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?


  1. Yes! I have been saying for some time now...we have to be careful with what we allow to be "sub-contracted" of our profession. In the elementary grades it is relying on computer adapted tests to measure a behavior such as reading, then creating a grade equivalency with the Lexile levels. My colleagues are much too dazzled or dazed to realize they have handed over the ability to measure reading growth to corporate control. When I say this deprofessionalizes our expertise...the general consensus is not alarm but acceptance of a convenient system.

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  3. I'm a 53 year old student teacher, I have well over 60 hours of substitute teaching in the last 3 months. I've been a lawyer for 26 years, much of that in education law (although I'm not a specialist). I've raised 2 kids to young adulthood, and I have one just entering teenage years. My middle kid is diagnosed in Asperberger's Spectrum, and I have some of his same "symptoms" the most important of which is that we have a different operating system. Whereas I'm an Aspy 1.0, my son is somewhere around 3.x. The only reason I can keep up with him is because I have 40 years more data sets than he has.

    My resume' aside, what you are saying rings true. I teach in an inner city type district where half the class doesn't gaf about learning, but mainly focuses on what interesting way can we figure out today how to disrupt class and still stay in school, away from our meth infested neighborhoods and drunk and angry parents.

    The kids I teach who do want to excel are motivated just like the corporate big-wigs--how to make the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time at the lowest cost to me. "Quality" is just a marketing term for them, unless it's a quality buzz. That's about half of any given class.

    But I have another half of the class that wants to learn. They are like sponges in a desert. They do want to learn things that are valuable to them, and they want to have fun doing it. If it ain't fun, they will have a hard time doing it. And yet, these kids do have a sense of pride in what they do.

    I had an "aha" moment a couple of years ago with my Aspy son who was drastically underachieving, and got kicked out of his Nazi Charter school for disruption. "Every kid gots some pride." My main motivational tools are these. Make it fun. Play to their pride. To both, you have to challenge them. Always keep it a smidgeon harder than you are they think they are ready for. Let them fail. Allow them to see that working harder and focusing more has benefits, the best one being success, and the best measure of success is being better than they were "yesterday".

    That gets me to standardized tests and the idea that kids, schools and parents have to see if kids are "measuring up". That measurement in the toxic culture is always against something else, an outside standard, other schools, other kids. Screw that. That's tremendously demoralizing. Make it personal to the kid--pride. Make "A" hard to get, and "A+" damn near impossible but still within reach. But "A" has to mean something for the kid. That's what "progress" means, and what a progress report should show. Some kids will make As in everything, while some kids couldn't make above a C+ in Algebra or Composition if that is all they practiced 24/7. They are not dumb. They are not bad. They are fish being graded in climbing trees. But a fish should be damn proud of at least hauling himself out of the water to lean against a tree.

    Keep doing what you are doing, Joshua. You are on the right path.

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