Faith, Hope, and Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

                                                                                                         1 Corinthians 13:13

I read a fascinating article yesterday about how a mother’s love causes her child’s brain to grow. It was based upon research showing that maternal nurturing and love leads to growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and our ability to handle stress. Although it seems like common sense that a nurturing, loving home is conducive to a child’s ability to learn, the idea that being loved can physically change a child’s brain is amazing.

As I pondered this over the course of the day, a passage I heard recently in church popped into my mind- “Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” I spend a lot of time thinking about childhood and education, and what we can do to provide better learning opportunities for all children. What if, at the very heart of it all, what we must do is offer every child faith, hope, and most of all, love?

Children need to be able to have faith in their parents, their teachers, and the other adults who impact their lives. They need to be able to trust them to help and not harm, to be truthful and reliable. They need their caregivers, whether parents or teachers, to create a sense of security for them that allows them to stretch their wings and go out on a limb; to take risks and know that if they fall, the adult will be there to help them get back up, not to ridicule or condemn. Children also need to know that the adults in their lives have faith in them, and in their ability to learn and make choices.

Children need to have hope in their lives in order to grow and learn to their fullest potential. Hope comes through glimpses of the future that inspire us- beautiful things, exciting places, people we would like to be like someday. Parents and teachers can provide exposure to these things and help children develop dreams for their lives. With hope also comes the knowledge that we don’t give up. Children need to feel secure in knowing that the adults in their lives won’t give up on them and that they should never give up on themselves.

And then there is love. Physically, emotionally, socially- every part of every human being needs love to thrive. For children, they especially need love from those entrusted with their care. Love takes many forms- affection, consolation, attention, communication, play- but all contribute to a child’s sense of security and confidence. The other important aspect of loving a child is that in doing so we teach them how to love and treat others. We learn to love, and like pretty much everything, we can become better at it with practice. How can a child learn about love if they aren’t shown love themselves?

You don’t hear much about faith, hope, and love in debates over education policy. These debates tend to focus mostly on academic skills and how we should have “higher standards” and how we will test these skills, et cetera. Or we talk about construction funds, virtual schools, assigning schools letter grades, and if there is enough time in the day for recess. Perhaps we need to talk about faith, hope, and love though. Perhaps we must. Perhaps these three things provide the foundation upon which all other learning is built. Perhaps they don’t just “happen” on their own. Perhaps they are every child’s birthright, to grow up secure in faith, full of hope, and surrounded by love. As parents, teachers, policymakers, and citizens, we are responsible for seeing that they do.

Should Education Be Standardized or Individualized?

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. Plutarch

I like to listen to WFSU while I drive, and there is one sponsor advertisement that always gives me pause. It is for Maclay School, a local private PreK-12 school, and it concludes with the tagline, “Maclay- where education is individualized, not standardized.”

Isn’t this at the heart of what parents desire for their children’s education? We send them off to school with a wish: see my child for who they are. Let them know they are valued for who they are, as they are; neither a problem to be fixed, nor an empty vessel to be filled.

This is true for adults as well. On the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Winfrey reflected, ““I’ve talked to 30,000 people on this show and they all wanted validation. Everybody wants to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything?”

This tagline, promoting individualization over standardization, is central to the marketing message of a highly regarded school that parents pay thousands of dollars a year for their children to attend. Yet it is completely contrary to our state’s current approach to public education, where standardization and accountability are vaunted above all, regardless of common sense and public outrage.

This is one of the fundamental hypocrisies of the education reform movement that has dominated Florida’s, and most of the nation’s, educational policymaking for the past fifteen years. It preaches the values of personalization and individualized learning, especially if it takes place on a computer or tablet, but it practices standardization and accountability for students and schools that don’t meet the dictated cut scores and levels for the standards assigned to each grade.

Our supposed epidemic of failure, which is also ironic given the touted success of the “Florida Formula” for student achievement, is in a sense a manufactured crisis because if we truly met each student where they are, saw them and valued them for who they are, and then shaped their learning around this, there would really be no need to label children and schools as failures. Teachers across this state are trying their best to do this with their students every day, despite the obstacles and barriers thrown up by Florida legislators and the Department of Education.

So whom does the current system serve? The education “reformers” like to talk about how their policies serve the children instead of the adults (ie. teachers) in the system. Is our current system actually structured to serve children and their families? Or does it instead merely serve different categories of adults: the privatization profiteers, the for-profit charter school industry, and the politicians that they support?

Instead of an education for the people and by the people, it’s become an education imposed on the people by a micromanaging government. When we look back on this phase in American education, I fully expect that many of its policies will be commonly viewed as the counterproductive and draconian attempts of a data-obsessive bureaucracy to assert control over what is essentially an endeavor based upon community and relationships- the education of our children.

We are seeing the tide start to turn in the opposite direction, with Florida’s district superintendents, teachers, and parents calling for changes to the state’s testing and accountability laws. Citizens want control over their schools to be returned to their communities and families. Florida legislators- heed their call.

What's the Score? Holding Florida's Education Accountability System Accountable

Introduction

Last week was significant for education policy in Florida. While the Florida Department of Education held three public hearings around the state regarding how to score the new Florida Standards Assessment (FSA), the Senate and House Education Committees also met, to discuss the FSA validity study and its implications for Florida’s school accountability policies.

FSA Cut Scores

Soon, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart will make cut score recommendations to the State Board of Education, which will then have the final say on the scores. Two panels that were convened, one comprised of teachers and one of education and community leaders (the reactor panel), made their recommendations, which would lead to tougher scoring than on the previous state tests. State Board members have already voiced their desire to have even higher cut scores, echoing the position of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the education foundations established by former Governor Jeb Bush.

FSA vs. NAEP

The Foundations and Board members frequently reference the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, and the need for Florida’s state test cut scores to lead to comparable achievement rates with Florida’s NAEP achievement levels. This comparison is problematic though, given that the NAEP is not aligned with our state’s standards and uses a different system of achievement levels. It is also only given to a sample of students in the state, about 2500 to 3000 from about 100 schools, and participants each take only a portion of the full assessment. Basically, comparing FSA scores to NAEP scores is comparing apples and oranges: different purposes, different standards, and different methods of testing. More information on this can be found at https://www.nagb.org/toolbar/faqs.html.

An Objective Measure?

Some legislators, State Board members, and advocacy groups have emphasized the importance of the FSA scores as the only objective indicator we have about student academic performance in Florida. While it is an indicator, to call it objective is fallacious. Which standards are appropriate for which grade levels is a subjective decision, and one that ultimately varies by the child. Whether or not the test scores are a valid indicator of a student’s actual knowledge is also subjective, encompassing whether the student is able to “show what they know” on the tests under ideal circumstances, and then also knowing the many problems with the state test administration this year.

Finally, the process of setting cut scores is subjective. It is disturbing how much of the conversation around what the cut scores should be in Florida is centered on what percentage of students would pass under different scores. The panel of teachers was specifically instructed to focus on test item content and what student achievement would look like on each item when making their cut score recommendations. The reactor panel then reviewed the teacher panel’s recommendations and made their own recommendations based on the impact of the scores, meaning what percentage of students will fall into each level. As we await Commissioner Stewart and the State Board’s final decision on scores, we don’t know explicitly what criteria they are considering, but the fact that this is a subjective, political process is indisputable. These cut scores have a very real impact on the lives of students, teachers, families, and school communities. For legislators, State Board members, and advocacy groups to claim the FSA test scores are an objective measure and comparable to NAEP scores is intellectually dishonest. More information on the state’s cut score setting process is available at http://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/5663/urlt/FSAAchievementLevelCutScores.pdf

Given their actions over the past several years, Commissioner Stewart and the State Board of Education’s ability to set reliable and valid cut scores is suspect. Unfortunately, this is one of the least of our problems with Florida’s testing and accountability regime, because even if the cut scores were fair, the rest of the system is not.

In Committee

Following the Senate Education Committee meeting last Thursday, September 17, where several Senators showed leadership by critically engaging with the problems our current education policies have created, Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, indicated that his concerns over the FSA validity study had been assuaged and he is moving on to other issues. Many legislators, educators, and parents disagree, and as the Pre-K-12 Education Committee Chairman, he needs to acknowledge their concerns.

During the love-fest that was the House Education Committee meeting, critical inquiry was in short supply, but at least the members took the time to all sign a thank you note to Commissioner Stewart, presumably for putting up with the Senators the day before. Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole shared how she always promotes school choice to parents, but her enthusiasm for parental involvement does not extend to parents trying to improve their children’s current schools. Answering a question about parents who disapprove of the state’s testing and accountability system and would like to have their children opt out of taking the FSA, O’Toole said, “You’re not allowed to do that and keep your child in public school. So if you want your child to learn another way or do something different, you always have the option to take’em.” Of course! Every family has the option to homeschool or pay for private school, right? The hubris in these comments is mind-boggling. O’Toole is effectively saying that the children of taxpaying families in Florida will be denied the “efficient and high quality” education they are entitled to under Florida Statute because their parents decline having them participate in a flawed state testing system. So much for parental rights. I would also suggest that O’Toole and the other committee members read the response to Question 11, in this document from Seminole County Public Schools, which lays out a common sense approach to dealing with students who opt not to take the tests. I wonder what Rep. O’Toole would recommend doing differently? Arresting parents? Expelling students?

Florida’s Condescending Legislature

The problem with bad policies is that when you put them all together, they become even worse. The “move along” mentality we’ve seen from Commissioner Stewart and Chairman Legg has grown old. Two years ago it was the constantly manipulated school grading formula and the abrupt resignation of the Education Commissioner at the time, Tony Bennett, over a prior school grading scandal in Indiana. One year ago it was the renaming of the Common Core standards as the Florida Standards after making a few changes, mostly involving calculus and cursive. It’s a good thing the standards didn’t change too much though- that’s why we were able to buy test questions off Utah, whose standards are also based on the Common Core. Now it is the rushed implementation of both the standards and the new tests, and the insistence on still attaching high stakes to them. None of the problems of the past have been solved. They’re still here, and growing.

Besides being told to move along and not worry, the other things citizens are getting tired of hearing is how the reason they disagree with policies is because they don't understand them. This is the case with the Value-Added Models (VAM) that Florida is implementing to measure teachers' contributions to student learning. This is the formula for calculating VAM: 

I’d love to hear a legislator or State Board member explain this model in layman’s terms. I’ve earned A’s in doctoral level statistics classes that focused on education data, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Yet despite organizations such as the American Statistical Association cautioning against using VAM scores for high stakes purposes, the score will count for a third of a teacher’s evaluation in Florida. Evaluations guide decisions on hiring, firing, and salary. Also of note, Florida’s VAM formula controls for several different student characteristics, but fails to take socioeconomic status into account. Because, you know, poverty- how could that possibly impact student learning?

Then again, this month, when parents, educators, and legislators questioned the FSA Validity Study, what was the response from the FLDOE and Foundations? The only problem is, you just don’t understand. Even the study’s lead author, Andrew Wiley, a Senior Psychometrician with Alpine Testing Solutions, acknowledged during the Senate Education Committee meeting that “there is room for professional disagreement” regarding the study’s conclusions. Wiley further stated, “I think there is data in the report that can be looked at and pointed to that says maybe the use of these test scores would not be appropriate, and quite frankly there was rigorous debate within our own group of people. This was not an easy decision.” I, for one, would be very interested to hear the other perspectives in this rigorous debate. I doubt the Commissioner would share that sentiment.

The FSA Validity Study

Regarding the validity study, much has been made over the FSA’s alignment with our state’s standards. I don’t know that this is a major issue, since most items, if they didn’t match a particular standard, matched another standard that was similar. The statistics on the Grade 3 ELA exam were particularly troublesome though, with review panelists selecting a different standard than the intended standard for 33% of the 60 test items, without even a partial standard match. Given Florida’s 3rd grade retention policy for students not passing this test, it has particularly high stakes.

Students also had to contend with a computerized testing system that malfunctioned numerous times, from students being unable to log-on, to students being unexpectedly timed out and losing their work. The circumstances under which students took the tests were far from standardized. Yet, the validity study supported using the scores for teacher evaluations and school grades because those are aggregate, not individual, uses. Across all test takers, the percentage that experienced problems with the administration was relatively small. However, those problems weren't evenly distributed across test takers. Problems tended to be concentrated in particular districts and schools, and for particular grade levels and tests. So for some teachers, maybe a lot of their students experienced problems that impacted their test score and for other teachers, none of their students had these problems. This applies to school grades as well. Teachers and schools aren’t operating on an even playing field.

Some school districts and legislators have advocated replacing the FSA with national exams such as the Iowa Tests and the SAT. Commissioner Stewart has said that won’t work since those tests aren’t aligned with the Florida Standards, but that didn’t stop us from using test questions from Utah this year. The Iowa Tests and the SAT are aligned with the Common Core standards, which are remarkably similar to the Florida Standards. Plus, the SAT is already approved as an alternative test for high school students who don’t pass the FSA.

Who Benefits?

The time for actual learning that is lost and the taxpayer money that is wasted on these tests is obscene. And for what? I don’t think any parent, teacher, or student would say that the contribution these test scores make to student learning outweighs what they take away through lost learning time and sending students the message that the most important thing about them as learners is their test scores.

Do these tests serve our students, their families, and their teachers? No. They primarily serve the bureaucratic nightmare that our state’s education system has become. We must have the test scores so we can grade our schools and evaluate our teachers. Does anyone really think school grades tell us much about student learning anymore? The formula has been changed numerous times and the grades are based on a testing system that is highly flawed. Furthermore, this year’s grades will be calculated based on an incomplete formula that does not include student learning gains, since with the new tests, there is no prior year comparison for growth. Students, teachers, and schools are the ones that are hurt from this unfairness.

Despite the protestations of superintendents, school administrators, teachers, and parents, and despite the fact that using the FSA scores could hurt teachers (through unfairly low evaluations), schools (through unfairly low school grades), and students (through having to repeat a grade, having to take additional tests, and so on), the Florida legislature and the FLDOE have been insistent on the importance of releasing school grades this year.

Why? Perhaps because if there were a year without grades, people would realize how little they truly signify about a school. Without the grades there to label school communities as D’s and F’s, how would we continue to funnel students into voucher programs and for-profit charter schools? You know, the ones run by people and businesses wealthy enough to afford big donations to our legislators. Goodness knows, the average teacher can’t afford to make campaign donations. For-profit education companies donated $1.8 million to Florida candidates and political parties in 2012, and I expect the amount has grown since, commensurate with the growth of the industry. Why so generous? They rely on legislators passing bills that will support their businesses, which rely on public schools looking bad to justify their existence. We also have multiple legislators with direct connections to the for-profit academic industry. How might this impact their judgment as they vote on bills related to their own or their family members’ livelihood?

When those who are actually directly involved in education are recommending one path and only legislators, lobbyists, and state-level bureaucrats are recommending another, it is a shame that it is the latter path that the citizens of this state are being forced to follow. It would almost be funny if the stakes weren’t so high, that now we have politicians trying to downplay the importance of school grades. All we’ve heard for the past fifteen years is how crucial and vital the grades are to tell us how students and schools are performing; and how parents need a clear and objective letter grade to understand the overall performance of a school, just as our students are graded. If a teacher assigned semester grades to students based on the outcomes of one test, it would be grossly unfair and students and parents would be up in arms. Yet that is essentially what our state grading system does. Grading schools should not be equated with grading students because if we graded students the way we grade schools it would be considered educational malpractice.

Educational malpractice is an apt description for what is happening in Florida right now, and citizens should demand better from our legislators. Opting out of this flawed testing system is one option, starving the beast, so to speak, although this is not a long-term solution. Voting out those who play politics with our children’s futures is another. Citizens who disagree with the direction of our state’s educational system need to make their voices heard.

On a Personal Note

Although I am certified to teach in Florida, as an educator who valued my ability to work autonomously and creatively, who expected and enjoyed making my own lesson plans and tests, and who would hope to be able to do my job without a micromanaging and timewasting bureaucracy getting in the way, I would not want to teach in a public school in this state. The current tangle of dysfunctional policies is going to keep many intelligent and talented people from going into the education profession.

Wait- what’s that you say? The legislature has decided to give teachers bonuses for having high SAT and ACT scores? It makes sense, in light of their high regard for standardized test scores, but that is the only way in which this policy makes sense. This legislation is just the latest insult to teachers in this state.

I have also “opted out” of the public school system for my own children, something I never expected to do. I did so to insure they would be seen by their school and teachers for who they really are, not labeled by levels and scores. I want to know that their teachers are free to teach in the manner they deem best and that the time they spend in school is used wisely. I am paying to have these things that were once a part of the Florida public school system where I was educated. That’s a sad truth. As a former teacher with two master’s degrees in education, I say with confidence that I have lost, and will lose, nothing by not having this type of test score for my children. I talk with my children’s teachers, I look over their schoolwork, I read to them, and, as a former English teacher and avid reader, I am glad to know my children will be choosing books based not upon their Accelerated Reader level, but according to their interests and curiosity.  

Conclusion

At this point, the State Board of Education, Commissioner Stewart, and legislators are all trying to pass the buck, claiming they are powerless to stop the release of school grades because they are currently required by law.

Gov. Scott, this is an opportunity for you to demonstrate leadership by issuing an Executive Order halting the use of FSA scores for all high stakes purposes at least until that time when we have unequivocally valid tests and the capacity to administer them in a standardized manner. You can begin the process of returning control over Florida’s schools to the citizens of this state.

Legislators, please continue to work toward fixing this mess and stop spinning the web of policies that serve political and corporate interests over students, schools, and communities. There are better policy directions that would lead to greater student learning and preparation for the future. I hope and suspect that you already know this. If you don’t, email me at jenny@learningbeyondmeasure.com. I would be happy to talk with you. For our conservative legislators, I also encourage you to read my blog posts, On Thrift and On Freedom. They address the ways that many education reform policies are actually not conservative at all.

Lessons Learned as a Student of Education Reform- Part 2- On Freedom

Introduction

In my first post, On Thrift, I wrote about how current education reform policies often fail to demonstrate that virtue by wasting time, money, and human potential. For this follow-up post, I am going to look at education reform policies through the lens of another American ideal, freedom.

My family has a long history of service in the United States military, going back to my 6th Great Grandfather who fought with the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War and continuing on to this day. When you have or had loved ones who served in the military, the expression “freedom is not free” takes on a deeper, more personal meaning. The sacrifices our military members make to defend our country and help protect their fellow citizens are gifts beyond measure.

One reason I especially admire those who follow a calling to serve in the military is because I don’t think I would be very good at it. Not everyone is cut out for military service, just like many are not cut out for another challenging public-service profession- teaching. Teachers provide a crucial service to society by taking on the responsibility for educating not just their own, but other people’s children. I think we are all aware of the myriad benefits that come with a more educated society- greater earning potential, more innovation, less crime, higher levels of happiness and stability- but unless you have been a teacher, it is hard to understand the unique challenges of providing that education.

Just as our nation determined a long time ago that we would be stronger and safer with an organized military, our system of public schooling, offering education for free and to all, has set us apart from many other nations in terms of offering our citizens opportunities to progress both intellectually and economically. Has this system always worked fairly and perfectly? No, and there is still much improvement to be made, but it is often taken for granted how unique and successful our education system has been in America in terms of offering a quality of life and economic growth that surpasses much of the world.

Many people view members of the military as protectors of the freedoms we cherish as Americans. I would argue that teachers also serve to protect freedom, the mental freedom of their students, and this is a crucial benefit to our democracy as well. Teachers provide the foundational knowledge and support the development of critical thinking skills that are necessary for young people to become responsible and engaged members of our society.

Given the importance of freedom to both our nation’s past and future, and the role that education plays in maintaining our freedom, it is worth examining how education policies make us more or less free. Here I will consider three broad policy areas- school choice, local control, and accountability.

School Choice

School choice policies have the most obvious connection to freedom. The rationale behind school choice policies goes something like this- Wealthy people have always had school choice because they can afford to move to the school zone they desire or pay for a private school. For families without those financial resources, their education choices are limited. Their home address dictates the school their children will attend and that’s that.

In neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, the schools are often less academically successful for many reasons- they have a harder time attracting teachers, the ability of families to volunteer and contribute to the school may be less, the children may be dealing with health issues or hunger that hinders their ability to focus and learn, crime is higher, and so on.  When families struggle, schools struggle.

School choice policies have represented a way for families to have other options than the school they are zoned to attend. Whether charter schools, voucher programs, within or between district choice, magnet schools, or personalized savings accounts, these are all attempts to provide parents with choices in where they send their children to school. School choice policies are intended to increase parents’ freedom to choose their children’s school. In many respects they achieve this goal, but there are some important caveats to consider.

The quality of school choice options is an issue. Charter schools started out with the idea that they would be locally-created labs of innovative education practices, yet they have become a highly profitable industry, and many schools have been shut down over issues with poor quality and financial mismanagement. With vouchers, the value of a voucher is often not sufficient to cover the cost of tuition at a high-quality private school, so low-income families are still left at a disadvantage. The disruption of moving from one school to another, and then perhaps another, comes at a cost to learning and the development of social relationships.

Furthermore, what about the families who, despite school choice policies, are still unable to choose? Parents may be disinterested or unaware of their options, or are not able to provide their own transportation to another school, or face waiting lists at the high-quality choice schools.

So do school choice policies increase freedom? On the surface level, yes, but with deeper consideration, I would argue that in some respects they don’t. They move us away from a system of education as a public good where the emphasis is on making every public school a good choice for students, so that they are able to attend a free school in their community with the assurance that they are receiving a quality education. They move us toward a system where individuals are pressured to choose, and to try to make the best choice to benefit their own child, and where those with higher levels of income, education, and social capital are still privileged. Choice needs to truly be a choice, not a signal that society has given up on improving the local public school, and the choices need to be good ones, if school choice policies are to genuinely increase freedom.

Local Control

Since the early days of our public school system, local control has been a priority. The federal government is not supposed to dictate to states how to structure and manage their school systems. Within states, much control is delegated to the school districts and school boards, with the understanding that those closest to the schools and students have the best knowledge of how they should be run.

There has been a shift in the past couple decades toward an increased federal role in education that has been accompanied with a rise in federal funding for schools. The Race to the Top program is the clearest example of this, with the government offering funds to states for education during the economic recession when this funding was sorely needed, if states would adopt certain programs and policies that the federal government laid out. This included adoption of uniform standards (aka Common Core) and teacher evaluation systems that took into account student test scores (aka VAM- Value-Added Measurement) among other reforms. The vast majority of states took the bait, applied for Race to the Top, and some were rewarded with funding. The outcomes of the policy implementation related to Race to the Top have been marked by controversy and discord.

The shift of local control to the state and federal levels represents a shift away from citizen ownership and authority over school systems and toward control by bureaucrats and corporations. Why corporations? Many of the education reform policies related to the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation rely on standardized testing to enact. Teacher evaluation and school accountability policies require test scores and the tests are based on standards, with states preferably having the same standards to create a unified system. In order for schools to teach those standards, they purchase curricula created specifically to align with them. Corporations create the curricula and the tests, so these education reform policies have served to hand a lot of the authority for what is being taught, how it is being taught, and how it is being assessed over to these companies, along with a ton of money. The shift away from the local control of schools represents a loss of the average citizen’s freedom to impact their local school district or school, and of educators’ freedom to run their schools, teach, and assess in the manner they find most productive.

Accountability

Local control and accountability policies are closely related, but where I wrote more about the policy aspect above, I will look more at the personal aspect here. In the introduction, I asserted that teaching is a unique and challenging public service profession where teachers strive to provide their students with mental freedom- the freedom to think in a logical, critical, and informed way. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a crisis in the profession, with those willing to take on the role of teacher diminishing. Why is this? There are many reasons, and freedom is one. The very freedom that teachers work to provide to their students is being stripped from their profession. Rather than granting teachers the authority to create their own lessons, teach at the pace and in the manner they find best, and assess their own students’ learning, teachers are being micromanaged, their time for instruction limited, and their authority usurped. People lament the loss of respect for the teaching profession, yet many of the reform policies being enacted contribute to that lack of respect. I loved teaching, and still love working with young people, discussing important issues and encouraging their development. Yet I would not want to teach in the public school system given its current constraints and I empathize with others who feel the same. Without autonomy, the chance to be creative, and the chance to exercise professional judgment, what is left of teaching? Accountability policies reliant on strict adherence to standards, schedules, curricula, and standardized tests will continue to turn bright young people away from the profession and lead to burnout among existing teachers. Have accountability policies limited teachers’ freedom? Undoubtedly. They have also limited students’ freedom to have a say in their own learning, to be judged on more than their test scores, and to experience an education environment controlled by teachers and students more than bureaucrats and corporations.

Am I arguing that there should be no standards, curricula, or tests? No- just that the emphasis placed on them within the current system is much greater than the actual value they bring to the learning process. Standards can be used as guidelines, curriculum can be created or chosen by teachers, and testing can also be done largely at the classroom level, with the role of standardized testing returning to the level it occupied not so long ago.

Conclusion

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There are reasons that policies are created. The question is, are they the right reasons and are they worth it? The specific question here is, are these education policies worth the trade-offs in freedom for what is gained, whether that is more data, more accountability, or more choices? Just like we debate safety versus privacy concerns, we can debate whether the additional information we gather through testing and the control exerted over what teachers teach is worth it compared to the limitations placed on the school and local levels. I tend to err on the side of freedom, for teachers, students, and citizens, to run our own schools and school systems with as little interference as possible. Although there are opportunities for school choice policies to increase individual freedom, there should also be consideration of education as a public good, and prioritizing the development of a system that provides the freedom a good education brings to all students. It isn’t simple, but this is an ideal we shouldn’t give up on.

In the News

Two articles in The New York Times this week illustrated some of the problems with an overemphasis on standardized testing and a system centered on ranking and sorting students instead of treating them as individuals. Whether considering preschoolers, college students, or those somewhere in between, both articles serve as reminders that there is more to education than acquiring academic skills.

David Bornstein’s article “Teaching Social Skills to Improve Grades and Lives” highlights a recent study on the relationship between social skills in childhood and outcomes such as graduation rates and arrests later in life. The connections are significant and add to the growing body of research on the importance of teaching social and emotional skills along with academic skills.

Bornstein writes, “The United States remains far behind other nations in ensuring that young children get the early support they need to thrive — whether it is through paid parental leave or investing in preschool programs. And one of the most troubling aspects of high-stakes testing in education is that it has led many schools to focus on reading and math instruction and test preparation at the expense of other educational goals.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/24/building-social-skills-to-do-well-in-math/

The second article, “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection,” by Julie Scelfo, explores the factors contributing to increasing rates of mental health problems among college students. The pressure to achieve and seem perfect in all areas of life is leading many college students to struggle with even minor disappointments and setbacks, as well as with becoming independent from their parents. Students are so involved with trying to achieve and comparing themselves with others that they miss out on the opportunity to develop self-awareness.

Scelfo writes of a dean of freshman at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims, who “watched the collision of these two social forces up close. In meetings with students, she would ask what she considered simple questions and they would become paralyzed, unable to express their desires and often discovering midconversation that they were on a path that they didn’t even like.

“They could say what they’d accomplished, but they couldn’t necessarily say who they were,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0

Lessons Learned as a Student of Education Reform- Part One- On Thrift

Introduction

I carried the same purple L.L. Bean backpack through middle school, high school, and into college. When my Mom bought it for me, she told me it had a lifetime guarantee and was worth the higher cost than what she might have paid elsewhere. She was right. I carried it for years and when the waterproofing began to peel from the inside, she contacted the company and they sent us another one, this time in red. The purple one is long gone now, but the red one is still in excellent condition, some seventeen years later, and holds pet supplies.

My Mom was right, as she usually is, and the example of the backpack is just one of the many ways my parents taught me how to assess value. The overall lesson was this- Just because something is expensive, does not necessarily make it valuable. However, it is worth it to invest more in a quality item because it will last longer and bring more satisfaction. There is a lot of waste in the world and thriftiness is a virtue. Though I was born and raised in Florida, my parents are northerners, members of the so-called “Silent Generation,” so the Yankee mentality of “Waste not, want not” and “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” prevailed in our household.

I bring up thrift in an essay on education reform because although the education reform movement has been identified as a conservative movement, I think this is inaccurate. By thrift I don’t mean cheapness, but rather the dictionary definition of “the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully.” I use conservative in the sense of valuing caution, moderation, and tradition. As a student of education policy, a former teacher, and a mother to two school-age children, who values both thrift and conservatism as just defined, I have experienced a growing disillusionment and concern with the direction of the education reform movement and its impact on the education of our nation’s children. The education reform movement in its current state, and education policy in general, would benefit from a greater emphasis on both thrift and conservatism.

How do the current education reform movement and its attendant policies fail to demonstrate thrift?

Time

Children have limited time in school. The thirteen years of a K-12 education are not very many in the context of an entire lifetime, and then subtract summers, holidays, spring break, weekends, and so on. Teachers know that covering the content they are supposed to in the depth that they want to is an ongoing challenge. Yet current policies related to standardized testing function as if we have time to waste, and waste time they do. Students sit in computer labs waiting for the new online assessments to work properly. They lose time redoing the same tests when computers crash. They waste time waiting for their turn to test. Students who aren’t testing lose instructional time waiting for the other half of their class that is out testing to return. Libraries are shut down, movies are shown.

Even if other extraneous district and state mandated tests are eliminated, and even if schools had adequate technology that worked properly and allowed tests to be administered in a timely, non-disruptive manner, there is still the question of whether standardized tests and the time spent preparing for and taking them is making the best use of the time they take. It’s hard to know given that parents, students, and teachers are not able to see the actual tests after they are administered and questions persist surrounding their validity and reliability. At best, they are a snapshot of a child’s performance at one point in time based upon an idea of what a child in their grade level should be expected to know. While this is worth something, it is not worth the resources standardized tests currently consume. What is clear is that too much time is being squandered because of standardized testing policies, and it is the children that this impacts the most. Those are minutes for learning that they can’t get back. This wastefulness with the resource of time sends the wrong message to children about the value we place on their time for learning.

Money

Wasting money is another way that education reform policies have proven unthrifty. We spend millions of dollars and thousands of work hours implementing programs such as Race to the Top, which incentivized states hungry for dollars due to the economic recession to adopt new standards and curriculums, tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, and so on, only to later decide to overturn such programs or laws, or that maybe they aren’t having a positive impact after all. This lack of caution and propensity for throwing money at a problem to see what might stick is the opposite of thrift.

Then there is the $2 billion standardized testing industry, supported by taxpayer dollars for education, but which the average taxpayer had next to no say in approving for such a dominant and costly role in their school system. As previously discussed, though questions regarding the administration, validity, and scoring of these tests abound, and even though under the best of circumstances their usefulness is limited, the education reform movement has spawned a tangled web of policies, encompassing accountability, school choice, grading schools, student promotion, and teacher evaluation, that hinge on the use of standardized test scores.

This is a $2 billion industry for something that used to be done for free, the evaluation of student learning, by teachers, as a part of their professional duties. A teacher’s assessment of what a student is learning, conducted through multiple and varied measures over the course of a school year, is a much richer and more accurate portrayal of that student’s growth, yet this method, which has always been a part of the student-teacher relationship, has been devalued in favor of tests created by distant entities and graded by anonymous hands. It is ironic that many of the largest corporations in the world are now getting rid of their systems of once-a-year performance evaluations and employee rankings due to studies showing that “all the time, money, and effort spent didn’t ultimately accomplish their main goal- to drive better performance among employees.” What will these companies do instead? One of the largest companies in the world, Accenture, will “implement a more fluid system, in which employees receive timely feedback from their managers on an ongoing basis following assignments.” Sound familiar?

"All this terminology of rankings  - forcing rankings along some distribution curve or whatever - we're done with that," Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme said of Accenture's decision. "We're going to evaluate you in your role, not vis-à-vis someone else who might work in Washington, who might work in Bangalore. It's irrelevant. It should be about you."

If only we could treat our nation’s children with the same common-sense respect.

Two more important points from this article that are relevant to education-

“Brain research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process. It often triggers disengagement, and constricts our openness to creativity and growth.” If learning becomes all about getting the A, or the 5, or whatever, what comes next? What if they get the A right away- where do they go from there? What if they decide they don’t care about the 5? We need to structure our education system in a way that emphasizes the value of learning beyond a score on a test.

Finally, and related to thrift, companies moving to a new evaluation process (quite similar to our “old” evaluation process in education) are not likely to save much time or money. “Where they stand to benefit is, instead, the return on those investments. “The smartest companies are asking, how do we get the best value out of the time and money we are spending?” Brian Kropp, the HR practice leader for CEB said.”

Thrift does not mean being cheap; it means not wasting the resources we have. The current standardized testing system in America is not the best use of our education dollars or minutes.

(Thank you to Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post for the excellent article I have cited from here. The complete article can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2015/07/21/in-big-move-accenture-will-get-rid-of-annual-performance-reviews-and-rankings/)

Other examples of monetary waste related to education reform policies are plentiful. One is the public funding given to charter schools that end up being of poor quality. Not only is this a waste of money, but also a waste of time for those students that attend them, who are more likely to be living in poverty or minority students, and who especially can’t afford the time for education lost to attending a dysfunctional school. Money is wasted on for-profit charter management organizations who have a financial incentive to open as many schools as possible and run them for as little as possible, thus maximizing their profits. What about voucher programs that provide funds for students to attend a private school? Is the amount of the voucher enough for the student to attend a high quality private school, or just the one that has recently opened and happens to conveniently charge precisely the amount of the voucher? What guarantees are there that this is money well spent? This is not to say that there are no good charter schools and no children who have benefited through the use of a voucher. What I am saying is that there are enough examples of bad actors motivated by getting their hands on some education dollars that the citizenry should demand a closer look at the policies that are allowing this to happen. We should not let these children’s time or the public’s dollars be wasted on schools run by people motivated by profit.

One additional example of the lack of monetary thrift in current educational policies involves technology and its integration into our education system. I have great hope for the transformative power of technology-assisted learning. The waste has been seen in the widespread and costly adoption of hardware that is quickly obsolete or defective, technology purchased and used just for the sake of it being “technology” that does not accomplish anything different or unique, and when technology is a distraction from rather than an aid to learning. There are state, district, and school level policies that need to be evaluated regarding the use of technology so that it is being used in ways that are productive and resourceful.

Human Potential

Beyond the waste of time and money involved with many education reform policies, there is a third aspect that is the most important of all, and that is the waste of human potential. This applies to both students and teachers. When we make a choice to teach one thing, we are also making a choice not to teach something else. When a teacher’s practice is tightly constricted in terms of following a standardized curriculum, chosen because it aligns with the all-important standardized tests, the teacher loses the ability to follow up on the particular interests or needs of a class for fear of getting off track. Sometimes the best learning takes place when a conversation or activity is allowed to go off track and evolve based on the students. This is student-centered learning, rather than curriculum-centered learning. When class must move along regardless of the learning taking place, and when student interests and needs are secondary to the imperative to stay on track, those students’ learning potential is not being optimized. When teachers lose their autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of their students and to bring their most creative ideas and techniques to their classrooms, their potential as teachers is stifled. This is one of the reasons why bright young adults are hesitant to enter the teaching profession as it is in America today, and why so many who enter the field leave so quickly. The waste of human potential, from both our students and our teachers, due to misguided education reform policies is immense, shameful, and irretrievable. 

Conclusion

I did not intend for this first blog post to be so long, and there is still so much more to say. My next post will address education policies and freedom. Beyond that, I will write about, in no particular order: kindergarten, the opt-out movement, teaching, hypocrisy, brain research, and imagination. I will share interesting research and inspiring stories from the field, along with more in-depth analysis of specific policy areas. If this sounds interesting to you, please subscribe to the blog through RSS or email. If there is a particular area you would like me to write about, please let me know and I will try to address it.

backpack.jpg

A few final thoughts on thrift. There is waste in our education system. It was there before the current spate of education reform policies over the past 15 years, and it has grown since. There is time, money, and human potential being wasted and this comes at a great cost to both our children and our entire nation. The bureaucracy involved in education at this point, from the federal, to the state, to the local level can be overwhelming. Our current tangle of education reform policies is not conservative. These policies have not been cautious, moderate, or respectful of the tradition of a free, quality public education for all that set the United States of America apart from much of the rest of the world. I believe we can do better and that it is never too late to change a system that isn’t working. We shouldn’t not change because a corporation might lose money or a politician might lose face. These issues are too important for concerns like that. I encourage everyone reading, whether parents, teachers, or simply concerned citizens, to question the current education policies in place and get involved with advocating for what you think is right for our children and our country.