objective. And claiming that it’s common for teachers to use them to plan classes is also questionable.

 

Test taking is its own sort of skill. In fact, some students have told me they like and do well on tests. That’s great. It means that as you proceed through the educational system, you will hopefully find success. Some forms of testing can be helpful when combined with a variety of assessment approaches. But whether doing well on standardized tests means you have more than a decontextualized knowledge of facts, or that you can apply the facts to solve problems or think critically, or do well on a job or real world situation, is another matter.

 

Opting out of tests is both a way to keep your children free from the testing mania and also is a way to make a political and social statement. So contrary to what Commissioner Elia states, I think it is a positive move to take.

 

Secondly, The Alliance for Quality Education in New York says that the “recently enacted New York State budget allows Resorts World Casino to withdraw $40 million annually from a fund that is supposed to be set aside to fund public schools.” Please read their whole press release. This is outrageous.

 

So, is the state of education in New York or the rest of the US improving? Certainly, more and more people are becoming aware of the problems with standardized testing and evaluating teachers based on those tests. Wonderful alternative methods of teaching are gaining traction (such as SEL, inquiry and project based learning, mindfulness instruction). But freeing public education from attacks by corporate or other interests, and establishing a more equitable, compassionate, proficient and engaging educational system has not shown much progress.

 

And: NY Assembly members Amy Paulin and Todd Kaminsky have proposed legislation to address some of these ills. Please read more about the proposed legislation.

Testing For Social-Emotional Skills?

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A trend I find encouraging in schools is consciously teaching social-emotional skills. This is often, but not always, accompanied by mindfulness education, or teaching how to be aware of your emotional and thought processes moment-by-moment. So, guess what administrators and politicians want to do with these programs? According to an article by Kate Zernike in the New York Times, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students Emotional Skills,” they want to use standardized tests to assess students in these programs. I mean, such tests have proven so beneficial with measuring other forms of learning and promoting learning in general, why not test a student’s “grit?”

 

No! Despite the fact that there are many indicators that demonstrate the value of social-emotional learning and mindfulness training in the classroom, all such testing will do is undermine the learning. Testing means teaching to the test. It is the test that indicates whether the standards or indicators of learning have been met. As Zernike asks in her article, how do you incorporate into a standardized test indicators of emotional awareness? Patience? Kindness?

 

Standardized testing motivates students to do well largely through fear of a bad grade. If they don’t pass, students might not move on in grade or complete high school, or their teacher might get a bad evaluation. Fear can undermine any form of learning, so it’s particularly perverse to use it to assess how well students understand their own emotional responses.

 

But wouldn’t a test motivate students to learn “grit” or hardiness in the face of fear? First, you can’t reduce emotional intelligence to having “grit.” Grit is one emotional trait that is very helpful in certain contexts but can be destructive in other contexts. As educator Alfie Kohn pointed out in a critique of “grit,” students need to question if the task they are being asked to persist at completing is worth the effort. Stick-to-itiveness and persistence is only valuable when combined with knowing how to prioritize what should be pursued and with empathy for the implications and consequences of a pursuit. It needs inner awareness of one’s motivation and the ability to critically examine the task itself.

 

Second, social-emotional learning and mindfulness do help students face fear more productively. But such learning does not happen through fear of punishment or a concern with how others assess your skills. To look within, as emotional intelligence requires, means finding your own intrinsic motivation to do so. If you are overly focused on how others assess you, as often happens with standardized testing, you will never learn to accurately perceive what is within you. You will always look in the wrong place. You look at yourself as you imagine others see you, not as felt by yourself.

 

As Zernike points out, in education, what is tested is what is valued. As things stand in the educational establishment, only if students are tested in a subject will it be valued. But this is the problem, not the solution.

 

Many people exercising power and influence over public education in this country, despite all the protests over recent years, think of tests and the simple numbers they generate as the tool for assessment, and they use it to nail down students and teachers. They have what appears to be a learning disability, or rigidity in thinking, as despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate that standardized testing promotes learning, they persist in their behavior. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it the law of the instrument. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail.” Tests generate numbers that can be used to rank students, but just because you have a number doesn’t mean that the number signifies anything. Without such proof, test scores are an illusion of relevance.

 

You need numbers and other data to evaluate the effectiveness of these new programs. So, instead of tests look at drop out rates. Look at attendance. Look at student projects. Look at reduced rates of violence in the classroom. Look at the joyfulness of students. But don’t try to bury emotional learning in irrelevant, if not destructive, test scores.

Do We Want Corporations To Decide Who Should Teach Our Children?

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The latest attack on America’s public schools is, like other attempts, hidden as a new “reform” idea. A few other well known examples of this reform movement include replacing:

*public schools with privately managed, publicly funded charter schools,

*teacher generated lesson plans with standardized teaching modules,

*localized methods for holding teachers accountable with statewide systems utilizing standardized test scores.

In general, creating the atmosphere of a crisis in public education and then selling the solution. The target this time are college education programs. The proposal: create a new licensing procedure for teachers. And, although the states would officially grant the license, who would actually determine who gets that license?  Pearson, originally an educational publishing company and now “the world’s largest education company,” which owns several publishing companies, digital learning products, assessment services, etc.. The federal government is also pushing for new standards for education programs.

 

Pearson worked with Stanford University to create a performance assessment, along with a calibrated scoring system, of a student teacher’s work in a classroom. Stanford is officially “the exclusive owner” of the assessment. This exam is being advertised as a national assessment, to standardize teacher certification. They would score two ten minute videotaped classes taught by a student teacher. This would be combined with a 40 page take home exam which includes lesson plans and other teaching strategies. (40 pages? Really?) I generally favor performance assessments over multiple-choice and other forms of standardized testing. So, what is my objection?

 

I object to the expense and the very idea of using a private company to assess learning instead of the classroom teachers. The assessment of two or three short segments cannot replace a series of observations over a few months by a professor of education. This new teacher assessment implies that university professors are not competent or trustworthy enough to evaluate their own students. It also tells the student teacher that they, too, will not be trusted. Power and responsibility is to be transferred up a hierarchy, and to whom? A corporation, with profit as its agenda.

 

Instead of thinking about more standardized assessments, we need to ask: What produces good teachers? Good teachers produce good teachers. We learn best from those who can inspire us and model what we need to learn. Great knowledge can be inspirational but is not enough. A love of teaching is needed, combined with compassion, empathy, and emotional awareness. Students need to feel valued and heard.  A good teacher learns about the home and community of their students and creates lessons informed by that empathy and understanding. And teachers need to learn how to apply that same care to their own mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, without such caring and understanding, it is difficult to give it to others. If we develop compassion in teachers, they will find a way to best meet the educational and other needs of students and will feel uplifted by it. If we just teach teachers how to meet the standards, they will struggle to just meet the standards.

 

My personal suggestions also include creating education schools (as well as public schools) which:

  1. Value teachers and their judgment.
  2. Give teachers creative freedom. What is most exciting about teaching, besides learning from and helping young people, is the creativity required to do the job well. A good lesson can be a piece of art. Following a script from a corporate produced teaching module does not promote creativity.
  3. Make decisions democratically. Give student teachers a voice in their education program so they can later know how to give students a voice– and take part themselves in making decisions in their school placements.
  4. Support the collegiality of teachers. They should be learning communities. Teachers are primarily learners and need to be provided time to plan with and give support to colleagues.
  5. Provide teachers with the opportunity to teach what they love so they love what they teach. In the same manner, teachers should be taught methods to discover and bring into the curriculum the deep questions, relevant to the subject matter of the course, which interest or occupy student’s minds.  In this way, the relevance of education to “real life” is made clear.
  6. Teach methods of self-reflection, based on mindfulness, and applied to thinking critically, acting responsibly, and learning in general.
  7. Teach  communication skills.
  8. Of course, teach a variety of methods of teaching, for a diversity of learners, content and levels of skill.

 

What would you recommend that schools of education teach?

Is Governor Cuomo Supporting Education or Undermining It?

Last week, according to the New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo attacked New York State education officials for an “attempt to water down his new teacher evaluation system that was one of his earliest legislative triumphs.” The context is that the New York Board of Regents, due to mistakes in the rollout of the Common Core, proposed a two-year moratorium on holding teachers accountable for student test scores. The governor opposed the moratorium. He said it was unnecessary; the existing policy already allowed teachers to ask that the test scores of their students not be counted in teacher accountability ratings if the students were unfairly affected by problems with the rollout. The real issue here is why have such an accountability system at all? This system is more of a threat to education than a triumph. Does the Governor sincerely believe that this system would improve education in New York? That it would force teachers and schools to “do a better job” and thus create more equity between how richer and poorer school districts educate their students?

 

Standardized testing has never helped create equity and never will. The increased testing brought about by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation did not lead to equity in school funding or improve education and neither will the Common Core assessments. Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a report on NCLB in 2004 clearly stating that making the boosting of test scores a priority in schools does not improve education. In fact, it detracts from education. Sanctioning schools that do not improve test scores is “counterproductive.” Holding teachers responsible for such scores is likewise counterproductive. To teach in any classroom, let alone a very challenging one, teachers need to be able to be creative. They need to feel trusted by the administration and community so they can adapt their methods to the individual students. The scrutiny and pressure of “raise scores or lose your job” undermines trust and creativity.

 

Linda Darling-Hammond takes my argument further. She points out that when school reform is used as a lever for external control of schools, as Cuomo’s system does, these strategies are “unlikely to be successful and the assessments are unlikely to be equitable because they stem from a distrust of teachers and fail to involve teachers in the reform process.” Tests should be used to provide teachers with “practical information on student learning,” not rate students and teachers. Instead of a top-down system, she calls for measures in which teachers and their communities work together to self-reflect, critique, correct, and renew their programs.

 

According to Fair Test, young people of color unfairly suffer from standardized testing. They point out that “the use of high-stakes testing in an overall environment of racial inequality perpetuates that inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test-takers.” The inequality of resources in many districts which primarily serve people of color hits those students very personally. It leaves the message that the political system doesn’t care enough about them. If they want an education, they must work even harder to get it.

 

The Common Core says that one of its goals is College preparedness. Fair Test argues that standardized “tests provide no social or educational benefit. They do not improve college or employment readiness.” Furthermore, as I argued in an earlier blog, high stakes tests increase the level of fear in education and undermine creative thinking. Diane Ravitch points out in The Reign of Error that no nation tests as much as the U. S. now does. Supposed reformers claim that we are falling behind other nations, one of which is China. Yet nations like China and India look to the U. S. as a model for teaching how to think independently and creatively. Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian American technology entrepreneur, wrote in Business Week that “the independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce.” American students “learn to experiment, challenge norms, take risks… This is why America remains the world leader in innovation.” Does Governor Cuomo want to undermine that independence of mind by testing students (and teachers) into submission?

 

In my history class several years ago, I had a student with severe anxiety. The class was portfolio based and required an assortment of assessments. For the first quarter of the year, she could sometimes write a paper, do research, collaborate with other students to some degree, but rarely passed a quiz and failed the one test I gave. By the end of the year, she had completed her portfolio and passed the difficult final exam with a score of 75%–the passing score was 70%. Yet, when it came to the New York State Regents (a standardized test in Global Studies), which most students thought was easier than the final, she froze and did not pass. She faced more personal obstacles than I would wish on anyone, made more progress with her skills and learned more material than most of the students. Yet, according to the state, she did not do enough. She had to re-take the test and finally passed. Some people might say that the experience made her stronger or that students need to learn how to face adversity. She had enough adversity to face just coming to class and doing her work. Unreasonable adversity is institutionalized suffering. Such tests tell students that compared to their test grade, all else is secondary. That’s just wrong.

 

According to the Albany area NPR station WAMC, the governor’s new budget increase of $608 million falls short of the $1.9 billion called for by many legislators and education advocates to simply “maintain current programs and restore others that were cut over the last five years.” If the Governor was truly in support of public education he would be searching for ways to raise the revenue to fulfill these needs. Instead, he called for reducing many taxes, for example corporate taxes, and raising the cap on estate taxes.

 

So, I ask Governor Cuomo: Are you sincere in claiming you support public school education? Your support for standardized testing, and the evaluation of teachers partly based on those tests, argues otherwise. Failing to commit to raising the money to maintain current programs, restore ones recently cut, and reduce inequity in school funding argues otherwise.

 

And unfortunately, I think that too many politicians need to be asked the same questions.