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.