Friday, August 15, 2014

Teaching Is Impacting Lives Forever Not Raising Test Scores

What the testing and accountability crowd does not get is the impact teachers have on lives. No bubble sheet can capture that, and you won't find it in standards. Each of us has a teacher or teachers that have impacted our lives. In my own, there was fifth grade with Ms. Case and sixth grade with Ms. Williams. Ms. Case captured my imagination in reading with Old Yeller which she read to us lovingly everyday. Ms. Williams encouraged me to explore my interests in the stars and science. These teachers fired my curiosity for learning and exploration. The impact teachers have on lives can't be measured using EVAAS, ACT, or SAT. As much as we would like to reduce teaching to numbers, it can't be done.

This video of a surprise party for a teacher of 40 years will move you to tears. In spite of the test score fetish our education leaders and politicians have, there are still teachers touching lives. Let's make sure that continues.

3 Principles for Creating a Culture of Creativity in Schools to Unleash Technological Innovation

"While in school, we are often educated into believing that we must succeed---that mistakes should be avoided. But to be successful, we need to learn how to fail and how to respond to failure. What we call failure is really a learning process." Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World's Most Creative Playground
In today's standardized, testing, and accountability climate, there are major penalties imposed on those who fail. For example, in some states, students who "fail" standardized tests are branded failures by being held back a grade with retention policies that tell students, "Failure is not an option." In other states, teachers whose students don't demonstrate "success" by reaching pre-determined levels of "growth"on standardized tests, find themselves labeled "In Need of Improvement," which might as well be a "Scarlet Letter of Failure" they are forced to wear across their chests until they prove themselves. Finally, in other states, there is the practice of labeling entire schools with letter grades A-F, which is just another device to make sure those who fail suffer the consequences of being a failure. Clearly in our current education system, failure is something to run from and avoid. "Failure is not an option" is the mantra, yet, in today's super-charged, technology climate, failure is exactly what we need. Our mantra should be "Fail early and often" if we want to move forward with innovation. If failure is avoided, so is risk and exploration, two primary ingredients for a culture of creativity within a school, and it is that creativity that drives the innovation necessary to make the most of technology.

If school leaders want to capitalize on what technology has to offer their schools, they must create schools where "failing towards success" happens as rule, and taking risks and exploration is expected. For, as Capodagli and Jackson point out,

"Failing forward is about learning from our mistakes---examining failures and moving beyond them to success." 

In the accountability and audit culture, any failure is treated almost as a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

What then is a school leader to do, to create the kind of culture of creativity that celebrates failure as part of success and creativity? Here's 3 principles adapted from Pixar's Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. Pixar has demonstrated what a culture of creativity looks like.

1. Remember that "Ideas come from people. Therefore people are more important than ideas." Intuitively, most school administrators begin by focusing on the technology. They assess: What technology do we have, and what technology can we get? They even use the number of smart boards and computers in their buildings to gauge technological progress. That's not how it should be. You can have all the tech toys in the world in your building, but if no one is using them, they might as well be trophies sitting on a shelf. As Catmull points out, you have to begin by focusing on people. You do this by finding "good people" and then supporting them. You develop them, and you give them "running room" to try the new. The same is true with both innovation and technology. Focus on the people first, not the technology.

2. Foster the idea that "mistakes are the inevitable consequences of doing something new" and "a positive understanding of failure." Creating a school climate where mistakes are an accepted part of trying the new is especially challenging in a an educational environment that places a premium on holding all "accountable" for failure by beating them over the head with bad ratings and grades. Too many accountability systems are scapegoat-seeking tools for hunting down and getting rid of the culprits who caused "failure to happen" instead of providing solid feedback that leads to success. It is this that creates a "fear-based" climate where no teacher or administrator is going to step out of safe territory and make great things happen with technology.

3. Avoid allowing your school or district to become infected with the desire to "just play it safe." According to Catmull,

"Even though copying what's come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe---to succeed with minimal risk---can infect not just individuals but entire companies."

There are schools and school districts all around us infected with this "be-safe" virus. They are inflexible and rigid, and the minute a teacher dares step to the edge of innovation, the school of system slaps them back in line. The early reaction of school districts towards cell phones and social media are a great example of this. When school leaders focus on safety alone, they move to risk-minimization mode, which kills creativity and innovation, the very things needed to capitalize on technology. You can recognize a school system that values safety at the expense of all else when they bring technology into their schools. How? It is simply used to do what they've always done. Smart boards become overhead projectors. The Internet becomes a massive online library. Social media becomes just another announcement system. You can't possibly play it entirely safe with technology and expect innovation and creativity.

The challenge then for today's school leader is how do you make it safe for innovation and creativity in a climate that only values success and punishes failure? How do we move our schools, districts, students, parents, and teachers beyond the thinking that "failure is not an option" so they can take risks and explore the edges of innovation with technology? We can begin doing that by focusing on our people instead of counting smartboards and computers. We can make mistake-making accepted step in the path to innovation and creativity. Finally, we need to inoculate ourselves against the "play-it-safe" virus and make risk-taking acceptable. We can't just copy what someone else is doing and call it innovation. We need to unleash creativity by taking Catmull's advice by "loosening the controls, accepting risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear." 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Learn from My Mistake: Buying Apps from the Mac App Store: Read the Fine Print!

I've been trying to find an offline blogging app for my MacBook Pro for quite awhile. I purchased MarsEdit, and have used it, but it is so quirky and strange, it has been a big disappointment. When posting through MarsEdit, sometimes the format morphs into something not desired, and it is impossible to change it. As a former Windows user, I miss Windows Liverwriter immensely, but please don't tell Bill Gates.

Today, plastered big as a billboard, I found an advertisement for Blogo, another blogging editing software. I skimmed through the description and was immediately sold, so I purchased the app. I downloaded it and immediately tried to connect it to this blog. I received an error message immediately. It seems Blogo only supports WordPress currently. Bummer! I purchased a $15 app that might as well be bloatware on my computer.

I then went back and explored the Blogo ad further and at the very end of that ad, the developers mention that their app only works for WordPress, but they hope to include Blogger soon. Hmmmm! That seems a bit deceptive to me, but granted I should have read their entire ad to begin with, which I will religiously do from now on. Apparently, the Mac App store is like the National Enquirer: Don't believe everything you read! Had I gone to Blogo's website, I would have seen clearly (well not really) that their app only works with WordPress. They have the WordPress icon brightly colored, and the Blogger and Tumbler icons dimmed out, but they are there. Why list these two at all if you do not currently support them? A quick glance at the web site would lead users to think the app works for Blogger and Tumbler too, which it does not currently.

At any rate, lesson has been learned by this Blogger. You can't believe everything you read in the Mac App store either, nor on developer web sites. I should have known better. Still, all I ask is that app developers clearly avoid making claims about their apps, and that they mark clearly how their apps work.

I am still looking for a Blogging app that works for blogger if there are any developers interested in that. As you can see, I was willing to pay for it too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Breaking the Silence: Why It's the School Leader's Responsibility to Speak Out

"The silence of thoughtful people creates a vacuum filled by extremists." Margaret Wheatley, Find Our Way; Leadership for an Uncertain Time
In her book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, Margaret Wheatley asks the question:
"Why is silence moving like a fog across the planet? Why is it growing in us as individuals, even as we learn of more and more issues that concern us? Why do we fail to raise our voice on behalf of things that trouble us, and then regret what we didn't do?" 
Why do public educators and school leaders largely remain silent while politicians and government bureaucrats bash public schools and inundate them with harmful school policies? Why do teachers, principals, and district leaders automatically ask the question, "How can we implement this educational measure?" rather than asking the tough questions about implementation issues and possible harmful effects on the public education system, its students, and its employees? Is it fear? Has our public education system become so hierarchical, with emperors and kings sending down mandates, and the educator's job is to unquestioningly accept whatever those mandates are and carry them out? My question is not intended to encourage that we should break the law, or be insubordinate. Legally, we're often bound to doing some things while holding our noses, and hoping that no one is harmed by those laws or policies. Still, if we quietly move to implementation mode, without expressing our concerns and opinions, then those in power take that acquiescence as consent and total support.

In the current education climate, our silence on issues like standardized testing, accountability, education budgets, and poverty does create the vacuum into which the enemies to public education, sometimes allied with well-meaning education reformers have poured their ideas. They have captured the marketplace of "what's-best-for-kids" because educators and school leaders choose to be silent, and in this, when it comes to our current educational climate, we've only ourselves to blame.

It is time, time for us to speak up. It is time for us to let our politicians know how their budgets and laws affect lives and our education mission. It is time for us to let federal bureaucrats know how their programs and policies are undermining our efforts to bring sound education to our students. It is time, for us to break the silence. While our speaking up may not change minds, laws, or policies, at the end of the day, we will not regret that we allowed all these anti-public education reforms occur.

Of course, those in "power" might see our speaking out as "insubordination" and "not being a team player." But since when does being on a team mean you check your expertise and opinions at the door? Since when is contributing your own concerns and objections deemed insubordinate? We do have a responsibility to be respectful when expressing our concerns and objections. And those objections and concerns expressed may do nothing to change the course of events. Still, we've not been insubordinate, and we are being the ultimate team player. We are contributing our expertise and ideas and experience when we do not remain silent. We are in the practice being "thoughtful people" who are trying to keep in check those whose agendas may not be in the best interests of our students and public education, and to help our leaders make sound decisions.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Plan to Destroy Public Education in NC with Five Easy Steps

If I wanted to design an education budget that gives the “appearance” of supporting teachers and educators, what would that budget look like? What if my long term goals are to get the state out of the education business and turn that entire enterprise over to the private sector? How can I continue to “starve” public education to achieve this goal? Here’s what I might do.

First of all, since I would have to give some raises in pay during election years, I would, but do so strategically. I don’t really want young college students choosing education as a career, because then I would have to keep paying them and ultimately give them some kind of sound benefits and retirement. I want young teachers and young teachers only, so I make sure that teachers in the first 10 years or so get paid well. I would not want to pay them too much after that. In fact, I would take away experienced teachers' longevity pay and any other incentive they might have to teach beyond 10 years or so. I don’t value experience nor getting higher education degrees, so I would disincentivize those things as well. The goal in my planned destruction of public education is to attract teachers who use the job as a stepping stone to other careers, so keep the pay for experienced teachers flat.

Secondly, I would look for strategic areas in the education budget that would have the greatest negative impact on public education in this state if they were cut. I would cut a bit here and there, change funding structures that in the end result in cuts. I could cut special programs like at-risk funding to make it even more difficult for schools to meet the needs of students, so I can say public schools are failures. I would keep textbooks and instructional supply budgets flat, so teaching becomes even harder. That has the duel effect of making sure no one chooses teaching in a public school as a long term career. It also makes sure that teachers can’t claim to be successful too much. After all, if my ultimate goal is to put public education out of business, can’t have teachers being successful.

Thirdly, I would tighten the accountability screws even tighter. I could use tests as bludgeoning instruments to further beat up the education system. Give schools ratings using these test scores (grade them on an A-F grading scale), and make it difficult for them to obtain the highest ratings. That way, we can use numbers, which I know everyone believes don't lie, to declare more and more public schools a failure. I would also use tests and a testing process that does not give teachers too much feedback on teaching. Can’t have them getting quality, timely testing data that can then be turned around and used to improve teaching and learning. After all, we don’t want public schools to succeed. We want them to fail, so we can then create a whole industry to take over the education enterprise.

Fourthly, I make sure teaching is no longer a profession. Tenure has to go so I try to pass laws with incentives for teachers to give it up or I pass laws so that it quietly goes away. After all, if the destruction of public schools is my ultimate goal, I don’t want due process rights to get in the way of getting rid of teachers when it becomes necessary to get rid of them. For example, at some point, I might want to toss teachers out to balance budgets or to keep from having to pay retirements. I also don’t want teachers in the system who might ask too many questions. If there’s no tenure, and they get too close to the truth, I can toss them out.

Finally, I add more money to voucher programs to continue the process of getting students out of public schools, and I promote legislation that supports the idea that “any-old-charter-school-will-do." It really doesn’t matter if charter schools or private schools are more effective. In fact, they can be less effective. All I want to do get students out of public schools and the funding that goes with them. That way I can continue to starve public education even further, as their ADM drops. I also cut the automatic funding stream too, that way I use it to further the public education starvation process.

With just these five steps, I can move the state closer to dismantling public education and turning education over to private enterprise, and give the "appearance" that I support education. I could simply use a four-pronged approach:

1) Make public school teaching less of a profession and a less attractive career,
2) Strategically cut money from the budget that has the greatest negative impact on public school success,
3) Institute measures to begin getting students out of public schools, after all this will in turn start pulling money from public education, thereby continuing the starving process,
4) Ramp up regulation, accountability and testing, and use both to bludgeon public schools and educators so they aren’t seen as successful.

This entire plan would perhaps so negatively impact public schools that the public would be screaming that they be closed.

Hmmmm…does all this sound familiar to anyone in North Carolina? I’ll let you be judge.

Friday, August 8, 2014

NC Legislative Staffer Calls Concerned Teacher an Idiot? Say It Isn't So!

The question of the evening is, "Did a staffer in North Carolina Representative Tim Moore's office call a teacher concerned about about the recently passed North Carolina budget an "idiot?" According to a a recent post to my Facebook timeline, a teacher in Cleveland County, North Carolina  described what it was like to call her state representative and express concerns about the budget. Here's her post:

Perhaps this incident really illustrates how this legislature really feels about teachers in general. To call a teacher, who happens to be citizen, an "idiot" says a great deal about how this representative really feels about teachers. My fear is that such sentiments extend throughout the legislature and our state's governor's office as well. Their past actions have shown they are no friends to public education. They certainly have proved during this session that they are no friends to veteran teachers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

NC Gov McCrory & Legislature Approves Budget with Hidden Anti-Public Ed Agenda

Today, North Carolina Governor McCroy signed the budget presented to him by the legislature. What amazes me is how our state political leaders can say with a straight face, that they have given teachers a "historical pay raise." Teacher raises are actually between 18% and .3%, depending on years experience. From what I can see, here's what this budget really does.
  • It takes away longevity pay for experienced teachers and then returns it back to them in what the Legislature is calling an "average 7% raise." In other words, the actual raise is lower than what they brag about because they are taking pay away that teachers earn because of their years of service.
  • This budget sets up a donation fund to collect donations for those would like to donate money to future teacher pay raises, because we have political leaders unwilling to use tax money to fund future teacher raises.
  • The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is cut by 10%.
  • There were no direct cuts to teacher assistant jobs, but the wording of this part of the budget has an odor difficult to identify.
  • Textbook funding was increased only by $1 million, bringing to to a whopping total of $25 million, yet our legislature was able to somehow find another $840,000 for school vouchers. Compare this to the fact that the textbook budget pre-2010 recession was around $125 million.
  • Monetary allotments for salaries and benefits to district offices were decreased by 3%.
  • The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, an excellent program designed to provide scholarships to promising high school students who want to become teachers was also cut.
  • The budget directs funding toward for-profit virtual charter schools, even though there questions about their effectiveness.
This budget is what I would call a "grudge" budget, which is a budget that uses mirrors and smokescreens to hide this legislature's continued anti-public education agenda. It is sad that Governor Pat McCroy, Thom Tillis, and Phil Berger would resort to deception in an election year, but then again being able to deceive others is a valued trait in American politicians of every stripe. It's too bad that children will continue to suffer under these kinds of budgetary decisions and public education will still continue to deteriorate. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Perverse Practice of Focusing on 'Bubble Students': Malpractice in the Schools

One of the most insidious by-products of the age of testing and accountability is the suggestion that educators should "focus on bubble students" in order to raise a school's test scores. For those who might not know what the term "bubble student" is, in education lingo, the bubble student is the student who has the greatest chance of demonstrating growth or an increase in test scores. Many a scheme has been devised to determine who these students are, and talk to any educational or curricular material salesmen, and you are more than likely going to hear this phrase: "Our materials will help you identify those students who have the greatest chance of demonstrating growth, and we give you the materials to focus on them."

Is there not anyone else who feels a bit of disgust at this sleazy sales pitch and idea? Basically, the suggestion is this: you can identify those kids who have the greatest chance of demonstrating higher test scores and focus on them. This also implies that "less focus" will be on other students for whom gains will be harder and more resource-intensive. Whatever happened to teaching "all students?

We have our testing and accountability culture to thank for this perversion. Because test scores become the ultimate indicator of quality, any strategy is on the table, including ignoring some students in order to help those who show the greatest promise of demonstrating growth. If I were a parent of a lower-ability student or a gifted student, who are usually likely victims of "bubble-student" strategies, I would hire a lawyer immediately. There's a pretty good chance that behind the use of such talk is the idea that the school is going to purposefully focus on "money students", that is, students who have the greatest chance of producing test scores, and neglect those at the very bottom and the very top who aren't going to demonstrate the greatest test score gains.

The practice of focusing on "bubble students" or "money students" as its also called is unethical and perverse. No one would suggest to a physician that he only treat those who have the greatest chance of healing. I certainly don't want a mechanic who only takes the easiest cases of repair, and writes the others off as too resource intensive. Any suggestion of this strategy for raising test scores has zero place in schools.

The practice of focusing on bubble students is a direct consequence of this fetishization and idolization of tests present in education today. Make test scores the ultimate goal, and you get perverse educational practices like focusing on the bubble students and ignoring other students because they are less likely to "bring the gains desired." By the way, any sales person who uses that in pitching his products, has immediately lost a sale.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Time to Dethrone Testing from Its Godly Position in Public Education

"We would like to dethrone measurement from its godly position, to reveal the false god it has been. We want instead to offer measurement a new job—that of helpful servant. We want to use measurement to give us the kind and quality of feedback that supports and welcomes people to step forward with their desire to contribute, to learn, and to achieve." Margaret Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time
Want to know what's wrong with testing and accountability today? It's more about a "gotcha game" than really trying to help teachers improve their craft. Over and over ad nauseam, those pushing these tests talk about using test data to improve teaching and thereby student learning, but that's not what is happening at all.

In American education, despite what many testing and accountability advocates say, testing is driving our education system. Decision after decision is based on what will "produce the best test scores." What's wrong with that? Nothing at all, if those tests truly and accurately capture worthwhile learning, but sadly, our quest for the "Holy Grail" of tests has not been productive. All the tests and bubble sheets we subject students to are incapable of capturing real learning. I don't have the same faith in testing that many educators have. There will never be a test, nor a set of standards that saves education.

I suggest that we do as Wheatley suggests in her book Finding Our Way. Let's "dethrone measurement," in this case testing and reveal that it is a "false god." We've had well over 10 years of "test worship" and absolutely nothing to show for it. No Child Left Behind began elevating testing to deity levels, and Race to the Top has only elevated testing even higher, to the point that we're now deciding the fate of teacher assistants, teacher careers, student promotions, even the status of whole schools based on single test scores. We have made "tests" our crystal balls through which we can identify a bad teacher or bad school. We have test scores to tell us how much impact a kindergarten teacher might have on future earnings. Really? Do we really believe in the power of tests and the power of data that much?

We do need to dethrone testing a bit and make it a servant of good education rather than the dictator it has become. I'm afraid that won't happen until this fundamental faith in the infallibility of test scores ends. Let's hope our education system isn't destroyed first.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Vegetarianism, Exercise, and 21st Century Leadership---Thoughts On Being Healthy

"We all know we should be eating more vegetables---it's the advice given by every nutritionist and on every food pyramid. Becoming vegetarian, even if it's only part time, is a great opportunity to do just that." The Vegetarian Bible
Most of us grew up with admonitions from our parents to "Eat your vegetables" while we stared at our plates piled with green peas, carrots, or green beans. The inevitable second part to that statement was almost always, "They're good for you." The problem with that justification, at least as I remember it, was that it did not work, especially with the green peas. Most of us did not eat them because we thought they were good for us; we ate them because they were on our plate.

Don't get me wrong, there were some vegetables that I enjoyed. I have always liked green beans. Black-eye peas were good too. I actually did eat most vegetables, except for green peas, which for some reason I did not care for.

Fast forward years later, and most would find it difficult that I have chosen to become a vegetarian. I have always been a heavy meat-eater. Give me a sloppy cheese burger, and I was happy. But times have changed for me, I have been a vegetarian for the past few months, and I am glad I made the change. I have never felt better and have more energy to boot. In addition to becoming a vegetarian, I also have been walking over 4 miles per day for exercise. This all came about because I realized I was not being very good to myself with what I was eating and with what I was not doing with physical exercise. I felt bad physically a large part of time. A visit to my physician and the scales was the final straw that convinced me I was on a crash course for obesity and bad health.

Three months later, I've lost 34 pounds and feel 100% better.

I won't try to convince you to become a vegetarian. One thing I've learned by choosing this course is American society is based on carnivorous eating. When you go to dinner parties, unless they happen to know you eat vegetarian, you are likely to find yourself sucking on a piece of parsley and sipping water. Restaurants are almost entirely based on meat-eating too, and if there are vegetarian choices, you either are relegated to choosing a dish and tell them to "Hold the meat," or there's a small section in the menu with three or four choices are labeled "Vegetarian." This is no dig at gracious hosts of these parties, nor the owners of fine restaurants who serve great food, but Americans assume Americans eat meat and that's the way it is.

Still, I can't help but wonder that we as school leaders, models of being good citizens, should also not be modeling making good choices about our eating and about exercising. We become quite adept at solving problems in our schools, but we ignore the problem that we aren't being very kind to our physical selves, and what's worse, we're modeling that for our students. I am certainly not advocating that we somehow mandate healthy eating and exercise for education leaders because they are "role models." Being a "role model" means you do things because they are the right thing to do, not because you have to do it, so mandates aren't going to solve this problem.

In the end, we all have to make the choices about how we treat ourselves. We don't have to be vegetarian, but we can be mindful of what we eat and avoid excess and eating things that aren't good for us. We can also get some exercise. The excuse of the busy schedule should not prevent this. You walk, run, jog, or swim as a part of normal everyday routine. Make it a habit as something you just do. If we don't take care of ourselves by with mindful eating and exercise, we will probably shorten our careers as school leaders, and we might not be modeling good decision-making in these areas for our students.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

2 Things That Really Matter When Leading Your School, District, or Organization This Year

At the end of the day, we can set up all the policies and procedures we want; our schools or organizations still may not be successful. All the goals, strategic plans, visions, and missions we establish are meaningless and will not spur success if the people do not feel what they are doing is meaningful and worthwhile, and they do not feel valued. I like this quote from Margaret Wheatley's book Find Our Way: Leadership for Uncertain Times.
"During this period of random unpredictable change, any organization that distances itself from its employees and refuses to cultivate meaningful relationships with them is destined to fail. Those organizations who will succeed are those that evoke our greatest human capacities---our need to be in good relationships, and our desire to contribute something beyond ourselves. These qualities cannot be evoked through procedures and policies. They are only available in organizations where people feel trusted and welcome, and where people know that their work matters."
 If your life as a school leader is like mine, we are in a swirl of change, especially as we prepare to enter a new school year. Try as we might to plan for every contingency, you can bet things will not go as we planned; that's the only certainty about the future. As Wheatley reminds us, what we can do is make sure to connect with those in our school or district; that does not mean connecting from the perspective of supervisor to subordinate either. It means genuinely having conversations with others about the things that do matter to them. In this, we show them that we care. We must pay attention to the relationships.

In the swirl of change we find ourselves in, we can't shield people from the wind gusts and driving rain. We can't create some rule or policy that will hold back the floods. What we can do are two things. 

First, we can be human and work on "cultivating meaningful and authentic relationships." As a school level principal, I am guilty of getting so lost in the swirl and blast of change that I forget that it is people with whom I work. We need each other more than we need anything else in those times. We need our schools and districts to be the places where people feel trusted and welcome. If everyone has hidden agendas and only displays their inauthentic selves, there can't be an atmosphere of trust and respect.

Second, we need to make sure our staff know they are engaged in work that matters. I think that's one thing testing and accountability folks really struggle with. They can't quite understand why teachers and educators don't see that goal of "raising test scores" as meaningful. I didn't become a teacher to raise students' test scores. I also taught long enough to know tests can't measure all learning. In fact, tests often can't measure the most meaningful learning. We need to make sure that our purposes are higher than making sure our End of Course test scores increase, or whether our graduation cohort rate is higher. Those who find that such things are most meaningful are perhaps short-sighted. If we pay attention to shaping students' minds, these things take care of themselves, or don't seem quite as important. Often, what is most meaningful to me is when a student comes back and tells me about her life.

Yesterday, I experienced firsthand why teaching and education is meaningful to me. I was in the line at the grocery store in my neighborhood, preparing to check out. I was placing items on the conveyor when a former student of mine I will call Amber (Not her real name) came up and excitedly started telling me about her 100 on her latest college paper. She was beside herself as she hugged me, and she said it was because she had such a "great English teacher" referring to me. Of course, we all enjoy it when former students do such things, and I am no different. We all like to hear stories about the success of our former students. But this story has much more to it; more "data" than Amber's score on her paper, or her assessment of me as an English teacher. There's also the fact that I know this young lady has had to endure quite a bit diversity and works hard at this store. She has a young child. With all this going on, she decided to go back to a local community college to earn her degree. Despite circumstances, she is thriving and perhaps using something of what we learned together ten or fifteen years ago. You can bet that "something" was not the content found on a standardized test. This former student reminded me once again that I am involved in something greater than myself. My work mattered to someone else.

This post is in some ways more a challenge to myself to remember what really matters this coming year. It is reminder that chances are, I am going to find myself and my staff in that swirl of change again this year. What is important is that I remember we have each other and that we are engaged in a purpose that really matters.

Friday, August 1, 2014

How Test Scores Have Become 'Infallible Indicators of Teaching & Learning Quality'

Veteran Educator and education writer Marion Brady had some thought provoking words in this recent post on Valarie Strauss' Washington Post Answer Sheet blog. (See "What do standardized tests really measure?") In that post, Brady provides some gems that should provoke more discussion on the damage to public education that is occurring by those who insist, as Brady puts it, "Test scores are infallible indicators of quality."

Yesterday, in my post about how the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations in Tennessee has perverted both education practice and teacher evaluation, I called these individuals who insist on the "infallibility of test scores" as fundamentalists. The dictionary definition of "fundamentalist" is:
"Fundamentalist: strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles"
In the case of the testing fundamentalists, there is a strict adherence in the belief that tests scores are infallible indicators of quality of both teaching and learning. Why they might argue that they don't believe test scores are "infallible," they still use them as if they were infallible.  While I called them "fundamentalists" as a jest in part, but there is some truth to that statement. Too easily educators, politicians, businesses, and the general public have come to view "test scores as indicators of quality" and take the attitude "that numbers don't lie" and that they are "objective" and that belief is driving much of the strict adherence to current testing and accountability reform.

Get into an honest discussion with a true believer in test-scores-as-indicators-of-quality, and they sometimes acknowledge the problems with tests, the testing process. But, and this always happen, they resort to the argument, "Well, that's the best we've got." It's easy to see what's wrong with that argument. Basing the future of a child and a teacher on test scores and defining "teaching quality" as only test score results ignores the real complexity of learning.

When test scores are worshipped (or used in a fundamentalist manner) as the "true and infallible" indicator of teaching and learning quality, both are reduced to simplistic, rote activities. As Brady points out, "Teaching---trying to shape minds---is hard complicated work." But herein is the problem. Those who worship at the altar of bubble sheets, Pearson, and College Board, don't see learning as "trying to shape minds." They see learning as a simple imparting of knowledge from teacher to student. Brady points that out when he says that Bill Gates sees "learning as a product of teaching." By reducing teaching to a process of product delivery in the form of test scores, then all this blather about testing, accountability, and value-added measures makes sense. But if anyone argues against these beliefs that are labeled as "status-quo supporters" as if they were some kind of heretic to question this doctrine.

Test scores are only test scores. They might sometimes tell us something about teaching and learning, and sometimes they tell us more about a student's socioeconomic status, or the kinds of support the child is getting at home. Test scores are and always will be subject to error, and they aren't as "objective" as the true believers believe. We can't use test scores "as if they were infallible indicators of learning."