Testing For Social-Emotional Skills?

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.

Is The President Undermining Public Education?

President Obama just recently chose John King to replace Arne Duncan as head of the U. S. Department of Education. Until 2014, Mr. King was the education commissioner for New York State. I was glad to see him leave New York, but sad to see him hired by the federal government.


Please read different viewpoints on Commissioner King’s policies in New York. He oversaw the implementation of both the Common Core tests in New York, and of teacher accountability ratings based partly on those tests. It is bad enough that standardized testing is being used as anything more than an occasional supplement to in-class assessments. It is an inherently inequitable and a poor vehicle for assessment. (See studies or my blogs on the subject.) The tests were rolled out before many schools and teachers had aligned their classroom instruction with the new standards. This led to great distress on the part of many students who had no knowledge of the material or skills being tested. This was not only an example, however, of mismanagement but a flagrant disregard for the welfare of the students the tests were supposed to benefit. The outcry by parents against the tests and increasing number of students deciding to “opt out” of taking them, grew increasingly embarrassing to the state.


Furthermore, Mr. King’s time in office saw New York give more and more money to charter schools, many owned by hedge fund managers and other individuals or corporations whose interest was in making profits from public education funds. (Arne Duncan also has his own charter school controversy.) At the same time, New York was sending less money to poorer districts than more well-off ones. The combination of all these factors has contributed to undermining the whole idea of collective responsibility for the welfare of all students, of all citizens. The responsibility for these actions, however, does not rest solely on Commissioner King, as New York Governor Cuomo must also be held responsible.


According to the Encarta dictionary, Democracy is the “free and equal” rule of the people (demos is Greek for people, the common populace, and kratos, rule). To undermine the commons, the public systems including public schools, is to undermine whatever is left of democracy in our country. Just as the responsibility for Mr. King’s actions in New York must be shared by Governor Cuomo, if Mr. King continues these policies in his new role then President Obama must also share responsibility. I thus question President Obama’s commitment to students and to public education with this appointment.

Politics, Greed, and the Welfare of Our Children

Last week, teachers and administrators were given jail terms for fixing test scores. I think this crime pales before the gross lack of human caring, feeling, and worse carried out by politicians, with the support of corporate executives and hedge fund managers, who distort and overemphasize the meaning of standardized test scores while forcing their use in public schools throughout the U. S.. They force teachers, who know the exams cause needless suffering to students, to give them anyway. And to whom have these politicians been giving the power to judge how much students have learned, how well teachers have taught, and even who can become a teacher (and sometimes how a subject can be taught)? Corporations like Pearson Education, which is now being investigated by the FBI for various possible crimes including insider dealings with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Apple.


Diane Ravitch describes in her book Reign of Error how various corporate interests, working with individual politicians, have been leading an effort for years to undermine public schools. They have been working to undermine teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, could manage and direct an educational system. The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, the A Nation At Risk report, produced by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education was responsible for everything from a decline in academic achievement, college graduation rate, to the loss of manufacturing jobs. All later proved untrueAcademic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. In 2001, President Bush pushed the No Child Left Behind legislation. Since NCLB, the number of standardized tests given to our students was increased to the point where the US is now number one in the world in the number of tests we force on our children.


Should the politicians who have pushed this agenda be punished? There is no reliable evidence that standardized testing improves education. In fact, even years ago reliable evidence showed the opposite– students who graduate from schools that rely on such testing for assessment are less creative, less able to apply what they learn than students who go to schools who use more alternative assessments. These tests increase student suffering by teaching through fear. Students do not take these tests because of what they teach. They take them because they are threatened into doing so. The tests support inequity (see Fair Test) and narrow the range of what is taught. They serve no real diagnostic value, since they are in many cases “poorly designed” and the results are long delayed, often until after the school year has ended. By narrowing the range of what is taught they rob students of a well-rounded education. Yet, these tests are still pushed. Why?


What about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo? Cuomo has been pushing to increase how much scores on standardized tests will count in judging which teachers are given tenure. He wants test scores to count as one half of a teacher’s effectiveness score. To get this through the legislature, he proposed: “Pass that evaluation change, and school funding will go up 1.1 billion dollars…in the 2015-16 budget. Leave it out, and there will only be a $377 million increase…” Why do this? If Diane Ravitch is correct, he does it so he can turn schools over to entrepreneurs who can use them for financial gain. According to Hedge Clippers, Governor Cuomo’s campaign received “$4.8 million from hedge fund billionaires.”


The lack of empathy for how these policies affect students, teachers, parents and the communities that most of us live in, is appalling. Just imagine you’re a teacher. To teach well, where must your focus be? On your students, who they are, what they need educationally and as a total person. If you understand who the students are, you can shape educational methods to fit them. If you fear punishment, job or salary loss based on test scores, you will feel pressure to shift your concern to pleasing authorities and focusing on test scores. A student who does poorly on a test, or might do poorly on a test, becomes a threat. Only assessments that are authentic demonstrations of how much an individual’s skills and knowledge, in a particular course, grows in a school year unite the student, teacher and community’s interests together. High stakes tests must be de-emphasized in favor of assessments which come from the individual teacher and school, and must give immediate feedback so effective remediation, when needed, is possible.


Our public school children are being held hostage to the financial and political agendas of the few. Isn’t it about time to shift the focus back to the greater good of students and their communities?

Value-Added Models in Education and the Value of Terminology

One way to improve education recommended by many “reformers” is the use of “value-added models” or criteria to evaluate teacher performance. If you’re not familiar with the concept of value-added models in education, it means, in practical terms, that teachers are judged by how much their teaching improves a student’s scores on a standardized test from the beginning to the end of a year. Certainly, it is fairer to judge a teacher by comparing the scores of a particular class of students over time than simply comparing end of year scores for all students across all classes of a certain grade and different schools without a baseline. The composition of classes, the level of student prior knowledge or even familiarity with the English language, and so many other factors may vary greatly from class or school to school. This makes it extremely difficult to actually assess how much one class of students has learned in the course of a school year compared to another, and even more difficult to determine how much the teacher is responsible for that learning. Many supporters of value-added models argue for their position by correlating a student’s potential increase in test scores with an increase in future earnings. But think for a minute about just the terminology. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds it totally offensive to speak of “adding value” to students. As if you could (or should) monetize a person’s worth, like you monetize a piece of merchandise. We all know, I hope, what happens when we think of people as merchandise.


As educators, you can’t say, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Whether you mean it like that or not, the imagery of “value-added” turns students into items of production with a dollar value at the end. And I think the imagery anyone uses is not random; it reveals the perspective a person is taking on an issue.


A teacher’s attitude towards a child’s ability influences how well that child will learn in the classroom.  Likewise, how a culture thinks about and acts towards it’s young people will influence not only how well they learn and develop as teenagers but how they will think of themselves throughout their lives.  What does a child feel when treated as merchandise by “its” culture? How does a “product“ treat a “product”? I don’t think I’d want to walk down a street filled with people who think of themselves and others primarily in terms of monetary value. It would be too dangerous.


Some may argue, “Ok, the terminology is bad, but the reality is helpful. Even you admit that value-added evaluations are better than the alternative of not using a baseline.” It’s better than the alternative but it’s not good enough, especially if we want the goal to be educating students to be clear thinkers able to participate successfully and ethically, even compassionately, in their communities as citizens, workers, friends and neighbors. Value-added tests are not effective assessments, and in terms of educational practice they have too many negative side effects.  Any dependence on a standardized test as the central vehicle to judge learning or evaluate a teacher is flawed, even when the terminology used to describe the value of the tests is not offensive.


Value-added models are derived from business practices. For a business, it might be considered good procedure to fire a third of the workers when the business is not making a profit. It might also be good financially to fire the lowest performing students and teachers to raise the “efficiency” of a school system. I’d like to say that this won’t occur, but isn’t that one of the purposes of value-added models? Teachers adding the least “value” to their students are being threatened with losing their jobs; and if the claim by Diane Ravitch and others is correct, the most “problematic” students in some non-public schools, are also being “fired” or pushed out.


I’m heartened by the outcry against the use of standardized tests to assess students and hold teachers accountable, but where is the outcry against the dehumanizing mentality of “adding value” to students?

Are We Purposely Undermining Our Public Schools?

So, here are my questions. These are not new questions for me or for many of you, but I thought I would just put them out there. There have been waves of attacks on public schools in the U. S. for the last 30 years or so. Are these attacks part of a larger war on the concept and institutions of democracy? One of the functions of public schools is to educate all students to be able to understand and meaningfully participate in a democratic government. It is to “level the playing field” so at least most people who put in the effort can create a good life. Are we now purposely creating “separate and (certainly not) equal?” And what role do the Common Core Standards play in this possible scenario?


Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, are leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system. The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive and often inaccurate information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and African-American, Latino, Native-American, was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning.


With the fomenting of decreasing trust in teachers and public schools, there was also increasing pressure to turn to private companies to create assessments, curriculum, and even to decide who would be allowed to teach our children. In 2001, President Bush supported and signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This was a noteworthy achievement. It increased the number of standardized tests that our students had to take so we are now the most tested nation in the world. Then came President Obama’s Race To The Top legislation in 2009. Amongst other things, this set the stage for the Common Core, mandated that test scores be used in teacher evaluations, and encouraged the closing of public schools whose students “underperform” on test scores. And what was the result? Those dire claims about the education of our children began to come true. The divide in achievement between rich and poor, white and people of color was becoming either flat or increasing and test scores in general were either going flat or down.


Once most of the country was fooled into thinking of public education as facing a large scale crisis, there were increasing calls to privatize schools and create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools. From 2010-11 to 2011-12, for example, the number of students enrolled in charter schools rose from 1.8 to 2.1 million. This number continues to rise. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits not serving the public, have taken over several charter schools. Secondly, these schools, as Diane Ravitch points out, “…are deregulated and free from most state laws… This freedom allows charter schools to establish their own disciplinary policies and their own admission rules.” Unlike public schools, which must take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged students. Despite this screening, charter schools are no more successful then public schools. And, when adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show they often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less. The public sector can now be drained of funds and left to educate the most disadvantaged students with fewer resources.


Public schools were further undermined over this same time period by federal, state, and local cuts to educational budgets, including cuts in teaching staff. In 35 states, for example, the funding in 2012-2013 was below 2008 levels. At the same time, there was an increase in spending on standardized testing. I don’t think it’s smart to try to increase the performance of schools by decreasing the number of teachers.


Now let’s discuss the Common Core Standards. They are so new that I don’t think we can fully judge their potential efficacy in improving instruction. What we can say is that if the standards are assessed, as they are now, through high stakes standardized tests, the Common Core will be largely irrelevant. In my opinion, it has been extensively and clearly shown that standardized testing is an inferior and inequitable way to assess educational achievement. These tests hurt our children by creating fear, limiting the depth of instruction, and wasting time and resources. They serve no diagnostic function. So, as long as the standards are assessed in this way, they are not being assessed at all. It is claimed the tests can help judge how well teachers or schools are doing. Good teachers are essential in educating students. But students all begin school in a different place. If you want to predict who will do well on a standardized test, what matters most is the economic standing of the family and community.


One danger of national standards is too tightly defining what should be taught. This can lead to the creation of a national curriculum, where all students are expected to learn the same material in the same way at the same time. Some school districts are already demanding that schools standardize the “sequence of the curriculum so students will be able to switch schools, districts, even states and not be out of sync in a new classroom.” I don’t think we want to replace the old situation, where states set their own standards, with one that requires everyone to move in lockstep—or fail.


If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system, and truly teach all students how to think critically, it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect that they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on corporate created standardized tests, charter schools or curriculums—or even national standards. So, is the corporate “reform” agenda part of a larger move in our country to undermine not only public education but the power of the public in general? I hope not. But, I think, that is the result.