Wednesday, November 27, 2013

To fail or not to fail, that is the question

A particularly disturbing meme making the rounds in social media boldly states:  "In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer.  This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life."

When something is repeated widely, it can take on a truth of its own.  People accept it without question because of the ubiquitous nature of the quote without thinking through the underlying meaning.  I maintain that giving students the time and support they need to actually LEARN something is far more helpful than failing them the first time and moving on.  Let me explain.

In the real world, I have multiple chances to pass the bar exam, take a drivers' license test, master proficiency on the Praxis exam.  I have used this metaphor before, but before a pilot is entrusted with landing a plane on his own, he must be given repeated attempts to demonstrate that he has acquired the skill.  Some will take fewer attempts, but ALL must learn to land the plane safely.  I don't show the pilot how to land one time and give him a test.  No, I provide much practice and multiple attempts to reach proficiency.  On the job, if I am being trained to do a new task, my employer makes sure that I get the training I need to do the task correctly. It may take some of us longer to learn, but certainly multiple attempts to grasp the necessary knowledge are afforded so that all employees, in the end, can do the expected task.  Even after an employee is trained, if a job is botched, it will likely be sent back to be redone so that the final result is acceptable.  It is the rule, rather than the exception in life that we have more than one chance to master skills that we are learning.

Why do we accept this notion that all children must achieve the same standard at the same time?  Historically, grades were used to sort and rank students.  Rather than serving as communication about student achievement relative to clear learning standards, grades were intended to put children into tracks.  These students would go to college, these would enter a trade, and these would be relegated to working on the farm or in an entry-level position in industry.  This sort and rank strategy worked in an industrial society where children could make productive livings on farms or in factories with little formal training.  College was not intended to be for all students.  Education was set up to be like the assembly line - all children moved along at the same pace and were sorted at the end of the line by grades, the quality control of the system.  

While this process functioned as intended in an industrialized economy,  it is disastrous in the twenty-first century.  Today, we know that all children can and do learn.  We understand that high expectations are possible.  Teachers strive to challenge each student at his or her own level, so that all children move forward toward clear learning targets.  It is vitally important that all children acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful adults.  This means that ALL children should be given the opportunity to learn.  Assembly-line education is obsolete.  Grades should inform us of student achievement relative to learning goals.  While the goals may be the same for all children in a classroom, the time it takes each child to reach the goal is the variable.  

In the past, the TIME was the constant and the learning outcome was the variable.  All children didn't learn the same high standards.  Today, TIME is the variable and the learning outcome is the constant.  Quite simply, it takes some of us longer to learn than it does others, but that doesn't mean we all can't learn.  Students who fail a summative assessment initially are given extra time and support to reach the same level of mastery as students who grasp the material the first time presented.  Failing grades are not a mark of rigor.  They are a sign that someone has given up.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sample Superintendent Letter for Ohio

Here is a letter Ohio superintendents concerned about common core implementation and PARRC assessments can use as a template or model to send to Ohio legislators as they contemplate HB 237.

Dear (state legislator)

We are a group of superintendents from districts in Ohio who would like to express our concern over recent developments and requirements in K-12 education in our state.  You are examining a bill to halt implementation of the common core standards, as well as the PARCC assessments that are due next school year.  We believe that it is important for you to hear our voices and concerns as you debate this legislation.

There is much good in the common core standards, adopted in Ohio as the New Learning Standards in English/Language Arts and Math.  Our teachers are using Close Reading strategies and taking students more deeply into complex text.  We are using more focused math standards and solving rich problems.  We are purchasing materials to help with the instructional shifts required. However, we also have grave concerns about the common core standards and the assessments that accompany them.

First of all, child development specialists, early childhood experts, and teachers of young children are concerned about the cognitive level and developmental readiness required in the new standards.  The standards were developed by selecting the SAT score that would be required to achieve a B in a 4-year college program, and then back-mapping the skills and knowledge to preschool.  This is unrealistic and certainly not research-based.  If we are to implement these standards, early childhood experts MUST be involved in developing the benchmarks for young children.  

We are also concerned that these standards are totally untried.  They may lead to children being more prepared for college and career, and they may not.  They may also lead to higher dropout rates, frustration, and discouragement; we simply don’t know.  With the extreme accountability measures in place for teachers and schools, undue emphasis is placed on English and Math standards that may or may not work.  Not only that, but with budget cuts and such high stakes on standardized tests, subjects that are untested are falling by the wayside.    

Another question concerns the purpose of the new standards.  We have heard that they are intended to prepare students for college and career, however research suggests that there is no correlation between student achievement and rigor of standards. We posit that the standards were developed for the purpose of creating a national market for companies that sell educational tests, textbooks, and test-prep materials. Bill Gates, at the 2009 National Conference of State Legislators, stated, “ When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching.”  Our children deserve better.

Next Generation Assessments will be piloted this spring and enforced upon our schools next year, carrying high stakes with them, as well, even though there is grave concern that we do not have the number of computers nor sufficient band width to accommodate so many students taking online assessments at once. Again, the tests are untried, hurriedly prepared, and are designed to fail 70% of the students taking it. There is no reliability or validity to these assessments.  Using them to notify 9-year old children that they are not on track for college and career is ludicrous, and to use them to evaluate teachers is equally as absurd.  In addition, our children will be spending literally days of instructional time in lengthy assessments.  Children in grades 4-8 will spend 9.5 hours in standardized testing for the ELA and math assessments, and those who are most needy and require extended time, even longer.  Science and social studies assessments for Ohio are expected to mirror the format of PARCC assessments, which is an additional four hours, minimum. In addition, children will be required to take an assessment in “Speaking and Listening,” with no projected time specified yet.  When children are in the computer labs or classrooms for extended testing time, the operation of the entire school is disrupted.  The PARCC assessments alone take 40 days of assessment (20 for performance assessments and 20 for end of year assessments) to rotate all children through the limited computers we have.  If even half that number of days is required for science, social studies, and speaking and listening, our schools will be disrupted for 60 days of the school year.  This is a conservative estimate.

With these concerns in mind, we urge you to support HB 237 to halt the implementation of the common core and PARCC assessments.  Review the standards with child developmental readiness in mind.  Pause high-stakes testing until we can transition properly to new standards that are good for all of Ohio’s students.

On Coddling Kids and Common Core

I don't know of any parent who would give a 6-month old child a sharp object.  Nor would anyone allow a 3-year-old to cross the street alone.  I also don't expect my bright 5-year-old to write a 500-word essay.  I doubt that anyone would consider these precautions as "coddling" children.  A recent op ed by Frank Bruni in the New York Times  poses the question, "Are Kids Too Coddled?"  By implication, those of us who are leery of the common core state [sic] standards are trying to preserve student self-esteem (God forbid!) at the expense of expecting them to buckle down and master these rigorous expectations.  School, after all, shouldn't be too full of mirth, now, should it?  

gty child tantrum ll 120703 wblog How Not To Spoil Your Children: Parenting Experts and Parents Weigh in

Like Arne Duncan, Bruni is supporting the common core by attacking its opponents, implying that those against implementation of the common core must be coddling children.  " What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats."  So those of us with legitimate criticisms are labeled as right wing alarmists or government-loving liberals.  How convenient.  Instead of offering a logical, well-reasoned defense of the common core, we have ad hominem attacks against opponents or platitudes and sound bites assuring us that the common core is necessary for our children to "compete on the world stage."

As an educator of over 35 years, I have some concerns over the common core and some additional concerns over this notion that we are "coddling" children if we don't walk lockstep in line behind Arne Duncan and his common core corporate buddies.  

First of all, the idea of the common core feels a little too market-driven to me.  Do we REALLY want to help children succeed, or do we want to provide maximum profit to companies producing tests, textbooks, and test prep materials?  Bill Gates, at the 2009 National  Conference of State Legislators said that 

"When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. " 

 In fact, the common core standards for English/Language Arts speak of writing to text, citing evidence from text, answering text-dependent questions repeatedly. Why this emphasis on text? Could it be that text-dependent questions and writing can be scored more easily by machines? The architect of the common core, David Coleman, is the president of the College Board which designs the SAT and AP tests. Coincidence?  The standards were intended from their very beginning to be assessed with standardized tests.

Who really wrote the common core, anyway? I'm being told that the standards were developed by teachers, but the fact is that only one teacher was on one of the committees charged with actually writing the standards. Five of the 29 members of the validation committee refused to sign off, but their objections were never made public. A larger concern is how the standards were developed and expectations established. The committee started with the achievement required to get a 1630 on the SAT, and then backmapped to preschool. There is no evidence anywhere that this is a good idea or workable in any way. Children are not little shrunken down adults. Not one child development expert or early childhood professional was consulted in developing these standards. In fact, several organizations concerned with early childhood development have come out in opposition to the standards.

Mr. Bruni implies that we are coddling our kids by caring about their self esteem.  Those who work with children, however, know that school should be a place where learning is fun, where students develop confidence in their abilities, and where tasks are developmentally appropriate.  Why?  Because a) that's what responsible adults do and b) that's how children learn best.  Anything else is educational malpractice.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Welcome to SLO World

I guess I have to come to the conclusion that I am not a blogger.  I had good intentions and high hopes when I first started this blog, but, although the spirit was willing, the flesh
was weak.  Along with that, I have entered an alternate reality that I call "SLO world."

In Ohio, we have been frantically trying to implement this process known as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs).  Ironically, the process is not really about students or learning or even objectives.  It's about measuring teachers because, apparently, we need to quantify teachers by some number that is supposed to magically inform us on whether the teacher is Most Effective or, God forbid, Least Effective.  The way we do this is to have the teacher select or create an assessment with other "content experts," decide what score our students will attain on the assessment at the end of the year (note:  we have no idea), and then give the test in April to see the percentage of students who hit our arbitrary target.  I'm not kidding.  That's how we tell if a teacher is "most effective" in Ohio.  This randomly chosen target becomes 50% of a teacher's evaluation and so the stakes are pretty high to guess correctly.

All along the path for this process, we have become accustomed to receiving the training to do the work well after the work is expected to be done.  Last year, all teachers were advised to write at least one SLO, but the training to even have an idea what an SLO was didn't start until January (train the trainer) with training for general staff running in February through May.  Kind of hard to write an SLO when you aren't told what one is until it's due.  For another example, common assessments had to be administered early this fall so that we could develop the targets and have them approved by November.  And yet the training for how to build good assessments is just now rolling out.  All SLOs should have been completed by now because the date they are all supposed to be written and approved is November 30 and yet the training for how to actually write an SLO for special education teachers is next month.

The internet has several satirical sites that used to be funny.  Remember Mad Magazine back in the day?  Today on the internet, we have the Onion, Call the Cops, and the Duffle Blog - sites that humorously lampoon real news events with satirical pieces.  The trouble today is that one legitimately can't tell the difference between satire and reality. Welcome to "SLO world."