Let EDUCATORS Guide Education!

Aaliyah Samuel penned a piece on U.S. News and World Report today about how state governors are the right choice to guide education, and she offered a set of guidelines to do so:

As we as a nation pursue effective education for all, it is paramount we commit to these three foundational principles:

  1. Equity. Ensure every child, from birth through college and career, receives a high-quality education and has access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.
  2. Alignment. Create coherence across disparate systems and connect education to economic opportunity to ensure a seamless pipeline from birth through college and career.
  3. Data-driven. Harness high-quality data to support students and improve schools, programs and educator quality with a fact-based approach.

On the whole, I agree with Samuel.  A top-down, one size fits all approach to teaching and learning doesn’t work.  However, having state governors guide education is STILL a top-down, one size fits all approach to education, just on the state level instead of the national level.  She argues for equity and alignment, which I think are admirable goals, but her third guideline, that education be data-driven, doesn’t work in conjunction with her first guideline.  If we want education to be equitable, then we can’t rely on what has been called “high-quality data.”  Standardized test results are NOT high quality data, and yet they have been used to make significant, sweeping decisions about education.  Test results tell us that schools in low income communities are almost universally failing, and that students, teachers, and schools there need to be fixed.

If we truly want equitable education, then we need to return control of education to individual schools, boost support and compensation for teachers, increase funding to schools in high need areas, and rely on information about schools that includes not just test scores, but observations of teachers, community, student, and teacher feedback, artifacts of student learning, and real world outcomes.

The best place to get that information, and the best place for decisions about education to occur is at the school level.  Districts and states can and should provide guidelines, but when it comes to decisions about instructional methods and measuring instructional quality, educators MUST be in charge.

Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests.  I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years.  We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.

Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable?  We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs.  Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage.  The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks).  They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.

So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable.  They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test.  So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented.  What about all the rest of the teachers, though?  The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS?  The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.

And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off.  They might not be able to feed their families.  Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?

It’s not just about the testing, either.  It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly.  It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers.  What is the impact of these lost opportunities?

We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.

We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.

We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.

We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.

We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.

We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.

We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.

We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.

We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.

We give teachers piles of paperwork.

We give teachers meaningless meetings.

We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.

We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.

We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.

All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.

I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways.  You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning.  The first option is little more than putting out fires.  It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth.  The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.

We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools.  We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough.  What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?

There are 98,817 public schools out there.  What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.  I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.

$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.

$17,000 is piles of books.

$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.

$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.

$17,000 is musical instruments.

$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.

What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.

“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say.  “What if kids aren’t learning?”  Well, if  you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.

$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close.  You’re going to need trained observers at school sites.  You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation.  You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment.  You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site.  You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English.  You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.

Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.


photo credit: Truthout.org via photopin cc

Voting for School Board


Okay, I’m going to rant a little here.  As you all know, today is election day.  If you’re not sure who to vote for, try a resource like this to help you find candidates that match your values.  Go here to find out what’s on the ballot and where you can vote.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the small-scale stuff.  I live in a somewhat rural Parish in Louisiana.  We’re mostly oil refineries and plants, with a few towns thrown in.  Now, in my district, we’ve got a contentious school board election happening.  What that means is that every intersection is peppered with campaign signs, including a sign campaigning for someone with the nickname “Worm.”  It’s Louisiana – what can I say?  I’ve had numerous pamphlets dropped off at the door, quite a few robocalls, and several candidates knocking on my door.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for them) they all knocked at inopportune times so I wasn’t able to talk to them.

If I had been able to talk to them I might have asked them simple questions like:

  • Your mailers and robocalls tell me absolutely nothing about your expertise related to education.  Simply having reproduced or lived in Iberville Parish your whole life is not sufficient.  What experience do you have in schools?
  • What is your position on any number of major issues facing students and teachers?  Nowhere on any of these campaign materials did I see any information about standardized testing, charter schools, vouchers, church/state separation, Common Core, or any of the other issues of critical importance to our schools.
  • Why are you a better choice than the other million people who appear to be running for school board?  Simply having a bigger sign is not sufficient qualification.

Now, I’m someone who considers myself to be an educated voter.  I look up information on amendments and candidates before I hit the polling place.  For school board, though, I was stymied.  I found Facebook pages for some of the candidates, and some of them even had information about their positions.  These Facebook pages weren’t listed on their campaign materials, though.  I taught class the night of the Candidate Forum, and I would imagine the majority of residents also did not attend.  So what are people basing their decisions on? For me, as much as I hate to admit it, it boiled down to voting for people based on party affiliation (I vote D even though I’m Green because Green basically doesn’t exist here) and what little I know of them from word of mouth (“Worm” actually had some good stuff on his Facebook page, and my husband’s told me good things about Larry Rouse, who works at LSU).

I shudder to think what a less obsessive voter might base their decisions on, though.  Who sent the most mailers?  Who robocalled the most?  Whose sign was the biggest (Katie Mascarella wins that contest)?  It’s terrifying to me that major decisions about the education of students in my parish might be made by people elected because their sign was the biggest.  But then, I guess that’s American politics…

photo credit: secretlondon123 via photopin cc

Unprocessed Education

In San Francisco at the end of April, I had the opportunity to hear James Paul Gee speak a couple of times about learning and new media literacy.  Gee has done a lot of great work in the field of video games and learning and new media literacies, but what struck me the most was a topic that he kept coming back to; the problems with processed food.  He drew parallels more than once between the nation’s consumption of processed foods leading to illness and death and the nation’s educational problems.  My ears perked up as soon as he began talking about the dangers of processed foods, since with the last year I’ve read a couple of Michael Pollan’s books, and subsequently purged almost all of the processed foods from my fridge and pantry.  Gee’s words really stuck with me over the last couple of weeks, and I finally realized why.  What we have right now in the United States is Processed Education, and it’s killing learning.

So what do I mean by Processed Education?  It’s the status quo.  It’s the factory model, one size fits all, standardized testing version of “education” that is happening as we speak in our public schools.  I call it processed, because it is top down.  It is state and federal legislators making educational decisions.  It is Race to the Top. It is state standardized tests (the Monsanto of education; an attempt to educate everyone that ends up destroying everything good about education).  Processed Education is the equivalent of feeding everyone government cheese so that no one goes hungry. 

What I call Unprocessed Education draws on a number of different sources for wisdom on teaching and learning.  The Waldorf approach to education, Montessori education, constructivism, sociocultural theory, and unschooling, among others, have informed this view, along with the reality that most kids need a place to go during the day while parents are working in our current economic reality.  I call it Unprocessed Education, because like the unprocessed food movement, it puts control back where it belongs.  In the unprocessed food movement, that’s with home cooks, parents, and individuals; people like me who are making their own bread and avoiding GMOs.  In unprocessed education, that should be students, teachers, and parents.  They are where the power should sit, they are where the money should go, and they will be the evidence of learning.

I’ve boiled my anti-Processed Education rantings down into a nice, handy-dandy chart for you to have and share.  Isn’t that nice?

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 12.55.55 PM

Do you agree?  Disagree?  What is stopping us from moving to Unprocessed Education?

Standardized Testing and the Idealistic Teacher


Well, the Michelle Rhee memo scandal (if you haven’t read this bombshell by John Merrow, you should), has added gasoline to the conflagration that is our national debate over standardized testing.  Proponents say that standardized, high stakes testing is critical to holding teachers accountable and making sure students are learning. Opponents argue about the ineffectiveness of standardized tests for these purposes, and the toll they take on the teaching and learning process (as well as the teachers and learners).  I read the John Merrow post right before bed last night (thanks Diane Ravitch for the tweet), and laid in bed thinking about it.  Thinking about my own experience as a teacher. Thinking about my role now as a teacher educator.  Thinking about that question that I get asked every single term by one or more of my preservice teachers; how do I get kids ready for the standardized test and still stay true to my educational principles?  You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that those two goals would be at odds, but tragically, they often are.  I generally reply to this question, not with a direct answer, but with my own experience, and with a question of my own.

Before becoming a professor, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades.  I’d been a behavior interventionist, a 1:1 aide for a child with severe autism and cerebral palsy, a private educational administrator, a community center preschool teacher, and I’d had experience teaching in both an upper middle class, suburban, predominantly white elementary school and an urban, 100% free and reduced lunch, 100% Latino/a school.  The experiences couldn’t have been more different.

The more privileged school consistently performed at the very top on state tests, earning a rank of “A” in that state, but there was little emphasis on test prep.  Teachers may have spent a few hours over the course of the school year instructing students on how to fill in bubble sheets, or how to decipher a multiple choice question.  However, the vast majority of time was spent on things like creating cave paintings out of brown paper bags, crayons, and black tea; building scale models of the pyramids at Giza; conducting experiments to see how various types of light affected plant growth; and learning to play the recorder.  The kids at this school excelled on these standardized tests because they had opportunities for creative, cross curricular learning, because parents were able to provide extra help, because schools were full of resources, because teachers were highly qualified and supported in their research-supported approaches, and most importantly because the tests were written for exactly the population of this school – upper middle class white kids who spoke English as their first language, and who could get tutoring if they fell even slightly behind.  The biggest conflict in this school was around determining whether the custodians were entitled to part of the merit pay from the standardized test rankings.

The less privileged school was a whole different world.  I went to teach there because I wanted hands on experience working with emergent bilingual students (who many refer to as English Language Learners) and working in a high needs school.  I was idealistic and starry eyed, and wanted to be Jaime Escalante and John Keating rolled into one.  The reality was quite different.  I discovered early on in my first year at this school that, after our mandated minutes of test prep time, English instruction, Math instruction, English Language Development, morning assembly, lunch, recess, 1 hour per week of instruction with the science teacher, and 1 hour per week of instruction with the P.E. teacher, I was left with 120 minutes PER WEEK to teach social studies, science, health, art, music, and physical education.  120 minutes.  That meant 20 minutes of time per week (plus the weekly hour with a supplemental teacher for science and physical education) for each subject.

Our days were full of rushing from topic to topic.  We were given mandated curriculum and texts that were even boring for me, as an adult, to read.  On a daily basis, I had to choose which subjects not to teach, for fear of encroaching on those mandated minutes.  Even with trying to create cross curricular lesson plans, the restriction of pacing plans and mandated texts stifled our creativity and passion as teachers.  And the teachers….oh, the teachers.  What a downtrodden, burned out lot.  Almost every one of them cared deeply about their students, and truly had the best interests of their kids at heart.  You can only function so long in such an environment, however, without losing some of the gleam in your eye. Some of the bounce in your step. Some of the energy for rolling out yet another unresearched, untested set of curricula.

One of the major problems was that, as emergent bilingual students, these kids often showed up to my class (4th grade) with a second grade reading level, which was NOT adequately addressed by the curriculum we were mandated to use.  The combination of Open Court Reading and Into English! didn’t provide adequate language development support.  I would spend all year wrestling with this mandated curriculum, and these ineffective pacing plans, trying to reconcile them with what I knew to be the most effective approaches to learning and language development.  By the time standardized testing rolled around, these students were still not up to grade level in reading, almost across the board.  I brought breakfast for them, to make sure they’d all gotten to eat that morning, and I walked around the classroom and peered over shoulders as they diligently bubbled.  Their little faces were full of anxiety, and some of them were so nervous they could barely sit still; one had to go to the bathroom to throw up.

I watched as the wheels turned, and they tried to figure out what was being asked of them.  One reading comprehension question involved a passage about creating a Word document on the computer (or something along those lines…my memory fails me); almost none of my students had a computer in the home, the three ancient iMacs in our classroom barely worked, and we got computer lab time for an hour every couple of weeks.  Another reading comprehension passage was about ski equipment; my students had never seen snow, much less been skiing.  I cringed as they bubbled the wrong answers on the math portion of the test, knowing that the only reason they were choosing the wrong answer was because they didn’t understand the language that was being used to ask the question; if I’d stood in front of the room and asked the same questions out loud with more linguistically appropriate language, they’d have been bubbling right answer after right answer.  It was heartbreaking to watch, and I had to do a lot of damage control with my students.  “Teacher, why did they give us that test? I didn’t know that stuff.” “Miss, I can’t do this stuff; I’m stupid.”  I could see their love of learning being slowly and methodically crushed by this system that had been put in place to ensure they learned.  It wasn’t helping them learn, and it was actively damaging their desire to learn. As I expected, scores were low (though on par with the rest of the school).

The next year, I made the conscious decision to do what I knew was best for my students, and to try new things that I thought might work, and to nod and smile at the language and math coaches who handed me pacing plans. To accept the mandated texts and curricula, and then take my own path.  I looked at what the state standards actually were, I looked at what prior knowledge and skills my students had, and I looked at what they really needed from me.  I used the mandated stuff when it was useful, and it sat on the shelf when it wasn’t.  We didn’t crack open the test prep books until the day before they test, and even then only so that I could make sure they knew how to bubble inside the lines.  I was determined that I would judge my teaching, and my students’ learning, on my own terms.  I would use constructivist, sociocultural, and social cognitive teaching methods.  I created a system of portfolio assessment, and let students lead their parent conferences by showing their progress through artifacts of learning.  I made sure that, every day, I was doing things to make my students want to be there, to want to keep learning.  Testing came around again, and I told them that the tests were just for me, and that as long as they did their best, they didn’t need to worry. I lowered the stakes, and let them just be.  I wish I could tell you that test scores improved after that.  They didn’t go up or down in any significant way.  However, I could see the difference in how my classroom felt. My students were happy to be there. I was happy to be there.  They were engaging in inquiry based learning (to the extent we were able), and they were learning.

So when my preservice teachers ask me how to get their students ready for standardized testing while still upholding their educational principles, I share this experience with them, and I ask them a question. “Who are you in the classroom to serve?”  Make every educational decision based off of that question, and if it doesn’t serve your students, DON’T DO IT.  I warn them that if they’re going to be agents of change, they have to choose their approaches carefully.  They need to have evidence to back them up.  Their lesson planning needs to be transparent and above reproach. They need to think carefully about the difference between compromise (which is good) and caving in (which is bad).  They need to determine which hills they’re willing to die on, and they need to be prepared to do so in service of their students.  The only way that public education is going to change for the better is if those who are working with students and teachers on a daily basis insist on only doing what we know is in the best interests of our students.

What has your experience been with standardized testing?  How do you think we should solve the problem of ensuring high quality teaching and learning are happening without destroying all of the good things about the teaching and learning experience?