Monday, March 9, 2015

Evidence? We don't need no stinking evidence!

(A Facebook friend equates opposition to testing with opposition to Obama's Affordable Care Act. This is my response with input from Brendan Heidenreich)
"Evidence-based decisions" is an odd phrase for a liberal-leaning person to use. It means you willingly accept the instrument used to produce this evidence, for one thing.  Then you choose to accept that evidence, and call it a measure of "achievement." 

It's not legitimate to cite the narrow evidence provided by testing and ignore all the rest, like the daily testimony of thousands of kids kids who tweet the words, "I hate school", and other measures of disengagement and lack of learning in the current system. There are countless examples of young people with interests that are ignored by standardized teaching.

And we might choose to look at the evidence of real accomplishments produced by students in schools where learning is self-directed, such as NorthStar Teens, Open Road, and Sudbury Valley Schools.

You can choose to accept test results as evidence that the children of families living in stressful circumstances are less able to learn. You can believe that the correspondence between poor communities and low test scores means that we have to "teach harder."

Do we need tests to tell us that 75% of the students in RSU 3 are living in some degree of poverty?

I already knew that RSU 3 was poor. I already knew that the students in more middle-class, stable families provided nicer numbers than those living in the instability of poverty. I choose to believe children from such families are equally able to grow intelligence. The problem is poverty, but we as a society have decided to blame the poor for being poor, and teachers for being "unable" to teach them.

What tests bring to the problem seems objective, and our response, being "evidence-based" is to engage in the kind of teaching practices that are geared toward getting a better result. This is called "teaching to the test." It's the only logical, only human way to respond to the evidence.

So for ten years, we have been riding this carousel, and gosh darnit, poor people are still poor and their kids still do badly on tests. And those who support tests will look at this rant and say, "See, liberals don't want to do anything about poor kids!" (see Michelle Rhee

Is testing the only way to find out that kids are poor? And is the only possible response to poverty to be the more forceful pushing of dry, fragmented and tasteless learning tasks, in our panic to show that we're "doing something about poor kids?"

Poverty is by no means the beginning and the end of the problem of testing, but it's one big matzoh ball hanging in the air.

My own administration constantly claims that they most emphatically DO NOT teach to the test. But they do. It's their job. The first question parents still ask when moving to a new area, "what are the test scores of the district?" 

For years during NCLB schools ran scared of the sanctions that would be imposed if they didn't make the annual yearly progress required to be 100% proficient by 2014.

So Maine got a waiver, like other states who were blackmailed into adopting the Common Core, attaching teacher evaluations to test scores (hard cheese if you teach in a poor area) and pass charter school and school choice legislation. Now there are no longer those punishments dangling before us, but we're in the habit of doing what we're told, so we keep teaching to the test. The Governor's Grades, while suspended this year, gave a predictable assessment of how districts are doing, and the Maine DOE still steps in and gives us a whole lot more forms to fill out if we do badly on the test (basically they mandate what "priority schools" must do to get those scores up).

Yes, of course we teach to the test. Just look at the confused faces that look back at me when I say that education needs to be driven by student interests and strengths. WHAT??? What if kids aren't "interested" in learning to read? What if I have to wait on a cashier line and some teenager can't count my right change???? The world is going to hell in a handcart, and you're blowing on the flames!

Of course we teach to the test. We push kids through curriculum aligned to standards and enforced by testing. It's a factory model and what's amazing to me is how long it's been going on, when our only response is to put the hammer down harder on more and more and more learning tasks and churn out more and more disconnected learners.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Parents have the right to opt their children out of high-stakes testing

(The following are my remarks at today's press conference announcing the introduction of LD 695, a bill that would make it easier for parents to keep their children from taking standardized tests in public schools)

Good morning. My name is Lisa Cooley, and I live in Jackson.   I’ve been on the Maine RSU 3 school board for eleven years.  The RSU 3 district covers 11 towns including Thorndike, Unity, Liberty and Brooks. I’m here speaking only for myself.

Everything that we need to do to change public education today, to make it more responsive to our kids, to see them grow as individuals and as connected citizens of today’s world begins with stopping the juggernaut of high-stakes testing and the Common Core.

A healthy learning environment produces students who  will be able to enter the adult world of uncertainty and find a way to thrive, and even make the world a better place. Every single child has that potential. The testing regime has created a toxic learning environment where too many children are left behind, disconnected from learning and ill-prepared for successful lives.

With the advent of standards that are enforced by testing, we’ve embraced a regime that runs counter not only to the way kids learn, but to their happiness and fulfillment. Without that fulfillment, we have buildings full of kids who, from the highest achievers to the strugglers, will do exactly what they are asked to do in order to get adults to leave them alone.

The testing regime has had a particularly negative effect on poor school districts. Poor districts don’t do well on standardized tests, yet we continue to push test-driven curricula. And year after year it continues, while we scratch our heads.

My superintendent, Heather Perry, has said in the Bangor Daily News this week, “Our district is a fairly poor district. We simply don’t do well on standardized tests. But that doesn’t mean you throw the tests out. They are useful tools. They help us understand if the programs are working or not.”

We need to put the billions of dollars we’re spending on testing and standards toward programs that not only improve connection to learning for all students, but alleviate the circumstances of poverty for the kids who are born into it: school-based programs and services that help provide some stability for children whose families are living in stressful circumstances. That, plus the engaged learning that springs from students’ strengths and interests, is the only way, short of ending poverty,  to ensure that all children regardless of income, become well-educated.

When we look at the apathy and disconnection of kids in today’s schools, it’s no wonder why we’re scared of giving them real voice over their learning.  After ten-plus years of high-stakes testing, it’s hard to imagine they will find their innate motivation again. In many cases, it was lost by the time they left middle school.

Everything that we need to do to change public education today begins with ending high-stakes testing. And ending high-stakes testing begins with informing parents of their right to take a stand against it. It doesn’t matter what you believe our ideal schools should look like.  A giant monolith, a partnership of government agencies and corporations, have decided for us that our kids need to be tested, and that these test results will govern what happens in our children’s classrooms.  (I include Maine’s proficiency-based system, since it’s grafted to the Common Core, as being part of the problem, not the solution.)

We must take this opportunity to take a little bit of power over the direction of education. All we are saying is inform parents that they have this little bit of control. Then let them, the government agencies and corporations, make their case to parents themselves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Grades" Wars: Swing...and a miss...strike two

I wrote this comment in response to an article in today's Lewiston Sun-Journal: 

Both traditional grading and standards-based reporting miss the point by about a mile, when it comes to student learning. I know what I'm about to post will be counter to what many of us believe about what schools should do....but face it. Schools are failing.

There are multiple reasons why, and a biggie is just are bored. They are disconnected to learning. They do what they need to do and no more; just what's required to get adults to leave them alone (and if you don't see this as true of our better students, then you've never heard a high-achiever ask, "Will this be on the test?")

Here are some phrases from the article that jumped out at me and waved their arms:

“I’m the parent of an eighth-grader. When he goes next year, I want to know how he’s doing in school. ... We need to do a better job.”
We have accepted the idea that we need a number or a letter to know how our kids are doing in school. Should the question be "how are they doing?" or "how fulfilled and satisfied they are with their learning? Are they doing work that is fun for them to explore? Are they creating cool stuff?"

"For instance, he said, freshmen are no longer graded on homework. Some freshmen have interpreted that to mean they don’t have to do homework. They are now beginning to understand why they need to do their homework, that if they skip homework they won’t do well."
If they skip homework, that means they aren't interested enough in the work to do it. That fact has meaning beyond the archaic notion that one must do homework in order to be successful.

"Parents complained that freshmen grading is so inconsistent, incomplete and confusing that students don’t know where they stand. Some have lost incentive to do well in school."
Their incentive to do well should come from their passions and their interests. We are so divorced from the idea that kids are able to direct their own learning, that we can't imagine what might happen if they were doing work that they felt strongly connected to. We have thrown in the towel on the whole notion of fulfilling, satisfying learning that comes from their identities, their strengths, their enjoyments. And we are unacquainted with the idea that the best preparation for the "outside world" is the development and pursuit of creative ideas.

All grades, standards-based or traditional, derive from adults' ideas on what "should" be learned. We're so confident in our judgment that we don't feel it's necessary to see who the student is, and what they're actually intrinsically interested in learning. It's an idea that never really worked well, and now is positively binding and gagging our students.

Before we "strike out" in our pursuit of "fixing" the education system, we need to look at what nobody in the system seems to want to see -- that in order to "do well" students need to direct their own .learning. Let's get out of the high-stakes testing business, let's reject the Common Core, and embrace -- OH MY GOD! -- the students!