Thursday, November 7, 2013

Standards-Based Education: Life in a Dream World

Maria Libby, (Assistant Superintendent  of MSAD 28 and Five Town CSD) in her opinion piece in last week’s Camden Herald, paints a very rosy picture of the  future of education in Maine under a new system called, variously, Standards-Based Education, Proficiency-Based Education, or Customized Learning.  

Standards-based education (SBE), as it was first described to me, sounded like the process of applying learning standards -- those step-by-step guides to what children should know and be able to do -- to the work that children love to do.

I first found out about this new idea early in my tenure on the RSU 3 school board. I sat down with Gregg Palmer, then the Principal at Searsport High School and he shared why he was passionate about it. It became something I felt was worth working toward. When Heather Perry came into RSU 3 as Superintendent that we began the real work of moving to this system, along with other districts across Maine, and I gave it my full-throated support.

The more I listened and looked into it, the more I learned about the disturbing trends in public education nationwide, the more I came to fear that it would not be the solution I was hoping for.

How’d we get here?
Let’s put this in the context of the national education debate. Chances are that you have read and heard about the controversy over the decade-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which mandated every child achieve “proficiency” by 2014. This requirement was enforced with standardized testing. Those test scores determined whether your school was deemed a failure or a success, and funding hung on the result. This led to ten years of shrinking curriculum as districts, running scared, focused on producing the right test results. Very few would now describe NCLB as successful education policy.

At first glance, NCLB might sound like a simple and just proposition. We shouldn’t settle for anything less than an education that serves the interests of every child. I believe that. You probably do too. But the devil is in the details, and they have been playing themselves out for ten years. If you have a system that is going to rely on tests to judge the value of education it provides, then we’ve put all our money on teaching only those things which can be measured. All else is not reflected on the tests.

School districts can try but will never transcend this requirement. The bottom line will always be test scores. Administrators may deny it but they are in a forest and they can't see the trees. There is a law of human behavior in institutions where high stakes are attached to the production of data. It’s called Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.“

Without even getting into the fact that the only thing a standardized tests measures accurately is the income level of the student’s parents, Campbell’s Law destroys their credibility. Standardized test scores are corrupt even before the tests have been taken.

But those with money and power had their own remedy. It's in their interests for people to believe that public education is failing because districts don’t have adequate learning standards to guide teachers. They add the Common Core State Standards into the mix.

Maine has adopted these standards and we see districts all over the state scrambling to change their curricula. New tests will come out this year that are aligned to the Common Core.

It’s all very confusing, so I have asked educator/blogger Michael Paul Goldenberg to take a stab at a short summary of one view of a complex situation. “High-stakes testing and standards have been brought to you by the education-industrial complex. That is what some call the alliance of billionaires, foundations, think-tanks, publishers, testing organizations, hedge-fund managers, and other groups, individuals and organizations involved in a concerted effort to control public education and replace it with a privately-held, for-profit system of charter schools, vouchers, and school choice. They want a two-tiered system - one for the majority of children and another for their own, privileged progeny.”

Any conspiracy theorist can find public education to be a ripe area: it’s easy to believe that those entities Goldenberg describes are very serious about their goal: make schools fail, ripe for the plucking of the education privatizers, and we are in a race to fend them off.

Some critics of the Common Core cite the academic difficulty that the standards push into lower grades, to the point of forcing even developmentally inappropriate learning to younger kids, all in the name of Raising the Bar. Then come the enforcing tests. As New York State, which took the new tests this year, has already experienced, the scores will, in all likelihood, go down. The result will be that more schools, especially in low-income areas like mine, will “fail.”

We tend to want to trust the experts. Our lives are too busy to have to delve into all the issues that affect us. The people who we see making decisions about education...well, they study this stuff, don’t they? They understand what we don’t and they make decisions based on the best interests of our youth and future.

But the motives of the monied entities who seek to control public education are not pure and they are not to be trusted.

Meanwhile in Maine...
Videos of classroom activities under the new system were brought to the RSU 3 Board over the past year; teachers and administrators described the process of bringing this system along. My misgivings about the system grew as the picture emerged of a ladder of obstacles, assessment after assessment, leading to an uncertain culmination. Rosy pictures were painted, even as an undercurrent of dissatisfaction by teachers, parents and students became an audible rumble.

Maria Libby makes an effort, in her essay, to explain and clarify this system for us. She uses some stock phrases straight from the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning playlist:

  • ”Voice and choice” refers to how a child might choose to demonstrate proficiency of a required standard. To my chagrin, I realized that it has nothing to do with choices a child might be given to develop and pursue deep interests.

  • “Students work at their own pace and in their own way,” say the brochures, but in practice this means “teacher pace or better,” so we still have kids struggling along behind, having made no particular connection to the learning, but still losing out on both teacher approval and any extrinsic bonus that the others might receive for being on pace. (At Mount View High School, if you are “behind” on your standards, you don’t get to participate in those awesome Exploratories that the other kids do; you have to attend “Intensives” so that you can catch up on your work. So much for “at your own pace.”)

  • “Anytime, anywhere learning” sounds good, but think about this: it means that everything learned in all parts of a child’s life can be measured and added to the stack of skills and knowledge acquired by a child at that point in time. No learning can’t be measured against some standard; knowledge not is gained for the value of the knowledge itself but for the reward it brings.

The measurement of "anytime, anywhere" learning may sound attractive, but has consequences. There's no place for learning that can be enjoyed for its own satisfaction. Supporters of SBE make a big deal about eliminating grades, but really, they haven't eliminated anything. All the negative aspects of being graded are still embedded into the system.

In the traditional grading system, we adults do tend to complain about kids who think only about their grades and averages (teachers do a collective eye-roll when they hear, “Will this be on the test?") The standards-based system makes it worse by extending it to all of life.

Then the kicker hit home: that every single one of the learning “measurement topics” that are being ground out by the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning -- topics that are “aligned” to the Common Core -- must be checked off by every single student.  There is no room for truly individualized learning pathways here. No matter that a student might make a connection to learning more easily, given freedom to pursue his own interests and goals. If it doesn’t fit the framework, it doesn’t fly.

It’s not personalized when everyone is learning the same thing. Nor is it customized, nor individualized...rather, it is standardized, bureaucratized, and regimentized.

The SBE system won’t bring about the education solutions I was hoping for, because it can’t. Why? Let’s go back to that conspiracy again. New tests are coming. Maine will be the happy recipients of the Smarter Balanced assessments to replace the New England Comprehensive Assessment Program (NECAPS).  We have to teach every single standard; we have to prepare for the tests.

The standards-based system promises greater engagement and achievement, but it has to accomplish this while its feet are held to the fire of standardized test results. Content is still pushed at students regardless of interest; learning is still something that, like good behavior, is coerced through the same system of carrots and sticks as the traditional model. Why doesn’t it make a change that will create more flexibility? Because it can’t. We have an institution to maintain, and it hinges on the results of those tests.

Make school work for everyone.
There are students who will always find some learning goal that they care about, even when it is prescribed. These are the same students that thrive in the traditional system: kids of families with an adequate income, stable household, and an interest in education. You can drop those kids into any school structure and they will usually find something to interest them and the support they need to do what’s necessary to succeed. That’s where this structure gets its strength: by pointing to the kids for whom it is a success. But do we truly believe that a learning environment should be structured to benefit those who are the easiest children to teach?

A truly great system of learning is one that is able to engage kids of low-income, unstable, stressed families in happy learning (yes, it is important that kids be happy). What do you find, consistently, in schools that succeed at this?

A structure that is built around the individual passions and interests of children; that helps kids develop and pursue their own goals. A system that has the resources necessary for adequate attention to be paid to home life and family (a stable family unit being the most crucial support kids need in order to focus on their own goals and work).

But wait! You know who else thrives in systems like that? Those kids from stable households, good income and involved parents! It is the rare student that, given the chance, would not want to develop their dearest goals and deepest passions into real here-and-now learning. They would be engaged in solving real problems for real people. Making real art. Designing real tools and toys for living. Interacting with their real local communities. Maybe even trying to make the world a better place.

I was enraged by Libby’s article. She and her colleagues are asking us all to join her in a dream world where high-stakes testing is merely a routine interruption of regular daily class activity, without a negative impact that needs further thought or consideration.

We can, and really must, stop the juggernaut of testing and standards that has been tearing our schools apart for over ten years and promises worse in the near future. Stop the profit-driven megolith that reduces our schools and our children to the data that will be used against them.

Rather than changing education in any real way -- that is, creating a structure that fosters the development of students’ own deepest interests and gives them the time, resources and support to create extraordinary work -- standards-based education is nothing but a better shoehorn to make sure kids are fitting into the same old shoe.

This is most likely the first in a series of reactions to Maria Libby's essay. Stay tuned for a critique of the SBE philosophy toward motivation and failure, and possibly a deeper look at the hypocrisy that "at your own pace" really means "teacher paced or better."