Sunday, February 18, 2018

Arming Educators: A Bad, Smelly Idea That Won't Go Away

NOTE: I originally published this post when the calls to arm educators began after Sandy Hook. It seems with every school shooting, the knee-jerk response by politicians is to once again turn to arming educators. North Carolina Republican lawmaker Larry Pittman once again renewed his
"educator-call-to-arms." (See "NC Republican Wants to Arm Teachers in Response to Florida Shooting.") For politicians who have accepted thousands of dollars from the NRA this isn't surprising; the NRA successfully promotes the interests of gun manufacturers, helping protect the ability of these manufactures to sell these weapons.


At any rate, the arguments and questions I had about arming educators in 2012 are still relevant today.

After the Sandy Hook incident in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been a flood of calls by lawmakers and news pundits on the news networks to call for allowing educators and school employees to carry weapons as a part of their regular duties. That is a Bad idea!

While I understand some people place a lot of faith in Smith and Wesson, I however, do not share that same faith. Introducing a weapon into a school environment, even if that weapon is being carried by a well-meaning individual, has the potential to be disastrous  on so many levels it’s unfathomable. I will concede that I am not opposed to a law enforcement officer being hired to do this, if having gun in the building will allay the fears of those who think guns are the answer, but turning our schools into armed camps is a bad idea and non-starter for me, for several reasons.

1. Keeping these guns secure at all times could be a problem. As an administrator, this would be extremely important. Even if one child were to get their hands on a misplaced or unattended weapon and harm themselves or another, it is totally unacceptable. Or, what about the situation where a teacher tries to break up a fight, and in the process, one of the students takes his gun away and starts shooting? I would not accept the death of any child or individual under these circumstances as “the price we pay for security.” In spite of the common talking point put out by the pro-gun organizations, “Guns do kill.” They kill both when criminals use them, and when “law-abiding citizens” either get careless or give in to powerful emotions and use them. Schools are often very unpredictable places, and introducing firearms into them makes them even more unpredictable and potentially volatile.  Making sure that these guns brought into the building are secure at all times is another impossible task, since we can’t even guarantee that same security in our homes and in our businesses.

2. What Detrimental effects does  “gun-carrying” on the relationships between educators and their students have? Since we do not have many instances of educators carrying guns, there is of course, no research that I am aware of for this concern. However, I can’t help but wonder how an administrator carrying a weapon suddenly changes how students and staff suddenly begin to view this individual. I’m an administrator, not a police officer. I do not wish to be seen as the “law-and-order” sheriff of my building: the one who is going to shoot the bad guy when he tries to get into our building. That kind of relationship is far removed from my current relationship with students and staff. I suspect that if educators begin carrying guns, there will be changes, even subtle changes, in the relationships between educator and student.

3. Lack of adequate fire-arms training. Filling out a form and attending a class or two hardly qualifies you to engage in using deadly force in public. Using deadly force requires making snap decisions while assessing your surrounding environment. It requires thinking like a police officer, which simply having a concealed weapon permit does not qualify you to do. No educator I know is trained to think like a law enforcement officer in these kinds of dangerous situations. Putting guns into hand of educators who do not have the kinds of gun and gun violence training in extremely volatile situations is a disaster waiting to happen.

4. Guns do kill people. The purpose of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is to kill as many people as possible is a short period of time. As we have seen in recent events, these do that highly effectively. We already keep a number of weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens because they have no reason to have them. Bazookas, hand grenades, and rocket launchers pose a threat because they kill people, lots of people at once. Just by saying “Guns don’t kill people” does not make it so.

There are certainly other reasons that I personally oppose arming educators. By introducing guns into our schools in the hands of our teachers, what kind of message does a “gun-toting” teacher or administrator convey? I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to worry about is having a “Rambo” as a teacher in my building.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Expanding Education Leadership Innovation and Imagination by Valuing Art and Literature


I am going say something direct to those think the arts, literature, and even philosophy are frivolous and "impractical" for 21st century schools. We need these as educational leaders more than ever. 

This is because the only "truths" about leading schools are not going to be found in books located on the bookstore racks of the latest business management and business leadership, but somehow we unquestionably believe that the answers to our problems are found and can be resolved by the discourses of business management and business leadership.

Education leaders in the past 25 or 30 years have appropriated the latest book titles of authors like John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, and John Kotter (anyone else notice that these are "white" males as I do?) as if these business leaders offer the "gospel truth" regarding how to best lead schools or any organization. Schools are still struggling to find the golden fleece of reform while those peddling these "business discourses of leadership" have continued to fleece school systems out of uncounted sums of money. About the only thing the field of education leadership has to show for it is the improved bottom lines for those offering books, conferences, and official training sessions to administrators and school leaders who are genuinely searching for answers to the problems they are facing in the schools and districts where they work.


In reading Hofstadter, I stumbled across an idea and thought that I say has a lot of wisdom about being an intellectual leader of a school.

In his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter (1962) was writing about the limitations of thinking when we get caught up with the idea of limiting our thoughts just to the practical. He describes a physicist who discounted the invention of the telephone as a "bore." But Hofstadter points out that physicist James Clark Maxwell was limiting his imagination because he was only using "physicist-thinking" or physicist mind, and that was limiting his "vistas of imagination." "For him," Hofstadter writes, "thinking as a physicist, the new instrument (the telephone) offered no possibilities for play."

When we set limits on our thinking and imagining by requiring that it be "practical,""relevant," or "data-based" we destroy the playfulness of possibility. We restrict our own "vistas of imagination" and perhaps miss being truly creative and innovative. Fruitful and innovative ideas are found beyond the edges of the limitations that shackle thinking. The answers to 21st century problems to education may lie elsewhere.

Perhaps we as school leaders need to think like poets, like novelists, like artists, like sculptors, and even life musicians, in other words, become "intellectual leaders" instead of dismissing such as "impractical" or "fluff." History is full of inventive minds who worked beyond the margins of the acceptable, For example, Leonardo Da Vinci, considered by some to be the symbolic embodiment of innovation, had an enormous horizon of imagination, and the result was inventions in both art and science that did not exist before.

As educational leaders, the first step to really addressing the problems of our times might not always be checking the latest "scientific research." The answers to our current problems in education could lie in Shakespeare, Mozart, or even Rembrandt. Limiting our "vistas of imagination" to that which fits the scientific method and the education sciences, means our imagination for the possibilities of education are shackled. So, as education leaders, go see a Shakespearean play, listen to a Mendelssohn concerto, or read a Thomas Wolfe novel. We can't really be innovative and truly creative leaders and problem-solvers unless we're willing to break free from the limits of practicality and "science" and expand the "vistas of our imaginations."

Hofstadter, R. (1962). Anti-intellectualism in American life. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why Earn a Doctoral Degree When NC Legislature Does Away with Doctoral Pay?

I’ve asked myself the question about why would I get a doctoral degree as an educator when our NC Legislature voted last summer to end pay for doctoral degrees? Who in their right mind would earn a degree that will perhaps have no immediate financial return? My answer? Me.

First of all, my reasoning is rather rebellious. Our North Carolina Legislature has made it rather clear through their work that they do not value education—from the K-12 level through college—they’ve been playing games and giving the appearance of funding education without really funding it properly. My earned doctoral degree is my way of shoving sheepskin in their face and a means of shouting, “You’re wrong!” My education is mine. It is the one thing of great value, in spite of their legislative ignorance, they can’t take away.  Education is important! It’s life changing and it matters and ultimately is more powerful than they give credit. Why else would politicians make a concerted effort to keep as many people in ignorance as our current state political leaders have?

Secondly, I firmly believe that there is still value that comes from learning for learning’s sake. Not every thing we learn has to have an immediate monetary return. Sure, I like earning a salary. I like having the ability to purchase things I want, but learning has value for it’s own sake, and it has value in ways we can’t foresee. Learning brings wisdom. It brings experience. It makes us better people. Ultimately, it creates people that can see what politicians are really doing. The bottom line for learning is that there is no bottom line.


Why did I earn a doctoral degree? Ultimately, I can hardly see why I would not have if I am communicating to the students in my school as principal that learning is an excellent thing and we can never get enough. While our North Carolina Legislature places little value in learning, as an educator and life-long learner, learning for me is like breathing; I’m going to do it until my time is no more. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Building a Better Teacher Through VAMs? Not So Fast According to Mark Paige's Book

As a part of my research explorations, I stumbled across a relatively new book published in 2016 about the problems with using value-added measures in teacher evaluations. This book entitled Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation is a short and concise read that any administrator who currently encounters the use of value-added data in teacher evaluations should read.

Paige's argument is rather straightforward. Value-added models have statistical flaws and are highly problematic, and should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about educators. Scholars across the board have made clear that are problems with VAMs, enough problems that they should only be used in research and to cautiously draw conclusions about teaching. Later, Paige also provides advice to opponents to using value-added models in teacher education as well. Attempting to challenge the use of value-added models in teacher evaluations through the federal courts may be fruitless. According to Paige:
"At least at the federal level, courts will tolerate an unfair law, so long as it may be constitutional." p. 24
In other words, our courts will allow the use of VAMs in teacher evaluations, even if used unfairly. Instead, Paige encourages action on the legislative side. Educator opponents of VAMs should inform legislators of the many issues with the statistical measures and push for laws that restrict their use. In states with teacher unions, he encourages teachers to use the collective bargaining process to ensure that VAMs are not used unwisely.

Throughout Paige's short read, there are reviews of legal cases that have developed around the use of VAMs to determine teacher effectiveness and lots of information about the negative consequences of this practice.

Here are some key points from chapter 1 of Mark Paige's book Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation.

  • VAMs are statistical models that attempt to estimate a teacher's contribution to student achievement.
  • There are at least (6) different VAMs, each with relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • VAMs rely heavily on standardized tests to assess student achievement.
  • VAMs have been criticized on a number of grounds as offending various statistical principles that ensure accuracy. Scholars have noted that VAMs are biased and unstable, for example.
  • VAMs originated in the field of economics as a means to improve efficiency and productivity.
  • The American Statistical Association has cautioned against using VAMs in making causal conclusions between a teacher's instruction and a student's achievement as measured on standardized tests.
  • VAMS raise numerous nontechnical issues that are potentially problematic to the health of a school or learning climate. These include the narrowing of curriculum offerings and a negative impact on workforce morale.
Throughout his book, Paige offers numerous key points that should allow one to pause and interrogate the practice of using VAMs to determine teacher effectiveness.


Using VAMs to Determine Teacher Effectiveness: Turning Schools into Test Result Production Factories

"But VAMs have fatal shortcomings. The chief complaint: they are statistically flawed. VAMs are unreliable, producing a wide range of ratings for the same teacher. VAMs do not provide any information about what instructional practices lead to particular results. This complicates efforts to improve teacher quality; many teachers and administrators are left wondering how and why their performance shifted so drastically, yet their teaching methods remained the same." Mark Paige, Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value-Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation
Mark Paige's book is a quick, simple view regarding the problems with using value-added models as a part of teacher evaluations. As he points out, the statistical flaws are a fatal shortcoming to using them to definitively settle the questions regarding whether a teacher is effective. In his book, he points to two examples of teachers where those ratings fluctuated widely. When you have a teacher who rates "most effective" to "not effective" within a single year, especially when that teacher used the same methods with similar students, there should be a pause of question and interrogation.

Now, the VAM proponents would immediately diagnose the situation thus, "It is rather obvious that the teacher did not meet the needs of students where they are." What is wrong with the logic of this argument? On the surface, arguing that the teacher failed to "differentiate" makes sense. But, if there exists "universal teaching methods and strategies" that foster student learning no matter the context, then what would explain the difference? The real danger of using VAMs in the manner suggested by the logic of "differentiation" invalidates the idea that there are universally, research-based practices to which teachers can turn in improving student outcomes. What's worse, teaching becomes a game of pursuit every single year, where the teacher simply seeks out, not necessarily the best methods for producing learning of value, but instead, becomes, in effective a chaser of test results. Ultimately, the school becomes a place where teachers are simply production workers whose job is to produce acceptable test results, in this case, acceptable VAM results.

The American Statistical Association has made it clear. VAMs do not predict "causation." They predict correlation. To conclude that "what the teacher did" is the sole cause of test results is to ignore a whole world of other possibilities and factors that has a hand in causing those test results. Administrators should be open to the possibility that VAMs do not definitively determine a teacher's effectiveness.

If we continue down the path of using test score results to determine the validity and effectiveness of every practice, every policy, and everything we do in our buildings, we will turn out schools in factories whose sole purpose is produce test scores. I certainly hope we are prepared to accept along with that the life-time consequential results of such decisions.


NOTE: This post is a continued series of posts about the practice of using value-added measures to determine teacher effectiveness based on my recently completed dissertation research. I make no efforts to hide the fact that I think using VAMs to determine the effectiveness of schools, teachers, and educators is poor, misinformed practice. There is enough research out there to indicate that VAMs are flawed, and that there application in evaluation systems have serious consequences.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What Happens When Schools and School Districts Use VAMs to Make Decisions about Teachers?

Many school administrators are using value-added measures in making decisions about teachers as if these statistical measures represent the latest, settled and unquestionable science. Those who do this are making a grave error. Despite companies such as SAS, who peddle their EVAAS data systems as the salvation of public education, the science behind VAMs is not settled, and there is even enough doubt about them, that the American Statistical Association issued a strong statement in 2014 against their use in decision-making when it comes to teachers. In that statement, ASA reminds educators that:
VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation---positive or negative---attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model. (ASA Statement on VAMs)
Yet, administrators still use VAMs to infer that the teacher causes those scores. SAS, who owns the EVAAS model that North Carolina pays millions of dollars for each year, arrogantly claims that it accounts for all the factors that cause student performance on test scores, even when psychometric experts caution that this isn't possible.

In addition, administrators, who use VAMs to make decisions about teachers, should know better than confuse correlation with causation, but any time they base decisions about teacher status using VAMs, they are automatically assuming that teachers cause test results. If teachers operated in a lab where they controlled all the conditions of learning and the subjects of their learning, then one could perhaps better make this inference.

But there are other concerns about VAMs too. In a recent study by Shen, Simon, and Kelcey (2016), it was found that "using value-added teacher evaluations to inform high-stakes decision-making may not make for a good teacher." Using VAMs to decide the status of a teacher may not have the long-term impact administrators desire. These researchers also recommend that VAMs not be used "to inform disincentive high stakes decisions," which are any decisions regarding the professional status of teachers.

Ultimately, though, I can't help but wonder if those who are sold on using VAMs in administrative decision-making aren't caught up in chasing short-term gains in a measurement that lacks any meaningfulness in the long-term. VAMs aren't settled science. Yet, administrators use that data as if it were. Any decisions made using this data should be balanced with other data.

Shen, Z., Simon, C., & Kelcey, B. (2016). The potential consequence of using value-added models to evaluate teachers. eJournal of Education Policy, Fall 2016.


NOTE: My just completed dissertation was on the practice of using value-added measures to determine teacher effectiveness. My plan is to share over the next several weeks and months my own insights and personal thoughts on this practice. This is the first of may posts I plan to share on this topic. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

In Education, What's Wrong with the "It's-the-Best-We've Got Rationale?"

Over the years, as the waves of new reform efforts, federal policy initiatives, and latest educational fads have ebbed and flowed, all of them have been met by critics who questioned their efficacy and their logic. I've been one of those critics myself. What has always fascinated me was the defense of these sometimes reform measures. Take value-added measures for example.

When the statistical wizardry of value-added measures emerged, I distinctly remember their being justified as "the best measurement we've got"when their efficacy was questioned. Does anyone else see the error in that justification? Being the "best we've got" doesn't necessary make it the most effective and best means to measure learning and teaching. Rubbing two sticks together to make fire was the "best we had" until someone figured out flint rocks work better. The "best we've got" rationale doesn't necessarily equate with being effective or even right.

The next time someone uses the "best-we've-got" rationale to justify an educational practice of any kind, we should immediately call them out.