Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Saying it all in 700 words....

I recently had the opportunity to write a guest editorial in the Lewiston Sun Journal, and I gave myself the ridiculous challenge of trying to provide the big picture on education reform for a general audience in 700 words.  Here is the director's cut (yes, a little longer...)

US public schools are working to improve, but recent political activity has suffered from a misconception, which is to conflate the policies of the “accountability” movement (shame, blame, threats, punitive measures and privatization) with the policies of the broader reform movement, (Capacity building, Standards, Proficiency-based systems, Personalized learning, Magnet and Charter Schools, Online and blended classes, etc.) As they are often entwined in statute, the latter are vulnerable to collateral harm from justifiable outrage at the former.

One thing is very clear from the research; punitive accountability is ineffective. It does not drive change at the system level. It is not necessary to attach punitive measures to needed changes, and it is more likely to put them at risk. Practices derived from these policies use potentially helpful data in a harmful way.  They are based on a couple of false assumptions: 1. Schools can get better if we simply put pressure on all the adults to get better or else. 2. Schools can get better by making only changes that do not disrupt parents, students or the public.  The truth is, schools need to change dramatically, and we need to let them change.

The shift to proficiency-based systems is one change worth supporting. It will not be a classroom miracle, but it can lead to more personalized instruction with clearer, more timely feedback for students. It will also lead to much fairer grading practices, and help to curtail the awarding of credit where it isn’t earned.  Teachers are unique individuals with strong preferences and beliefs, but this shouldn’t be a factor in the assessment of students’ academic performance. Grades should be for core knowledge and skill, demonstrated effectively, not for unique combinations of points based in part on punishments for behavior, attendance, social skills, nice notebook covers or who knows what. It is a difficult change to make, more so where the bureaucracies and the market both lack the capacity to provide it in kit form, but the states are right to insist on it.

The Common Core isn’t the problem! We’ve had similar standards documents for decades, always with the same flaws: full of jargon, not parent-friendly, too big, too many topics (just like textbooks.)  Teachers prioritize, slice, dice and do what it takes. In spite of the valid criticisms, national level standards such as the Common Core are very useful, especially for small states unable to create their own, and for content providers and institutions that serve students from more than one state.  Imagine you are a museum docent and have been requested to design a presentation for “8th grade level.”  If your first question has to be “which state?” you are going to find that more difficult.  Also, these standards do not, as is often alleged,  “standardize” the students.  A very advanced 4th grade student could be working on the 8th grade standards, and this sort of personalization is exactly what the reform movement should be about.  The Common Core is just a list of statements like “Know the formulas for the volumes of cylinders, cones and spheres…” The effects of standards for good or ill have been overstated, but they are part of the solution and should not be seen as a threat.

Standardized tests have rightly been tainted by their association with accountability policies, but I feel that the current wave of “opting out” is an over-reaction, for a couple of reasons: first, a national test gives useful, more objective information to see how well students are doing, second, schools do need a way to show improvement that is perceived to be objective and comparable across the country. The time students spend taking large-scale standardized tests (2-4 days per year) has not changed much since the #2 pencil era. Contrary to reports, the Smarter Balanced test does not profile or collect personal data. The backlash against “testing mania” has more to do with teachers being broadly pressured over test results in the name of “accountability,” which is a misuse of the test.  They can use the results to improve instruction and this is being done in non-punitive ways. Teachers are right to be angry about the use of large scale tests to evaluate and reward them as professionals, and this is especially true if, as often occurs at the secondary level, the tests are not in the subject they teach! But they are inaccurate when they assert there is too much testing, and it should be self evident they are wrong if asking to be the sole source of information on what the students know or can do. The state has a right to judge that for itself, not only in math and reading, but in other required subjects. For instance, a short high school exit test in civics and government (similar to the US Citizenship test, and about the length of a driving test) would address a legitimate state interest and insure that schools valued this content.

Federal overreach is occurring in schools, but it’s in the mandated reporting and ever more prescriptive requirements, not in the SBAC/PARC tests or the Common Core. This overreach is a fixed aspect of the money. The punitive excesses of No Child Left Behind were unprecedented and unreasonable, but it isn’t realistic to expect federal help without strings.  It also comes with the danger of pressure to use certain services and products that financially enrich entities with connections to the seat of power. The most practical relief from federal meddling would come from a prudent (gradual) wind down of these funds.  

I am for education reform, but this is what it means: Every school, whether innovative or traditional, needs an improvement process with the following goals or characteristics: a culture of high expectations that includes all constituents, means to ensure intrinsic motivation of teachers and students, opportunities for teachers to learn from colleagues and work as teams, and clearer feedback for students and parents.  To these ends a variety of potentially positive changes are happening, including: magnet and charter schools, flexible schedules, more student choice, more college courses available at high schools, on-line and blended classes, standards-based grading, authentic assessments, project-based learning, etc.  This is what education reform should be about.

I’m all for “stopping the madness” of shame and blame politics, but there are those (including some educators) who would use that sentiment to halt the process of reform altogether.  Buying into the status quo would be a mistake, but it also isn’t realistic.  We can argue about which changes make sense, but the “standards movement” or “proficiency movement” and many other changes underway can be very positive, to the extent they can be divorced from a destructive focus on punitive state level approaches to accountability.