Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Misplaced Faith in Value-Added Measures for Teacher Evaluations

Due to Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind waivers, 41 states have now elected to use Value-Added Measures or VAMs as a part of teacher evaluations. This is done, without regard to the limitations these statistical models have and without any supporting research that says doing so will increase student achievement. What are those limitations? In a recent post, the authors of Vamboozled, provided this post entitled  "Top Ten Bits of VAMmuniton" that educators can use to defend themselves with research-based data against this massive non-research-based shift toward a model of teacher evaluation that will most likely do more to damage education than No Child Left Behind or any other education "reforms" of modern times.

I recently uncovered a journal article entitled "Sentinels Guarding the Grail: Value-Added Measurement and the Quest for Education Reform." which describes a rhetorical study by Rachel Gabriel and Jessica Nina Lester which examined the discourse during a meeting of the Tennessee Teacher Evaluation Advisory or TEAC from March 2010 through April 2011. TEAC was a 15 member panel appointed by the governor of Tennessee to develop a new teacher evaluation policy. The authors of this study examined the language used by those on this panel as they deliberated through the various components of a teacher evaluation policy.

What is interesting about this study is that the language employed by those in this meeting betray some important assumptions and beliefs about teaching, learning, testing, and value-added measures that aren't entirely supported by research or common sense.

According to Gabriel and Lester, Value Added Measurement became a sort of "Sentinel of Trust" and sort of a "Holy Grail" in measuring teacher effectiveness during these meetings in spite of all the research and literature that points to its limitations. According to the author's of this study, here's some of the assumptions those in this TEAC meeting demonstrated through the language they used:

1) Value-added measures alone defines effectiveness.
2) Value-added measures are the only "objective" option.
3) Concerns about Value added measures are minimal and not worthy of consideration.

As far as I can see, there is enormous danger when those making education policy buy into these three mistaken assumptions about value added measures.

First of all, VAMs do not alone define effectiveness. They are based on imperfect tests and often a single score collected at one point in time. Tests can't possibly carry out the role of defining teacher effectiveness because no test is even capable of capturing all that students learn. Of course, if you believe by faith that test scores alone equal student achievement, then sure, VAMs are the "objective salvation" you've been waiting for. However, those of us who have spent a great deal of time in schools and classrooms know tests hardly deserve such an exalted position.

Secondly, even value added measures are not as objective as those who push them would like to be. For example, the selection of which value added model to use is riddled with subjective judgements. Which factors to include and exclude from the model is a subjective judgment too. Choices of how to rate teachers using these requires subjective judgment as well, not to mention that VAMs are not entirely based on "objective tests" either. All the decisions surrounding their development, implementation and use require subjective judgment based on values and beliefs. There is nothing totally objective about VAMs. About the only objective number that results from value-added measures is the amount of money states pay consulting and data firms to generate them.

Finally, those who support value added measures often just dismiss concerns about the measures as not a real problem. They use the argument that VAMs are the "best measures" we've got currently as flawed as they are. Now that's some kind of argument! Suppose I was your surgeon, and used "tapping on your head" to decide whether to operate for a brain tumor because "tapping" was the best tool I've got? The whole 'its-the-best-we-have' argument does not negate the many flaws and issues and the potential harm using value-added measures have. Instead of dismissing the issues and concerns about VAMs, those who advocate for their use in teacher evaluations need to address every concern. They need to be willing to acknowledge the limitations, not simply discard them.

I offer one major, final caution to my fellow teachers and school leaders: it is time to begin really asking the tough difficult questions about the use of VAMs in evaluations. I strongly suggest that we learn all we can about the methodology. If anyone uses the phrase, "Well, it's too difficult to explain" we need to demand that they explain anyway. Just because something looks complicated does not mean its effective. Sometimes we as educators are too easily dazzled by the "complicated" anyway. The burden is on those who support these measures to adequately explain them and to support their use with peer-reviewed research, not company white-papers and studies by those who developed the measures in the first place.

Mendeley: Free or Inexpensive Research Reference Manager for Use Across Devices

One of the grandest lessons I've learned in one semester in my EdD, doctoral program, is that being able to organize all my journal articles and documents is a must. I tried several reference manager options, but Mendeley seems to help me manage all the articles I am collecting as a part of my research in a manner most compatible to my own organizational needs. While certainly not as fully-featured as other options like Endnote, Mendeley gives me exactly the features I want to help me with the collection and reading of the many journal articles and documents I have. My favorite features of the software include:
  • Cloud Access: I can upload PDF copies of my articles and have web access wherever I need it. The articles are stored in the cloud, also making it possible to download them to other devices as needed.
  • Desktop App: Mendeley offers an easy-to-use desktop app as well. The app interface is much simpler and easier to use than some of the other reference management software I've tried.
  • iPad app: Mendeley offers a fully featured iPad app that immediately gives me access to my research on my tablets. 
  • Free with 2 GB of Storage Online but inexpensive to upgrade: While a user only gets 2 GB of cloud space to begin, there are inexpensive options for increasing that storage up to having an unlimited account.
  • PDF reader that allows sticky notes, highlighting and note-taking: Once users have imported journal articles or documents into Mendeley, they can then read them with a PDF reader, highlight passages, add sticky notes or take notes within the reader. These can then be exported for use elsewhere.
  • Groups Feature Offers Ability to Collaborate with Others: Users of Mendeley can use the groups feature to collaborate with others on research projects. I haven't fully explored this yet.
Mendeley Desktop Interface

Mendeley iPad

Mendeley is a free and relatively inexpensive reference manager for those, like me, in the middle of a degree program. For more information regarding Mendeley, check out their website. Mendeley Website

LiveMinutes: Add Real-Time Collaboration to Your Evernote Account

With a new Evernote extension called LiveMinutes, users of the popular notetaking app can now collaborate with others in real-time on notes. Of course, you've always been able to share notes with others, but this process can end up with conflicting versions of the notes. With LiveMinutes, users can work on notes simultaneously. They can also participate in conference calls, create notes, and exchange and annotate documents all within the Evernote environment. With LiveMinutes, users can turn their Evernote app into a real-time, collaborative environment for just about any project. For more information, here's a video from the makers of LiveMinutes.

LiveMinutes currently offers a free plan and a premium plan for $5 a month. Check out their web site for more information. LiveMinutes Web Site

Friday, November 22, 2013

High School Senior's Take on the Common Core and the Obsession with Testing

The debate over Common Core continues. This video captures a high school senior Ethan Young speaking eloquently about some of the concerns about establishing a national curriculum and our current education system's obsession with testing, accountability and standards. Perhaps our policymakers forget that standardization doesn't equal equity though they might think so. Maybe it is equally true that many who are so powerfully pushing these new standards are the very ones who stand to benefit the most financially from their implementation. Take a look at Ethan Young's take on this. It renews our faith that young people are passionate and do care about their education.

Friday, November 15, 2013

NC Governor McCroy Shows Once Again He Doesn't Value ALL Teachers

It's clear that North Carolina governor Pat McCrory still doesn't get it. In today's Charlotte Observer, he once again is pushing that same old tried and failed thinking that for some reason he just can't let go: merit pay for teachers. He doesn't realize that it has been tried, and it does not work. In fact, North Carolina even had merit pay bonuses for test scores throughout the early part of the 2000's and it was dropped when the budget shortfalls started. I would send him a copy of Daniel Pink's book Drive and the Vanderbilt Merit Pay Study if I felt he would read it, but sadly, like our entire North Carolina Legislature, ideology rules over reason every single time. For once, I would like to see a politician in our state capital and sit down and look at the facts, and maybe even read a book or a genuine research study rather than an ALEC written bill or some think tank report.

Governor McCroy, and many others in our state political leadership just don't get this from the Vanderbilt Study:

"Offering teachers incentives of up to $15,000 to improve test scores produced no discernible differences in in academic performance..." Washington Post, "Teacher Bonuses Not Linked to Better Student Performance Study Finds"

Daniel Pink's book would also make a great addition to the governor's reading list as well as a few Alfie Kohn and Dan Ariely books. It appears even our governor doesn't understand teacher motivations. Yes, it's true that teachers and educators haven't gotten pay raises for the past few years. Teachers just want fair compensation for the work they do. Most that I know, aren't motivated by money, and our governor just doesn't understand that because perhaps his motivation is driven by that.

Governor McCroy does need to look at finding pay raises for all educators and not in the form of "performance pay" either. It simply will not work, unless you're looking for a way to be cheap and perhaps keep from giving all educators a raise. Let's hope that's not what the governor is trying to do. So far, there's no test alone that determines the quality of a teacher or educator. Defining teacher and educator effectiveness is just too complex to reduce to some kind of numerical rating system. At worst, Governor McCroy's selectively giving raises by merit pay, to beginning teachers, and only to science and math, shows that he still doesn't value all of our educators. He still doesn't get it and apparently can't even think and act for himself because these are the same tired ideas that politicians have been pushing for years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Carpet Bombing of Public Schools by a Pro School-Privatization Movement

The assumption behind "Parent Trigger" laws, according to Diane Ravitch in her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, is "If parents seize control of their school, they can make it better." As Ravitch points out, with a great deal of data, there is no evidence to support this assumption. What is amazing to me is how this so-called "parent empowerment" legislation came into existence in the first place. At the heart of the development of "parent trigger" laws have been key players in the for-profit charter school industry, who, with an obvious conflict of self-interest, have combined forces with organizations of free market fanatics (the American Legislative Exchange Council comes to mind here) to introduce these measures in state legislatures. But what has really happened here? How have these people like Ben Austin, who founded the pro-charter, pro-parent trigger organization Parent Revolution, been able to both successfully push through a mechanism that makes it possible for parents to commandeer a public school then turn around and hand that school to a for-profit charter school company? It would appear that they have done so through a combination of tactics and maneuvers that belittle public education as a whole, and that use popular media to push their specific agenda of privatization.

One tactic the pro-charter movement has used extremely well is to blanket attack the quality of public schools in general. It is actually akin to carpet-bombing the media with movies, think tank reports, and pseudo-studies denigrating public schools, thereby supporting their cause.They do this by misrepresenting data, focusing on public school examples of extreme failure, and by undermining general public faith in public schools. Aided by both politicians who would like nothing better than shutting down public schools altogether and educators who have bought into the audit culture of testing and accountability, this job of mis-representing the reality of public education is made much easier. Politicians have passed laws such as those in North Carolina and Florida that assign letter grades to public schools based on test scores. Educators, specifically those in state departments of testing and accountability are providing "the data" that ultimately feeds this system and the assumptions that all public schools are failing. What's amazing in all this is the simple fact that data clearly shows that charter schools do not as a whole do any better than public schools, and because there is no unified measure of private schools, there is no way to empirically support the assumption that they do any better either. By blanketing the media with "gloom and doom" reports surrounding the latest test scores, the public's confidence in public schools has eroded and will continue to do so, at least until educators begin calling out those engaged in this tactic.

Another tactic employed by the pro-charter movement is evident in the series of pro-charter school movies that have recently appeared. Waiting for SupermanWon't Back Down, and The Cartel, are all part of concerted effort to undermine confidence in public schools and promote charter schools and vouchers. Using movies to promote causes is common. What might be just a bit sleazy about these movies is how they misrepresent reality and mask who's really behind the movie. Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down are made by Walden Media, funded by billionaire libertarian Philip Anschutz who funds a variety of think tanks and organizations pushing free market philosophy and thinking. His interest in the destruction of public schools and pushing for market-based education reforms  is obvious. Bob Bowdon, the maker of the film The Cartel also has strong ties to free market libertarian organizations, so it is clear also what his real agenda is. One other film, The Lottery, is also another movie that promotes charter schools and denigrates public schools. One can add this movie to the "Charter School Commercial Genre" of movies created by the those with the financial means to push this free market, public school privatization agenda in the guise of teary scenes of kids and parents not getting the education they so desperately want. Those creating these movies and documentaries have learned well how to attack public schools and promote privatization as the only way to save education.

Ultimately, at the heart of all this is that there are those who are willing to distort facts, misrepresent reality, and even implement mechanisms like parent trigger laws to undermine public education. I can't help but wonder though whether this whole attack on public schools is a symptom of a larger struggle taking place within American culture. That struggle is between those who advocate libertarian, free market systems where pursuit of selfish interest is in the interest of society and those who understand that government has and must play a role in refereeing and being a part of all our systems because pursuit of self-interests can't always be trusted, whether they be economic, political or educational. This struggle is being waged across all aspects of American culture, with education being one of those battlefields. What makes all this really frightening to me in some ways is that those pushing this free market, libertarian agenda, have a license to push their self-interest at all costs. Because what they are doing is automatically assumed to be for the good of all, no one looks critically at their actions, or if someone does, they're immediately criticized for not supporting free market interests or worse: being a socialist.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Chromecast: Inexpensive Way to Stream Video & Audio to TV or Other Display Devices

This weekend, I couldn't resist the $35 cost to purchase a Chromecast device. To be honest, I have an Apple TV and a Samsung Smart TV, so I did not really need an additional way to stream audio and video to my television. But what the heck! For $35 dollars it seemed to be worth a try.

I brought the device home and began setting it up. The physical setup of the Chromecast hardware is easy enough. You simply plug the power cord into the device, then you plug the device into an HDMI slot on your TV. If you use the HDMI extender provided, you simply plug the Chromecast device into the extender, then the extender into the TV. Then, it is a matter of setting up the device, which involves installing the Chromecast app on your devices, whether a Laptop or an iPad.

I won't get into the mechanics of this entire setup at this point, but suffice it to say, it is a fairly simple process. But the question most would ask, "Why would I get a Chromecast? Here's some reasons to consider.
  • It is relatively easy to install and set up. I don't feel it was as easy to set up as my Apple TV, but getting the device working is not difficult for anyone who has set up a Blueray player or any other device on their TV.
  • It is an inexpensive (only $35) way to give yourself the ability to stream video and audio to your television. It appears that the apps that allow streaming through the device are limited at this time, but it is another option to get Netflix on the other televisions in your house without paying the 89 to 100 dollars for more expensive devices.
  • Picture and sound quality of Netflix is excellent. I had no problems with picture of sound quality when I streamed Netflix and Pandora.
Right now, there are  only drawbacks I see with the device. One is you can't stream your iPad device content directly to the Chromecast device like you can with the Apple TV. You also apparently can only stream from inside your Chrome web browser from the PC. But, then again, if you only goal is to get apps like Netflix or Pandora to another TV in your household or classroom, then Chromecast is an inexpensive option. The second drawback is when you do stream from inside a Chrome Web Browser tab it is painfully slow, in spite of trying to tweak settings according to the help settings.

Chromecast Device

Was it worth the $35 spent for the device? I would at this time say, "Yes." Chromecast is obviously a work in progress. I could see it as an inexpensive option for those wanting to access selected apps from their mobile devices with a television. I want to try it on an LCD projector, but I am afraid that will have to wait until Tuesday when I return to school. It might prove to at least be a cheaper option to get streaming video and audio in front of classes.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Social Media Explained Infographic by Avalaunch Media

Here's an interesting infographic recently shared with me that takes an unusual perspective in explaining the difference between all the major social media sites.This comes from the folks over at Avalaunch Media. This might be a useful way to introduce those just wading into social media to all the different social media tools.

Social MEowDia Explained