Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Teachers: own the assessment of your students

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"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I have been silent lately because I am working on perfecting my craft this year.  It is my first time teaching Geometry and I am excited to apply all I have learned to a new academic concept while continuing to implement new practices to enhance the student experience.

I have written before about the importance of owning the assessment of student mastery.  I am a firm believer in my profession, and I know that one of the most important tasks we have, if not THE most important, is to assess the knowledge of our students.  The challenge is to do so in a way that appreciates the child, fosters inquiry, and supports continued learning. As teachers, we have endless ways to do this: from watching students interact with one another to administering formal assessments.  (Side Note:  the formal assessments I give are both formative and summative.  I call it "summormative" since it's never too late to show learning.)

The pitfall we face is when we sacrifice our professional judgement to the test gods.  One of the most vengeful and spiteful test gods is Multiple Choice.  A not-as-evil-but-still-kinda-bad test god is the Objective Raw Score.  I think all of us as teachers sacrifice to these gods in our careers.  The entire education industry forces us to do it (data, data, data!).  I used to do it, too.  I then took ownership of my professional abilities and I changed.  I want all of my colleagues to think about the way they assess students and see if there is a better way.  We cannot afford to blame "the test".  We can control the narrative of assessment and fight from our classrooms.

I want to show you a sample of my daughter's work from last week. This is about to get pretty mathy, but hang in there, it's only 3rd grade math.  Please look at my daughter's work from a 25 question math test (this is not the time or place to discuss grade-level appropriateness, I'm making another point here):

Her score is an 88% B.  This means she has B level mastery over the math concepts presented in this test because she was able to answer 22 out of the 25 questions correctly, leaving one to believe she has missed 3 concepts.  To me, it is fair to say that if you have missed 3 concepts you do not have "A level mastery" over the material.  A closer look at her work reveals the nasty influence of the test gods in the professional assessment of student knowledge.  I don't fault her teacher.  Again, we all either do it or have done it before.

In the first item that was marked incorrect, there is no evidence of my daughter's thinking.  There is only an incorrect response for the simple operation of 4 X 3.  Instead of 12, she mistakenly thought the product was 16.  Clearly incorrect.

The second item is where the fun begins.  Though this item begs for the student to perform the simple operation of 5 X 4 as the teacher recommends, my daughter's work (her evidence of thinking) shows there is another correct way to arrive at the answer.  In fact, her way of arriving at the answer pleases me more as an algebra teacher.  She is displaying evidence of understanding the distributive property.  You may wonder why she was adding 16 + 8.  That is a fair question until you look at the diagram.  If you see the way the counters are arranged, you should see why a student may want to add the product of the top line of counters to the product of the bottom line of counters.  The bottom line of counters is clearly 8, as a result of 2 X 4.  But then the question becomes: Where did she get 16?  Recall her first incorrect response.  The top line of counters in the diagram would be a result from 3 X 4.  What should have been 12 was once again 16.  So, in a problem that could have been as simple as 5 X 4, my daughter made only the mistake of thinking 3 X 4 was 16 (again) while correctly and beautifully applying the distributive property; a skill that will be much more beneficial to her than a simple math fact.

The third incorrect item is the funny one.  Again, a simple operation of 4 X 3.  Yet 16 was not a multiple choice item.  What did she select as her answer?  Certainly not 12.  She chose 6.  Any one of you who has ever taken a multiple choice test knows exactly what she was thinking.

On a third grade 25-item math test, she had 3 incorrect responses.  Yet a professional educator should be able to see that she made only 1 mistake:  4 X 3.  Since the god of Multiple Choice created this test, the teacher yielded the opportunity to see these mistakes more clearly.  Since the god of Objective Raw Score graded this test, the teacher yielded the authority to determine my daughter actually has pretty darn good mastery of the material (chip off the old block?).  Again, I do not blame the teacher. I am using this example to beg us all to reflect on our practice.

I am not asking the teacher to change the grade.  That's not the point.  The point is much bigger than this test or her teacher.  It's our entire profession and the way we approach assessment.  We must re-think the way we are assessing student knowledge and claim our authority to evaluate students accurately.

So, what do I do for my "summormative" tests in my classes?  The first thing I do is make sure the god of Multiple Choice is not invited to any of my parties.  If he happens to rear his ugly head, I will make sure he has insignificant impact on my ability to assess what my students know.  I need to ensure that I can see what my students are thinking on each item as they work toward their results.  My test items vary in complexity and value from item to item.  Some items are worth only 1 point, some are worth 5 points.  I am able to assess my students' work and thinking the very same way I could tell how my daughter was approaching the 5 X 4 item.  I can then give my students credit where it is deserved while knowing exactly where remediation may be needed as we move forward.

I also avoid the god of Objective Raw Score.  I believe this is where we, as teachers, sacrifice most of our assessment authority.  We don't need objective raw scores to know what good understanding looks like.  We don't need to nit-pick and bean-count points to know if a student has A-level mastery of our concepts.  If it's A work, score it as an A. If it's C work, score it as a C.  If we rely on "22/25 as an 88%, therefore a B", we may not only be missing the errors in our calculations as I have pointed out, we also may be giving students a false sense of their own comprehension.

I am trying something new this time around, thanks again to Alfie Kohn (he would say I shouldn't even need tests or grades).  I am allowing students to look over their own tests after I have marked up each item.  I again emphasize what the test was asking them to demonstrate.  I then ask them to give themselves a grade based on their own work, writing to me with: "I believe this grade should be a ________ because I clearly __________."  If I disagree one way or another with a student's self assessment, we discuss it.  Otherwise I enter a 95, 85, 75, 65, 55, 50, or 25.  If a student has not demonstrated a C level of mastery, I encourage them to continue learning the material until they can achieve that level and I use all the academic resources available to make that process as simple and convenient as possible.  I will change grades at any point in the year.  I tell students "your grade is as permanent as you allow it to be".

For the next unit in my class, I will ask students to forecast their test grade before taking it.  They already know what they are being asked to demonstrate, and they should not need MY test for them to know where they are.  I want them to truly think about learning, to embrace it, and to enjoy the challenge. So, I am looking forward to this experience with them.

I am still experimenting with methods of accurately assessing knowledge while encouraging students to reflect on their own learning, explore ways to deepen their understanding of concepts, and enjoy the process of gaining knowledge.  I do this because I am a professional.  I own my authority to assess student knowledge, and  I will not yield that authority to anyone.  If all my colleagues demand the same, our education environment could be drastically different.  We can create great change from our classrooms.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

Monday, July 20, 2015

So Close...

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks in the education policy world.  After a lengthy debate and many amendments, Congress has gone through with a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Child Achieves Act.   In my home area of Central Florida, one school district attempted to convince the Commissioner of Education to abandon the statewide standardized assessment for a less expensive alternative.  

The discussion surrounding these two developments has been entertaining and frustrating at the same time.  The entertainment lies in hearing all the great arguments people have against the high stakes testing environment of education policy.  It's been exciting to hear and read more people become vocal about how children are being sacrificed in the mess of "rigor", "accountability", and "standards" as our nation and states struggle to find education policy that works.   It's exciting to hear advocates speak up for educators and give us more authority and a sense that maybe we are valued.

The frustrating part has been the underlying reason to address what has happened.  The arguments to replace what is here are the same arguments that brought us here.  It's mind-numbingly frustrating.  I'm only going to specifically address what happened locally because I thought it was going to be an amazing example of actual change, but it turned out to be disappointing.

On July 13, the Seminole County superintendent sent a letter to the Florida Commissioner of Education appealing to discontinue the Florida Standards Assessment.  I was extremely excited to hear about this development because I'm normally interested in begging my own district to raise a stink with Tallahassee when other districts attempt it.  But not this time.  I respect the Seminole County School Board and the superintendent, but when I read the actual letter I was deflated when I saw:   

"In supporting the Governor's initiative to produce college and career ready graduates, assessment tools need to be aligned to the  Florida Standards and the skills sought by businesses."
When the Orlando Sentinel posted an opinion piece supporting the "Seminole Solution", I again was ready to get my hopes up.  But then I read this gem: 
"Tests are an essential tool to hold schools, teachers and students accountable for results."
I was simply deflated.  These are the same arguments underlying the passage of the ECAA and have been the same arguments framing the national discourse on education.  We have to challenge this notion.  I previously wrote how I disagree with the entire discussion of education, so seeing this argument come so close to a great movement in my own state was quite disheartening. We have to understand that there is no testing solution.

I hear a lot of push for nationally normed tests, or accepted norm referenced tests.  Before we push for these, we'd better fully understand what norm referenced means.  It means that there will always be children who lose.  In norm referenced tests, there is no need to outswim the shark or outrun the bear; only a need to outswim or outrun your friend.  We cannot argue to replace one set of high stakes tests with another set of high stakes tests.  There is no testing solution.

Until we abandon the notion that children are data points we will continue this frenzy of testing, over-testing, accountability, and opting out. Our children are not numbers. We forget that children are people, and people are complex beings. The entire premise of education policy is built upon ignoring this obvious fact.  But we allow the argument without challenge.  Attacking a statewide standardized assessment to replace it with another test dodges the true issue that is hurting children: assuming they are simple.  Children, teachers, and schools cannot be measured simply or quickly. Our blind acceptance that they can be is what will keep harming our children, so we must argue this every time it comes up (even if it's part of a great fight).

I can only guess at how we know if education policy "is working".  Do we look at median household income?  Teacher retention?  Crime rates?  Childhood poverty rates?  Graduation rates?  Youth unemployment rates? Small business development?  Student loan debt? Number of issued patents?  National debt?  Voter turnout?  If we used these "metrics" it would be clear to see that we Left A Lot of Children Behind in our Race to the Bottom.

If we want Every Child to Achieve, we are going about it all wrong.  There is no testing solution.  Children are complex.  Teaching is complicated.  Schools serve a variety of functions that are sometimes difficult to measure.  If we want a solution, we need to let go of our notion of accountability and begin to embrace the notion of true leadership from teachers, parents, educators, and students.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Challenge the Vision

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I love the debates for all the subjects within the realm of education including testing, unions, student loan debt, and global comparisons. I have been finding lately that these debates in education lead to one source: our national vision for education. I want to challenge it.

Our vision began with A Nation at Risk creating an urgency based on competition against Russia and emerging global economies. We have since transitioned into leaving no child behind, and we are now focused on "college and career readiness".  

These have all sounded good from their inception, all have been used in campaign speeches and state of the union addresses. They have been the cornerstone of education policies and created a nearly one trillion dollar industry. These visions have crafted every sub-category of our educational debate. The US Department of Education wants to "promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness", the Florida Department of Education wants to "increase the proficiency of all students", and my own local school district wants to be the "top producer of successful students in the nation."

Who can argue with such great soundbites? I will.

"Achievement", "proficiency", and "success" along with other great buzzwords like "rigor", "data", and "accountability" have done wonders for elected officials, government appointees, and educational leaders (who are rarely, if ever, educators). Policies are crafted around these words, bills are written around these words, textbooks and curriculum packages are sold around these words, and students are forgotten because of these words. All these words fit under the current national education vision of "college and career readiness" and I am here to say that this vision is wrong and it is this vision that is currently hurting our students and will suffocate our future.

What is our purpose of education? Currently, the purpose is to fit children into college enrollment statistics or cubicles/uniforms that already exist. All the education policies of today, from the national level to the school level are doing this. Ask why I teach algebra to my students and one of those two options will be the answer. These two ends for children have created the education industry. In this industry created by our national education vision, college and career readiness can be analyzed and measured. Therefore, all stakeholders within the industry, from state chancellors to students, can be measured against the metrics and held accountable. New tools for success in these two ends, from tests to entire schools, are being created and used. Students are reduced to data points, teachers are rendered obsolete, and we can claim success based on two simplistic ends: college and career readiness.

The problem is that the current vision ignores 2 large issues. The first is the rate of change in the global economy. Advancements in technology, communications, and thought are making the world much smaller and competition much more fierce. The second issue is the disabling of the greatest advantage the United States has: innovation. As a country we were born, raised, and launched to prominence due to our spirit, creativity, and thirst for newness and adventure. We can regain all this by simply changing the vision of education.

What should be the purpose of education? First and foremost it should be about the students. It should be about what they can do for themselves and the future. Since none of us can predict the future, we need to abandon the focus on college and career readiness. With our current vision, by the time students graduate from high school their education will be obsolete. So, we should have an education vision that is adaptable, focused on the student, and ready for innovation.

Our vision should be about Learning and Knowledge. Yes it is vague. Yes it is difficult to measure. Yes it will look different for nearly everyone. Yet students are people (which we currently do not acknowledge) and people are complex. So, our education must be complex. We cannot fit students into molds. We must give them all the knowledge possible so they can learn to think and create their own molds. Can a test measure this?  No. Can a pre-designed curriculum deliver this? Not on its own. As much as I love Khan Academy, it works best when I am there to give a high five, or a touch on the shoulder. With this vision, we will need teachers. We will need our schools to support our students, not the other way around (which is what we currently have).

In the current focus on "college and career ready", we are narrowing our potential, alienating students, and stifling innovation. Why do I teach algebra to my students? Because it is knowledge, it can be learned, and most importantly, it can be fun. It's not a means an end, it is the end itself. If we focus on Learning and Knowledge, we can set every student on their own path. We can teach students for the sake of learning, not some utilitarian design (be it a test score, enrollment requirement, or a job skill). We can ensure students have a love of thinking, a love of discovery, and what our world truly needs:  a love of creativity and innovation. But this can only happen if we Challenge the Vision.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Assessing Mastery

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If teachers are to assert their authority in the national discussion about education, we will have to begin by what we do in the classroom. The national culture of testing, data, and rigor has put us in a place we may be unaware we are in. We have no authority in student assessment. And this is dangerous.

All stakeholders in education have enabled the culture that places value on test scores regardless of a student's body of work throughout the year. In fact, the student's body of work throughout the year seems to be no part of the national conversation. I believe the reason is because there's only one measure of a student's body of work throughout the year: grades.

Nothing irks me more when I hear a politician, or even worse, a school administrator ask "how will we know how well they are doing?" It's called a grade, that's how! (but thanks for doubting my job) It's my job as a teacher to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery for my students. But that part of my job is not taught to me, not discussed in professional development, or not part of my evaluation. Yet, the ability to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery is a key component to my profession. And we have yielded that authority to The Test, yielded it to data.

We should have never lost that authority. There should be heavy investment in that authority.  The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) put out a report in June of 2012 that had documented the importance of GPA and its correlation with retention, graduation, and long term earnings.  Read the report here, or at least Page 3 and Box 1.1.  It is clear that a student's body of work through the year is the most important aspect of their education. Yet, teachers have yielded the authority to grade students based on in-class evidence (projects, discussions, teacher-created assessments) to the results of standardized or multiple-choice tests. Disclaimer: I would be okay with that IF AND ONLY IF the teacher either vetted or created those tests, especially in collaboration with other teachers.

I do not blame my colleagues for this. We are in a system that strives to de-humanize students as numbers, we have policymakers that place ever higher stakes on the outcomes of those numbers, we have school administrators that drive their staffs to improve those numbers, and so we have teachers that channel all their energy into creating the cutest and most "engaging" way to have students turn themselves into numbers. (See "when those scores came back, I about did the SUPER SUPER happy dance": authority yielded.) We are blindly enabling a dehumanizing culture, unaware of the consequences, and we have yielded one of the most powerful authorities we have: assessment.

It's time for teachers to reclaim the authority to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery. How can we do that?

  1. Your grade should mean something.What does it mean for a student to pass your class? What does an A mean? A C? Does your grade truly reflect what the student knows of your content?
  2. Stop accepting fluff for a grade. We have to discontinue the practice of assigning points and scores for activities, behaviors, and projects that have nothing to do with our content.  Make sure you create or vet anything assessed to ensure its validity. It would be ideal to do this with colleagues. 
  3. Work together. Make sure you are developing your assessments with your colleagues, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how those assessments will be scored. In fact, try this: develop an assessment for your classes that your colleagues will grade. You grade their students as well. This obviously does not apply to multiple choice tests. 
  4. Your students are your data. If you are asked about data, talk about your students. Tell their stories. There is no better data than your students and their stories. You want to see my data? Talk to my students. No, it's not simple. Why? Because they ARE HUMAN, and humans are complex.
  5. Articulate your authority. Defend your grading policy.  When asked about validity or accuracy, stand up for yourself. You are a professional, your team is a team of professionals, you know what good work looks like, you know what learning looks like, and you know what mastery looks like.  

Here is a great model of assessing mastery, from Around the Horn on ESPN.

Notice how immediately the points worked. Sometimes they were taken away. Did you also notice that there was an opportunity for one "student" to demonstrate mastery at a later time?   How cool would it be if we did this in class?!

Teachers: you know what learning looks like.  You know what thinking looks like.  You know what mastery looks like.  Assert your authority, perfect your craft, and articulate your profession.  That is how we can start making change.  Remember: our students are people, not data points.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Accountability Has Always Been Here

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I am so glad to see that there is a lot of discussion taking place about education reform and high stakes testing and accountability.  Some of the sound bites are starting to upset me though.  "Accountability isn't going away" or "we can't roll back the success of our accountability system" or "standardized testing is the only way to demonstrate meaningful understanding"...  these are not exactly direct quotes from any one person, they are a compilation of messages from school board members, education commissioners, and legislators at the state and national level.  These messages come directly from our education policy makers.

And we all hear that and nod our heads in agreement with a grand "harumph".  But these messages are hiding two things:

1.  Accountability has always been here.  Ever since students had to earn a mark to reflect how much knowledge they had on academic content, there has been accountability.  It eventually became known as "a grade".  This grade was supposed to be a reflection of demonstrated student mastery of academic content displayed through their body of work over a given time period.  Some grades are simply "pass" or "fail" and some have weighted levels of mastery like the current GPA system.  Either way, this grade would come from an academic year's worth of work done by the student, assisted by the teacher, and assessed by the teacher or an assessment tool either created or selected by the teacher or school.  This accountability system depended on the teacher being a master at assessing and evaluating student work and knowledge, and depended on the investment in such training.  Somewhere along the line, we lost the training and the emphasis on evaluation and assessment of students.  I barely had any instruction on it through by BS in Mathematics Education, and my evaluation does not take into consideration how I assess my students or how I grade my students (which is one of the most important things I do).  Somewhere along the line, we came across a thing called "grade inflation".  Keep in mind, "grade inflation" did not prevent innovation in our country.  It did not prevent technological advancement, it did not prevent putting a human being on the moon, it did not prevent exponential economic growth.  But it upset some important people.  It created such a stir that a crisis was invented; an education crisis.  If this "grade inflation" existed, we had to find a way to stop it!  We could no longer trust teachers to assess students.  So, we took the authority to assess student mastery out of the hands of teachers and put it solely in the hands of a tool that was never meant to assess student mastery: the standardized test.  Standardized tests are great tools to view snapshots of progress, but a few individuals had a great idea to place a reward/consequence to this tool.  Legislative language, public soundbites, and consistent pressure over time led everyone to agree that standardized test scores were the more accurate measure of student knowledge, not the year-round body of work assessed by the teacher.  We still have GPA's, but are only used as a minimum graduation requirement or a number on a college application or resume.  Although universities use the GPA for admissions, the public is not allowed to view it as valid if it is not supported by a standardized test score.  So, the current messaging about accountability hides the importance of grades, and it prevents the return of assessment authority to grades (thus preventing authentic assessment for our students, which is frightening).

2.  The benefits of high stakes testing accountability.  The current messaging on accountability hides the glaringly obvious incentive to keep it (hint: it's not about the students).  With high stakes testing accountability, private testing companies still have the ability to secure large state contracts for testing products, for support material for those tests, and for remediation materials in the case of failing the tests (NOTE: every test has a guaranteed failure rate, so this is a perpetual profit model.  Bravo!)  Now, I don't fault the companies, they are only exploiting a failed education policy created by lawmakers.  If they can continue to incentivize lawmakers to keep policies focused on high stakes testing accountability and reap the rewards of doing so, good for them.  They have the ability to perpetuate this accountability message, and keep our heads nodding "harumph", and keep policies in line that will simply continue to reduce students to data points in order to determine if a teacher is good, if a school is good, or if a student is college and career ready at the ripe old age of 5.  Good for them.  Just remember, it's not about the students.  The accountability messaging hides this as well.

So what can we do?  Read past the accountability message.  In fact, challenge the accountability assumption.  How dare we assess a human being on the result of a one day performance on a computerized test that uses complex mathematical algorithms to guarantee pre-determined failure rates!  When we hear things like "demonstrate meaningful understanding", we should immediately point to a student's body of work throughout the year, not on a singular test result.  When we hear things like "achievement gap" or "accountability", we should immediately argue that authentic assessment authority belongs at the local level.  Train teachers in valid in class assessments and grades.  Allow for collaboration to select third party tools to assist in multiple measures of student knowledge at the department or school level.  Allow for teacher input in determining how content mastery should be measured and assessed.  We have to be aware that assessment authority has been hijacked out of the classroom, and it must be returned.  Teaching is a profession (or at least it was at one point) and teachers must return to being the professionals.  Accountability has always been here, let's return it to where it belongs: in the classroom.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Teachers Cannot Be Blamed

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Sometimes, I have to admire what has happened in education.  I admire the intentionality of the school reform movement: the careful political planning, the patience over decades and presidential administrations, and the planted sound bites.  This was all executed so well, and a part of me admires it.  Congratulations to the school reform movement.

What pains me is that I chose to be a teacher.  I chose the profession of education.  I wanted to make a difference in the lives of human beings.  I wanted to help them realize who they were, to help them make a positive impact on the world around us.  When I'm asked "what do you teach?" I answer: "I teach students.  I use algebra to do it."  This is my livelihood, my career.

This pains me because because the school reform movement, in its brilliantly executed plan, needed to demonize teachers and the entire profession of teaching to achieve its success.  The carefully planted sound bites of "accountability" and "bad teachers" and "blame the unions" and "we all know public schools suck" and "teacher evaluation" are now accepted as fact and necessity and are no longer debated.  Not even by us teachers!!!  We have taken the brunt of the "accountability" movement.

Then I read an article about charter school takeovers.  There are districts all over the United States that allow charter school companies to take over "failing schools" (whatever that means) and attempt to "turn them around" because "the students deserve better".  See the success of the sounds bites?  Bravo reform movement.  I was at our local school board meeting where we accepted a grant from Teach For America to fill in teaching vacancies in our schools.  It was a meeting with many public speakers (including me) speaking about the district's role in recruiting and retaining teachers.  So, districts celebrate when they can have charter school takeovers, and celebrate when they can have Teach For America fill vacancies.

And I see something interesting when taking these two things together.  There is a glaring issue in these two cases: schools are "failing" and there are teaching vacancies.  Clearly these are problems no doubt.  However, with these two cases, where is the "accountability"?   In these cases, who is being held accountable?  Who is being blamed or demonized because after years of efforts, schools are still failing?  Who is being held responsible because no matter what you offer for teaching at certain schools, we either cannot recruit or retain a teacher for classrooms?  NOBODY!  No one is held responsible.

Not only is there no accountability for these problems, the superintendents and school boards that welcome charter takeovers and TFA to "fix" the problems are CELEBRATED!  They are rewarded!  They are lauded!  They are praised for their partnership efforts!  For what?  Finding an outside solution for problems squarely and solely in their realm of responsibility!  It is their job to ensure that schools are not failing!  It is their job to ensure all classrooms have qualified teachers!  And when they can't do their job, they are celebrated.  They aren't blamed, they aren't demonized.  They are rewarded.

So, it pains me that we can finally articulate big picture issues in education that cannot be blamed on teachers.  And what happens?  Partnerships, promotions, celebration, claims of "visionary leadership" for those responsible for the problems in the first place.  So, congratulations school reform movement.  Not only have you demonized my profession any way you can, you find ways to reward those who should be held accountable for serious issues in education.  When teachers can't be blamed for something, you reward those responsible. Brilliantly played.  Bravo.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Isn't that Our job?

Politico.com released an excellent story on December 30, 2014 called "Testing under fire".  I loved it for a few reasons: great message, local shout-outs, and national exposure.  I've read many articles about the same topic, some support what the Department of Education has done, some debate the DOE.  In every article though, there is a point that is made that has only recently begun to disturb me. Here are a couple of examples of arguments made for the high-stakes accountability system:
  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan:  “Annual statewide assessments are critical to ensuring that all students are held to the same high standards and parents, teachers and communities have the information they need about how their children are doing every year.” 
  • Unnamed New York State school district, as offered by Jeanette Deutermann with Long Island Opt Out:  “One district told me it’s the same thing as not taking your kids to the doctor. How would you know if something was wrong with them?"
  • Education Department official:  ”We’re responsible for student learning every single day and every single year. I want us to never back away from the fact that it’s our responsibility … Parents have a right to know how their students are progressing. Students have a right to know how they measure up."
These are the same arguments used in Florida, from the state's DOE to the legislators in Tallahassee to our local district school boards.  And I get it:  you hear these things and think to yourself "YEAH!!!  That's true!  Good point!  So, what do we do about it?"  As if these arguments must be taken as truth and we can pass right by them to talk about testing, or new laws, or school funding, or special needs, etc.  

Over the past 5 years we have heard about an educational shift in our Professional Development:  It's not about what WE TEACH, it's about what THEY LEARN.  As teachers, we have to let go of the old-school attitude that "I taught it, they need to know it" and move toward "what can I do to help you learn it?"  I have re-designed a lot of what I do in my classes to fit this shift and I feel I have gotten to a point where I can articulate to my students that I am holding them accountable to learning the material.  I articulate that it is their job to hold me accountable to providing them what they need to learn.

This year, it hit me clearly.  My class may be the first time some students are being held accountable to actually learning material if they are to get a passing grade.  In the past, I would reward "work for work's sake".  Turn in your homework.  Show me your notebook.  Copy these things down.  Pass the class.  It's a practice I learned from my own school experience and from watching my colleagues.  What's wrong with a D for effort?  Many students have come to me in their senior year of high school and still not understand basic math facts (but boy, they could copy some notes in their well-organized notebooks!)  So I'm not doing that anymore.  I'm doing my best to clean up the mess for which I have been responsible.  I am doing everything I can to ensure students are learning, and I am holding them accountable to learning it.  If you want to pass the class, you'd better be able to show me you know what you are doing.  You'd better make sure I'm getting you everything you need to make that happen.  You'd better be able to show me you have actually learned.  Not just worked.  Learned.

In comes Teacher Evaluation (which uses the same DOE arguments as before: don't I deserve to know how I measure up to other teachers?  Or what Value Added do I bring for students?)  I have not yet been able to write about how much I disagree with the way teachers are evaluated.  That's for another time.  But I can tell you this:  how I assess my students IS NO PART OF MY EVALUATION.  That's right folks.  Read that again.  How I assess and grade my students is not a part of my "effectiveness".  How I hold my students accountable means nothing.  Take a look for yourself to see how I am "graded".  Funny enough, this entire road map preaches that it IS ABOUT WHAT I TEACH, not whether or not students have learned.  Where is "Relevant and Valid In-class Assessments" or "Equitable Grading Policy" or "Student Grade is an Accurate Reflection of Content Knowledge"?  It's not there.  That has no bearing on my effectiveness.  So on one hand, we say it's about student learning, yet on the other hand we are evaluated solely on how we are delivering material.  There is nothing there about measuring student learning.

Do you see the problem yet?  Review the arguments from our Departments of Education and school districts.  Do you see it now?

Let's say you have an incredible stomach ache.  So to figure out what is wrong you see your doctor.  Your doctor watches you breathe, moves your arms and legs around, has you read letters on the wall, asks you several diagnostic questions about diet and stress level.  Your doctor gives out a few "hhhmmm"s and "uh huh"s and "mmmkaaay"s while doing this.  After a 40 minute visit, you finally ask "So what's the problem doc?  What do I have?"  At that point, the doctor wheels in Dr. Robot 4000.  Dr. Robot 4000 takes 5 minutes to run you through a shortened check up.  Your doctor types a few things in, then Dr. Robot 4000 makes some clicking and whistling noises.  Again, you repeat your question: "So what's the problem doc?  What do I have?"  Your doctor then tells you "I have to press the Output button on Dr. Robot 4000, and that is what you have."  Of course, you have to ask:  "Isn't that YOUR JOB, doc?"

Back to the arguments of the DOE and the districts.  These are the arguments we have all taken for truth for far too long.  I will no longer pass these statements without a giant red flag.  I have a big problem with this, and as a teacher I take it personally.  I completely agree that parents and students have the right to know "how they are doing".  But, ISN'T THAT MY JOB???!!!   How would you know if your student was struggling?  ISN'T THAT MY JOB?  What happens if a student falls behind?  ISN'T THAT MY JOB?

We already have the mechanism in place to ensure educational equity, or accountability, or let's even use the R word (rigor) for our students.  It's called a GRADE.  But we ignore the grade.  It's not even part of the teacher evaluation system.  We have replaced the grade with Dr. Test 4000.  Teachers have been completely removed from the assessment component of education.  We aren't even coached on how we can ensure valid assessments, equitable grading practices, or accurate reflections of student learning.  We have allowed this to happen to ourselves as teachers (and I understand why we have the urge to pass students for effort...but that must stop!)  We have allowed the assessment authority to be taken completely out of our hands because we have never ensured the validity of that authority (extra credit for bringing in a ream of printer paper).  What's worse is that there is absolutely no interest in the return of that authority from the district, the state, the federal department, or the many "venture philanthropists" involved in education.  There is no training on how we can do it better.  There is no Professional Development on in-class assessments.  It is not part of our Evaluation.  And we have allowed it to happen (Life Skills points).  Student measurement and assessment is a vital component of education and we let it slip right out of our hands.  We have allowed the belittling of our GRADE (which is what we spend most of our time doing).  I say it's time we take that authority back.  We must ensure that our GRADE means something, that it is fair, valid, and accurate.  Otherwise, Dr. Test 4000 will continue to diagnose our students.  But, isn't that our job?