On how we treat teachers.

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Tried to find the electron copy of the way Maureen Downey planted this in the Monday print version but they’re moving files. She sent me this “in between” version. Very nice piece.


A few days ago, 350,000 students returned to school in Chicago, where the striking teachers’ union agreed to a new contract, ending a dispute that involved multiple grievances, including the use of student test scores in evaluations.

The seven-day strike reignited the debate over how we regard teachers and whether current reforms impose too much accountability on them without giving them enough autonomy. In fact, one of the victories in the new full contract — which is still being finalized — is that teachers, rather than principals, get to write their own lesson plans.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had wanted tests to make up 40 percent of the criteria; the agreement brings it down to 30 percent. Teachers had other concerns, too, including honoring class-size caps and maintaining recess, art, music and foreign language instruction.

“The issues raised by Chicago’s educators and parents resonate across this nation because they are being felt by teachers, students and parents everywhere, ” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “These issues include endless budget cuts that have eliminated art, music, gym and other critical subjects from our public schools; a growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need; closing down rather than fixing neighborhood schools, which destabilizes neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty that forces schools to take on more in the face of dwindling resources.

“With all of this, teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools, ” said Weingarten.

An ongoing frustration among Georgia teachers has been that politicians focus on policies that are unproven. For example, Georgia lawmakers are now in a battle mode over a charter school amendment that will greatly expand the number of charters by giving authority to the state to overrule local boards and approve schools. Millions will be spent in the campaign to influence the outcome of the November ballot question.

But the evidence from other states is that a surge in charter schools does not lead to a surge in performance.

So what has been proven to boost achievement? Raising standards, curriculum and teacher quality.

The countries transforming their education systems have trained, lifted and empowered teachers, elevating the profession to the status of doctors and lawyers. They have not vilified teachers, marginalized them and run them off.

Speaking last week in Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse, ” said there are two current paths being touted for fixing schools — bureaucratic centralization or fragmentation/privatization.

“I say a pox on both their houses, ” he told the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation.

Neither path, said Schlechty, recognizes the changing and critical role of teachers in a world where information is now easily obtained by an 8-year-old with a laptop.

“We don’t really understand that the primary role of the teacher has been absorbed, ” Schlechty said. “Most of us still see teachers as instructors because we see ourselves in the knowledge distribution business. Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.”

Teachers today must become designers of work for students and leaders/guides to instruction, as opposed to the instructor, he said. As leaders, teachers help students find their passions and their voices and inspire them to great work.

There are folks who complain that teachers, including those in Chicago, have no right to complain about worsening work conditions and escalating responsibilities, that everyone is being asked to do more with less. But Schlechty noted that teachers have been charged with a task never before asked of American educators at a point in time when resources and funding are evaporating: Keep students in school and educate them to higher and higher standards.

“Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college, ” he said. “In 1960, half the kids didn’t drop out of high school — because they didn’t come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do, but we don’t want them to do that anymore.”

— Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Monday, September 24, 2012


On the Common Core by John Thompson via Edweek’s Living in Dialogue

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This is from Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue blog at Edweek, providing a piece by John Thompson. Links on top are interesting also.

« Open Letter to President Obama, Time to Do What’s Right for our Schools |

Designer of Value-Added Tests a Skeptic about Current Test Mania »

Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo” — That’s why I Support It

Guest post by John Thompson.


Last week, attending a great conference in Oklahoma City, Vision 2020, focused largely on Common Core, I kept worrying how I could articulate my support for the effort without angering my friends who are skeptical of it, or needlessly antagonizing Common Core supporters who hold the weird belief that it will be “a game-changer.” Finally, I decided to just put my thesis on the table. I support Common Core because it embodies the essence of the educational “status quo.” I support Common Core because it is like the educational establishment and American democracy in being the worst of all systems, except for all of the rest.

Twenty years ago, when I shifted from an academic career as a historian, I loved education conferences where teachers presented a range of workshops on pedagogies that had worked for them, stimulating a cross-fertilization of ideas. Few presenters claimed that the best practices that worked for them could be scaled up as “silver bullets” for the entire nation. These conferences also offered a window into my new profession’s scholarship. In contrast to many other career-changers who became school “reformers,” I fell in love with the work of the late Gerald Bracey, Larry Cuban, David Berliner, Lynn Canady, Diane Ravitch and, later, Robert Balfanz and the Consortium of Chicago School Research. I concluded that the educational research informing these seminars was the intellectual equal of any other social science genre.

I was not confident that the emerging “Standards” movement would have an effect on inner city schools like mine but, when read as scholarly documents, the original standards of learning were outstanding, and I mourned their defeat by the scorched earth politics of the 1990s.

Rather than stay the course and work within the system for another set of higher standards, a new generation of accountability-driven “reformers” adopted the Lee Atwater/Dick Morris tactics of demonization. They set out to destroy the “status quo.” According to the “brass knuckles” school of reform, if education schools, school boards, teachers unions, and educational progressivism were wiped out, then “disruptive innovation” would produce “transformational” change.” Standards morphed into standardization. Bubble-in testing became the point of the spear in a war by newcomers to the profession against veteran educators, as well as the social science that questioned their quick fixes. Eventually, many of the leading accountability hawks described themselves as “the Fight Club,” and concentrated their efforts not on improving schools, but on destroying education systems in the righteous belief that something better would magically rise from the ashes.

Now, we have “déjà vu all over again,” as the Common Core seeks a collaborative effort to organize instruction and assessments in order to provide engaging instruction so that students can learn for mastery. The contemporary Common Core effort is like old-fashioned educational progressivism in that it is based on the current state of the art of educational research. So, of course, many of its core tenets will later be proven to be mistaken. But, Common Core is a back-to-the-future political process where all stakeholders have been consulted.

As with the educational status quo of the 1990s, testing companies and consultants have more influence than I would like. Common Core advocates continue to insist that they do not intend to intrude into the way that practitioners teach the new Standards, as they continue to try to micro-manage instruction. (I have several sources I consider credible who fear it’s actually PARRC that is intent on creating (yet again) scripted teacher-proof instruction – Jer) Teachers will need to push back as the policy-makers over-emphasize assessments and become overly proscriptive. And, probably, it will go overboard in replacing too much fiction with nonfiction. (This is in fact an expectation of several state- and national-award winning English teachers with whom I’ve chatted with the decisions being made by people who know nothing about teaching language arts – Jer) We should remember the wisdom of Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio, however, who explains that Common Core does more than cut fiction, it also “restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum. (Emphasis in the original)

But, has that not always been the case in our schools? Are not all of our social institutions the results of “reforms” that prompt pushback, and that thus evolve in a non-rational manner? Is that not also the history of our constitutional democracy? The difference is that the test mania of recent years is an existential threat to public education. Common Core is not.

Prospects for Common Core would be far brighter if it was 1992 and we had not just followed the dead end path of test-driven accountability. Today, we have far more resources for designing new Standards and assessments. The billions of dollars wasted on bubble-in accountability gimmicks, however, will be missed. It will be tough enough to fund the curriculum supports and to implement the professional development necessary to prepare teachers. In the short term, we will not have a fraction of the resources necessary to provide the supports that our poorest children will need in order to learn for mastery. (I am not convinced that the sponsors of Common Core have any idea how much it will cost to align high-quality interventions that are needed before it can improve the toughest schools.)

Even so, we must recognize the opportunity that Common Core represents.
After a decade where educational leaders had to twist themselves into pretzels, maintaining that it was possible to have high-stakes testing and engaging instruction, it was liberating to attend a conference where educators and politicians of all stripes agreed that the teach-to-the-basic-skills-test regime of the last decade has failed. Similarly, I did not meet a politician, vendor, administrator, or a teacher who claimed that value-added teacher evaluations and test-driven accountability can co-exist with the transition to the Common Core. After all, test scores are bound to crater in our toughest schools as the curriculum is turned on its head.

Value-added accountability is a tool for destroying the teachers’ part of the “status quo,” but Common Core seeks to build a new barn and not just kick the old one down. The consensus I see as emerging is that the most likely next step for data-driven accountability is to return to the skill that we know forwards and backwards. If we want Common Core to survive, systems will apply their practiced talents in fabricating data and creating loopholes in order to keep value-added models from driving teaching talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores, and where the transition to Common Core will be most difficult.

During the next couple of years, educators will receive a mixed message. We will be told to prepare for a brand new adventure in teaching for mastery. In enlightened districts, educators will get a head start and will be allowed to abandon the teach-to-the-test basic skills approach that has been driving the love of learning out of our classrooms. In other schools during the two-year transition period, educators will still be required to engage in the same educational malpractice of the last decade and, then, they will be expected to turn on a dime and teach analysis, critical thinking, and synthesis. Finally, there is no guarantee that “reformers” won’t again become impatient and turn the technology necessary to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a step toward real educational equity.

We should remember that the short-term pain of the abrupt change schooling will be tougher on our students. Kids are resilient, though. In another contrast to data-driven reform, if Common Core survives the rocky road ahead, it will be our poorest kids in our most challenged schools who will have the most to gain. It would be nice if the billions of dollars spent on computers for command and control could be redirected towards the socio-emotional supports that are necessary before low-skilled students can excel with a legitimate college-prep or career-tech curricula. The key to success, however, is rejecting the quick fix mentality that looks to Common Core, or any other single reform, as being more than a step by which our schools, and the rest of our so-called “status quo,” bend the arch of incremental change towards justice. Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo”

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

Pop Quiz on Testing

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‘Nuff said.


Published Online @ Edweek.org: June 11, 2012

Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Pop Quiz on Testing: What’s the Answer?


Pop Quiz on Testing

By Lisa Guisbond

Premium article access courtesy of Edweek.org.

You can practically hear the collective relief as school testing season winds down across America. It’s not just the sighs of millions of overtested and stressed-out children. Joining them are state officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents. All, for varying reasons, are no doubt happy to close the door on a particularly disastrous season that included public uproar over a confusing reading test question and a scoring fiasco on the Florida writing exam.

Before we put away the No. 2 pencils, though, how about sharpening them for one last exam? Why should our kids be the only ones to suffer the acute anxiety that comes from opening the test booklet to Page 1? Let’s share their pain and take a test to see how well we’ve been paying attention and learning from our obsession with tests.

1. Why did Florida’s state board of education call an emergency meeting to lower the passing score on its writing exam?

A) The percentage of 4th grade students with passing scores plunged                         from 81 percent last year to 27 percent this year, making it look as if most students went from good to horrible writers in one year.

B) The board realized student writing wasn’t really any worse, but the new test-scoring guide was too harsh and penalized students for minor mistakes.

C) The sudden drop in scores called the state’s entire testing system into question.

D) All of the above.

2. Why did New York eliminate the “Hare and the Pineapple” item when scoring the 8th grade reading test?

A) A student came home and told his mother about extremely confusing and incomprehensible questions regarding an absurd reading passage.

B) The author of the story adapted for the test item expressed his contempt for the way his writing was used to confuse and distress young test-takers. “This was done by somebody who was barely literate,” Daniel Pinkwater said of the adapter.

C) Media attention to the item embarrassed both test-maker Pearson and state education officials.

D) The “Pineapple” item was only one of more than 20 mistakes on the tests.

E) All of the above.

3. Why have 525 Texas school boards, more than 1,400 New York principals, and more than 8,000 individuals across the nation endorsed anti-high-stakes-testing resolutions and statements?

A) The Texas board members believe “the overreliance on standardized, high-stakes testing … is strangling our public schools.”

B) The New York principals said: “Our students are more than the sum of their test scores. … According to a nine-year study by the National Research Council, the past decade’s emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress, especially considering the cost to taxpayers.”

C) School board members, principals, and many parents across the country recognize that testing mandates compel them to do things that undermine teaching and learning.

D) All of the above.

4. Who pays for and who profits from the testing explosion resulting from the No Child Left Behind Act and similar misguided education policies?

A) Taxpayers spend billions of dollars for ever more testing, money that could be used to improve school facilities, hire and train teachers, and staff school libraries.

B) Pearson, the company behind the twin fiascos in Florida and New York as well as years of other costly testing errors, saw its profits increase by 72 percent in 2011.

C) Veteran teachers with years of positive reviews by knowledgeable evaluators are being labeled ineffective and denied tenure or fired based on inaccurate and incomprehensible formulas using student test scores.

D) All of the above.

5. What can parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members do to change the costly and destructive path we are on?

A) Sign the National Resolution on High Stakes Testing and tell all your friends and relatives to do the same.

B) Get engaged with your local school system to review and reconsider the amount and uses of testing.

C) Write your members of Congress and tell them federal education policy needs to fundamentally change course and regain a sane and reasonable approach to assessment and accountability.

D) All of the above.

[The correct answer to all of the questions is “All of the above.”]

Lisa Guisbond is a policy analyst with FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

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I thought Jay’s piece in this morning’s print version was superb. I’ve been ranting about these issues for several decades yet on deaf ears,and perhaps his nicely done words will also fail. However, I think the tide is turning, albeit slowly – even with the scandals (with inescapably more to come), we as a whole are slowly recognizing that “it’s the leadership, stupid.”

There are teachers, as I was reminded today, who were single mothers facing no other option but welfare should they lose their jobs. Their choice was to put their babies at risk or erase bubbles on answer sheets under the orders of superiors. What would you do? I already know. See my piece here of January 8 on the Milgram research.

I don’t think he’s entirely correct (the elders among us will remember our frustration with automobile quality control), as Errol Davis has noted, education is the only profession in which the blame is placed on the workers.

My favorite turn of phrase from Jay, of many: ” . . .  we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear.”

Disparate thoughts, but all touched in Jays far more coherent piece below.


Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

10:20 am May 9, 2012, by Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal Constitution


For weeks, teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been appearing one by one in front of a tribunal, telling their stories in hopes that they will be allowed to retain their jobs and careers.

The process — guaranteed to them by law — is meant to ensure that if fired and stripped of the right to teach, they will be fired and decertified for good cause and after they have had the chance to defend themselves. Frustrating as it might be to some who want a quicker, cheaper resolution of the controversy, that’s important.

However, the public nature of the process and testimony has also produced an important side benefit: Taxpayers, parents and citizens in general are getting a more complete and in many ways more human picture of the internal culture of the Atlanta school system and how that culture contributed to the scandal. It is possible in at least some cases to sympathize with the individuals involved and the pressure they experienced, even if that sympathy does not mean excusing what they did.

In fact, while each educator implicated in the controversy has had a unique story to tell, in the end they leave me circling back to the same basic question:

Where was Beverly Hall?

Whatever mistakes were made by individual educators, the atmosphere of fear and casual corruption within the school system was Hall’s creation as longtime superintendent. The absence of safeguards and indeed the total lack of concern about potential cheating was Hall’s responsibility. The institution’s reluctance and even aggressive refusal to support district employees who knew something was wrong and who tried to protest is a direct consequence of her leadership style and priorities.

Hall has retired and left the district, and so far has played no role in the tribunal proceedings. And while investigations continue, there is no indication that she will be held officially accountable in any way.

In her rare public utterances, she has portrayed herself as a victim of employees who failed to do their duty, but in the end she failed them, not the other way around. In fact, Hall bears a significant degree of responsibility for every career that is being ended and every future that is being compromised.

However, it’s important not to leave the issue there, because in some ways Hall herself is as much a symptom as a cause. As AJC investigations have established, cheating on standardized tests has become a nationwide problem, with high-profile schools all over the country producing wildly implausible claims of improvement in student performance. Confronted with that evidence, public officials in too many cases have retreated into the same pattern of denial that has become familiar to Atlanta residents.

When the same problems occur on such a large scale, in so many different communities and school systems in more than 30 states, it is no longer possible to dismiss it as the actions of an unethical few, or of a corrupted bureaucracy here or there. Something deeper is driving the phenomenon.

There is no question that standardized tests are an essential diagnostic tool. They can tell us which students, teachers and schools are performing well and which require attention. But when we take it a step farther and use those same test results to dictate fates, we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear. When that happens, the tests themselves become a form of cheating, a means of producing misleadingly easy answers to what are really hard questions.

It’s also deeply confusing. In recent years, education reform has been dominated by two themes that are directly contradictory yet are often espoused by the very same people. And that contradiction is almost never acknowledged.

Here in Georgia, for example, state leaders have insisted that standardized testing be used as the educational equivalent of an industrial quality-control system. They produce a standardized model, and the tests determine how closely students conform to that model as they come off the assembly line.

Yet at the same time, we are told, the one-size-fits-all public-school industrial model must be dynamited to make way for a more experimental, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to education via charter schools and even vouchers. There’s a fundamental incoherence between those two messages that leads me to suspect that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and in fact are using schools as a battlefield in a deeper social struggle that we do not wish to acknowledge.

– Jay Bookman

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

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In case anyone needed a reason to cry today at what we’re doing to public schooling.


New York Times

April 20, 2012

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart



FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.

How Do You Know When Teaching is Good?

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Recieved permission to post this with the first several paragraphs and a link to Empowered GA where this was published. Another piece by Peter Smagorinsky at UGA. MANY variations on this theme, the first I remember was the story of the dentist responding to the suggestion that he be rated the same way as teachers. Peter’s is a nice addition:

I used to be a regular listener of Michael Feldman’s humor, interview, and
quiz show radio program, Whad’Ya Know?

During one show, a member of the audience asked, “How do you know
when jazz is bad?” As a jazz lover for over 40 years, I had to laugh. A
complex music form that stretches boundaries can be difficult to evaluate.
“Smooth jazz” is probably the most popular form within the genre, but hard-
core jazz fans consider it boring because it eliminates all the challenges.
But the most challenging jazz can be atonal and cacophonous—it might
sound terrible to ears that aren’t ready for a wild assault on conventional
sensibilities, and sublime to those that are prepared and receptive.

Does Counting Notes Measure Music?
A friend of mine in a university music department once complained mightily
about the dominant research approach in his field, which was to measure
learning in music by counting notes: how fast they are played, how many
can be remembered from a musical score, and so on. To him, such
research missed the point of making music, because it measured what was
most easily quantifiable instead of what mattered.

Continue reading here:


Teacher evaluation “on trial”

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Valerie has been on a wonderful tear lately on the fed and state testing insanity coming out of, if the data from No Child Left Ahead are correct, what should be called Race to the Bottom. This is one gorgeous piece she found from David Cohen, a teacher in California, on CA’s value-added “effort.” Be prepared to laugh and cry.

The Answer Sheet

Posted at  12:00 PM ET, 02/02/2012

Value-added teacher evaluation goes on trial — literally

This was written by David B. Cohen, who has been a teacher since 1993 and is in his 13th year of teaching in California public high schools. He is National Board Certified, and is associate director of the  Accomplished California Teachers group.

This is part of a post that Cohen wrote on the group’s InterACT blog about value-added teacher evaluation in reaction to stories about a possible lawsuit in Los Angeles to force the Unified School District to use the value-added method of evaluating teachers. It uses student test scores to supposedly determine the “value” a teacher contributes to student achievement. Assessment experts say the method is highly unreliable, but that hasn’t deterred policymakers.

In the following, which is one of those laugh-while-you-cry pieces,  Cohen puts the value-added evaluation method  on trial. Literally.

By David B. Cohen

I’ve taken the liberty of dreaming up the court transcript ahead of time (using Q for the defense attorney’s questions and A for the plaintiff’s answers). Enjoy this cross-examination.

Q: You are demanding that LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] use measures of student growth in teacher evaluations, is that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And you believe that student test scores are a measure of growth that would reflect teaching quality, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: If LAUSD were to adopt a policy that attributes the growth or lack of growth in student test scores to the student’s teacher, and uses the scores of all students to evaluate the teacher’s effectiveness, you would drop this lawsuit, is that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: How often are these tests administered?

A: Once per year.

Q: And the district has no way of knowing if the student’s performance on that day reflects the student’s ability or perhaps reflects some trauma, distress, boredom, distraction, or rebelliousness?

A: No.

Q: And for students who have changed schools, or changed teachers during the year, there’s no way to factor that into the analysis of data when a student simply shows up on one roster or another, right?

A: That could be adjusted.

Q: There’s no study that would guide you in how to do that with any accuracy, is there?

A: I don’t know.

Q: No evidence that a move at the mid-point of the year gives each teacher half the responsibility for the student’s learning, or that each week has a proportionate effect?

A: None that I know of.

Q: And would the degree of change in a certain classroom affect students in that classroom who had not been part of any change?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Does it seem likely that changing the students in a class would change the class itself and affect some of the students who had been there all along?

A: I guess so.

Q: But you would have no way of knowing which students were affected or how they were affected?

A: Not really, no.

Q: Now, if I were a high school English teacher, I would be responsible for teaching in four standards areas, but would the test cover all four of those areas?

A: No.

Q: How many does it cover?

A: Two.

Q: You’re including writing when you say “two” but in fact there’s no writing on the tests currently used, is there?

A: No.

Q: So more accurately, the test covers one out of the four standards areas?

A: Yes.

Q: Does the test cover every standard in reading?

A: No.

Q: So, you’re proposing basing a significant part of an English teacher’s evaluation, for example, on a test result that covers a small fraction of the standards?

A: It’s the only objective way.

Q: So your answer is yes?

A: Yes.

Q: By objective, you mean it’s the same for every student and teacher?

A: Yes.

Q: Does every teacher have an equal assignment, equal students, classes, and resources?

A: No.

Q: So, you do not concern yourself with objectivity in all of the factors affecting the teacher’s work, but you figure you can evaluate different teachers working with different students and different classes using the same test that covers only a fraction of their standards?

A: Yes.

Q: So is that an objective process for evaluation, or an arbitrary process with an objective element in it?

[Plaintiffs’ counsel objects to argumentative question. Judge upholds the objection.]

Q: Do the words “objective” and “fair” have the same definition?

A: I couldn’t say.

Q: I could give an objective geometry test to every student in an algebra class, but would that be fair?

A: Okay, I see. They have different meanings.

Q: So your claim that the test is objective doesn’t cover the question of fairness, does it?

A: But it is fair!

Q: Please answer the question. A claim of objectivity is different from a claim of fairness, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: So an objective test may be inappropriate for certain students and therefore unfair, no matter how objective?

A: I would say that the test is fair to everyone.

Q: Like a geometry test for algebra students?

A: Well, no.

Q: Does a student’s linguistic skill relate to their success in a test that requires use of language?

A: Of course.

Q: So a test given in an unfamiliar language might yield a result that reflects linguistic confusion rather than conceptual confusion, or poor teaching?

A: We could adjust for language in a teacher’s evaluation.

Q: In what way?

A: If the student is still learning English their scores could be separated out.

Q: What if a student did well on the test despite being new to the language?

A: Well, we can’t just use the scores that help the teacher. We have to be fair.

Q: You mean objective?

A: Yes.

Q: Because actually, it would be fair to use the results that are valid and exclude the results that are invalid. Are you suggesting that such a determination could be made for each student, or that we should come up with a single formula and stick to it?

A: Just use a single formula.

Q: So regardless of the student’s actual linguistic knowledge, you would suggest making assumptions based on a certain number of years for students to learn enough academic English.

A: That would be logical.

Q: No matter the variables in the student’s instruction in English or the amount of time it actually takes them to learn English?

A: It’s the only fair way.

Q: Fair, or objective?

A: Objective.

Q: Objective regarding the student’s knowledge and skill, or objective regarding only measures of time?

A: Time.

Q: Is it fair to use value-added measurements to rank teachers even when numerous studies show that it is a volatile measure with error rates exceeding 25%?

A: It would only be one of multiple measures.

Q: That wasn’t my question. Is it fair to use an error-prone measure?

A: It’s not fair to exclude student performance from evaluations.

Q: Your Honor, would you instruct the witness to answer the question?

A: I’ll answer. It may not always be fair in every case, but no method is perfect.

Q: You’re suing the Los Angeles Unified School District to compel them to use a teacher evaluation method that is prone to errors and unfair to perhaps a quarter of the teachers evaluated in this manner, is that correct?

A: Yes! The alternative is the status quo, which is intolerable.

Q: But there are thriving, high-quality schools around the U.S. and around the world that are not using value-added measures. Doesn’t that prove that there are alternatives to the LAUSD status quo that are something other than the remedy you seek to impose?

[Plaintiffs’ counsel objects to argumentative question. Judge upholds the objection.]

Q: Have you heard of the National Council for Measurement in Education, the American Psychology Association, the American Education Research Association?

A: Yes.

Q: Are you aware of their position on the lack of validity in using tests designed for one purpose and then used for another purpose?

A: More or less.

Q: I’m quoting from their joint position statement on this topic: “Tests valid for one use may be invalid for another. Each separate use of a high-stakes test, for individual certification, for school evaluation, for curricular improvement, for increasing student motivation, or for other uses requires a separate evaluation of the strengths and limitations of both the testing program and the test itself.” Does that sound familiar to you?

A: More or less.

Q: In other words, you’ve heard this argument before?

A: Yes.

Q: Is it fair to say that these are the three leading organizations for educational measurement and research?

A: I suppose so.

Q: Are you a professional organization for educational research and measurement?

A: No.

Q: Do you think it’s advisable, or even responsible, to ignore the policy position of these leading organizations?

A: But we know that teachers are the most important in-school factor on student performance!

Q: Okay, no argument there. But you have no basis upon which to argue against the validity issues raised in that quote, do you?

A: No.

Q: Now, taking up your contention that the teacher is the most important in-school factor, could you say most important out of how many factors?

A: No.

Q: You don’t know how many factors influence student performance?

A: No.

Q: If I threw out a number, like five, would you guess that it’s too low, too high, or about right?

A: That sounds too low.

Q: How about ten?

A: I don’t know, that might be right.

Q: Fifteen?

A: Maybe.

Q: Just hypothetically, could we proceed on the assumption there are ten factors in schools, other than teachers, that affect student performance?

A: Okay, yes.

Q: Would you expect every factor to have the same influence on every student, or would some factors have strong influences on one student and almost no influence on another student?

A: It would vary.

Q: If you wanted to design a fair formula, you would take those ten factors into account?

A: Yes.

Q: Even though you can’t say for sure how much each factor affects the student?

A: Yes.

Q: You can’t even say with certainty that a specific factor has any effect on a certain student or group of students?

A: No.

Q: So, let’s assume that each of those ten factors could play out in only two different ways: how many possible combinations do we have for each student?

A: Twenty.

Q: I’m sorry to correct your math, but actually, that would be ten-squared, or one-hundred possibilities.

A: Oh, yes, one hundred, I see.

Q: But we don’t know for sure how many factors to consider and what they are. And if we could actually identify fifteen variables instead of ten, and if each variable could play out in three different ways, would it surprise you to know that there would be 3,375 possible combinations?

A: That sounds like a lot, but you’re just playing with numbers.

Q: “Just playing with numbers.” I see. So just because something is true mathematically or statistically, it doesn’t necessarily translate into an actionable policy?

A: That’s not what I said.

Q: Of course you wouldn’t say that. Your case is predicated on the idea that because you can make value-added calculations that show some teachers are less effective than others, it therefore makes sense to use the numbers in policy that leads to the outcomes you want. Though again, the actual experts in educational measurement would warn against that, correct?

[Plaintiffs’ counsel objects to argumentative question. Judge upholds the objection.]

Q: That’s what you need to do if you use test scores and value-added measures in teacher evaluation, isn’t it? Play with the numbers? You would need to come up with a formula that makes certain assumptions about the effect of each factor, even though you can’t test your assumptions?

A: They’ve been researched!

Q: But you just said that we can’t assume factors are the same for each student – or did you mean that these students in this hypothetical school will have been researched before any formulas are applied to them?

A: No.

Q: Okay, to be fair, let’s assume that we can come up with a formula for each of these individual factors. Wouldn’t it also be necessary to know about the interactions of the variables?

A: What do you mean?

Q: Well, perhaps we can apply a statistical control for homelessness, another to control for the time of day that the student studies a certain subject, and another to control for the change from last year’s 50-minute class periods to this year’s 90-minute class periods. Is it likely that there is any research on the effects for homeless students in longer classes at different times of day?

A: No.

Q: So when we combine factors, we not only make assumptions about each one, but also assume that these factors do not influence each other in any way, is that right?

A: You can’t study every little thing.

Q: So, if this were a medicine, you’d be comfortable saying that we have plenty of science about the ingredients and we don’t need to study them in this particular combination in order to assume the effects the medicine will have?

A: I don’t know anything about medicine.

Q: Have you ever been a teacher?

A: No.

Q: Thank you. No further questions.