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The Swift Fall of Testing – What Comes Next?

I’ve been in the education business for 31 years and I’ve seen many a fad come and go, from Teacher-proof curricula to shared decision-making to Differentiation to Cooperative Learning, Curriculum Mapping, Goals 2000 and various reading programs that focus on inventive spelling, phonics, whole language and learning vocabulary in context. Many of my colleagues didn’t believe me when I said that our present testing fetish would also shuffle off the educational stage at some point. What caught me by surprise was just how quickly that would happen.

The focus on testing and corporate-style accountability began with the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, a report that essentially regarded the American education system as having failed our students, our economy, and our values. It repudiated many of the reforms that liberals had foisted on the system in the 1960s and 70s and said that if we didn’t correct those flaws we would fall behind other countries whose schools were beginning to produce students who knew more math, science and analytical skills. Conservatives adopted the report as the clarion call for privatization, a back-to-basics curriculum that stressed factual recall, and of course, tests to measure not just students, but teachers, with the secondary goals of loosening the grip that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had on school policy and defeating Democrats who relied on union support.

And they almost succeeded. The testing movement – which reached its pinnacle last year and is now under more assault than what we are using to fight ISIS – is in rapid decline. Last year, 44 states gave the PARCC tests which measure how thoroughly students have learned the Common Core Curriculum Standards. This school year 7 states, including New Jersey, will be giving those tests. The rest will be giving a test adopted by their own Education Departments. Further, some states, most notably New York, won’t be using the tests to evaluate teachers. The retreat is notable.

Is the assault over? Not by a long shot, but it is weakening. Conservative groups are still trying to get states to funnel money to Charter Schools, which, on average, do no better than public schools. Many charters do better within certain geographic areas, but much of that has to do with state governments that are abandoning public schools that are in poor urban centers. The fight to limit collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers reached its height in 2013 and has since paused, although the damage done to teachers’ pay and benefits has been significant. And although New York is backing away from using tests to evaluate teachers, more states need to follow them for the good of education everywhere.

The bottom line is that teachers are doing a magnificent job with the dwindling resources and increased scrutiny that came with the rise of the know-nothing conservatives. Aligning teacher evaluation with student test scores only illustrated that the overwhelming majority of teachers were effective. Clearly, the know-nothing’s intent was to use the test scores to fire teachers they thought were failing our students. That hasn’t happened because their assumption was incorrect. They won’t admit it, but it’s true.

The next fight will now be on the state level as we return to local standards and local tests. In the past, most states created tests where 90% of the students scored in the proficient range. That’s just not statistically feasible. We do need national standards and we do need to measure how students are learning. The reaction to the Common Core and PARCC will not make this possible, and that’s to the country’s detriment.

Have no fear, though: If history is any guide, this reaction will only last a few years and something else will come along and replace it. Will it be better or will it be worse?

My answer? Yes.

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Education’s Dirty Little Secret

The week began with the president saying that there was too much emphasis on testing in schools. 
In the middle of the week, the New York Times published a story about Success Academy Charter Schools that, among other things, noted the following:

The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention. Ms. Moskowitz has said she believes children learn better with structure and consistency in the classroom. Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten.

Backs straight? Hands clasped? Candy as a reward for good behavior? More homework as a punishment for bad behavior? Any public school teacher who attempted any of these would be severely reprimanded. In addition, this is not the way we’re supposed to be teaching in the 21st century. What happened to cooperative activities? Differentiation? Healthy snacks? Imagination?

By the time the week was over, the entire know-nothing education reform movement was in question.  Not that teachers and others who actually work in education didn’t already know this. Because they lived with the terrible reforms every day and had little influence on whether those reforms should have been imposed in the first place. After all, the political process is slow and those right-wing money machines that were attempting not just to change the schools but also to destroy the teacher’s unions had a vested interest in drawing out the process so that the public could catch a ride on the train as it crashed in Conjunction Junction.

Not so bad, right? At least we only messed up one generation of children.

Yes, friends, education came roaring back as a national priority with the release of both the PARCC and the NAEP exams this week. In a nutshell, students did not perform very well on the tests. The reasons? Well, there’s the rub. According to those who comment on such things, they range from the fact that more students are living in poverty to the truth that the Common Core Standards, which are the basis for the PARCC exams, have not been around long enough for students to have internalized them. As for the NAEP, the answer is even muddier, but the consensus seems to be that last year’s exam asked questions about curriculum that students have not been taught.

Really? If I gave tests on information I hadn’t taught my students, I could be fired. That hasn’t stopped the know-nothings from using tests to evaluate teacher performance and use the information to retain or let teachers go. This year we’re using flawed tests created by people who are not in classrooms based on standards that have not been sufficiently implemented.

But there’s a bigger problem. The NAEP has generally shown that students do not perform well in math and reading. If you want evidence, take a look at this report by the NAEP on the 2009 test administration. Scroll down to page 9, then look at pages 10 through 14. I’ll wait.

Interesting, yes? It shows that students in almost every state, save Massachusetts, do not perform proficiently on the test. Remember; the NAEP is called “The Nation’s Report Card” because it is given in every state, so it gives us an unsparing look at the differences in each state’s curriculum strength and delivery.

Want more stark proof? I knew that you did. Take a look at the 2013 NAEP Report that graphically shows the remarkable differences between student performance on the NAEP with their performance on their state’s end-of-year evaluation. Scroll yourself down to pages 3 and 4. Those graphs tell you the difference between NAEP scores and state tests scores. In every state but two–NY and MA–there was a gap between how students performed on state tests versus the NAEP.  Isn’t it scary enough to be posted on Halloween? Many states were clearly giving easy tests and skewing the results.

And, no, these numbers are not confined to 2009 and 2013. They are similar in every year the NAEP has been given.You could look it up. And you should, because this has been education’s dirty little secret for too long.

The lesson here? There are many. One is that both the NAEP and the PARCC are difficult tests that hold students accountable to standards that require much more reinforcement over time. The PARCC has not been in existence long enough for us to adequately measure its accuracy. The NAEP has been showing us for years that students across the country are not getting a rigorous enough training in content and skills that a truly educated person should have.

More important is that for years, at least since the No Child Left Behind Act began mandating tests in the early 2000s, most states have been giving easy tests based on easy curricula and calling themselves satisfied with their education systems. This is the main reason why we need the Common Core Standards. They will ensure that students throughout the country be held to the same standards no matter where they live. The political opposition to the Core Curriculum has been centered on federal government involvement in what should be a state concern. The state test scores invalidate that argument. Many of the states have been committing educational fraud. National standards will go a long way towards fixing that.

The president was correct in saying that we are focusing too much on testing, but testing is not going away and it shouldn’t. What we need are tests that measure what students know based on verifiable standards and that ask students to perform evaluative tasks that stretch their brains and their imaginations. We haven’t achieved either of those yet. That will require that classroom educators be intimately involved in the evaluative process. It will happen, but we need the know-nothings to step aside and let the teachers take over this process.

Let’s not waste another generation.

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Great Teachers Make Great Schools

happy teacher and students standing in classroom holding books

Another school year. It’s my 32nd as a teacher and I can still say that I love what I’m doing and believe that I am contributing to the betterment of society. I just wish that at some point before I go to the Great Faculty Room in the Sky, you know, the one where the microwave works, the carpet doesn’t smell and the walls aren’t made of cinder block, I could feel that society’s attitudes about my work would improve and that the United States would value education as much as it does entertainment, sports and the stock market.

The public’s attitudes on education are on display in this year’s new PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools, and the results are encouraging. Most Americans do not think that standardized tests should be used to evaluate teachers and indeed say that there are too many of these high-stakes tests being administered to children. Most people surveyed also don’t like the Common Core Education Standards, both because they are tied to the tests and because most people don’t think that comparing American students’ scores with other countries is a worthy endeavor.  But more important is the finding that most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say that it’s important that the public schools are adequately funded. 

Which brings us to how important teachers are to the success of the system. You would think that this would be a given and, for the most part, parents in local communities support efforts to bring in excellent teachers and to keep them in their schools. When schools are not fully funded, though, the system begins to break down. In most parts of the American economy, consumers understand that you get what you pay for and that sometimes you need to economize and think short term because of family limitations, emergencies, or good old American low wages.

In education, though, the argument get mangled a bit. Much of the (incorrect) literature suggests that more money doesn’t necessarily translate into better schools. Politicians and a segment of the public like to lean on the idea that teachers don’t go into teaching for the money, using that argument for keeping pay low relative to teachers’ experience and education. They also say that they want the best and brightest to go into teaching,

The insulting thing about this argument is the assumption that the best and brightest are not in teaching to begin with and that we need to attract them to the field. That’s wrong. Most of America’s teachers are smart, engaging, sharp, inquisitive, analytical and effective at what they do. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job to do well and the expectation is that you will do well with each and every one of that year’s students. You want the best and brightest? You’re getting them. It’s now time to make sure that they get the resources and financial recognition they’ve earned. Other countries do it; it’s time we did it too.

What would help is untying education money from property taxes and finding a more secure, and less intrusive, funding source. My idea is for the Congress to impose a 1% tax on all corporate earnings and a 1% income tax increase on the top earners and earmark it specifically for education. After all, who benefits the most economically from America’s great schools? American businesses, that’s who, so it makes sense for the corporate sector to pay more for their lifeblood. This would take the pressure off of middle and working class Americans who struggle with high property taxes and a system of funding that tilts towards the wealthy communities that can support higher valuations.

As we know, poverty is the main cause of educational inequality in this country. If we don’t address it, then we will never solve the problems associated with fewer educational opportunities, fewer students going on to higher education and the wage gap that accompanies it.

What we also really need is for the best and brightest to go into politics and to be part of the solution, not the problem. Most of the Republican candidates favor vouchers, which the Gallup poll shows is not enthusiastically shared by the general public. Governors Christie and Walker are proudly running on their efforts to minimize teacher input regarding educational reforms and are blaming teachers for the economic problems in their states. Neither of them have said anything remotely positive about teaching and, at least in New Jersey, morale among the teachers is abysmally low.

Not that the Obama administration is shying away from standardized tests and No Child Left Behind. Although a major Democratic constituency favors lessening the impact of tests, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with the president’s support, is still doggedly applying the law to the public schools. And supporting Charter Schools.

So what to do? Involve the teachers. Use their expertise. Include them in decision making at the local, state and national levels. Leverage their knowledge. It seems so simple, but for the better part of 20 years, teachers have been methodically excluded from the major educational decisions of the day. This simply doesn’t happen in other industries. Exclude doctors from health care decisions? Attorneys from legal reviews? Never. But somehow the not best and less bright politicians have decided that they know best when it comes to the schools and that teachers are shills for the National Education Association and are not to be trusted. It’s a terrible situation and is threatening to get worse.

Meanwhile, the nation’s teachers will continue to do their level best to educate all children across the country.

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Education Roars Back

education 2016

It’s August and the Back to School sales are ramping up in earnest, at least here in the nor’east. The sales started in July for the more southerly US climes, but that’s because they’re already back in the classrooms. In any event, it’s time once again to be thinking about education, and the issue is now near the top in this presidential election.

One of the more popular articles making its way around electronica is this one  that essentially summarizes the findings of John Hattie, an educational researcher who’s written a slew of books on best practices. He suggests that achievement standards, focusing on smaller class sizes, and pouring more money into the educational system are not the answers and have little effect on student performance. He also questions school choice as a viable public policy.  Of course, politicians on the right and left will pick and choose what they want from his message, with Democrats wanting more money and Republicans wanting more accountability, as if the two were completely opposite.

Educational access, attainment and benefits have been tied to the relative wealth of families and communities for the better part of United States’ history, so it should be no surprise to anyone that we are presently confronted with a system that’s as fractured as our income gap. Schools in wealthy communities tend to perform better than those in less wealthy and poor communities and the willingness of politicians to spend money where it should be spent (key concept) lends itself to schools where teachers can teach and students have every opportunity to learn.

Most of the Republican candidates for president support the free-market, pro-corporate model for schools, and the results have been disappointing at best to demoralizing at worst. Governors Scott Walker (falling in the polls) and Chris Christie (can you fall below zero in you polls?), have done more to demonize public school teachers than the other candidates and promise to do the same to the rest of the country if they are elected. Jeb Bush supports the Common Core standards, which really isn’t going to endear him to any particularly large constituency, but he’s also against public unions. The other candidates want local and state standards, which have not worked in the past and will not help student performance in the future.

The Democrats want more money for universal pre-school and aid to schools in poor and depressed areas of the country. Hillary Clinton has also recently unveiled a higher education policy that focuses on student debt.  She would probably never get $350 billion over ten years from a Republican Congress, but her plan would put pressure on the right to relieve millions of students from crushing loans that are sapping their economic prospects. The Republican candidates have joined her in trying to address the debt issue, but right now the best we can say about them is that they’re market-oriented, including Marco Rubio’s plan to have wealthy investors essentially buy an interest in your future earnings in return for their investment in your education. I wonder if he’s also going to provide students with a free saddle so that your investor can sit on your back.

Given the years of blame and economic hardship that teachers have had to endure, it’s no wonder that there’s a shortage. And given the attitude that many national and state leaders have about teachers, it’s no wonder that qualified students are looking at other fields of endeavor.  The truth is that we pay a great deal of lip service to wanting a highly qualified, well-trained teaching staff at every school, but the best and brightest are not stupid; they see what’s going on in education and are increasingly turned off to it. And since we don’t have the best and brightest going into government, the solutions will be doubly difficult to come by.

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CCRAP! More Testing Ahead


If you’re a regular American, you know, like the kind of person Hillary Clinton is trying to appeal to, you probably think that the PARCC tests are over and that the education system has moved on.

Not so.

This week marks the return of the standardized tests that no one likes, and are based on the Common Core standards that are unpopular across the political spectrum. And since the federal government has given schools until early May to give the tests, schools across the country will be testing for the next four weeks. Never mind that there are precious few weeks of instruction left in the academic year, especially in the South, or that Advanced Placement tests are administered during the first two weeks of May. PARCC tests must be given and school districts must stop everything in order to meet the testing mandate.

The effects on schools have been profound. Students have missed, and will miss more academic classes, extra-help sessions, Advanced Placement test reviews, band practices and basic skills instruction. In most schools, the tests are taken in the library, which makes that resource unavailable for part or all of the school day. In other schools, the entire academic day stops for the tests and some districts have prohibited homework for the duration of the administration. This is not efficient education.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire where the GOP had its first substantive discussions about presidential policy, Ted Cruz is promising to obliterate the Common Core, Chris Christie is blaming his predecessor for the standards, Bobby Jindal is running away from the standards despite  promoting them two years ago, and Jeb Bush, who supports the Common Core, is not mentioning that fact because the GOP base hates them. Hillary hasn’t said much, but she can bide her time and let the Republicans fight amongst themselves.

My sense is that the Common Core standards will survive because most educational publishers and programs, such as the AP, have modified their curricula to mirror the standards. In and of themselves, the standards are beneficial and having national benchmarks will allow us to compare our students across the United States and with students from other countries. State standards might reflect local priorities, but we live in a global world and economy. Students need to be proficient in specific content and academic skills and, quite honestly, not all states are proficient at delivering them.

In addition, not all states and localities can afford to implement programs that students need. Federal involvement in education is a point of contention in many areas, but without equality of resources we can’t have equality of outcomes. And that’s what we desperately need.

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Domestic Policies #Education #New Jersey

Pearson Jumps the Shark on PARCC


We are truly in deep PARCC mode now. Perhaps the April/May test administration should include readings from the Pentagon Papers.

Pearson Education, the company that produces the PARCC tests, and is reportedly being paid over $22 million dollars in New Jersey alone, is monitoring social media to check for security breaches and other untoward activity.  The latest example is in the Watchung Hills Regional school district, where evidently a student tweeted a test question and Pearson was able to flag it. The company then contacted the New Jersey Department of Education, which then contacted the school district. A fuller discussion is here. I can certainly understand test security because every teacher in New Jersey is warned annually that any data breach can result in the loss of their teaching license.

In the new testing world, though, the students may control the balance of power. Think about it: The new tests are being given exclusively on computers to an audience that, shall we say, is less than enthusiastic about sitting for hours to complete them. Students also have access to the Internet on their own devices. Mix in the politics of test refusal and the widely acknowledged fact that these tests count for zilch to the people who are taking them, and you have a messy brew that was just waiting to foam over. And think again if you think this is only happening in New Jersey.

Testing has always been a part of education and the PARCC is just another in a long line that stretches back decades. What’s upset many more people about these particular tests is that they are tied to the Common Core Curriculum Standards, which are unpopular on both the right and the left, and which most school districts just implemented formally this past September. That means that students in grades 3-11 have only had six months with which to work with some new, sophisticated concepts. How are these tests going to do anything except tell us that we have more work to do? What’s worse, many parents and teachers with college educations and advanced degrees have taken the practice tests and have been flummoxed by what PARCC says are the correct answers.

The tests are also unpopular because they are being administered over a couple of weeks in two separate time frames; one now and one during late April or early May. This is taking an extraordinary amount of time away from classroom teaching and learning that is, presumably, the point of having children go to school and hiring teachers to instruct and mentor them. As someone who teaches Advanced Placement courses, I can tell you that this schedule has put enormous pressure on me to find time to properly prepare students for the early May AP tests while they are also taking the PARCC.

Then there is Pearson Education (remember Pearson Education? This is a column on Pearson Education). They will be paid about $22 million dollars for the tests in NJ, which is below the original estimate, but it’s still a great deal of money. Now the company is trolling through social media, monitoring student behavior and expecting that nobody will ever talk about the tests in a world where we are all connected.

This will not help schools and states that are trying to limit the number of students who are refusing to take the tests, and could possibly lead to more students not taking them in April/May. In the high school where I teach, approximately 35% of eligible students are not taking the tests. When I was proctoring the tests last week I did notice that a number of students were logging on to the test program on their computers, cycling through the pages in about 30 seconds, then taking out a book to read. Civil disobedience is alive and well.

Every social movement has its tipping point. This could be the one for Pearson and PARCC.

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On Education: Can’t See the Forest for the Bushes

US President George W. Bush leaves afterAFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB

Remember the education president? That would be George H.W. Bush, who promised that he would focus on improving schools so that the United States would be number one in educating its children for the new millennium. His Goals 2000: Educate America Act had terrific political nuggets such as:

All children in America will start school ready to learn. 

The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.

United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning. 

Of course, these goals were not met because they aren’t realistic. Public institutions that suffer from inadequate funding and political interference can’t guarantee that all students or every adult will do anything except be disappointed that as a nation, we couldn’t do better.

The along came his son, George W. Bush, who promised that the No Child Left Behind Act would do for America what its smaller implementation had done to Texas in the 1990s. This meant that all students would pass state tests by 2014 and schools that didn’t perform, either overall or because any subset of racial, ethnic or gender categories did not score well enough on said tests, would be closed. Bush even made Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige the Secretary of Education.

That’s when the real story of how the Texas Education Miracle became one more Bush myth. It turns out that Paige and Bush cooked the graduation rate books, inflating the number of students who met school standards and essentially erased the records of students who dropped out or had discipline problems.

The NCLB was based on faulty numbers, but that didn’t stop it from infecting every aspect of school reform for the next decade. Testing became rampant and disruptive. Private testing companies like Pearson Education got very wealthy creating tests and changing the curriculum. President Obama’s embrace of this model was disturbing, and has led us to where we are today, wasting huge chunks of time modifying what students need to know and testing them not once (March), but twice (late April or early May).

Now word comes that the third Bush who wants to be president, former Florida Governor Jeb, promoted a charter school in Miami that is now closed, but he’s running as if the school is a shining successful example of his education agenda. The basic problem seemed to be that as a private citizen, Bush was able to raise money and be the face of the school, but as governor, he could not have his name on the school’s letterhead nor could he raise funds privately. Other issues also intervened, namely that Bush had to balance the state budget and unfortunately there wasn’t enough to pay for public schools and charters. Simply, the toy lost its luster.

But at least he has a policy that applies to the classroom. Compare that to Governor Chris Christie’s approach to education. He’s focused solely on economics and making sure that teachers, and indeed all public unions, pay more and more for their benefits while he skirts his own law and refuses to make full payments to the pension system.

In fact, you would think that Christie and the New Jersey Education Association made a major agreement on teacher benefits, according to a speech Christie made in Florida last week. There is no agreement, and there won’t be one on his terms. But I guess that when you’re running for president, you can say anything you want, and in the end, most people won’t know or care to know the difference.

That’s what happened with the two previous Bushes. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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