It’s All Over But The Cheering

 

Right before an institution dies, things get a little crazy. Think of the days before the fall of Rome and the days before the French Revolution. That is where we are now in terms of the misnamed education “reform” in Connecticut.

Things are getting crazy.

When the Connecticut State Department of Education threatens to withdraw needed funds from school districts in which some parents decide to not have their children participate in unreliable, invalid tests, then we know the end is at hand. When a governor prioritizes the opening of new publicly funded but not publicly accountable charter schools for a few over the funding of public schools for all, then we know the end is at hand. When the State Board of Education champions the Common Core as “far better than anything we have done before” although those standards were written by employees of testing companies, not educators, and contradict literally all research in how children learn best, then we know the end is at hand.

The test-and-punish era of education “reform” in Connecticut will soon meet its end because its craziness has become evident to so many.

It is clear that standardized testing can never close the achievement gap, that the Common Core Standards are not good learning and do not give students the skills they need for their future, and that the education “reform” effort is not reform at all but a way to remove public education as a right for all while it provides substantial financial profit for the investors.

So what is the path forward?

David Kirp in a recent New York Times piece points the way. He analyses why the schools in Union City, New Jersey improved while the efforts in Newark failed. In Newark, huge infusions of money, most notably 100 million dollars from Mark Zuckerberg, and outside talent did not bring success. In fact, they might be the reason for the failure. In Union City, by contrast, the school improvement efforts were led by a team of principals and teachers within the district who focused on how students learn best, how teachers teach most effectively, and how parents can be engaged in the schools. Through this process, learning took center stage, the culture of the schools changed, and the achievement of the students took off.

The Harvard School of Education report,” How High Schools Become Exemplary”, also points the way. It describes how 15 high schools improved the achievement of their students. In all 15 schools, the improvement was a result of a team of educators within the school recognizing what their students needed to learn and how they could learn best and accepting responsibility for meeting that need. They created a mission and determined priorities for their school, designed a plan for adult learning, developed criteria for judging student work and teacher practice, and provided resources and incentives. In all 15 schools, the leaders for the school improvement came from each school and overcame some teachers’ resistance to change because those teachers trusted the motives, the competence, the reliability, the collegiality, the intellectual diligence, the courage, and the hard work of the leaders.

The way forward is clear.

Here is what we must do in Connecticut:

1. Make school improvement a local enterprise. It must begin with the leaders having trust in the staff to grow and learn. As Michael Fullan, a leading expert in school improvement, has said, the first principle of school change is to “love your employees”. That comes from knowing them.

2. Set up authentic and focused collaboration among the teachers so that they become the kind of open, questioning, active learners they will teach their students to be.

3. Analyze the needs of the students. Determine how they learn best and what is it they need to learn. Design ways to assess both what they learn and how they learn.

4. Conduct adult learning experiences focused on improving instruction.

For many years, I have been part of creating positive change in Connecticut’s schools, both in suburban and urban districts, in schools with high standardized test scores and those labeled as “failing schools” due to their standardized test scores. I know for sure that collegial leadership, collaboration, and attention to how students learn and how we can best teach by the educators in an academic department, a school, or a school district offer the only path forward for increased student achievement.

Let’s give the test-and-punish version of “reform” a good burial and move on.

The kids are waiting.

Replacing SBAC with Real Learning

Yes, of course, the SBAC tests must go.

All of the comments about doing away with SBAC made by teachers on the video produced by the Connecticut Teachers Association, called “Connecticut Teachers Share Concerns About SBAC”, are true. (Scroll down on CEA link for video.) The tests stress children out. The tests take too much time away from real learning and replace it with test prep. The data collected is useless. The SBAC use of technology as the testing format is inequitable because children use different kinds of devices to take the tests, some of which are more user friendly than others, and the children vary greatly in their familiarity with technology. The tests deplete many children, especially those with special needs or recent English speakers, of their confidence as learners and deprive them of their motivation. Teacher after teacher testified that the tests and the inordinate time given to preparing for them prove only one thing: how good a taker of the  test the student is.

The SBAC tests have established cut scores and are designed to fail between 56-68% of students, depending on grade level and subject matter. The SBAC tests are invalid and unreliable, as even the former Executive Director of SBAC asserted when speaking at the University of Connecticut on March 31, 2014, because there is no data to prove that success on SBAC tests merits “college and career readiness”. We also do not need SBAC tests to gather information about the achievement gap. We have NAEP, a test which accurately reports on the achievement gap, does not punish individual students, and costs districts and the state of Connecticut nothing, that does that for us. We also know that the high stakes of the SBAC tests which deem students competent or not, determine the fate of schools and the careers of school administrators, provide PR for school districts, and measure the competencies of teachers, determine what is taught. The SBAC test is the curriculum.

And that brings up the most pressing reason that the SBAC tests must go: The SBAC tests measure the wrong things. The SBAC tests do not measure the learning that students need.

What learning do students in 2016 need?

They need to learn to ask questions of their own and explore their questions in depth. They need to learn to collaborate with others in order to grow as broad and deep thinkers. They need to learn creative problem solving. They need to learn how to innovate. They need to learn how to express their thinking, using effective oral and written communication in a wide variety of forms and in both personal and academic voices. They need to be motivated. They need to be engaged. They need to love to learn.

The Common Core teaches none of these skills. The SBAC tests do not measure them.

Learning and the assessing of that learning do not have to be that way.

The first speaker on the CEA video, Paul Coppola who is a social studies teacher in Madison, CT, explained how educators in his district designed indicators of academic growth and development for their students and assess their students on their achievement of learning objectives, based on those indicators. The indicators are:

  1. creativity
  2. collaboration,
  3. communication
  4. problem solving
  5. global perspectives

Similarly, I have worked for many years with teachers to design assessments that require students to:

  1. Engage in a new challenge that is a learning experience in itself.
  2. Use critical thinking to identify and analyze the key concepts of a course.
  3. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies developed in that course.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their original ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  6. Demonstrate effective written communication.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

These are but two examples of conversations that have begun. There are as many conversations going on in Connecticut about learning and assessment as there are dedicated educators. We are ready to dialogue about what learning is and how we will measure it.

Jennifer Alexander, CEO of ConnCAN, could not be more wrong when she said that we as a state should stay with SBAC because ” we’ve already invested millions into its implementation”. By that logic of not changing what we have invested in, we would still be fighting in Vietnam and would still have segregated school districts.

Revision is at the heart of learning. And growing. And getting things right.

Questions about SBAC have been raised. It’s time to explore those questions. It’s time to collaborate. It’s time for creative problem solving. It’s time for innovation.

It is time for real learning to take center stage in Connecticut.

Bring on the best people to lead the exploration of those questions. Bring on those who know what it is to teach and what it is to learn. Bring on the educators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put Education In The Hands of Educators

Right now, we in the United States have put education in the hands of people who have no understanding about how children and adolescents learn and what children and adolescents need to know and be able to do in order to have productive, fulfilling futures. We have put education in the hands of people who have either unlimited money, inordinate political power for a democracy, or uncontrolled arrogance. Or all three.

If we, instead, put education in the hands of educators, then we will have solutions and innovations that actually make a positive difference. Here is an example of an educator setting worthy goals for student achievement and putting students in the position to be successful. Please watch this video in which a principal talks about the learning that matters.

If you cannot see this video, please click here. 

 

Teachers’ Opposition To Common Core Increases

It takes a lot to oppose the Common Core State Standards when they are said to offer:

  • reform!
  • rigor!
  • high academic standards approved by states and consistent with other nations!
  • a guarantee to close the achievement gap!
  • college and career readiness!

What red-blooded American could say NO to this promise? You might think none.

But 60% of American teachers and 51% of the American public do say no. This opposition has increased in the past two years. In 2013, just 24% of American teachers were opposed to the Common Core, and 35% of American citizens were opposed.  The increase in opposition is remarkable, given the tremendous amount  of money that has been spent to promote the Common Core. The increase of 36% in teacher opposition is particularly noteworthy because teachers  have come to know Common Core the best.

In the past two years, teachers have become familiar with the Common Core standards and implemented them in their classrooms. After almost 30 years of working with urban and suburban teachers, beginning and veteran teachers, brilliant stars of teachers and struggling teachers, I know for sure the one thing that teachers have in common is that if something helps kids to learn and to achieve, teachers are for it.  Teachers will learn new skills, change their ways, look at things differently IF their students learn better and achieve more.  Common Core has not offered that incentive  to teachers.

Plus teachers and parents probably have found out that reform!, rigor!, national and international acclaim!, closing the achievement gap!, and college and career readiness! are empty words. They are focus group tested words, chosen to “sell” the Common Core.

The promise of reform is an empty one. For example, 500 professionals in the field of early childhood education, including the most respected experts in the country, have written a public statement, claiming that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children and should not be taught.  Changes that cause harm are not reform.

The most highlighted “new” Common Core practice for the teaching of English, labeled one of the six major “shifts”  of Common Core is using text evidence as students read and as they write. The problem with labeling it a “shift” and heralding it as brand new is that it has been the fundamental practice in English classes since I was in school and has been the daily practice in the many hundreds of English classes I have observed since 1985. Introducing something as new and different when it is already accepted practice by everyone in the field is not reform.

In addition, at the 2015 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, there were 642 presentations. Of those 642 presentations, only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core, and even those were largely about how to circumvent or add better teaching to that mandated implementation. The remaining 623 presentations were about authentic teaching and learning that scholarly research and/or teaching experience show is best practice. Advocating something not respected by experts in the academic discipline is not reform; it is just a plan of action recommended by people without the requisite knowledge. It was employees of testing companies, individuals without knowledge of teaching and learning, who wrote the Common Core; no English educators and no early childhood professionals were involved in writing those standards. Because people who are not educators call what they put together an educational reform does not make it so.

The standards are not rigorous. The tests to assess the attainment of those standards are “gotcha” enterprises with plenty of students receiving low scores, but that is because the tests are designed to fail 60-70% of the students who take them. Anyone who has taught knows that it’s easy to create a test to fail most students. Those failures don’t mean that the test challenges the students to reason clearly, to raise pivotal questions, to collaborate in order to problem solve or create new thinking, or to communicate effectively orally or in writing. That would be rigor. But that would require a totally different pedagogy than the pedagogy the Common Core mandates.

The states never approved of what we now call the Common Core Standards; appointed state officials simply agreed to the abstract concept of standards. In 2009, states signed on to that concept before any standards were written in order to avoid financial sanctions from the federal government for not having the 100% proficiency specified by NCLB. No state officials ever reviewed the actual standards and decided they were good learning. Similarly, the Common Core Standards are not aligned with international standards. The writers of Common Core reviewed standards of other nations but did not match Common Core to them. For example, other nations have standards for the vital 21st century skill of collaboration, but Common Core does not.

No standards can close the achievement gap, especially when that gap is measured by scores on standardized tests. All standardized test scores are correlated with family income, not with how much or how little the standards are taught. For example, the school districts that adhere most assiduously to the teaching of the Common Core Standards are the impoverished, urban districts, and the schools in those districts have the lowest standardized test scores. Also, if standards could positively affect achievement, then all students who were taught them- those now proficient and those now failing- would improve, and the gap would remain the same.

Lastly, the Common Core Standards are untested for college and career readiness. No one has any idea if a high score on the tests aligned to the Common Core is a predictor of success in college or careers. It’s anybody’s guess. Even the Executive Director of SBAC has said that the Common Core aligned tests have a “huge validity problem” because they were never field-tested. It is unconscionable that we as a state mandate that all children and adolescents learn in prescribed ways that we don’t have any evidence are good for them. What we do know is that key skills for the future (questioning, collaboration, oral communication, and creativity) are not tested on the Common Core aligned tests so it is unlikely that the standards and the tests that measure them do make our students”college and career ready”.

Teachers, who are under pressure of job security to teach to the Common Core, often find it prudent to be compliant, yet they, in increasing numbers, are expressing their opposition to the Common Core. They seem to be looking closely at what reform, rigor, nationally agreed-upon standards, and international benchmarking, closing the achievement gap, and college and career readiness really mean. That critique is good news for the future of education. It is good news for the future of the country.

If those voices of opposition continue to increase, what will we do? What can move education forward in effective and healthy ways?  In 2009, maybe it seemed efficient to turn education over to non-educators who had money and political clout. But, as H.L. Mencken said:  ” For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, ………….    and wrong.

The right way to improve education is to ask educators to design standards and to make the decisions about how to teach students to learn. We will get it right.  We know when reform is needed and when it is not. We know what reform really looks like. We know what rigor is and how to motivate and engage our students in learning that is truly rigorous. We know how to address and minimize the achievement gap. We know how to prepare students for their future. Give us a chance and watch what happens.

Test Prep Vs. Learning

Which do you choose? It is either/or. You can’t have both.

A. A school in which students have a schedule dominated by Common Core-aligned test prep, such as the one described in the illustration above.

 B. A school in a district in which learning is the priority and in which parents and guardians could receive a letter stating that priority, such as this one from the Superintendent of Patchogue-Metford School District on Long Island.

SBAC: The Beginning Of The End

So what did we learn from the release of the SBAC scores? What did we learn after spending more than 2 million dollars of state money and countless millions at the district levels to get these scores?

Not much.

We did learn that the achievement gap has not been in any way affected by implementation of the Common Core. I have been in a position to analyze CMT and CAPT scores over many years, and the SBAC scores tell the same story as the CMT and CAPT scores. That story is that students in affluent communities score significantly higher than students in poor communities do. No administration of a test will ever change that fact. No set of national standards or standardized test on those standards will ever “close the achievement gap”. First of all, high scores depend on the quality of the lives children have outside of school much more than what happens in school. Secondly, if the national standards and aligned testing did raise scores, then all scores would go up, both those of the students in affluent districts and those in poor cities. So the “gap” would be unchanged.

We did learn that charter schools, even with their cherry-picked student bodies, did not do better than many public school districts which do not restrict their student populations of special education students, English language learners, or students with behavioral issues. For example, SBAC 8th grade math scores for charter schools ranked 63, 67, 71, 74, 100, 103, 107, 119, 123,130, and 133 out of 133 reporting districts and schools. Of course, many of those charter schools had better scores than the districts from which their students came and should be expected to have better scores than the students’ originating public school districts because the charter schools have siphoned off some students with drive and potential from those districts.

We did learn that the SBAC scores tell us nothing about the learning going on in Connecticut schools. We can’t tell what schools just paid lip service to Common Core Standards and what ones focused almost exclusively on the Common Core. Without a doubt, the schools with scores demonstrating under 20% proficiency on the SBAC spent more time on test prep than the schools in affluent districts with higher SBAC scores. Yet we are told that schools must limit their curriculum to Common Core so that the school’s test scores will improve. It makes no sense. Some districts which had curriculum dedicated to the Common Core and teachers who taught to it diligently had low test scores, and some districts that just about ignored the Common Core in curriculum and practice had good scores. High test scores and teaching to the Common Core had  zero correlation.

We also learned that SBAC scores tell us nothing about students’ real competencies. As anyone who has an understanding of how to teach students to be thoughtful readers, effective writers, and competent thinkers knows, the more a teacher teaches to the Common Core ELA standards, the farther away those students will be from being thoughtful readers, effective writers, and competent thinkers. So the actual achievement gap will widen between the students in the affluent communities and the students in the cities with their increased test prep due to the low 2015 SBAC scores.

The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts lack any research base whatsoever and have no evidence that they will produce “college and career readiness”, yet we restrict our neediest students to that Common Core regimen due to our misplaced reliance on the SBAC scores. Just because a PR firm was hired to promote the Common Core Standards and that PR firm, through focus groups, determined that “rigor” was the word that would sell the standards to the American public does not make the standards or the SBAC test rigorous. Neither of them is. The Common Core ELA standards teach a discredited way of reading and an inadequate way of writing, and the SBAC test is an exercise in “Gotcha”.

We did learn from the 2015 SBAC test that opting-out is going to be an influential part of the narrative about assessing learning in the future. For example, in West Hartford, Conard High School had an opt-out rate of 5.5% and Hall High School had a 61.4 % opt out rate. What then can we tell about the two schools in the same town? Does Hall have more students who have applied to competitive colleges and do not want their excellent records of good grades and SAT scores hurt by a test designed to produce low scores? Does Hall High have parents who are more savvy than Conard parents and who are making a statement about their values and the kind of learning that they want for their children? Is learning richer and deeper at Hall than at Conard so that students and their parents seek other kinds of demonstrations of student achievement?

Also, are Westbrook High School, North Haven High School, Hartford Public High School’s Law and Government Academy, Daniel Hand High School in Madison, and E.O. Smith High School in Storrs places where the emphasis is on real learning because more than 85% of the juniors in those schools opted-out of the 2105 SBAC math test? School by school, parent by parent, district by district, those questions will be explored now that Connecticut has completed its first year of SBAC testing, and, if we can judge by what is happening in New York where implementation of the Common Core and the taking of a Common Core aligned test is a year ahead of Connecticut, it seems reasonable to believe that opting-out will increase.

Over this past year of SBAC testing, some told the story that we need SBAC to close the achievement gap. That story is wrong. Closing the achievement gap will never happen with standardized tests. Some told the story that we need SBAC to gather data in order to compare schools and districts. That story is wrong. SBAC data is same-old, same-old; we had it all along with our state tests. Some told the story that we need SBAC to gather data about individual students and the skills they need. That story is wrong. SBAC doesn’t address students’ learning needs; teachers do. Some told the story that SBAC measures what students need to learn, but that story is terribly wrong. Those telling it must not be educators. They must not know what real learning is or what students need to be prepared to do.

It is time to end SBAC. It is time for a new story. A true one.

The Sequel: Beyond Common Core And Beyond SBAC

All the adults in our neighborhoods have been to school so they all think they are experts about schools and are quick to tell us what schools are doing right, not doing right, and should be doing right.

All the Presidential candidates want to be elected so they have positions, often not well informed and varying with the winds of public opinion, about Common Core, standardized testing, charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, and teacher evaluation.  

Entrepreneurs and investors are involved in public k-12 education because, as Rupert Murdoch has said, the U.S. public education industry currently represents a $500 billion dollar opportunity, what with all the testing, all the materials to prepare students for the tests, and all the openings of privately managed and publicly funded charter schools.

So many people want a piece of the action or at least a piece of the conversation. There is so much noise.

How about a little calm?  How about a little light?

 The calming voice of a full-time researcher sheds light on the neighborhood conversations, the political hype and the investment speculations.  That researcher is John Hattie. He is the real deal. He directs the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia and heads the Science of Learning Centre, which works with over 7,000 schools worldwide. In a recent paper,  “The Politics of Distraction”, which was highlighted on NPR, Dr. Hattie reviewed 1200 meta-analyses (analyses of analyses) and examined studies covering a combined 250 million students around the world. He analyzed some of the most popular approaches to education reform and determined what, among them, does not improve education. 

We in the U.S. are now doing a lot of what he says does not work.

Hattie says that national standards do not raise student achievement and actually diminish student achievement for the most talented of students, that standardized tests do not give us the information we need to improve student learning, that small class size alone without an accompanying change in pedagogy has an insignificant positive effect, that school choice through charter schools accomplishes nothing in terms of raising student achievement, and that money alone will not improve education. Dr. Hattie’s bottom line is how students learn influences what they achieve and that how students learn is influenced by how teachers teach.

 None of his findings come as a surprise to educators. We as a nation probably could have been on a wiser and more productive course than the one we are on if we had asked educators how to improve learning and achievement. But we didn’t.  The Common Core Standards and the Common Core-aligned testing were designed without educators.

 What if we, as neighbors, political candidates, and citizens, bring Dr. Hattie’s 1200 studies and 250 million students into our conversations?  What if we come to believe his proposition, delineated further in a second paper,  entitled “The Politics of Collaborative Expertise”, that how students learn influences what they achieve and that how students learn is influenced by how teachers teach? What if we remember our own learning and our own teachers and recognize that what Dr. Hallie’s meta-analyses show is simply common sense?

 What if we put Dr. Hallie’s common sense into an action plan for Connecticut?

 Here is what a Connecticut action plan would look like:

 1.    Teachers and school leaders would assess the individual growth of each student each school year rather than assess if all students of the same grade demonstrate the exact same achievement at the exact same time.

2.   Teachers would be authorized to collectively judge if their students are making agreed-upon progress and then empowered to remedy any learning needs their students might have. 

3.   Publicly funded but privately managed charter schools would be eliminated because there is not evidence of those schools increasing student achievement. Instead, student achievement would be increased because teachers within a school or academic department would collectively decide to teach and assess students in the ways that the most effective teachers in that school or academic department teach and assess students. 

4.   There would be intensive professional development of teachers so that active learning, student collaboration, and frequent, personalized teacher feedback to foster student growth become the norm.  

5.    Money would be budgeted for and spent on what directly increases student learning. For example, lowering class size to implement a learning-centered pedagogy in which teachers teach students to construct their own knowledge, instead of doing worksheets or listening to lectures, would be a good use of funds. Also, providing school time for teachers to discuss sample student work and agree upon measures of students’ growth would be another good use of funds. 

It is time for a new action plan for Connecticut. The SBAC scores will soon be out. Those scores, like the scores of all standardized tests that are always highly correlated with family income, will tell us which towns and cities are the wealthiest and which are the poorest. The SBAC scores will also play out the pre-determined failure rate for Connecticut students. The scores will generate almost no conversation about what it means to learn and what it means to teach.  Schools will continue to implement the Common Core Standards, which the Common Core designers proudly proclaim do not in any way address how to teach or how students learn.

 But what if Professor Hallie is right and all achievement is a direct result of how teachers teach and how students learn?

What if our children’s time, educators’ energy, and our public money are now being misdirected?

 It’s time for all of us to talk about the real basic of education:  student learning.

 It’s time for all of us – neighbors, educators, legislators, and politicians – to focus our conversations. It’s time to move beyond Common Core and SBAC. It’s time to put together a Connecticut Action Plan for Teaching and Learning that gets it right for all of our children.