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Education

On Oak Trees and High Stakes Testing

And selling what everyone knows to be a bad idea

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now, but have been very busy. I finally have a moment to get my thoughts together.

Some time ago my school district showed us an interesting video and sent representatives around to explain the new Value Added Model (VAM) that they were using for assessing teachers. The goal, of course, was to sell this woefully inadequate system and to convince us not to worry about the inherent iniquities. Everything had been taken care of. The representative was very nice and cheerful, reassuring us that all factors were taken into account when applying VAM to our teacher reviews.

To break it down so that even we simple teachers can understand the megacomplex formula that was being used, the video and rep offered us an example of VAM scoring using an oak tree farmer as a metaphor.

An oak tree farmer? Really? It turns out that some tree farms really do sell oak trees. It’s unclear that they use a Value Added Model to evaluate their output.

Regardless, the VAM sales pitch was premised on looking at three oak tree farmers all growing oak trees under different conditions. One has ideal sun and water. The other has low water; the other has less sun—or some variation. Really, they lost me with oak tree farmer. The bottom line was that each was going to be judged based not on how much taller their oak trees grew, but rather on a comparison of how much an oak trees can be expected to grow given the various circumstance as compared to how much the oak trees grew with each individual farmer. So there. Don’t worry. It’s all perfectly fair and rational. Teachers working with kids under adverse conditions are not going to be measured against the expectations of those teachers working under ideal conditions. After all, that wouldn’t be fair. What we’ve done is gathered the demographic data, extrapolated the potential trend lines compared to sample populations, controlled for the various inputs and presto, a perfectly aligned and objective VAM score. See. Nothing to it.

Bless us and save us!

Look, no disrespect to oak tree farmers, but this sales pitch is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who is a teacher or who cares about teaching as a profession. News flash! Teaching kids is not raising oak trees! I’m sure raising oak trees has its challenges, but teaching is an infinitely more complex task not subject to simple metaphors.

If we were to make the metaphor work the rep would have to concede that there are multiple farmers involved in the growth of the oak tree. As a high school oak tree farmer on a block schedule I see my little seedlings two to three times a week for eighty three minutes at a stretch and fertilize their minds with American History. Other teachers are involved in tilling and cultivating their reading, math, language arts, science and other subjects. Then my oak trees go off and spend time with people who aren’t even farmers in various soils of differential quality before coming back to me. Then they will be tested on material that has nothing to do with the particular fertilizer that I am laying down.

Let alone the fact that our little oak trees come to us having been tended by hundreds of other farmers, with new farmers every year. Each oak tree has developed differential levels of aptitudes and interests, skill sets and values. Each oak tree has different goals, expectations and prospects. No two oak trees can be tended in exactly the same way.

Somehow, all of these complications were missing from the little animated video. There was one oak tree per farmer racing to grow a taller product. Easy peasy.

Which, of course, leads us to question the very validity of determining the value of an oak tree based on its height. The claim is that this is an objective measure, but upon examination it is subjective. How did the experts objectively determine that height was the best variable for determining the value of an oak tree?

How about breadth?

How about canopy?

How about width of the trunk?

Number of branches?

Acorn output?

Acorn quality?

Color?

Climbability?

Root span?

Number of squirrels?

Aesthetic quality?

Denseness of foliage?

I’ve seen many oak trees. Hell, I lived under oak trees for six years. Never once did I think, ‘wow, if this oak tree were just a little taller it would be a very valuable oak tree.’

The bottom line is that if determining the value added to an oak tree by a particular farmer is impossible, then what about doing the same for a human child or young adult? A model that, upon inspection, would not work for the relatively simple farmer/oak tree interaction is clearly inadequate for evaluating the Value Added by teachers.

Teaching isn’t a quantifiable process. It isn’t even a science. It is a craft. Part technical skill, part creativity. Part inspiration, part perspiration. The single greatest way to kill teaching as a profession is to try to quantify what teachers do, then hold them accountable for not doing more.

Of course, that’s the endgame.

No self-respecting oak tree farmer would submit to such a system.


Opting Out of Testing! No Way!

Way!
I am absolutely elated with the Lee County School Board decision to opt out of “all state mandated tests effective immediately.” After all, I live and teach here. Lee County is the first district in Florida to opt out of state mandated testing. It is also the 38th largest school district in the country. As Lee County goes, so goes the country…
…well, let’s not get too carried away.
The consequent political turnoil is not lost in the euphoria. We should have no delusions that this battle is over. Indeed, it has just begun. This decision has left Lee County vulnerable to significant state level consequences, as graduation requirements, bonus pay, school and teacher evaluations and the distribution of state funds is all tied in with test scores. So I’m seeing quite a few parents and district administrators running around like chickens with their heads cut off. What do we do without tests? The Lee County School Superintendant Nancy Graham, a very capable administrator in my opinion, sent us a video message in which she told us that we should “breathe.” Everything will be all right. We’ll get through this. It’s funny and a little sad that our leadership is treating this as some kind of crisis. It is the opposite of a crisis.
That being said, decisions will have to be made at the state level, and we will require a great deal of support and activism to ensure that these decisions support and reinforce this opt out rather than over-ride it. We need to call our representatives in Tallahassee, as well as the bureaucrats at DOE to protect this important first step.
This is not a crisis no matter what the chicken littles say. The sky is not falling. In fact the clouds are finally lifting. There’s a great deal of hand wringing. Some people are saying “there was no plan.” “No backup.” “What about our funding?” “What about students retaking tests in October?” “What about seniors who are supposed to be graduating this year.” Those of us in support of the opt out have to provide some answers, however speculative, for these very real worries.
First, who cares if there was a plan. If we waited until there was plan we would be waiting forever. Lee County’s opt out forces the state and the district to come up with a plan. That’s activism. Reversing stupid policies is never convenient. But it is always necessary.
Here’s a few suggestions. Students taking retakes, no longer have to take the retakes. Problem solved.
Seniors who are supposed to graduate? If they pass their classes, they graduate. Problem solved.
What about funding? What about funding. Our politicians have demonstrated that they will play politics with our funding anyway. So what else is new. We’ll deal with it like we always do? Problem solved?
How will teachers be evaluated if not with tests? Admininstrators can walk into their rooms and watch them teach. Problem solved.
How will we assess student progress? Teachers can do that. Imagine that. Leaving assessment in the hands of professionals trained to assess. What a concept. There are hundreds of instruments teachers can use to establish baseline and progress. This is something that our standardized testing regimen didn’t really do in any meaningful way? Problem solved.
How do we know if our schools are working? The NAEP already assesses the reading and math trends using reliable random sampling that is much less painful, as well as cheaper than the publisher boondoggles that are standardized tests. We’ve had this instrument since the seventies. In fact, NAEP research reveals that the testing regimen that has been in place since No Child Left Behind has had almost no positive impact on learning at all. Problem solved?
In sociology I always tell my students to be wary of simple solutions. But in this case, the solutions are not all that complicated. However, they will require legislation. That’s where it becomes complicated. Has there ever been a simple issue that the politicians could screw up. I can almost feel the publishing lobbyists on their phones right now. This battle isn’t over, and we are on the state’s field. We better be ready to fight.
One thing we have going for us is that it is an election year. And Governor Skellitor Scott is trying to make nice with teachers because…well…he suspects that we are aware of his deep seeded hatred for us. So there is room to movement on this.
It seems there are those who are trying to build this great decision as a crisis. Perhaps, for them, it is. But for teachers, parents and students, it’s not. At least it doesn’t have to be. Any crisis that happens as a result of this decision will, like the idiotic policy itself, be wholly created by politicians and bureaucrats.


The Rejection of Science in the Age of Science

Americans are rejecting science, and putting themselves…and everyone else…in peril

 

Every semester I lead my Introduction to Sociology students through the following scenario:

Uncle Phil is sitting at home watching television, a wonder of technological advancement, and eating a microwave meal. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his chest that travels down his left arm. Uncle Phil remembers watching a medical show one time that taught him how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. He quickly formulates the hypothesis that he is, in fact, having a heart attack, and runs over to his computer so he can Google the symptoms. Sure enough, the most likely cause of his symptoms is a heart attack. If nothing else, it’s better safe than sorry. Phil remembers reading an article in the science section of his newspaper that taking aspirin might help him. He takes an aspirin while he dials 911 on his cell phone. The technological marvel transmits his signal to the nearest tower and almost immediately puts him in touch with responders, who use similar computer technology to alert the EMS. Trained paramedics, using GPS services, arrive at Phil’s house shortly after he falls unconscious. They rush into the house and use the most sophisticated technologies and scientifically proven techniques to stabilize Uncle Phil’s condition and get him to the hospital. At the hospital, Uncle Phil is subjected to even more sophisticated scientific gadgets and scientifically trained professionals. They rush him into the ER.

Uncle Phil’s family is contacted and they rush to the hospital. When the scientifically trained doctor enters into the waiting room and assures them that Uncle Phil survived and is going to be just fine. As long as he takes his scientifically designed medication and follows a scientifically proven diet and exercise regimen he should make a full recovery.

What’s the first thing Phil’s family says?

The answer is, of course, “Thank God!”

Even if one is not inclined to rule out the role of divine intervention, shouldn’t science at least get second billing or an honorable mention?

Here in the United States we face a unique relationship with science and technology. In one sense, we take for granted and, to a certain extent consider mundane, the incredible technological advances of the last thirty years. At the same time, we are enthralled and awed by the changes that may take place in the next thirty. Culturally, however, Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with science. We love the idea of a scientifically sophisticated society, but when that science bangs up against our cherished beliefs, then too often science is rejected.

Part of this phenomenon, I think, has to do with the nature of belief in the United States, and the misapplication of “theory” as a synonym. Often in discussions with Global Warming deniers the argument breaks into a diatribe of how my own “belief” in Global Warming does not supersede beliefs in denial. The same holds true with the hundred and fifty year old debate on evolution. Many people in the United States equate the concepts of “belief” and “theory.” They are lacking a basic understanding of what a theory is, and thus, they are unqualified to make judgments about scientific matters. And people are dying as a result. Nothing less than the future of civilization hangs in the balance of educating Americans about the nature of science.

When confronted with a claim about my “belief” in Global Warming or Evolution or what have you, I try to clarify a distinction. I do not belief in Global Warming, or in Evolution, or in Gravity or Germ Theory for that matter. I accept the validity of these theories because they have been tested and have demonstrated utility and reliability. In other words, they satisfy the requirements of a valid theory. In the event that another theory comes along that demonstrates greater validity and reliability, I will not hesitate to embrace it. That is a key difference between belief and theory.

I teach my college students that a theory must possess two key characteristics. First, it must explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed. Evolution through sexual selection, for instance, effectively explains the process of speciation. In this matter, it is important to understand that a theory can only explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed and should not be held to account for failing to explain other related phenomena. Darwinian Evolution, for instance, does not explain the origin of life itself. That is the domain of other theories. Nor should the useful debate of the nuances inherent in theory necessarily constitute a weakness. A good example of this is the debate between steadu state and punctuated equilibrium schools of evolutionary thought. That there is a debate on the nuances of evolution does not mean that there is a debate about the validity of Darwinian Evolution itself.

Secondly, theories must be useful in formulating testable hypotheses and consistently predicting the outcomes of research or experimentation based on these hypotheses. A counter-example that I offer is Intelligent Design “Theory.” What hypotheses can be formed? What outcomes can be predicted based on Intelligent Design? Without knowing the whims of the Intelligent Designer the concept has no scientific utility. It is not a theory and should not be given equal time as a theory in science classrooms.

Therein is the central misunderstanding. Americans have an almost postmodern understanding that belief in religion, or belief in capitalism, or belief in patriotism is of the equivalent quality as a “belief” in science. That science is a discipline of proof is irrelevant. Acknowledging the validity of Global Warming is qualitatively the same as the belief of Denialism. Accepting the truth of the evolution of species is just as much a matter of faith as is the belief in the Biblical account of Genesis. This false equivalence is embraced and fed by the equal time movement claiming that students should have equal exposure to theory and faith in the classroom.

One of the things we know about the contest between belief and evidence is that when one’s belief is contradicted by a preponderance of the evidence, our human tendency is to deny the evidence. We will find or invent reasons that reinforce our pre-conceived notions. It’s almost as if our beliefs are addictive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first coordinated attacks against science, unrelated to religion, was the PR strategy to defend the tobacco industry. Perhaps there is a reason why Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the people is among his most famous quotes.

With what I call the Tobacco PR Wars as precedent, companies hire firms that specialize in seeding enough doubt and enough false evidence to allow those steeped in their beliefs to enhance their confirmation bias. Yes, I smoke two packs a day, but the lady down the road used to smoke three packs a day and she lived to be ninety-two years old. These professional cons use the nuances of science and play against the probabilities and uncertainties of all research models and experiments to make their case. They hold up the natural limitations of all theoretical explanations as proof that the target theory is clearly false. Hey, the northeast has experienced some cold springs, so Global Warming is a lie. Scientists used computer generated numbers in their models. They are clearly fudging the data to make themselves look right. Those who want to continue smoking, or refuse to invest tax money into alternative energy, or love their SUVs, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack, grasp this “evidence” to confirm that they are right after all. Those stuck up scientists don’t know what they are talking about—until Uncle Phil has a heart attack.

This is despite scientists’ track record. In the seventies scientists warned that the rain falling from the sky was contaminated with sulfuric acid. They recommended restrictions on sulfur emissions. Such policies were put into place and the acid rain problem went away. In the eighties scientists theorized that CFCs were causing life threatening ozone depletion at the poles. CFCs were restricted and the ozone holes have started to close. But they simply must be wrong about global warming because it snowed somewhere in April.

The consequences of this ignorance aren’t just inconvenient. They are deadly. The anti-vaccine movement is case in point. Most parents take want to protect their children. When they hear horror stories about children experiencing all kinds of problems and are told that vaccines are the cause, parents must choose between the scientist and the natural repugnance of watching a needle enter their child’s arm with a toxin that may hurt them. Parents who are convinced that those scientists don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s a conspiracy to make money on the vaccines feel justified in denying their children vaccines shots. This is especially true of parents who are part of social movements that emphasize so called “natural” healing as a central belief. Consequently, preventable diseases like Whooping Cough (Pertussis) are making a comeback. But why not? After all, my belief in the dangers of vaccines is no less valid than your belief in science.

When it comes to global warming, the consequences of ignorance is nothing short of catastrophic. The bottom line is that civilization itself hangs in the balance. That’s a little much to handle. Most of us would love to believe that our world is perpetual and that our grandchildren will inherit the same opportunities that have always existed. This is a central belief system in the United States. It plays into our faith in the American dream, our belief in capitalism as the best means of economic and cultural advancement, and our belief that God is watching over us and will take care of us so long as we are faithful. Human Caused Global Warming is a challenge to all of these belief systems. Not to mention, the means by which we must deal with this problem are far more daunting and invasive than putting up with CFC free hair spray. It’s much easier and more comforting to believe that the scientists are wrong. They must be!

And let’s not let the scientists themselves off the hook. There are examples of scientists selling their souls to profit. We look at examples of over-medication, genetically modifying food for the patent protections or to withstand greater quantities of pesticide. The science system, in the US especially, is one in which even well intentioned scientists have to play to the market to get their research funded. Many scientists will draw huge salaries to work for pharmaceutical and oil companies. It was scientists who designed cigarettes that allow for greater absorption, and consequently, increased addictiveness, of the product. Famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi referred to the development of the atomic bomb as “superb physics.”

In the case of vaccines, scientists haven’t been very clear in communicating that there is risk associated with this product. Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, others will react poorly to vaccines. To my knowledge, there isn’t a significant “anti-penicillin” movement. Perhaps for good reasons, scientists have downplayed the few risks of vaccines because they are far outweighed by the benefits. But then the papers report on a child who became sick after getting his vaccination. Why are the scientists being so secretive? Doubt is sowed, and that becomes the fuel for ridiculous movements such as the Anti-Vaxxers. That’s all it takes.

Science simply must find ways to educate the public on scientific process, not just science trivia. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is incredible, but how have scientists made these fascinating discoveries? Why should we trust that what Professor Tyson says is true? What are the checks that exist in the scientific enterprise that ensures the best possible explanations? What happens when scientists like Einstein are wrong, or when new theories are developed to explain the cosmos? Why should we care about evolutionary theory? What is the truth about vaccines? What is the role of probability in scientific understanding, and why is this not a weakness that challenges the validity of theory? The discoveries of science are fascinating. Most Americans are aware of these discoveries…they just don’t necessarily trust them. We need to know why we should. We also need to be educated in the fine balance between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.

After all, scientists cannot afford, nor should they be expected to pay for, their own PR movement. There’s only so much that Bill Nye the Science Guy can do. Those of us who love science and believe in the value of science for the endeavor of human progress must provide, for free, that education and PR. We are against the greatest systematized effort of public doubt in human history. Billions of dollars have been invested into keeping us ignorant. There is no counter other than knowledge.


The Costs of Testing

How our endless regimen of testing constitutes a robbery of our kids’ educations

 

I wrote this article for my local newspaper, the Fort Myers News Press. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. This is true with regard to my administrators, principal and assistant principals as well as my peer teachers. My students were especially grateful that someone was standing up for them.

I must admit that I was a little nervous about publishing this letter. Publishing on a blog that attracts mostly sociology geeks and lefties is one thing, but a mainstream public forum is going to catch the attention of our district staff and, let’s face it, potentially put me in jeopardy. Like millions of teachers, I do not have tenure, or a “continuing contract” as it is called in my district. I can be fired at whim, without recourse. Of course, the whole point of getting rid of tenure is to silence teachers who might be inclined to advocate for their students against a dreadful system. It is not, as some so called reformers would have it, to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

For this reason, quite a few of my peers have remarked on how courageous I was to publish this letter. One fellow teacher remarked, “I hope your resume is up to date.” This response reinforces in my mind the role of fear in managing education today. Students are coerced into taking high stakes tests. Teachers are coerced with the threat of VAM scores. Administrators must fear the publication of their school grades. District personnel must fear their county ratings. Even states must fear loss of funding opportunities.

Something that we have to understand, however, is that this sense of fear may have caused us to perceive threats where they don’t exist. Students fear teachers, believing that we like threatening them with tests. Teachers fear administrators, believing that they can end our careers. Administrators fear their districts lest their school scores come in low.

Yet the reality is that we are all on the same side. Everyone involved in education, from the lowest student, to the highest district level official, knows that our current educational reform deform is bogus.

We all agree, yet we fear each other. This is intentional. If we all work together to reject this inhuman, unenlightened regimen, we can end it. That is the last thing the corporate backed education deformers want. That’s the whole point of fear. It allows those who pander in fear to scapegoat their potential opposition—to weaken resistance by separating wills.

That writing a guest column in a small newspaper is perceived as an act of courage should stir concerns. That the overwhelming response to this letter did not match our fears is a lesson in its own right. We truly have nothing to fear but fear itself.


The Common Core: Follow the Money Edition

Erin Osborne, on her blog Honest Practicum, has an interesting chart linking Bill Gates and the many monetary machinations behind the Common Core Standards. It makes for an interesting visual.

How Bill Gates Bought the Common Core image

On a personal note, I’ve not posted anything new in a while. I’ve not dropped off the face of the earth, and I’ve not given up on the blog. I’ve been busy with the paying gigs. There’s some new stuff on the way.


Put an End to Bubble Thinking

Standardized Testing Encourages Shallow Thinking

I have a sign up in my classroom titled “NO BUBBLE THINKING!” Bubble Thinking is defined as proposing explanations that offer simple, concrete answers to otherwise complex phenomena. History, my students discover, requires a more nuanced thinking. Students must understand context and multivariate causations. They have to understand that the same historical event may look very different from alternative points of view. I want them to raise their thinking to the next level of abstraction and to dig deeper for more complex understanding. That is, I believe, my job as a teacher.

Unfortunately, current educational policies discourage this kind of advanced, nuanced thinking. Indeed, it punishes such process.

Below is an e-mail discussion I had with one of my peers. As the department head, I was his go-to person for advice in this matter.

Mr. Andoscia,

One of the questions on our US History test asks “Which battle was the turning point in the Civil War?” I remember my professor in college was adamant about this being a controversial question and that either Vicksburg or Gettysburg were reasonable answers. Apparently the state of Florida has resolved this conflict, because our answer key says that Gettysburg is the only correct answer (Vicksburg is an option.) Should I consider giving credit to anyone who selected Vicksburg, or am I misremembering what my professor told me? Thanks for the help.

My response:

Funny, I learned it was Antietam. No, you are remembering correctly and confirming the profound inadequacy and absurdity of using standardized tests as a measure of historical knowledge and thinking. I would give credit for Vicksburg (Heck, Vicksburg and Gettysburg fell within a day of each other! How can one be determined as a turning point over the other?). I don’t know what the other options are, but this becomes a teachable moment. Find out who answered Vicksburg, Gettysburg or whatever the other options were, and have them defend their answers using historical facts and citing the text. Let them know that if they see this question on the EOC [End of Course Exam] they should give the “correct” answer, but teach them that the EOC is, in fact, a bureaucratic exercise imbued with false importance and not an historical exercise.

The proponents of standardized testing justify their actions with the theory that teachers, without accountability, will dumb down the curriculum. As demonstrated above, the opposite is true. Holding teachers and students accountable to the curriculum by using standardized measures dumbs down the curriculum. This same teacher above, in a later conversation, commented that he feels bad because he wants to do right by his students. He wants to teach them by expanding their knowledge base and by providing them the skill-set with which to use that expanded knowledge base. He wants to teach them how to think historically, not just assorted and largely subjective historical facts. On the other hand, if he doesn’t prepare them for passing the EOC, they may not pass the class regardless of their effort and progress during the school year; regardless of their nuanced knowledge of the subject matter.

This is exactly the reason why reliance on standardized tests constitutes a theft from our students, and consequently a theft from our futures.

————————————-

Note: Yes, I know, I know. Gettysburg did not “fall”. It was defended successfully. These e-mails happen quickly. My apologies to all of the Civil War fanatics. We know how you are!


Students are Continuing to Speek Out

In fact, they’re getting mad!

By now, just about everyone who cares has seen the video of the young man castigating his history teacher for what I call “packet self teaching.”

I think the video largely speaks for itself and reflects ideas that I have written on this blog many times and have spoken on in both college and high school classrooms. I would like to add a couple of observations, however.

This video is just one more piece of evidence to support my hypothesis that if the catastrophe that we call education policy in this country is going to improve, then change must be driven by the students. Our politicians are all bought and paid for by the textbook publishers, private educational corporations and “market solution” ideologues. Since the 1980’s these market solutions have been implemented to virtually no effect. Despite this, all proposed reforms are based on the same failed premises of competition, assessment, fear accountability. So government at all levels, local, state and federal, are invested in perpetuating the very problems that Mr. Bliss pointed out. In other words, they are useless.

Educaiton results

Parents are starting to wake up to the balderdash that passes for education. They see the endless regimen of meaningless homework, the anxiety inherent in high stakes tests, the disconnect between education and learning that exists in the classroom. The problem is that they don’t have much in the way of options. Few can home-school, and even fewer can afford to send their students to private schools that actually provide the education that they want for their children–the kind of critical education that the wealthy demand for their own children–and almost all public schools are following the same nihilistic course.

And teachers? Just about every teacher hates what is becoming of our educational system. We all want to teach, but find that actually teaching the way Mr. Bliss, and everyone who knows anything about education, knows we should is, in fact, subversive.

I really can’t speak on the qualities of this particular teacher. I’ve not heard her side of the story and it is important to keep in mind that the video released only captures a small part of the interaction. What Mr. Bliss says during this time is spot on, but there might be an unknown context to the event that we just don’t have. During the video, however, Bliss mentions a comment that we must infer was previously made by the teacher: “You make a statement about, ‘Oh, this is my paycheck…'” Well, yes, that paycheck is pretty important. It’s how the teacher pays her mortgage and supports her own children, and in today’s economy, paychecks are harder to come by.

Teachers are under a great deal of pressure to conform. They are blackmailed. In many states, like Florida, teachers know that it’s not just a paycheck, but now that tenure has been taken away, it could be their jobs on the line if they don’t get those test scores up. We hate the system, but we hate being homeless more. So many of us conform.

Yes, it’s very possible that his history teacher was lacking passion for her job. It’s hard to be passionate about something over which you are being blackmailed. It’s very likely that the “packets” that Mr. Bliss decries are aligned with some mandatory state exam. Any passion that the teacher might bring to class only takes time away from teaching all important “test-taking skills.”

So I would like to ask for a certain amount of sympathy for the teacher.

With politicians in the pockets of those who have every intention of doing away with public education, parents who are out of options and teachers who have been collectively cowed by bad policy, that leaves students. Students must take the lead in pushing for reforms. They know they are being scammed. They know there’s a better way. They have to take the lead, or there will never be change.

To do this, students will have to be disobedient…and organized. I thought it was telling that the position of the school as stated in the news is that Jeff Bliss should have expressed himself “appropriately.” Balderdash. Had Bliss done the “appropriate” thing and gone to his administrator and explained politely how he was disappointed by the quality of teaching…he would have been ignored. He would have been just one more kid with a complaint. He certainly would not have become the focus of a national debate. We all know this. The last thing students need to be at this point is appropriate.

The policies that are destroying the minds of generations of Americans are not “appropriate.” They are crippling. They are a form of abuse directed at students and at their future prospects as fulfilled and well rounded human beings. We wouldn’t expect the victim of a crime or of a life threatening attack to be polite in response. Well our current education policy is an attack, an assault against students. They know it. Don’t expect them to be appropriate when the tether finally snaps…and I really believe that metaphorical tether is unraveling.

Finally, I’d like to send a request to students. Taking action does not have to be entirely confrontational. In our anger, no matter how justified, we often forget that we have allies. Thousands of teachers in every district refuse to be cowed by this ridiculous approach to deform reform. Many of us do provide the kind of education that Bliss so passionately demands. Such teaching requires courage in the face of tremendous pressure to conform. It’s very difficult to maintain our passion in the face of such absurdity. Fortunately, there is one tried and true means of reinforcing that passion. If you have such a teacher, tell them “thank you.” That’s all it takes. Most teachers are not motivated by “bonus checks” or other carrot approaches. When our students appreciate us and what we are trying to do, that’s what drives us.

Yes, by all means, confront those policies and the devotees of these policies, but don’t forget the subversives. It’s important to cultivate your alliances.

 


Students are Speeking Out!

And it’s about time. Students are not stupid. They know they are being had. They know they are dedicating their time to meaningless balderdash, and they are starting to resent it. And they should. The truth is, that students have the power to change this insane policy if they work together to do so. Communicating that anger and frustration is the first step. Expect more of this.

On the other hand, I disagree with the opening premise of this video that knowledge like “pythagorean theorem” are useless because they are never used. I caution students that in learning these skills they are doing more than just adding to their mental utility. True, they can use things like formulas in the off chance that they need them, but what is being taught is not a formula, or a process, but a way of thinking. We teach this stuff not because we believe that our students are going to grow up to be, in my case, historians. We teach them to strengthen their minds and open doors for future learning. But overall, the message in this video is apt.


An Old 9th Grade English Notebook…

…and What we Think We Know About Education These Days

 

Everybody knows that our schools are in crisis. It’s common knowledge the quality of our schools has been declining since…well…since we were younger (whenever that was). Over the years, the curriculum has been watered down, or dumbed down, to make it easier for “those people” to pass. Who exactly those people are depends on one’s personal bent. Some may say that we stopped failing students because of those people with low self-esteem. A racial component is often added to discourse when the claim is made that schooling has never been the same sine Brown v. Board of Education when perfectly good white schools had to make the curriculum easier for…you know who.

So when my father showed me his first wife’s ninth grade English notebook from 1933 I was very interested in its contents. Given what “everybody knows” above, it’s common sense that the contents of this notebook would be much higher than anything being learned in 9th grade today.

Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, “If everybody knows such-and-such, the it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.” So it is with this notebook, though I’m not clear on the ratio.

The notebook opens with two sheets, most likely prepared by the instructor listing about sixty questions or prompts which the student is either expected to know or to respond to. The two pages may be a study guide. I’m not sure. The sheets cover everything from Elizabethan literature to twentieth century literature (up to 1933, as that is the date on the notebook). Using Blooms Taxonomy to analyze the prompts I was shocked to discover that almost every single one is a low order, or content level, question. Such examples include, “1. Find as many definitions as you can of the word, ‘poetry’.” Or “17. What is the meaning of meter in poetry?” There were a number of explanation questions, my favorite being the awkward, “62. Explain Pilgrim’s Progress.” Yes, that’s a complicated question, but still largely content or comprehension level knowledge.

None of the prompts required higher order thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation or creation. At best, one prompt, “14. Write a verse of a narrative poem; give its title and author,” requires the student to apply her knowledge of narrative poetry to identify such a piece. Nowhere did the teacher require the student to, say, compare and contrast Elizabethan poetry to twentieth century poetry, or to assess the value of folk tales as means of transmitting culture, or, heaven forbid, ask the student to write a Shakespearean Sonnet.

As I continued on, the notebook appeared to be a portfolio project on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Now this looks a little better for sustaining the claim that that, compared to 1933, 2013 curriculum is lower. According the Accelerated Reader, Scott’s original Ivanhoe is a 12.9 grade level, meaning that it is written at the reading level of a high school senior in her ninth month. I do not know if the student was using the original, but let’s make that assumption.

The notebook continues on with mostly content level questions and information. There is very little feedback from the teacher, but each page is marked with a red check. There are some comments written in red, in different writing than that of the student. I think it is safe to assume that the red pencil is that of the teacher’s. The red check almost certainly indicates that the student satisfied the requirement. So this is not a case where I’m analyzing a low level student’s work and assuming that it represents the standards of the teacher. Evidence indicates that the work did satisfy the requirements for the project. The notebook included many character sketches of the main characters of the book. These sketches were strictly descriptive. There’s no indication of the character’s motives or perspective. Nothing suggesting that the student is expected to understand point of view.

Finally, the portfolio ends with an essay titled “William the Conqueror.” Again, the essay has the teacher’s red check of approval. I’m not sure of the rubric used by the teacher to grade the essay, but I noticed one problem. The student did not stay in context. Her introduction was a single paragraph, presumably the thesis, “One purpose of Scott in writing Ivanhoe, was to show how the Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited England, were treated by their conquerors, the Normans.” Not bad. I would suggest that this is a pretty strong thesis for a ninth grader. I would be impressed to see even my eleventh graders write such a thesis. However, this student does not actually address the thesis in her essay. She goes on to describe the Norman Invasion and the Battle of Hastings. She does this well. The essay ends with a brief explanation of how English is a derivation of Anglo-Saxon and French. Now, in ninth grade, this happens, but there’s not comment from the teacher written in the notebook. Of course, that’s not to say that the teacher did not comment verbally.

Regardless, there’s nothing in this notebook to suggest that the quality of education being received by this student is any better than the quality received by students today. Indeed, such a portfolio project given today would be expected to be balanced in all of the domains of Blooms Taxonomy. Florida Sunshine State Standards do expect the student to be able to explain the text, but also provide analysis of things like historicity and author’s intent, comparative analysis, etc. Indeed, this portfolio project only satisfies one component of today’s Common Core Standards. That is, the student is clearly demonstrating that she can read on grade level. In fact, she can read well above grade level.¹ Otherwise, this project is not up to the demands for satisfying contemporary curriculum requirements.

To be fair, the innovations I used in this post did not exist in 1933. The first iteration of Blooms Taxonomy came out in the late fifties. Accelerated Reader was developed by Judi Paul in 1984. The Common Core standards are in the process of being implemented as I type this sentence. But that’s just the point, isn’t it. Students today have so much more potential to develop in the classroom and in the school environment because teachers have so many tools at their disposal to ensure success.

I do have one concern with regard to contemporary students as compared to this student from 1933. This student actually had the opportunity to read a great book like Ivanhoe. Her teacher clearly had the opportunity to expose this student to a great deal of great literature. With all of the tools at our disposal to guarantee the success and development of our students, oftentimes these gifts are misdirected toward raising test scores rather than enlightening young people. This was a constraint that the student of 1933 did not have to worry about.

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  1. As an aside, the student has great handwriting. I don’t know if this represents an expectation of the teacher, or is simply her handwriting, but every teacher I know would love all of their students to have such handwriting.


 

 

 

 


 


It’s Not About Knowing…It’s About Thinking!

And how do we assess thinking? We look at real world outcomes…not how effectively a student can fill in a bubble sheet!


The Obama Report Card

The Obama Presidential Rubric Making it Easier to Assess the President Objectively[ish]

In January of 2009, back in the Agitate days before I caught up with the twenty-first century and started blogging, I posted a commentary on the importance of holding the new president accountable for the state of the United States. The reality is that citizens participating in representative government often vote for the person they like rather than make their decisions based on qualifications, platform or accomplishment. When we decide whether or not we wish to re-elect that candidate, we continue to make our choice based on whether we continue to like them.

Yes, perhaps external variables such as the state of the economy, or social stability may factor into the candidate’s “likeability” status, but for many of us, if we like the candidate, we tend to make excuses for their failings. It was the Republican’s fault that the economy hasn’t gotten better, or the deficit grew faster under Reagan than Obama. Okay. These may be true. I’ve made similar claims myself. However, to paraphrase Truman, the buck stops at the Oval Office. Maybe the Republicans did follow an outrageously obstructionist strategy, however, that should not have come as a surprise to Obama, and it was up to him to find ways around such shenanigans.

On the other hand, when we don’t like someone, it’s easy to impute guilt unto them for everything that may go wrong. For instance, President Obama has no control over gas prices. His fiscal policies have done very little to increase the deficit as compared to two unpaid for wars, a recession and unpaid-for tax cuts. It’s also easy to believe negative statements about the candidate that don’t happen to be true, such as Obama ending the work requirement in welfare.

To mitigate some of the subjective nature of assessing the President and his performance, I created a rubric for the top things that I was looking for from the new President. The rubric is broken down into categories such as “The Economy” “Education” “International” etc. Each category is further broken down into benchmarks for which the President could score 0-3. Zero indicates that there was no progress or that his leadership has gone in the wrong direction (I decided against negative points). A score of 1 indicates that he has advocated for progress in that area, but was unsuccessful in implementing policy. To score a 2, Obama had to institute a policy for positive change. A perfect score of 3 indicates successful implementation with measurable progress. Each benchmark is measurable, at least as much as possible.

Of course, this does not completely control for subjectivity. No grading system is purely objective. But it’s beats making our decisions based on how well coifed the candidate is (advantage Romney) or who is more “likeable” (advantage Obama). My idea of what is important and positive may be very different from yours. I would like to have seen a federal jobs program modeled after the WPA. Others might have believed that was too much government intervention. Also, such a program, despite the benefits that I see, is simply politically untenable. How much can I, or should I, blame Obama for not making it happen.

Regardless, I think the Obama Rubric is an adequate tool for assessing his first term. I welcome all readers to use this tool or to create their own. After doing this, please feel free to share by e-mailing your results to The Journal of a Mad Sociologist. I’d like to compile the results by the middle of October.


Teachers: You Never Know Who You Are Reaching

The Letter on Their Report Card Does Not Describe What They Learned

I always ask a survey question on my final exams, answerable in essay form, explaining what the student is taking away from my class. I want to know what lessons they learned that may have influenced them in some meaningful way. There are a few formulaic responses, but I’m often awed and humbled by many of the comments.

Of special interest to me are the perspectives of those who did not do well in my classes. I want their opinions so that I might understand better why I was unable to reach them. Perhaps there are changes that I can make to better serve my future students. Interestingly, I find that those students who did not do well are often very critical of themselves, taking full responsibility for their own grades. However, I find that even those students who did not pass did not entirely waste their time. Below is a survey answer from one of my non-passing students from this school year.

As the year tagged along I disliked you more and more every day. Since the beginning of this year I believe I have matured a lot and noticed you’re a great teacher. You do your job fairly well and you’re probably the smartest man I’ve ever met. Besides that, I feel this class had more of a meaning behind it besides history. 

You’ve made me come to realize we make history every day and we are going to be the history to our grandchildren. As the generations proceed more history will be made. Obama is the first black president. In 50 years my grandchildren will be in awe to hear about that piece of history. 

As a student I exceeded the level of laziness, but I still acknowledged your ability to teach naïve students. I learned that you don’t have to do extraneous work. Just work smart. You’re a great teacher. Thanks for everything.

As a teacher, you never know when you reach a student. Grades are poor proxies for learning.


You’re a Mean One, Mr. Gingrinch!

We can’t have this kind of…um…person (?)…in the White House

With regard to Gingrinch’s (Yes, I’m spelling it that way intentionally!) plan to replace school janitors by forcing poor children to clean toilets…

I didn’t comment on this initially because, frankly, I really believed that Gingrinch would hold a press conference and apologize for the grossly insensitive comments that he made about poor children. If nothing else, in grand Gingrinch style he would have been sorry for our misinterpretation of his remarks. Regardless, this nonsense would have been over and we could have moved on to the general insanity that is the Republica primary. However, not only is this idiot not apologizing, but he’s defending his atrocious plan and even building on it.

In the latest debate Gingrinch received thunderous applause from a Republican audience by defending his Dickensian scheme to lay off hard working “union” janitors who are making way too much money (yeah, who doesn’t want to be a school janitor and bring home all that chaching?) and replace them with poor children. His expressed goal is to teach poor children “the value of work.” Cleaning toilets for their peers would make these poor children feel good about themselves. Of course it would!

As if this wasn’t going far enough, Gingrinch expanded on this strategy. He added that he would fire one janitor and replace him with “thirty-seven” students. Those students would make money that they could take pride is as they bring their checks home to their poor parents. Thirty-seven students for one janitor? How much money would they make? Is Gingrinch suggesting that we pay each student one thirty-seventh of the wages that we pay our janitors? And, if not, how does his plan save the school system money, as he has claimed? Here in Lee County the starting salary for a custodian is an ostentatious $9.33 an hour.¹ To break even on this deal, Newt Legree would have to pay children twenty-five cents an hour. An eight-hour workday would vouch these children a gross income of $2 a day. In exchange for this gracious supplement to the family income, the child will only sacrifice all of his education.

Maybe these children under the Gingrinch plan can go to college after all. Not as students, of course. They could replace those overpaid college custodians and continue to scrub toilets for their better-heeled peers. According to Gingrinch, there is nothing demeaning about cleaning toilets while your peers read Oliver Twist in English class. Toiling for pennies on the dollar and sacrificing any hope for a meaningful future will teach the poor the value of work.

Hey, Newt! Here’s a more radical idea. How about we teach poor children the value of work by, oh I don’t know, helping them do classwork. The research indicates that poor children don’t suffer from not cleaning enough toilets. Poor children suffer from a lack of educational support structures. If anything, they need more time behind the computer and in the books, not more time behind the mop handle and in the dirty bathroom stalls.

Suggesting this, according to the man whose heart is way more than three sizes too small, makes me an elitist! Yes. Only an elitist would suggest that it’s demeaning to exploit poor children as cheap labor by making them clean their peer’s crap for pennies on the dollar. That’s what elitism is all about.

Really? Can we afford to have this medieval-minded, sinister bastard anywhere near the White House?

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¹ For those of you who can’t help yourselves, this wage amounts to $19,406.40 a year before taxes. My, how do we ever afford to pay such exorbitant wages for janitors?


What Our Can Students “Opt Out” Of and What they Can’t

The public school perpetuation of Baracknaphobia and Reaganphilia

 

Today, public schools televised the Presidential back to school speech. Granted, there was less paranoia and right wing balderdash than there was the first time, but paranoia doesn’t die so easily. A few days ago, all students in the district received “opt-out” forms to bring home to their parents. If the parent did not want their child to see the President’s speech, they could sign the form and the child would be sent to an alternative room during the televised event. This must have been a significant expense in paper, toner and man-hours considering that the vast majority of the forms were not returned. In fact, I’ll wager that about half of the forms never made it home for the parents to see. Mind you, there are still students in my school who do not have the required textbooks for their courses due to budget austerity, but the school system spared no expense in printing forms that stigmatize the President of the United States.

Yes, it is stigmatizing. This isn’t just a matter of, “parents have a right to say what their children are exposed to in school.” They don’t. This is the President of the United States speaking to students and encouraging them to stay in school, study and work hard. Sending an opt-out form home insinuates that there might be something wrong with what Obama has to say, that the President of the United States may be a bad influence on students. After all, what other activities are students allowed to “opt out” of? Movies with too mature a rating. Curriculum that may contain “inappropriate,” graphic or controversial content. And Obama speeches. If there’s a possibility that a video shown in class might contain some nudity, or abusive language, parents are allowed to opt their children out of participating. I remember when I was in eleventh grade many of my classmates opted out of seeing the childbirth film in Anatomy and Physiology class. So a speech by the President of the United States, by inference, shares a distinction with inappropriate content, nudity, foul language, controversy and graphic imagery. What do you suppose this policy communicates to students?

From the reaction of my own students, I can report one message that they are receiving, whether this is the intent of policy-makers or not, a black president is not subject to the same level of respect as anyone else. In a school with over seventy percent minority enrollment, that such a policy is interpreted through the lens of race is no surprise. When I was passing around the “opt out” forms, many of my students, not quite half, were quite vocal that this was “racism.” Many more demonstrated that they agreed with this observation. I know of no students defending the “opt out” policy (which does not mean that the policy was universally disdained by the class). There was a broad consensus among my class that this policy would not be in place for a white president. Again, this might not be the intent of the policy-makers (though I’m sure it plays at least a small role in the “opt out” decision), but many students, especially students of color, understand this policy in terms of race.

Policies communicate the biases of the policy makers, if not in what is written, then in what is read between the lines. In this case many minority students are reading a confirmation of the larger societal discourse on race and ethnicity. By high school, racial inequality is clear to those living under its weight—a weight most policy makers do not understand. The opt-out policy exacerbates a tenuous relationship between a community and its minority children and young adults. After all, if President Obama is not due simple respect, if there’s an option to shut one’s ears to what the President of the United States has to say due to the color of his skin, how much respect can students who are “brown like…” Obama expect? Might the school system simply opt-out of its obligations regarding minority students? There is plenty of evidence that many school systems do just that. Under these circumstances, why shouldn’t students of color similarly opt-out themselves?

Meanwhile my department head received a curriculum package on Ronald Reagan, for use in social studies classrooms, from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. This organization is “dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Ronald Reagan’s legacy of inspired freedom.” That’s nice. Apparently there is no curriculum dedicated to Reagan’s legacy of death squads in central America or support of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, or his legacy of slashing funds to education and a whole host of other nasty things. If only we could all have our own foundations dedicated to remembering the nice stuff about us. Certainly, this curriculum is slanted toward a particular position, political persuasion or ideology. Such bias on the part of President Obama, however, is offered as the justification for protesting, censoring or at the very least allowing our students to opt out of hearing his speech.

One of the reading teachers is requiring her students to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She received a free class set of this far right novel/tract from the Ayn Rand Institute. According to the institute’s website, “…we estimate that more than five million young people will be introduced to Ayn Rand’s books and ideas over the next few years as a direct result of this program.” Yet this is not considered “indoctrination” as is the accusation leveled at Obama’s back to school speech.

Conspicuously, there is no “opt-out” form for the Reagan curriculum. Imagine that. Had I or any other social studies teacher in my school decided to present this curriculum to our students, parents would not have had the opportunity to opt their children out. Nor is there an “opt-out” for Atlas Shrugged. And there shouldn’t be. This is true for any curriculum presented in schools. If every parent opted their children out of every class or lesson that they found objectionable schools might end up in an existential crisis. Imagine a school in which teachers had to design alternative classwork for every child presenting an opt-out form. Don’t want your child learning about evolution, or global climate change, or the Crusades, simply present an opt-out. Fortunately, parents do not have this kind of influence, though I know many who would like to.

I require my students to read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States as a supplemental reading in my US History class. Like the Atlas Shrugged students, they do not have the opportunity to “opt out.” The media specialist (librarian) expressed her dismay that this book was “biased.” Of course, it’s biased. Atlas Shrugged is biased. The Reagan Curriculum is biased. Obama’s speech is biased. Bias is a part of life and should be a part of our curriculum. A balanced curriculum is best served when teachers with diverse backgrounds and belief systems have academic freedom and training for incorporating multiple perspectives in the classroom. There’s nothing wrong with reading Atlas Shrugged, or People’s History, or being exposed to the Reagan curriculum, or listening to Obama’s speech. So long as the data itself is accurate (I’m sure the Reagan Presidential Foundation isn’t lying in its curriculum, but rather emphasizing the positive while downplaying the negative) and ethical standards for presenting material followed, a skillful and diverse teaching staff should be able to mitigate any effects of bias and encourage personal growth among its students. The goal is not and should not be to purge the classroom of any material that may present a certain point of view or, god forbid, offend a student or parent. The goal is to create an enriching, engaging and stimulating learning environment in which students have access to multiple ideas and perspectives.

The policy response to Obama’s speech directly contradicts this goal. Instead of enrichment, engagement and stimulation, this policy is part of a larger, concerted and dedicated effort by the political right to ensure that only one ideology and its pre-selected ideas is accessible to the people and legitimized by our institutions. All other ideas and perspectives, especially those ideas that directly challenge those of the far right, must be silenced, delegitimized and marginalized. It’s an outright attempt to create a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. This is done by screaming “bias!” “Indoctrination!” “Politicking in the classroom!” The far right machine cries “offensive!” “Obscene!” or worst of all, “Politically Correct!” any materials that challenges its ideological stranglehold.

Teachers, regardless of political persuasion, must be on the front lines of this battle. Whether we are liberal or conservative of moderate or any combination thereof, we as teachers must recognize that we cannot cultivate the fertile mind of youth in sterile soil. Diversity, debate, experimentation, tolerance and freedom are the grist of the great works of the mind. As teachers, we must strive to protect this environment for our students.

 


Remembering 9/11

With Our Eyes Open to the Truth

“In war, Truth is the first casualty” – Aeschylus

About a month ago I was asked by a local reporter how I, as a high school teacher, planned to handle the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 in my classroom. I can’t remember the exact answer that I gave her, but I know it was simple. I handled the commemoration of this tragedy in exactly the same way that I handled it in the moment.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was the high school teacher at a Fort Myers private school. I had an intimate class of six students. That morning I was leading the students from the classroom when my Program Director intercepted me. She informed me that an airplane had just struck the World Trade Center in what was believed to be a terrorist act. My first thought was that it was a small plane with a misguided pilot—an accident, nothing more. The Director told me that the other teachers were planning on keeping things quiet and that some parents were on their way to pick up their kids, but I was free to handle things as I saw fit.

I did. Keeping things quiet is not my style. I simply must know what’s going on and I promote the same from my students.

My class and I returned to the tiny classroom and endeavored to get the television working. Ours was a developing school. The television was old and there was no cable hook-up. The students took turns serving as antennae, holding a wire hanger in the air and adjusting themselves until the picture became reasonably clear. Through the cloudy image on the screen, we saw footage of a commercial airliner, Flight 11 it turned out, colliding directly, and with an eerily palpable intent, with the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It was almost 9 am.

Within minutes the anchor interrupted his own reporting. Another plane had just struck the South Tower. This was no accident. This was an attack. All of us felt as if we were punched in the stomach. There were no tears, just a stunned silence. Yet the bad news kept coming, like a nightmare you try to wake from, but can’t. The Pentagon, a plane crash in Pennsylvania, maybe even more planes coming. We watched both towers disintegrate in real time. It simply would not end.

I feared for the future of my nation as well as the future of the world. My little boy was still three months from being born. What kind of world would he inherit? The possible consequences were dizzying. It wasn’t long before I started to see the raw emotion surging from my students. Anger. Fear. Hatred. One girl intoned that there was definitely going to be a war. She put her head down on the desk. I don’t know if she was crying for I was distracted by one young man exclaiming, “Good! We need to blow the crap out of them!” Another young man suggested that we “nuke them,” “Make them pay.”

Nuke who? Make who pay? And even if we knew who perpetrated this, which at the time we did not, how exactly could we “make them pay?” My students were submersed in the emotional trauma of the event. The horror stimulated all of the banal, subconscious instincts that drive reaction over reason, striking out over thinking things through. The reality was that we didn’t have to react. We didn’t have to strike out. We were, almost certainly, perfectly safe in our little classroom in Fort Myers.

It turned out to be a great opportunity to teach living history. “Wait a minute. Hold on.” I put my hands up and directed the focus of the class. Fear, anger and sadness were legitimate emotions under such circumstances, but we had to put these emotions in their place before they devolved into hatred and irrational, spiteful actions.

I asked, “What do we know?” The students couldn’t answer. I told them that when I’m confronted with something that I’ve never experienced before, especially something frightening or dangerous, I go over what I know. I think instead of react, and the outcomes are always much better. So I asked again, “what do we know?” As a teacher it was my responsibility to steer the class toward using their knowledge, to cultivate and nurture their thinking. My responsibilities do not change in the face of tragedy. Every moment is a learning moment in a classroom.

“We know someone attacked us.” One student stated, still visibly angry.

I nodded. Someone certainly did. But who? Was it another country? My students decided that it was not another country since other countries have missiles or bombs, otherwise they do not attack. Therefore, this was not just an attack, but an act of terrorism. I remember writing “Usama bin Ladin” in black dry erase marker on the white board. This was before his name was mentioned on the news, but I figured it would certainly be brought up soon. We discussed terrorism and the difficulties of combating organizations that were not necessarily affiliated with nation states. After all, our entire military apparatus was designed to fight another nation, Russia specifically, not an organization that could be in Pakistan one day and Malaysia the next.

We all knew that there was going to be a response. It was my point that this response should be thought out, should be reasonable rather than reactionary. It was one thing to be afraid and angry, but quite another to react to these emotions without thinking. In order to think effectively we needed all of the facts that we could get. At that moment we just didn’t have them. I informed my students to be very careful with the information we received in the foreseeable future. It was unlikely that we would have access to reliable information for at least ten years.

Here we are, ten years later, and what do we know?

On 9/11 my students learned how to deal with tragedy through reason. They (and I) learned how to accept understandably muddled and confused emotions, anger, fear and hatred, and the foundations of these emotions and then move on to reasoned analysis and decision-making based on knowledge. This learning did not end at the close of school that day. We continued our discourse as we entered into what would be America’s longest war.

I was openly and publicly against the war the war in Afghanistan. Most of my students supported the war. The kids learned how to discuss their opinions respectfully, even when many parents who objected to my public position could not. American values such as patriotism, freedom, privacy and speech were subject to debate and discussion. Meanwhile, some parents attempted to stifle this discourse, claiming that I was indoctrinating my students with my liberal bias. Would I have been accused of bias if I had embraced the war and spoke out in favor of it? It’s funny how it’s only “bias” when it’s an opinion one disagrees with.

Not only did parents have a low opinion of minority opinions, but they also underestimated the ability of their own children to formulate their own informed opinions. The assumption is that if a teacher expresses his views to the class the students will be indoctrinated with those views. Of course, this is perfectly acceptable if said views are of the accepted discourse. In fact, many of my students disagreed with me, and before we were through they were able to formulate reasonable arguments to defend their opinions. My students demonstrated that they were not blank slates soaking up “bad” knowledge. They were critical, and when they were included in the discussion, they were invested in the issue.

As is always the case, the drama that plays out in the classroom is often a microcosm for the drama being played out in the society as a whole. After 9/11 an accepted discourse was established. We were attacked because of our wealth and our freedom. If you do not support the United States government in its “war on terror” then you are with the terrorists. Any action taken by the United States in retaliation for 9/11 was justified, including domestic spying and torture. Finally, American citizens must accept that we’ll have to give up certain rights and freedoms in exchange for the government keeping us safe.

Those who questioned the validity of the above claims were marginalized as pacifists, recalling Neville Chamberlain, or demonized as anti-American or pro-terrorist. There was even a list compiled of academics considered dangerous because of their radical views. Afghanistan had to be attacked, despite their being not a single Afghani on the planes that fateful day. Afghanistan was refusing to give us bin Laden, making them complicit in their terrorism. Of course, this wasn’t true, but to say so was un-American. Iraq had to be invaded because Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was intent on delivering them to al Qaeda. This wasn’t true, but to say so was un-American.

Only the accepted discourse was to be heard. Alternative (dare I say accurate) dialogue was not tolerated. We now understand more clearly the consequences of blind following, of silent acceptance of the status quo. More often than not, the dialogue in my classroom was more open and honest than anywhere in the mainstream after 9/11. There, any question was could be asked, any observation could be expressed, and any course could be pursued to improve understanding of what’s going on in the world. My students grew in knowledge and character while American citizens became compliant, conformist and childlike.

For ten years 9/11 has been the mantra of American quiescence. Instead of pursuing the truth, we marched in lock step with the mantra, 9/11…9/11…9/11. What is a mantra? It’s a form of indoctrination. And my students were among the few who were not indoctrinated. Since 9/11 my students of the time have thanked me for the way this horrible tragedy was handled in our classroom. Other students have informed me that their teachers told them nothing, addressed nothing, shared nothing. They were in the dark until they got home. Of course, that was the state most of America was in, left in the dark like children, too fragile to cope with something as intense as 9/11, our own tragedy. In that darkness we were taught to be afraid, to turn to the government from protection, but never question what it takes to provide that protection. In the darkness we lost sight of what it means to be an American, to have rights, to stand for something greater, to be a beacon of freedom throughout the world.

My students didn’t forget then.

And my students will not be allowed to forget now. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with knowledge…unvarnished. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with openness. In my classroom, I will handle 9/11 with the truth. I will not lie to my students, and I will not allow my students to lie to themselves like so many Americans have lied to themselves in the last ten years.

If there is a lesson to be learned after ten years of the post-9/11 world, that is it. Knowledge, truth, openness. This should not come as a surprise. Every lesson of history has been the same.

 

 


My Student’s Test Scores Went Up!

And my reasonable reaction to this news

 

Some years ago I sat in on a lecture by the great education reform advocate, Alfie Kohn.¹ During the lecture, Mr. Kohn stated that there are two reasonable responses to the news that test scores have increased in one’s district. The first² he referred to as the moderate response: “So what?” According to Kohn, and the prevailing research, there is no empirical evidence that test scores are a reliable measure of “learning.” In fact, he pointed out research that revealed the opposite influence; those who scored the highest on standardized tests tended to be the shallowest thinkers and least actively involved students. He also pointed out that standardized tests have virtually no predictive value for future academic success. In real terms, there is no reason to take pride in higher test scores.

Yet there is considerable social pressure on teachers to do just that. This last year, when it was improved test scores for my school were announced, there was a resounding applause among the faculty. We were recognized for “working hard to raise our scores.” It was difficult not to get caught up in the exhilaration. Indeed, we did work hard. Much of our efforts were focused on raising those test scores. Teaching methodologies, such as the Kagan method, were implemented, sold to us based in part because they are proven to raise test scores. During two Kagan trainings, the trainer asked us about our goals as teachers. One question was, “do you want your student’s test scores to go up.” There was a resounding “yes” and even applause from the faculty. I somewhat dismayed by how effectively socialized teachers were in understanding rising test scores as a reasonable goal.³

To be honest, when I look at my students’ test scores, I must admit to a certain visceral excitement when I see their “progress.” Then reason takes hold, as does my crippling sociological imagination. Are the increases in my student’s test scores something to be proud of, or should my response be “so what?”

Yes, my students, taken as a whole, showed higher overall scores on this year’s test as compared to last year’s test. I do not know if the difference between the two is statistically significant, as I’ve not taken the time to run the numbers. (Perhaps that will be a later post). I can say that, as I scanned the data, I observed that the vast majority of students showed little significant improvement despite an overall positive change in their raw scores. According to one source, an increase in 78 points is the equivalent of a year’s learning. Based on this assumption, every student should score around 78 points higher than the previous test. In fact, many of my students did just that. However, was that the result of my awesomeness as a teacher? I’d like to say it was, but the facts might be a little more slippery.

First, what caught my eye were the students who scored well above 78 points. Was I such a good teacher that I over-taught the year? And if that’s true, why didn’t all of my students score more than 78 points? Or could there have been other variables, independent of my quality as a teacher?

Let’s look at one outlying student, I’ll call her Sally. Sally scored over 700 points higher on the reading portion of her FCAT this year than she did last year. Seven hundred points! Yay me! Hey, since I, as a teacher, must take the blame for all the failures of public schools, I should be able to take credit for one profound success. Shouldn’t I? Well, as much as I would like to, I’m afraid there are other factors that I would have to control for before I can understand just how much value added I contributed to this child’s amazing test results.

  1. Perhaps the stars aligned. In other words, the student’s results might be due to nothing more significant than luck. Of course, as a sociologist, I’m not inclined to think in terms of luck; but I can think in terms of probabilities. There is a probability that she just happened to guess well on the stuff she did not know. I tend to discount this hypothesis because it’s demoralizing, but also because there was more than one student whose increase was extraordinary, though hers was the largest.
  2. If this year’s test might be an outlier due to nothing more than probability, it’s also possible that last year’s test was a probabilistic low outlier. In other words, if she wasn’t lucky this year, she may have been unlucky last year. Evaluations of teachers and schools, however, are based on a comparison of the current year to the prior year, not a complicated evaluation of student trends.
  3. It could be that she learned seven years’ worth of material this year; thus, her test results for this year and last year are accurate representations of her learning. That would be wonderful. It’s almost certainly not true. Florida has a pretty robust curriculum set, especially at the high school level. There’s very little time for “re-teaching” much from the year before, let alone from the previous six years. So, if Sally did learn six years’ curriculum this year, she must have done so on her own. More power to her. Can we say that this is the result of quality teaching? Perhaps inspiring teaching? It’s impossible to say.
  4. An option that I think is plausible is that she was able to learn a foundational skill, or a skill set, that helped her understand the test or the test questions better as a whole. How did this happen? It could be that one of her teachers taught these foundational skills in a manner consistent with her learning modalities. But which teacher was it? It probably wasn’t me because I’m not a reading or language teacher. On the other hand, it could have been me since reading is a big part of my class. Or it could be that one teacher, or a combination of teachers taught the skill, and I reinforced it. So how much credit should I get? How much “value” did I add? On the other hand, she might have learned the requisite skills from a previous teacher, but didn’t actually “get” or understand the skills until this year when it finally “clicked”. In this case, the right teacher will not get credit for Sally’s higher test scores.
  5. Related to option 4 is the possibility that Sally acquired or mastered the foundational skill due to neurological development that occurred during this year. She may have been exposed to this hypothetical skill every year for the last five years, but did not possess the neurological “wiring” to assimilate it into her learning until this year. This is an often ignored aspect of learning. In this case, there is no way to assign credit for Sally’s own neurological development.
  6. It could be that this year was the first in which she cared about the FCAT. In Florida, the tenth grade FCAT determines graduation. Understanding the importance of this test over previous exams may have compelled her to try harder.
  7. Conditions of overall health and well-being may have influenced her test performance. It could be that this was the first year in which Sally received adequate nutrition, sleep, or exercise. Perhaps her home life was finally stable. Maybe her social status in the school was such that she developed a positive self-image. Again, these are not variables within the control of the teacher.
  8. I hate to say it, but she could have been under the influence of performance enhancing drugs, legal or illegal, that helped her concentrate or increased her thinking capacity. Many stimulant drugs from Ritalin to cocaine have this effect.

Any of the above variables, and perhaps more, could have been deciding factors in her impressive testing gains. Alas, I can’t reasonably take credit for any of them definitively. Yet I’m expected to take great pride in her results and the cumulative results of all of my students for working hard to increase those test scores. Unfortunately, there’s almost no substantive reason for this pride.

On the other end of the spectrum, were there students who scored inordinately lower this year than last? The answer is yes, but fortunately there were fewer of them than there were Sallies. Let’s focus on one such student, whom we’ll call Phil. Phil scored over five hundred points lower on this year’s reading FCAT than last year’s. Why? Was I such a bad teacher that I, somehow, untaught Phil six years’ worth of learning? I find this hard to believe. What happened?

Well, all of the variables attributed to Sally could be true in reverse for Phil. Perhaps he had a bout of bad luck. It could be that this year’s test score was an outlier on the negative end of the continuum, or that last year’s was an outlier year on the positive end and this year’s scores were consistent with his overall trend. Maybe Phil just didn’t care about this test enough to try hard. After all, the tenth grade FCAT can be retaken and passed at any time between 10th and 12th grades. It could be that Phil knows that he’s not going to graduate anyway, for whatever reason, or that the FCAT is irrelevant to Phil’s educational or personal goals. Perhaps he knows that he’s moving out of state where the FCAT does not matter.

During this time of economic instability we cannot rule out the possibility that Phil’s test scores reflect a sudden destabilizing of his life. His parent/parents may be out of work, facing foreclosure, arguing over money. Maybe they cannot afford to provide proper nutrition or other health sustaining resources to Phil. It could very well be that Phil had to find a job to help provide for his family. Even the knowledge of reduced economic prospects may have squashed his personal investment in the future, or in school. My school emphasizes college, college, college. If Phil knows that he is not likely to go to college, why should he participate?

Instability does not have to be economic. His family may be unraveling for other reasons. Phil may be facing the prospects of parental conflict or divorce. New members may have entered his household, parental boyfriends or girlfriends. Might these relationships be unhealthy, destabilizing or even abusive?

Phil may have also fallen under the influence of drugs or other unhealthy influences that usurp the focus and goals of young people. This is not unusual for fifteen or sixteen year olds. Even typical teenage relationships with peer groups or romantic interests can interfere with one’s academic prospects. Has Phil changed schools, been uprooted from a comfortable environment?

Then there’s the matter of neurological development. Now neurology does not, typically un-develop in youth, but that does not rule out the prospect of neurological damage caused by falls, toxification or drug use. In Phil’s defense, I do not believe he suffered from brain damage and it is my hope that he has not fallen into a drug habit or addiction (again, I don’t believe he has).

Regardless, there are so many possibilities that might have negatively influenced Phil that are not a reflection of my skills, or the skills of my colleagues. Yet some would penalize teachers for Phil’s poor performance.

One student who was of particular interest to me was a fellow whom we can call Tony. Throughout Tony’s career he has scored high on the FCAT. FCAT is scored between 1 and 5. Tony consistently scored in the high 4’s, last year scoring a 5 on the reading portion. I paid special attention to Tony this year because, no matter what I did, his classwork and assessments never matched his FCAT performance. Tony was bright. If I asked him a question he invariably had an adequate answer. However, he rarely did any of his assignments, and when he did turn something in it was sloppy, poorly written, not done according to directions and often incomplete. I spoke to his mother. I spoke to his other teachers. We had parent teacher conferences. None of us could understand how he could do so well on the FCAT, yet do so poorly in his classes.

This year, Tony resolved the contradiction. He scored a 2 on the FCAT Reading test. How much of this score was strategic on Tony’s part? It’s impossible to say. Which was the true measure of Tony’s abilities? I would hazard, based on observation, that his historic FCAT scores were the most accurate assessment of Tony’s potential. I offer that his class performance was rather more indicative of his work ethic. Of course, there may be some underlying problems that I have not identified.

Regardless, student performance is subject to so many variables, internal or external, and so many ecological pressures that it is impossible to impute the teachers’ skills and influence in a single test score. Yes, there are some statistical procedures that can be performed to parse out a correlation that might indicate positive or negative influence, but they are unlikely to provide significant results when so many variables must be controlled.

Kohn is correct. “So what,” is the best response to the news that your student’s test scores have gone up. Teachers should not be working hard “to raise test scores.” Any professional teacher worthy of that title should be working hard to provide the best, most fulfilling, most inspiring education for their students. They should be working hard to prepare their students for a lifetime of learning and growth outside of the classroom and beyond the school building. Such is the laudable life mission of teachers. A mundane bureaucratic endeavor that reduces “education” to a number between 1 and 5 is not worthy of a teacher’s attentions, and certainly nothing for which a teacher should take pride.

I have never been proud of a test score. I’ve been relieved by test scores, and disappointed by test scores, but never proud. What makes me proud, and what is a true assessment of the value added in the life of a student? It’s when former students reach out to me and say, “Thank you, Mr. Andoscia.” I have many former students now, building their lives and contributing to society. I don’t remember any of their test scores. Nor should I.

______________________

  1. The lecture was to promote his book, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards.”
  2. The second reasonable response, according to Kohn, was the more radical, “My dear God, no! What have you denied my child in order to get those higher test scores?” I agree with this more radical statement, but it is beyond the parameters of this essay. I could offer that when teachers are focusing on test scores, there is the possibility that they are not focusing on the holistic value of a child’s education. When teachers take pride in their test scores, they may be magnifying the false value of a purely bureaucratic endeavor at the expense of a truer value in the humanity of their students. To so “deny” a child in such a manner is not consistent with a teacher’s ethics.
  3. I am very fortunate to work for a principal who truly believes that providing the best possible education is the best strategy for raising test scores. He has mastered a fine-tuned balance between the virtues of quality teaching and the practical reality that our school is judged based on test scores. In my school, teachers are treated as professionals and given every opportunity to better themselves. Such is the cross borne by quality principals and administrators everywhere. The Kagan method is a valuable tool for teachers and can be presented as such. That the presenter felt the need to justify the Kagan method by using test scores is a critique of our current state of education, not the Kagan method itself.

I’d Like to Thank Mr. Connelly, My First 10th Grade World History Teacher

Fortunately, he didn’t have to prove “value added” in order to keep his job

 

When I was in 10th grade I was placed into Mr. Connelly’s world history class. It was an average level class with average level students who more or less didn’t want to be in school, or specifically didn’t want to be in a history class. They had very little understanding of history or of how to study the subject. As a responsible teacher faced with students who have little background knowledge, Mr. Connelly didn’t just teach history, he taught history study skills like graphic organizers, time-lines and outlines, etc.

These were skills, however, that I did not need. I always loved history and devoured every source I could on World War II and, at that time, the history of Rome. I was bored out of my mind in Mr. Connelly’s class, doing very little learning and walking away with straight A’s. It didn’t take long for my teacher to realize that I was learning at a level to which he was not teaching. Therefore, he did what any exceptional teacher would and should do. He transferred me to an honors history class where I would be challenged appropriately.

Mr. Connelly wasn’t my teacher for very long, but his professionalism and his judgment may very well have had significant impact on who I am today in ways that cannot be quantified in the standard, value added manner. In Mr. Johnson’s class I not only accessed a more challenging curriculum, but also other students who thought like me and had similar interests and goals. I was able to refine my academic interests with my interpersonal interests as I was developing a sense of self. So, thank you, Mr. Connelly no less than Mr. Johnson who provided the actual learning experience.

This story makes me wonder what Mr. Connelly would do under Florida’s current “value added” model of teaching being pushed through the state legislature. Value added is an economic term that has come into vogue with regard to pedagogy. The merit of a teacher must be determined quantitatively and then acted on either by rewarding teachers who are successful at achieving an acceptable level of quantifiable learning, or by punishing a teacher who fails in this endeavor. The accepted method of quantifying value added among students, and thus determining the “value” of the teacher, is through test scores. According to Florida law, 50% of a teacher’s value is to be determined through test scores.

So let’s take a look at Mr. Connelly in such an environment that determines his value through quantitative test scores. Would it be in HIS best interest to move into another teacher’s class a student who will most likely improve his “value added” scores at the end of the year even if such an action is in the student’s best interest? Of course not. We could argue that holding onto a student who would be better served elsewhere is unprofessional. Indeed it is, but current laws regarding using tests as a reward and punishment system run contrary to any sense of professional ethics. In this case, the best interest of the student is not the only variable influencing the teacher’s decision. The best interest of the teacher, in this case, competes with his professional ethics.

Yes, Mr. Connelly may be a teacher, bound by professional ethics, but it is also likely that Mr. Connelly has a mortgage, a family, even children of his own. The pseudo-measurement of the teacher’s value added determines Mr. Connelly’s ability to meet his own personal and financial obligations and opportunities. Hell, the test scores may also determine his employment or professional status. He would be a fool to sacrifice his job, or even his own children’s well-being, by selflessly acting on the best interest of a student who would improve his own value added measure. If anything, he would want to get rid of students who are likely to test low.

So what we are seeing is the development of a role conflict between a teacher’s professional obligations to his students, and his personal obligations as a private citizen, homeowner or even parent. Exacerbating this role conflict is the fact that most of the variables associated with test scores are outside of the teacher’s control. Test scores are influenced by such factors as socio-economic status, cultural affiliation, nutritional access, parental education level, family stability, neighborhood dynamics, cultural diversity in the school and many other variables that the teacher cannot control. Yes, the quality of the teacher is the number one variable influencing academic success in school, but it is not the most influential variable over all (parental education level is much more influential).

So when you add social strain to role conflict, what could possibly go wrong? Well, at the very least we can expect that otherwise selfless teachers will become more self-interested. The theory among conservatives is that self-interest is the best possible motivation to secure the high quality outcome. In this case, however, self-interest is detrimental to students. Teachers like Mr. Connelly will actually suffer negative consequences for selflessly locating the best placement for their higher-level student. What’s more, the same predictions can be applied to the lower-level students. Students who consistently score less than proficient or non-proficient are simply not statistically likely to improve a teacher’s value added scores. With limited time resources, and high stakes consequences, the teacher would be better served to concentrate on those students who are borderline or intermediary test takers as they are the ones most likely to improve significantly with the right help. Higher-level students will be expected to improve largely on their own, which they will most certainly do. With some persuasion, the lower-level students might be pawned off to the special education department, their value added calculators muted or silenced. After all, the chances are that the lowest scoring students are those students most influenced by negative outside forces and are the least likely to make significant gains.

Whereas the above might be logical strategies that a teacher or even a school could use to improve scores, certainly one would not argue that they are effective teaching strategies. The teacher is ethically responsible for all students…but only accountable for those from whom they can demonstrate value added. Such a teacher would be defined as effective or even highly effective when looking at the value added scores despite the reality that the actual teaching is of low quality. One certainly could not blame a teacher for following this course when it means protecting his livelihood.

On the other hand, we might also expect to see an increase in more questionable tactics. We already hear about the reality of teachers “teaching to the test.” I have been present during staff meetings in which testing experts pointed out those areas on the FCAT that are worth the most points. Administrators were instrumental in developing strategies that emphasized developing strategies for concentrating on those high-point areas at the expense of other parts of the test that were not worth as much. This might be ethically questionable, but in light of a system that penalizes low test scores, costing teachers and schools money and jobs, ethics must take a back seat to practical contingency.

At the extreme, we can also expect to see more cheating. This cheating will be justified by the teacher or administrators perpetuating the con as the only means within the control of the institution to effect change. The ends of keeping a school open and securing hard to come by jobs and funds will justify the means of changing a few answers on a couple of tests. When people feel that they have no legitimate control over their own lives, they will find illegitimate means to achieve that control. Students justify their own cheating in much the same way. There is no reason to suspect that teachers are less inclined to cheat to keep their jobs than are students to keep from being grounded.

The current push for showing “value added” is creating this noxious climate. Value added may effectively improve test scores—such is the measure for success throughout the country. Despite the improved test scores, however, this policy will discourage teaching and produce less educated students. Destroying the selfless professionalism of teachers like my own Mr. Connelly by coercing and rewarding self-interest can only hurt education in the end.


Unions are Good for Students…um…a little

Unions are not the problem in education

 

In fact, it could very well be that unions are an integral, part of the solution…that is, unless we’ve decided to entangle them in a nihilistic political gambit designed to silence a segment of the political discourse. All around the world teacher’s unions and educational systems work hand in hand to provide quality education for all students. This is most notably true in Finland and Ontario, the former representing the best educational system in the world, and the later representing one of the most improved educational systems in the world. In both regions unions are seen as stakeholders in the educational system and are an integral part of improving education for all students.

The United States could learn a lesson, here. But it’s unlikely that such will be the case. Instead, teachers unions are being shut down for their propensity to support one political party over another. The current spin in the United States is that teachers unions make it impossible to fire poorly performing teachers, thus driving down educational attainment. It is because of teachers unions that the United States has, at best, mediocre learning outcomes. This falls along the lines of blame the liberals first then find a market solution…without regard to any of the facts.

So I decided to test this hypothesis that teachers unions drive down educational outcomes. I came upon some interesting results. My data comes from the NCES website and is based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading scores for eighth grade. These databases allowed me access to nationwide data. Using eighth grade results optimized the probability that students will have the most exposure to the public school system, as opposed to the fourth grade results. It also allowed me a large dataset to work from, as the high school results are not as comprehensive with regard to the student population.

You can see the results below. If the above hypothesis is correct, then one should be able to assume that the more powerful the union, the lower the NAEP scores should be for math and reading. I used the percentage of teachers in the state that belong to a union as a proxy for union power. The data I used defined ranges rather than raw percentages, thus explaining the columnar pattern in the graph. Regardless, you can plainly see a positive correlation between the percentage of teachers belonging to a union and outcomes on the math and reading scores. Students did better in the union states overall (though the range at the high end is wider for reading). These results were statistically significant and accounted for 8-10% of the variance.

Next, I wanted to see how collective bargaining related to NAEP scores. After all, population may not indicate union power. Also, collective bargaining has been central to the current debate. Turns out that I got very much the same results. Math and reading scores improved relative to the number of districts within the state that use collective bargaining. Again, these numbers are significant and accounted for around 15% of the variance.

Now, granted, the correlations are weak. Certainly, this is not a definitive study. I did not look into other variables that might be related. For instance, it’s likely that states with higher union ratings also have higher pay ratings. They may be more financially stable, have greater access to social benefits like health care and a better social safety net. I could be the parents in higher union areas possess higher levels of education. All of these variables may contribute to better educational outcomes calling into question a direct link to union power and collective bargaining.

Regardless, the claim cannot be made that unions and collective bargaining are problematic to education. Any attempt to dismantle unions using “improving education” as the premise is a lie. Dismantling unions is a political ploy directed at silencing progressive voices as well as an instrumental step toward dismantling public education itself. Don’t believe the hype.

 

 

 

 

  

  

Math Scores

Reading Scores

Union Membership

SE

8.264

6.384

T-Test

2.713**

2.742**

0.084

0.107

rho

0.361

0.361

Collective Bargaining

SE

7.94

6.122

T-Test

2.056*

2.363*

0.154

0.179

rho

0.282

0.32

       

____________________________________________________________

* p < .05

** p < .01


Unions are Good for Students…um…a little

Unions are not the problem in education

 

In fact, it could very well be that unions are an integral, part of the solution…that is, unless we’ve decided to entangle them in a nihilistic political gambit designed to silence a segment of the political discourse. All around the world teacher’s unions and educational systems work hand in hand to provide quality education for all students. This is most notably true in Finland and Ontario, the former representing the best educational system in the world, and the later representing one of the most improved educational systems in the world. In both regions unions are seen as stakeholders in the educational system and are an integral part of improving education for all students.

The United States could learn a lesson, here. But it’s unlikely that such will be the case. Instead, teachers unions are being shut down for their propensity to support one political party over another. The current spin in the United States is that teachers unions make it impossible to fire poorly performing teachers, thus driving down educational attainment. It is because of teachers unions that the United States has, at best, mediocre learning outcomes. This falls along the lines of blame the liberals first then find a market solution…without regard to any of the facts.

So I decided to test this hypothesis that teachers unions drive down educational outcomes. I came upon some interesting results. My data comes from the NCES website and is based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading scores for eighth grade. These databases allowed me access to nationwide data. Using eighth grade results optimized the probability that students will have the most exposure to the public school system, as opposed to the fourth grade results. It also allowed me a large dataset to work from, as the high school results are not as comprehensive with regard to the student population.

You can see the results below. If the above hypothesis is correct, then one should be able to assume that the more powerful the union, the lower the NAEP scores should be for math and reading. I used the percentage of teachers in the state that belong to a union as a proxy for union power. The data I used defined ranges rather than raw percentages, thus explaining the columnar pattern in the graph. Regardless, you can plainly see a positive correlation between the percentage of teachers belonging to a union and outcomes on the math and reading scores. Students did better in the union states overall (though the range at the high end is wider for reading). These results were statistically significant and accounted for 8-10% of the variance.

Next, I wanted to see how collective bargaining related to NAEP scores. After all, population may not indicate union power. Also, collective bargaining has been central to the current debate. Turns out that I got very much the same results. Math and reading scores improved relative to the number of districts within the state that use collective bargaining. Again, these numbers are significant and accounted for around 15% of the variance.

Now, granted, the correlations are weak. Certainly, this is not a definitive study. I did not look into other variables that might be related. For instance, it’s likely that states with higher union ratings also have higher pay ratings. They may be more financially stable, have greater access to social benefits like health care and a better social safety net. I could be the parents in higher union areas possess higher levels of education. All of these variables may contribute to better educational outcomes calling into question a direct link to union power and collective bargaining.

Regardless, the claim cannot be made that unions and collective bargaining are problematic to education. Any attempt to dismantle unions using “improving education” as the premise is a lie. Dismantling unions is a political ploy directed at silencing progressive voices as well as an instrumental step toward dismantling public education itself. Don’t believe the hype.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Math Scores

Reading Scores

Union Membership

SE

8.264

6.384

T-Test

2.713**

2.742**

0.084

0.107

rho

0.361

0.361

Collective Bargaining

SE

7.94

6.122

T-Test

2.056*

2.363*

0.154

0.179

rho

0.282

0.32

       

____________________________________________________________

* p < .05

** p < .01


This Girl Hit the Nail on the Head!

Kudos to her Avant-Guarde English Teacher!

Click here to watch the Video!


Principal Networks and School Choice

Parents aren’t the only ones who make choices

 

The calculus justifying the school choice movement is rather simple. Parents have the ability to select the schools their children attend, so of course they will choose the schools that offer them the qualities they are looking for. Presumably the best way for parents to make such decisions is the school’s test scores, but parents may also look for specialized curricula, teaching strategies, student/teacher ratios, etc. Schools that show the best results will thrive, while schools that do not serve the needs of their students will falter and eventually close. It then becomes incumbent on the schools to improve the quality of their student outcomes. Hence, schools improve and a quality education is ultimately had by all.

Critics have, since the beginning of this movement, suggested that the above assumption is not quite that simple. Applying free market dogma to education may force schools to improve how they market themselves. Marketing, however, does not necessarily translate into a better quality product. Of course, anyone who has ever seen a cool commercial knows that buying the $150 sneaker will probably not make you a faster runner than the $20 sneaker.

The bottom line is that education is a complex institution that cannot be reduced to a simple arithmetic for success. In any school system there are at least thousands of individuals (in some of the larger systems, like New York City, it’s a safe bet to suggest there are millions of individuals) involved in the choice process. Yes, parents play a potentially huge role in school choice, but so do students, teachers, administrators, politicians at every level, community stake holders. Countless and unaccountable variables come into play with regard schools, school success and the choices made with regard to education. Consequently, it’s impossible for a simple formula of choice to define the direction of school reform.

This truth is elaborated in part in an ethnography conducted by Jennifer L. Jennings in Sociology of Education. In her study, School Choice or Schools’ Choice? Managing in an Era of Accountability† Jennings describes how and why school principals access their professional networks to manage the choice process. One principal in her study focuses on “protecting her stats.” This protection, however, does not infer that improving the quality of instruction is the sole means by which this administrator protected those stats. But we have to ask ourselves if we are really talking about education when the emphasis is on protecting stats.

“Performance statistics could be managed and subsequently repackaged as sound bites, and she [the principal] saw the production of good performance data as necessary to receive the political benefits associated with Renaissance Schools.” (236)


Notice how the principal is concerned about producing performance “data,” not necessarily performance. And in this you really cannot blame the principal. She is doing exactly what she should be doing under the prescribed rules of education as they exist today. She is protecting the integrity of the school and maximizing her ability to access resources for her students. To not play along with these distorted rules means setting up your school, as well as your staff and student body for failure, a failure that they surely do not deserve.

Other principals approached their jobs from a different perspective, what Jennings refers to as “sensemaking.” According to the author, another principal did not recognize her sense of agency in “managing” the outcomes for her school. She accepted the accountability standards as a form of constraint. She recognized that “excessive attention to them would impede her ability to do her job as an instructional leader…Nonetheless, she accepted that her job evaluation would depend on these numbers.” (236) Another principal accepted the accountability targets as legitimate. Indeed, these three different frames for understanding their roles in the school system influenced the outcomes for the schools regardless of the quality of teachers or aptitudes of students.

These principals did not just develop school protocols consistent with their particular philosophies, but accessed professional and political networks, or failed to access such networks. Principals who understood that they had to “manage their stats” were more likely to utilize their networks to manage their populations despite the prohibition against “screening” students. “Principals talked about the selection of students as a matter of organizational survival.” (240)

Signaling: One technique for managing the student population was through signaling, or “sending signals to parents and students about what kinds of students were a ‘good fit’ for the schools.” (237). One principal was informed through her network that she should not produce a brochure in Spanish for the school choice fairs, as this would attract the wrong kind of student. (237) Of course, what school would want to take on the responsibility of teaching Spanish speaking students or students who speak English as a second language when such students will surely lower the school’s test scores. Yet the argument could be made that these are exactly the students who are in the most need of a good education. Similarly, a principal informed parents of special needs children that her school did not have the resources to serve such students. Principals also included questionnaires and other requirements of students and parents during the application process. These requirements may have been designed to discourage less involved parents from choosing the school, parental involvement being a key indicator of academic success.

Using Data from the Department of Education’s Application System: Despite the fact that principals were not allowed to use such data to screen students, it was understood that such prohibition was loosely enforced. Principals accessed the networks to gain valuable information about a student’s status and attendance before accepting applications.

Forming alliances with Junior High Schools: One principal learned that certain “feeder” schools were better for sending higher performing students. By forming alliances with these select schools she could bypass the potentially risky business of screening students and relying on signaling during school choice fairs for applicants.

Fending off “Over the Counter” Students (OTCs): OTCs are students who were new to the district, perhaps even the country, or were otherwise not placed in a high schools. These students were the wildcards. They were more likely to be lower achieving students, less proficient in English, or behavioral problems. Principals who understood their role as managing their student populations did everything they could to minimize the available seats for OTCs. “If schools’ registers fell below their capacity the central placement office could send them OTCs. Schools that were not selective at the front end of the process…were particularly vulnerable.” (241) Such strategies included keeping already transferred students on the roster to hide the number of available seats. One principal was able to use her political networks with a local councilwoman to arrange placement for a child in exchange for removing two lower performing students.

Counseling out “problem students”: Keeping undesirable students out of the school was only the “front end” of the selection process. Once a student was identified as “ruining our stats” (242) the game was on for getting rid of that student. This could involve manipulating parents into believing that the child could no longer attend that schools (a power which principals did not have), or using some exaggerated behavioral pretext to have the student removed. (242) Sometimes even direct confrontation was used to encourage parents to pull their child voluntarily. (243)

If the above methods sound like gaming the system, you are correct. It’s more subtle than we are used to seeing in the news with stories of teachers teaching to the test and even changing test scores. Managing populations is one of the most effective ways of ensuring positive outcomes—without actually having to improve the quality of the education. This is not unusual. In one school in which I worked the principal explained during a staff meeting that, “we have to attract higher level readers so we can improve our test scores.” Of course the flip side to that coin is discouraging lower level readers who reduce our test scores.

“The problem with using only quantitative indicators is that it forces people to do unethical things. They feel like they don’t have any choice but to do that. It’s not that they’re bad people—they’re put in this position. There’s tons of evidence from the business world that this is what happens when you use only one indicator.” (239)

In other words, the strategems noted above are just par for the course for an educational system based on singular standards for accountability. Jennings ends her research with some policy advice for stricter regulations and oversight of the school choice process.

I would take this another step not suggested by Jennings (to her credit, as such was outside of the parameters of her research). The description above is not just descriptive of accountability regimes, but also of competition. Think of the above strategies as steroids for the educational system. If success is driven by the stats, then the stats become the singular focus of the organization. Any scheme for improving the stats becomes a defacto good. After all, the principal has a responsibility to the staff of the school and she has her own career to consider. She is also certainly and legitimately looking out for her students. After all, better stats mean more money, which translates to more or better teachers, technology, textbooks, environment, etc. With a limited pool of resources from which to draw, one could argue that the principal is justified in doing whatever can be done to ensure that her school comes out ahead in the competitive marketplace that is school choice.

However, when individual schools are on their own, in competition for scarce resources, the consequences are disastrous for those students who do not make for “good stats.” Regardless of the political rhetoric, these kids are surely left behind. The record so far with regard to accountability, competition and standards based school reform is pretty abysmal. It appears the critics were right, and some erstwhile supporters of the current regime are now admitting that they were wrong and that another way must be made to improve American education. School choice looks good on paper, but it is not reform if by reform we mean serving the needs of all students, not just those who produce good stats.

 

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†Jennings, Jennifer. 2010.
“School
Choice or School’s Choice? Managing in an Era of Accountability.” Sociology of Education 83(3): 227-245.


 


Testing Ourselves into Lower Proficiency

Our school system needs to be reformed. I believe that and have been an advocate of reform since the beginning of my career.  Unfortunately, some time ago, the claim to reform was co-opted by those pushing “higher standards” and “standardized testing” as the means to that end. And it hasn’t worked. And it can’t work. Testing is not reform, it’s just a means of measuring something that still needs to be reformed.

The latest example of the futility of testing ourselves into a better education was reported by the New York Times.  It turns out that, in an effort to meet the high standards of proficiency mandated by No Child Left Behind fifteen states have hit upon a plan–lowering their standards of proficiency. If I’m not mistaken, this is the opposite of reform.

At what point are we going to abandon this vain (though lucrative for publishing companies) attempt to test ourselves into better education.  Granted, we should not abandon assessment, or establishing standards, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that assessment and standards will lead to improvements in education.

We are sold this bill of goods by those who insist that American education is a failed system and only by setting high standards and holding students, teachers and schools accountable to these standards through testing is the answer. Well that’s great.  We’ve been doing that for eight years and what do we have to show for it? Students who are getting really good at taking tests; teachers who are really good at teaching test taking skills; and schools that are really good at administering tests.  Can we say this is educational reform? Of course not.

The fact is that the American education system is not a “failure” per say.  Many students receive an exceptional education, most even receive an adequate education. Of course, there are those who are woefully under-served. There are many inequities entrenched in education as an institution: racial/ethnic, socio-economic, gendered, regional inequities as well as inequities with regard to individuals with different learning modalities.

Our schools can address these inequities. There are much better ways to educate our children rather than trying to coerce them into learning by burdening them with high stakes tests.  The problem is methodological, so the solution must be methodological. We cannot keep doing the same  failed practices and expect that “assessing” the outcomes of these practices will lead to better results. We have to change how we structure our schools, what we do in the classroom.  All of our social constructs regarding teaching and education must come under scrutiny…scientific scrutiny.


On Baseball and Teaching


                I love baseball.  I really do. I grew up with the game as a kid, whether I was playing in my neighborhood street with a waffle bat and ball of tape, or a sandlot, or playing for the world’s worst little league team (we were 0-9. We would have been 0-10 but for one game when only 7 of our players even bothered to show up).  I used to be a Yankees fan deep in Red Sox territory, mostly because of my contrary nature I suppose.  Baseball was an important part of my youth as I tracked my favorite professional players, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Nolan Ryan; their records were memorized and fiery debates defined my friendships.  I still have stacks of baseball cards collecting dust somewhere in my pile of collected stuff.

                Lately, however, I have turned my back on professional sports, including baseball.  I don’t follow the players, I don’t watch the games, I don’t buy the merchandise.  My disillusionment of baseball began in 1996. My favorite team, the Yankees, was on target to go to the World Series, which I had not seen since the early eighties.  I was excited to see my team do so well and reveled in being a part of that experience.  Embracing a team is an emotional experience for which its victory is your own victory.  That was until the players decided to go on strike. 

                I was flabbergasted. Why would they go on strike? It turned out that they wanted more money.  Now I come from a proud union tradition.  My father was a union organizer and president. I was walking picket lines when I was six years old.  I’m a supporter of unions and I support the right of workers who want to make more money…but baseball players? Really? 

                At the time I was working in a wilderness program.  I was a supervisor working with troubled young men in the northern skirts of the Everglades.  I was on the job twenty-four hours a day.  If I was lucky I would get two days off a week.  My pay was adequate as I had few living expenses, but it was certainly not high.  My colleagues and I worked very hard with very little material remuneration to improve the lives of the kids in our care.  So when the baseball players went on strike it made me take a good, hard look at what they were striking for. It was eye opening.

                In essence, these grown men were working very hard at hitting and throwing a ball.  That was it.  Their total contribution to society was in the satisfaction derived by others that a certain group of people were especially adept at manipulating a small, leather-bound ball of string. These groups of people, these teams, became reference groups for millions throughout the country if not throughout the world. I thought, this is a pretty tenuous thing on which to derive a sense of personal satisfaction. 

                In 1996 the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was $1.1 million.  The lowest paid players, second baseman Andy Fox and outfielder Matt Luke, made $109,000 a year.  The highest paid, Ruben Sierra (pictured below), made $6.2 million a year…and he was a designated hitter, so he only played offense, which translates to about three or four times at bat, then he was done!

 

Ruben Sierra

                In contrast, the average salary for teachers in 1996 was just over $37,000.  In 2007, the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was over $5 million, a 400% increase.  Average salary for teachers in 2007 was around $51,000, which amounts to around 27%.  However, when you look at the adjusted numbers for teachers $37,000 in 1996 was the equivalent of about $49,000 in 2007. So in real terms, teacher salaries have only increased less than a 4% since 1996.  Using the same calculus, if the median salary in real dollar value increase for a player on the New York Yankees still amounts to a 232% increase!

                I can argue that income is a good indicator of how much a society values its members and the work that those members do.[1]  After all, the salary of a player on the New York Yankees could be argued to reflect the value that individuals are willing to pay to attend ballgames, watch games on TV and/or purchase merchandise. Teacher salaries represent what taxpayers or in the case of private schools, tuition payers, are willing to pay to acquire the skills in a classroom. If this is the case, then it is very obvious that those who are charged with teaching our own children and infusing them with cultural understanding as well as capital are of significantly lower value than those who hit balls with sticks!  This is a problem.

                Does this model stand up to scrutiny in the real world? I argue it does.  Say, for instance, that the community had a choice between investing in teachers or investing in baseball, using my model above one should predict that the community would choose baseball.  Fortunately for this study, albeit regrettably for the community, this experiment was played out in my home of Lee County, Florida. 

In 2008 a budget shortfall of $29 million created a crisis for the Lee County school system.  The school board scrambled to find ways to resolve this crisis (which is, as of this writing, not yet resolved).  After making significant cuts the school board was still faced with a $14.6 million hole.  Almost 250 teachers were laid off at the end of the 2008/2009 school year.  Some suggestions for finding the money included cutting teacher benefits by as much as 73%. Nowhere among the local news articles and even editorials that I’ve examined on this subject did anyone, public or in office, suggest ways of raising more money for teachers and schools. Instead, all plans rested on the need to cut services.[2]

At the same time, the county received the shocking news that the Boston Red Sox were considering leaving Fort Myers and moving to Sarasota.  Shocker! This could not be allowed to happen! Lee County Commissioners stumbled all over each other to find ways keep the Red Sox in Fort Myers.  To do so they were willing to shell out an estimated $80 million to build the team a brand new stadium. Contrast this to the $14.6 million or even the $29 million shortfalls in the school budget that required cuts in educational services.

But wait, there’s more! The Red Sox had been in Fort Myers since 1993.  They were induced to open spring training in the city when commissioners decided to build the City of Palms Park on three city blocks taken over by eminent domain.  The new park cost around $23 million, toward which the county only paid against the interest.  Consequently, fifteen years later, Lee County still owes over $26 million on a park that may well be empty after 2011.  The park was built with the understanding that it would raise the standard of living in a troubled and impoverished part of the city.  This has not happened. Now it is hoped that another team can be induced to move its spring training to the City of Palms Park.  Really? Without renovations that will cost how many million dollars? Good luck with that.

Now the argument could be made that the Red Sox bring needed revenue into the county.  That has not been established scientifically.  One study estimated that having a professional team in the community for spring training can bring in as much as $25 million a year.  How this figure is derived, however is questionable.  Academics note that local taxes and sales revenue do not substantiate this conclusion.  Indeed, there’s no real evidence the Red Sox bring any revenue to the county.  A local study revealed that only 1.3% of tourists claim to come to Lee County to see spring training games.

Regardless, local officials demonstrated that when it comes to a crisis in education, the solution involved cutting funds, benefits, programs and jobs including instructional jobs. A crisis in baseball, however, involved finding new sources of revenue to raise the money needed to keep a team in the community whose overall value does not go beyond the personal satisfaction gained by knowing that people who are very good at hitting balls with sticks are doing so close by.  Again, we have a problem.




[1] Granted, I will admit that using income as such a model may be problematic. For instance, if I were to conduct a survey of who you would rather have with you if stranded on a deserted island, I would hypothesize that a teacher would score higher than a baseball player (maybe that depends on the teacher and the baseball player).  However, income is a real issue for real people in the real world; therefore I favor this model to the hypothetical surveys that could be done.

[2] Granted, there was some very constructive discourse into examining waste in the school system.


We spend thousands on a piece of paper…uh…I mean on an education! or The Bradbury Curriculum

Ray

Ray Bradbury is one of my heroes.  He’s one of the few public individuals I would love to meet. (Unfortunately, he has his heart set on Bo Derek…can’t say as I blame him). Today, in the New York Times, I heard Mr. Bradbury say he doesn’t believe in colleges or universities.  He believes in libraries!

He summarized my feelings exactly.  As college tuition rises, and access to a higher education is either out of reach or subsidized by the taxpayer, libraries all over the country are in danger of being shut down due to eroding tax bases. Ray Bradbury explained how he “graduated from the library.” His curriculum: going to the library three days a week and reading everything. There are no stats for how many people are currently following the Bradbury curriculum, but there’s plenty of history of very important people who did so.  College was out of reach.  People like Bradbury wanted to learn.  So they did so at the public library.

Indeed, every semester I ask my students why they are sitting in my class listening to me ramble on about stuff that, really, only I think is interesting.  “To get an education?” No! To get three points added to their transcript.  Their goal is to get credentialed, not to get an education.  If they wanted an education, they would be better off following the Bradbury Curriculum.  It would certainly be cheaper.

And that’s the weakness of the Bradbury Curriculum. Try to put on your resume that you’ve read every book in your public library.  So what. We really are not interested in your “knowledge” your “drive” your “curiosity” or your “potential.” We want to know that you have the self discipline and the conformity to get through a pre-established routine in which you learn what other people think is important.  Then you have a piece of paper that clearly states that you conformed to institutional norms to such a degree that you earned the credential that you were working toward. What you know is irrelevant.

And for this, this piece of paper, you will pay as much at least $25,000!

It’s true that there are some invaluable resources in public colleges and universities.  There you have access to experts in their fields, hands on resources and practice that you cannot get in the library, and the ability to create networks within your career.  If you are lucky, as I was, you’ll encounter professors who may open different perspectives and worldviews that you might not have had access to otherwise.  But for your money, learning is not necessarily the function of a college or university.  Today an “education” is synonymous with a degree, a piece of paper that legitimizes your credentials.  And without this piece of paper, your access to life chances are limited.

After completing my graduate work I was encouraged by many of my professors to continue on into post-graduate work.  Part of me wanted to do it, but only part of me.  The other part of me was hesitant.  I remember the hoops I had to jump through, with the help of my Committee Chair, Dr. Laurel Graham, to get my masters thesis approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB).  This was a board, consisting of a handful of scholars (none of whom were sociologists, by the way), whose job it was to decide what constituted “legitimate” knowledge.  If my work conformed to their ideas of real science, then I would have no problems pursuing my academic ends; if, however, my ideas were too innovative, to different, or did not fall under the assumptions of legitimate knowledge then I was stuck.  I learned that colleges and universities do not encourage thinking and learning, they restrict it, regiment it, shape it into a prescribed, institutional definition of knowledge. I decided that I would rather pursue independent scholarship–The Bradbury Curriculum.

I have plenty of time to reflect, in in some ways regret, this decision.  Not having the piece of paper that declares that I have conformed enough to merit a doctorate degree has certainly limited my prospects for employment in higher education.  This, in turn, has limited my ability to do independent scholarship.  Tremendous social forces are at work to delegitimize independent thought.  And to gain access to legitimate knowledge institutions, one must pay–and pay more now than ever.

College Tuition

Will contemporary Bradburys be able to compete in a world that associates the possession of a piece of parchment with “education?” How can we incorporate the Bradbury Curriculum into a legitimized educational standing?

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Photo of Mr. Bradbury: New York Times Ethan Pines