Inequitable Teacher Salaries Studied by Arkansas Legislature

On September 9th I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and read a story about teacher salaries titled “Lawmakers Study Salaries for Educators.” Of course this is something that I care about not only because I used to be a teacher and earned one of those for five years but also because I help prepare teachers at the University of Arkansas for careers in education, careers in which they’ll be compensated for the good work they do.

Let’s start by dispelling any myths: secondary English teachers work harder than any other teachers and they have more planning, reading, and responding (not grading) to do—by far—than any other discipline. Since I used to be an English teacher I’m probably biased, but I stayed up all night responding to papers with some frequency, averaging about four hours of sleep per night during the school week. After each paper I symbolically ran my fingers over the top of my head in a downward motion, my thinning hair thinning right in front of my eyes onto the students’ papers. I’d then tally in the upper corner of the paper how many individual hairs each took—the all time record was a six-page single spaced mess that cost me 22 hairs.

jason-alexander-george-costanza-baldI’ll blame my baldness on those papers, but what really made me lose hair was when I paid bills at the end of each month. Maybe I should say that instead of pay bills, I figured out which bills I could pay and which bills could be put off. I worked second and third jobs, taught summer school, coached football, debate, forensics, and even sponsored the class of 2004 for four years. Supplementing my all-consuming teaching job with other ways of making a meager 300/year stipend is, to date, some of the hardest money I’ve ever earned; my work history includes building fences, machining metal in a machine shop, hauling and stacking alfalfa hay, and mixing for a muffin company, a job which involved an 800 pound mixer and countless pallets of 50lb bags of flour and sugar.

Teaching is a wonderful career, and I’m honored to still be involved with education. The tenor of the policy conversations—especially any of them involving money—make lifting 50lb bags of flour and sugar or hauling 90lb alfalfa bails seem like light work. That aside, I’ve been consistently bothered by the teacher salaries in the state of Arkansas, not to say that our state is any different than others, just to say that I sense a great inequity in the funding system that currently exists. Little Rock Senator Joyce Elliot relates similar feelings in the ADG piece, “We really must spend more time thinking about this because the issue of disparity and maintaining teachers, all of these things are hugely, hugely important all around this state.”

Let’s say that one of my teachers graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching and took a job at Springdale High School. This first year teacher made $49,029 for the 2013-2014 school year. Another pretend graduate opted to move to across the state to Brinkley, Arkansas. She made $35,950 starting out with a Master’s degree at Brinkley High last year.

Does anyone else sense that there is something wrong with that picture? Maybe it’s just me.

What I see are two jobs teaching, let’s say, ninth grade English that are likely pretty different. I’ve worked some with students and teachers at both schools and while I taught at a school that more closely resembles Springdale in terms of size and mission, I attended a small rural high school in the flatlands of Kansas, a 220px-Brinkley,_AR_009school and community not all that dissimilar to BHS. Is one job more important than the other? Is one job more difficult and if so, which one? Why is there such a gap—nearly $15,000—between pay in these two districts for equally qualified and experienced teachers? If one adds up $15,000 over a thirty year teaching career, there’s a $450,000 difference between teaching at SHS versus BHS.

Why the difference you ask? Property taxes are used to supplement the state provided minimum salary in districts that collect enough of it.

So let me get this straight, the districts that already have more money—people paying higher amounts of property taxes—hire teachers at nearly $15,000/year more than districts that don’t have as much. This sounds to me like a classic case of the rich get richer and poor stay poorer. Since we can likely count the number of garage doors per house in any given district and reasonably predict the school’s achievement numbers, it stands to reason that the districts where wealthier people live are able to hire teachers at a higher salary and they’ll also receive better marks from the state.

These same inequities are true in the northwest Arkansas corner as well and the scenario of two first year teachers from the same class of our professional teacher preparation program here leaving to make vastly different salaries is not imagined or the act of a mistreatment of schools in the Arkansas Delta. In this little corner of the state, one can find the same disparity in salaries by driving nine miles between high schools. This is pure, unadulterated class warfare and Arkansans should expect better.

So, if you, dear honorable members of the 2014-2015 Arkansas Legislature are serious about studying teaching salaries, I’d urge to first look very critically at the formula in place being used to pay teachers. In my way of thinking, the teachers in Brinkley (and all of the other small and/or rural schools) deserve to be paid every bit as much as the teachers in the population centers of our state, if not more. Let’s raise the minimum starting teaching salary to $45,000 and then initiate a plan to create equity—however a bipartisan group defines it—amongst the salary funding formula. We’ll have an easier time attracting and keeping great teachers in the profession, if, in fact, that’s what we want for all children.

An F for Arkansas’ Plan to Grade Schools

In one of what is surely many of the education policy issues that has escaped my consciousness and cursor until recently is a plan to rank all schools in the state of Arkansas on an A to F rating system. I thought about this for approximately zero seconds before it rang out to me as an awful idea. After all, what parent wants to send their student to a D, F or even a C school? What teacher wants to teach in a C, D, or F school? What first grader wants to attend a C, D, or F school? Who would want to eat at a C, D, or F Bar-B-Que joint or watch an F television show? This is an unconscionable proposition and here’s why.

Our local and national obsession with oversimplification should alarm many Americans and Arkansans, at least any of us still paying attention. While it would be much, much easier to understand any complex entity through incredibly simple markers, doing so lacks an account for the humanity of such acts. Putting people or people-based organizations like schools into narrow categories is an attack on people and the organization of school itself. Is this a thinly veiled attack on the people of Arkansas through their public school system?

In an August 30th Arkansas Democrat Gazette article titled “Letter-Grading Plan for Schools will go on View,” reporter Cynthia Howell tells about this impending policy, one that started with the 2013 legislature passing two bills: 1429 which mandated that schools have a single indicator of performance and 696 which required that indicator be the A through F system. These two bills have created an office at the University of Arkansas where colleagues of mine work and have diligently designed a statistically complex system of designating these rankings based on several variables, including growth from year-to-year. This piece is not written in opposition to them nor the work they’ve done or are set to do. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette opined on September 7th that the level of sophistication for assigning letter grades was “waaaaay too complicated,” but it seems the agenda of vilifying public schools will be well-served by either a sophisticated or simple-to-understand process. In either case, the policy reduces schools full of humans to a single letter grade that almost any living person could (mis)understand.

There are three specific reasons that the Arkansas State Board of Education should wholeheartedly reject this notion following the open public comment period and return this to the Arkansas Legislature.

First and foremost, this is a covert and perhaps inadvertent attack on the poor of Arkansas. We don’t need a sophisticated analysis of achievement scores to understand which schools will be the A or F schools. In fact, I challenge all members of the Small-Garage-Doors-ShedsArkansas legislature to plop down in their cars and drive around to all of the different towns and neighborhoods in their districts, paying close attention to the size of the houses. All they have to do is count the number of garage doors they see on the houses in a particular district and then return to their offices to rank schools accordingly.

0 garage doors/carport – D or F school

1 garage door – D school

2 garage doors – D, C, or B school

3 or more garage doors B or A school

My example here of the garage door study might come across as being a little facetious. But seriously, drive around or hire some group of retired people to drive around and count garage doors—you’ll learn about the same thing about the current state of our schools as ranking them based on achievement. Honest research has been very clear on this issue—poverty is the overwhelming and overriding factor in student achievement, however it is defined. School is nothing more or less than a reflection of culture, of the social context from which it emanates. Grading schools based on achievement (or growth) will actually be grading them on their socioeconomic status, or by the number of garage doors on houses in the district. The fact that race ties in closely with socioeconomic status should be the cause of even greater concern for state board members willing to endorse this system of grading.

I’m gravely concerned about the certainty of political mis-use of this information at all levels. If I wanted to close a school, a great way of doing that would be by ranking them in an A to F manner; the recent examples from Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia of closing public schools and opening charter experiments in their places are warnings that should be heeded. People interested in expanding charter and private schools and closing public schools in Arkansas must be somewhere licking their chops at the prospect of hanging a big fat rusty F on a neighborhood school while chroming an A trophy for the places their children attend.

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Third, allow me to offer a personal anecdote. As a high school writing teacher I learned quickly that one of the worst things I could do was to write a giant letter grade or number on the top of my students’ papers. No matter how I sugar-coated or presented low grades to students on their writing, it was always a conversation stopper. But it was deeper than that too—low grades stopped the conversation just as surely as high marks did. I found the graded papers I returned in the trash, scattered in the hallways, or wadded up in the urinal. Fortunately for my students and me, I attended a summer institute of the National Writing Project and learned about revision and about the potential damage of grading students on writing and on anything else for that matter. What I wanted to do as a teacher was to start a conversation about students’ progress in writing in a way advocated by the concept of responding to writers, not only evaluating their writing.

In much the same way, a grade of F, D, or even C on a school will close the conversation for improving that school, if not close the school itself. Students and teachers with means will leave for other pastures. I’m not about to say that there aren’t schools in Arkansas and everywhere that need more support than they are currently receiving. They do. I will adamantly argue that improving a school will be next to impossible with the F, D, or C hanging in the front window. Rather, we need to respond to schools that are struggling on an individual basis. No two schools in Arkansas are struggling for the same reasons and should be treated as individuals, not simple constructs ready to be mindlessly lumped together under a single letter. The best way of understanding achievement is to look at the median income, or to follow my assertion, count the number of garage doors hanging in that district.

Citizens of Arkansas, please join me by contacting each state board of education member and asking them to withdraw the board’s support for this idea. If we aim to oversimplify schools and eventually close them, it receives an A. If we want to sustain and improve our education system, grading schools deserves to have an F hanging on it.

Emma’s Tale

Guest post by Donna Wake

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, University of Central Arkansas

I was recently invited to speak as part of a panel at a conference on “bridging the achievement gap.”  In the lead up to the conference, I prepared by doing some reading and updating my knowledge of the research. Bridging the achievement gap, after all, feels like an admirable goal. Who doesn’t want to help kids to bridge the gap? It sounds almost as good as no child left behind, right?

But the more I thought about bridging the gap, and the more I read, the more unsettled I began to feel. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. Not until the day of the conference when my feelings of unease coalesced around an impromptu story I shared in response to a question asked. This is Emma’s story.

Emma is 8 years old. Her mother and I have been friends for many years now. Emma is in the 3rd grade in a large elementary school (name of state withheld). This is her fourth school. Her father is in the military and has served 2 tours in Iraq and 1 tour in Afghanistan since Emma’s birth. She’s moved across two states and multiple classrooms in her short academic career. She’s a tough kid with some great skills. She’s sensitive. She’s thoughtful. She’s reflective. She’s empathetic. She’s a rule follower. She loves to read and write. And she’s smart.

Emma was tested for the gifted program in Kindergarten at the request of her teacher. She was placed in the gifted class for first grade. She lost her status when the family moved schools in 2nd grade. I think it is important to note that Emma’s parents were not asked for input in this process at any point.

This year, in her newest school, Emma was tested again for the gifted program at the request of her teachers. I would like to say from the outset that I was opposed to this. Not for Emma’s sake, but because I have a philosophical and pragmatic problem with the idea of “gifted” in our school settings. Put simply, I think all kids should have access to “gifted” curriculum and resources. I also think that kids who receive the “gifted” label may be prone to developing a sense of superiority and entitlement. Be that as it may, Emma was tested. Her parents were ok with this decision because they liked the instructional style of the GT classroom and felt it was more inquiry and project based allowing for exploration and problem solving.

Pic_4Unfortunately, Emma did not make the cut.

In this school district, kids qualify for the gifted program by meeting a set cut-off score on TWO tests. One test measures verbal-linguistic skills. The other test measures visual-spatial abilities. Emma did not make the minimum required score on the second, visual-spatial test. She did well, but not well enough to be labeled as “gifted.”

The school made the decision to place Emma (and other students who did not score quite well enough) in the gifted classroom with the “gifted” kids. So for the entire academic year, Emma was in a room where half of the kids were coded as “gifted” and the other half were kids who were, well, almost “gifted.”

Of course, the kids know the lay of the land. They always do. You can call groups whatever you wish – red/blue, robin/eagle, tiger/chipmunk – the kids know. In this room, they actually knew they were either “gifted” or “not gifted.” So Emma’s already fragile sense of self-worth was challenged.

The issues accelerated in the last 8 weeks of the school year, after the end of testing. Emma’s teacher decided that the “gifted” kids in the room would undertake an elaborate enrichment project. They started by visiting a local news room and watching the production of a news show. I should mention that only the “gifted” kids got to go on this field trip. The other half of the class stayed at school. The “gifted” kids continued the project in the classroom by scripting and creating their own news production. Kids did research. Kids wrote stories. Kids blocked scenes. Kids shot and edited digital footage.

This sounds like an awesome project, right? But remember, this project was just for the “gifted kids.” What did Emma and the other less-gifted kids do during this 8-week project? They watched. And they worked on math worksheets. All day. Every day. Worksheets.

Now, I have no idea why the teacher of this classroom chose to segregate her curriculum the way she did. Maybe there were legal reasons. Maybe there were pragmatic reasons. Maybe there were financial reasons. I have no idea, and I really am not trying to vilify her in writing this account. I’ve never even met her. Which at this point is probably a good thing. But to me, a 20 year veteran of classrooms, this made no sense to me at all. Why on earth would someone choose to treat students so differently and inequitably? Couldn’t anyone see the impact this would have on the students in the room? And indeed. The impact was inevitable.

Imagine my frustration when Emma very carefully explained to me that she was “dumb.”

I was flabbergasted. How could this bright, beautiful young woman possibly feel she was dumb? She is a voracious reader and writer. Her past academic record and experiences are good. She is not a perfect kid, and certainly she has areas of strength and weakness, but Emma is not dumb.

Shelving my anger for a minute, I began to ask Emma some very open-ended questions. She was more than happy to explain. She felt dumb because she didn’t get to do “that TV project” the other kids were doing. After all, Kay-lee who acts like she knows it all must because she gets to be on camera for that TV project. Emma knows she’s not good at math, because they keep making her do math worksheets, and why would she have to do that if she wasn’t dumb, particularly at math? It went on and on. Her logic was impeccable.

I left Emma’s house that night feeling frustrated, disgusted, and outright angry. Beyond Emma’s story is the fact this isn’t an isolated incident. I am well into my 2nd decade in a profession that I love, but it is a profession that continues to astound and disappoint me. The decision this teacher made and its impact on Emma’s mental and emotional state continued to haunt me in the weeks and months following my visit. At the end of the year Emma requested to not be placed in the gifted room next year. Really, who could blame her?

So what did this have to do with my panel and “bridging the achievement gap”? On the surface this appears to be an unrelated story. I mean, really, Emma missed the “gifted” cut-off by a few points. We have little to complain about in Emma’s story compared to those kids who are segregated from good instruction for far more egregious reasons.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s all the same broken system. It just seems to me that in the system, we come up with ways to “label” kids. On the surface, these labels do not seem bad. After all, they help us try to figure out how to sort and categorize kids so that we can serve them and somehow match our meager resources to meet their needs. So we assign them a “tag” – gifted, basic, low SES, ELL, on the bottom side of the “achievement gap.”

Only these labels, they backfire on us. The unintended consequence is that we do treat kids differently, in ways that are noticeable (by the kids!), and in ways that are not aligned with best practices or common sense. Labels create a hidden curriculum that tells kids their worth to us and to the larger world. In fact, when these labels are present, common sense appears to fly out the window. Indeed, in the case of Emma’s classroom, common sense may have shattered the window as it left the building.

We appear to base labels on a very narrow set of criteria, often created by non-educators. In terms of those “basic” kids on the bottom side of the gap, those criteria include their abilities in literacy and mathematics. But what about all of the other skills and attributes we value in our kids? Ourselves? Our culture? What about content areas like the arts, like sports, like interpersonal and intrapersonal skills? What about those more content-based-but-somehow-less-valuable areas like social studies and science? Do these not “count” in our current system? Are they truly relegated to the sidelines as electives or not important? Yet many adults I know would contend these areas are more important in the context of the real world quality of life experiences.

Please believe me, I am not discounting literacy and mathematics. I am a literacy teacher. I think it is important that kids work and grow in these content areas. However, even these content areas are very narrowly defined by standardized testing. On the standardized literacy and math tests, no kid will be ever asked to write creatively, to dream big, to make new worlds, to talk about citizenship, to discover, or to problem solve. Yet we label them based on a few random days’ work in April on skewed ideas of what we should measure and what we should consider as important in defining our children.

Even more horrifying, labels are used to vilify teachers and the teaching profession. Listen, I am all for accountability. I have seen my share of poor teachers who needed to be removed from the profession. On the other hand, I cannot think it justifiable to hold a teacher of any ilk to a narrowly-defined standard that may be unreasonable and unreachable. Any Kindergarten teacher knows that some of kids come to school already knowing how to read while the others come to school hungry, dirty, and without having had a good night’s rest.

Those hungry kids are the majority of learners on the bottom side of that achievement gap. And most teachers I know work hard to support those kids as they move through their school careers. Most teachers I know help their learners navigate a system that (to our learners and their families) is perplexing and mysterious, one that historically has not served them well. Most teachers I know try to find the strategies and approaches and methods that work to best serve these students.

But let’s face reality, the problems in our society are a lot bigger than can be fixed by one teacher, one district, or even one education “system.” We aren’t talking about an achievement gap; we are talking about an equity gap and an opportunity gap. To fix this, something larger must happen in our culture first. And until it does, there will continue to be an “achievement gap” and worse yet, people who believe they can magically close such a gap through more tests.

So here is my message to Emma’s third grade teacher. Let’s start using some common sense with our kids. Let’s find our voices. Let’s advocate for ourselves and for our kids. Let’s dispose of our fear of rocking the boat. Let’s teach based on the relationships we build with our students. Let’s teach things like empathy and creativity and passion and inquiry. Let’s stop labeling kids based on narrowly defined constructs. Let’s see the whole child and all the gifts they bring to our classrooms. Let’s do what we know is right by working with each of our kids, where they are, who they are, and by giving them what they need to the best of our ability.

All the kids. Not just half the room.

Opt Out? Why Parents Should Opt-In for Standardized Testing

Co-authored with Barton L. Goering, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools, Spring Hill Public School District USD 230, Spring Hill, Kansas

Isn’t it time to say that enough is enough when it comes to standardized testing? Let’s draw a line in the sand for the future of our country by putting a once-and-for-all stop to the madness of tests created by people other than a child’s teacher. We think it is time parents have a choice to opt-in.

The current opt-out movement that has taken aim at stopping standardized tests and corporate education reform is a national effort that has gained considerable traction. In 2012-13, Seattle’s teachers scrapped the MAP test and provided a model for actions across the country, from Arkansas to New York. What’s more American than being conscientious objectors and exercising civil disobedience? We can’t think of much. That said, the entire opt-out movement is predicated on the unfortunate reality that parents and their students should have to take action in order to avoid these tests. Opting out has brought police enforcement, threats and actions from school districts to parents and students, and even a hacker takedown of the United Opt Out website at the onset of the March 2014 testing season.

Audaciously, we believe that every parent in America should be given the choice to opt-in for standardized testing, rather than being forced to opt-out. If these tests are such a precious and necessary part of our education system, have the tests but stop victimizing other children who don’t want or need them in the process. Conveniently, the savings to the the country’s school districts and the collective pocketbook make the opt-in movement a dream idea for politicians, parents, educators, and patrons and a long overdue nightmare for the testing industry.

Parents, we believe that you–not the corpo-federal testing machine–know what is in your child’s best interest. We’d like to restore your right to opt your student in to more testing if you so choose. Perhaps there would be a fee associated with opting-in and if a family’s income fell below a certain level, free and reduced test prices could be offered. Since the scores from these tests most reliably predict the income demographics of the parents, the requests for testing could be few. Think of the savings!

At present, the American standardized test obsession fits nicely into a grand narrative of failing schools, bogus teachers, and dumb students. Even a casual look at the evidence of the American school system shows us that we have the finest public education system in history. “We top the ranks in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship around the world,” offers Chris Tienken in Are American Students Really that Dumb? What’s driving all of the negative rhetoric about American schools? Who’s discussing our 26th-in-the-world ranking in childhood poverty?

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One of the many things at stake here is the relationship between student and teacher, a sacred bond of learning and teaching. The proliferation of teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores could force those relationships to change, a fact that is particularly disturbing considering the broken nature of current teacher evaluations. Instead of a teacher getting kids ready for life, careers, and post high school education, the next round of standardized tests could be the focus. Are the days of a teacher looking forward to teaching a class made up of diverse cultures and backgrounds gone? Opt-in can fix all of this.

Some http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/10/texas-governor-signs-legislation-to-reduce-standardized-testing/ are getting the message and have reduced testing requirements. Nationally, the promise of those changes could be realized if parents contact their state board of education and legislators and demand their parental rights back. Testing consortia are using children as guinea pigs to validate their tests for free, effectively sidestepping parental permission to use their children in a for-profit research project. This and many other violations highlight why we must return rights to parents through opt-in.

We’d like to extend the push to cover any tests that claim to prepare students for tests or claim to predict how students will perform. Predatory companies that sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Untested exacerbate the issue by requiring students to take as many as four tests per year in a single discipline to prepare for the state mandated test. Let’s say there’s a standardized test in five subjects of a child’s schedule, she could potentially take 24 tests over the course of the year. Schools all over America are under the impression–thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top–that in order to score well on tests, students have to take lots and lots of tests in each subject. Common Core ushers in a formalization of this with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced next year unless it is stopped.

What these tests really do is take our students away from the important learning experiences that school can and does provide. Beyond the windfall of money that the education system will save through opt-in, the time wasted preparing for tests and testing will provide teachers across America the ability to create and dream with their students, the ability to teach unfettered from the current testing-palooza.

The nastiest secret about federal and state mandated standardized testing in America today is that it has nothing to do with the students or their learning. It’s about naming and shaming public education, data collection for the grand narrative. Let’s do the American thing and let the people decide. If parents sign an informed consent form to opt their students in for the national research project called testing and agree to pay for it, they should get first dibs on those test scores. Let’s put the test in its place.

What I’d do if I could create a charter school

As a high school teacher and professor I’ve often dreamt of having my own high school, one designed in the spirit of all of my ideas about what education should and shouldn’t be.

My pretend school is called the Progressive Institute of Student Awesomeness (PISA).

PISA teachers would have autonomy and high expectations and job security. Class sizes are small–18 to 20 students at most — and the faculty is overpaid so handsomely that some feel guilty about receiving their checks each month. In reality, they’ll know they’re worth their wages and then some.

A, B, C, D and F are relics of another system. Student progress is charted through portfolio defenses of learning, held in concert with volunteer members of the public.

Teachers receive free tuition to take courses at the best local public university, each expected to either possess or work towards Master’s degrees in pedagogy and content. Part of the job at PISA is to contribute to the scholarship on teaching and learning through professional reading, writing, and sharing with others.

PISA students would experience mandatory arts programs. Their performances and exhibits are a constant part of the school day.

Discussion and dialogue highlight academic classes, raising expectations through meaningful talk. Community service is required for graduation. We’d work smart and play hard. There’s not one test given to our students that wasn’t created by our faculty.

When students, teachers, administrators, and parents pass through the front doors, they feel good and safe and at home.

012213-School0113-22PISA is the school to which all others in the country are measured, the proverbial benchmark, boasting the highest ACT scores in the land.

And if I could have it all rolled together into one awesome package, if I could create my charter school, well…

I wouldn’t.

Above and beyond all of my progressive ideas about school, I believe in public education above all else. No matter how great, the imagined PISA hurts public education and hurts our country because it stands alone, or represents the elitist nature of the charter, and can’t be replicated to serve the interests of all.

No one left behind and no one excluded from the best we can muster. Those are the ideals we should pursue as we seek to enhance our public schools. Shouldn’t every student have a school like PISA?

Being anti-charter isn’t a popular position in our climate of privatization. Our own president and education secretary have worked tirelessly to expand charters during their time in office. Pro-charter films like The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, and Won’t Back Down have helped these anti-public ideas permeate American culture. In the face of a public education system falsely held out as failing, alternatives of any kind are attractive when shown in the light of private-sector propaganda.

From my way of thinking, charters in their origin–as a tool for innovation–were an okay idea, but that’s the extent of my support for them. Unfortunately, they are currently trapped in the accountability-crazed school choice narrative, one that has effectively pitted all schools against one another in an Orwellian version of social Darwinism.

Who’s got the highest scores? What’s in it for my child the others be damned? Compete, compete, compete. And they’re spreading though still a modest part of the national picture of education–4% of all schools.

Great public schools are the cornerstone of our society. Equitable education in America must be for everyone. Charter schools hurt public education and should be closed not expanded. They disrupt the learning dynamics in any given community by taking students away from others and by leaving students behind, especially those without family or personal resources to leave their home public school.

When charter schools succeed, I cringe. I believe that the schools-worth of students belong with their peers, helping to raise everyone in our American society, not just the few who are chosen by a lottery or whose parents can get them to the charter or private school. (author’s note: I cringe in a different, elongated tone for the students when charter schools fail or are demonstrated to be corrupt.

Students who leave for charters hurt the public schools by further demonstrating to the children left behind that their situation is bad but will probably be worse in the future. Charter schools promote a perverse form of competition and school choice that some members of our society won’t get. Since in that way they aren’t really public schools at all, they should be closed immediately: the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.

The big picture I see shows me that charters aren’t the point, vouchers and a dual track school system are the point. Vouchers are the goal of charterization. Our country doesn’t want a charter school on every corner, the elite decision makers want to be able to provide vouchers so their children can attend So Smart Private Academy on the public dime, an act sure to further undermine and defund egalitarian public education.

I gained a disturbing new perspective on private schools when I moved to the south seven years ago–the Southern private schools are a mirror of the pro-charter dual system of separate and unequal education.

Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It’s Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want?

Charters are a weapon of mass distraction, nothing more than idea candy or a freshly-painted plank in a political party platform. They get lots of play on public radio and some of the schools are successful by narrow measures. But stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities of elitism and profit-driven private takeover of a cherished public institution. We should focus all of our energy and efforts towards providing a PISA like school for all students in America, not diverting attention or resources–teachers, money, and fellow students–to charter or private schools.

 

Suggested Citation: Goering, C.Z. (2014, May 19). What I’d do if I could create a charter school. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-goering/charter-schools_b_5347138.html?utm_hp_ref=education&ir=Education

 

 

Is Teacher “Appreciation” Enough?

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week and the desks of teachers all across the country are being inundated with cards, treats, and nifty Pinterest inspired gifts.  As a former classroom teacher I remember how nice it was to get some homemade cookies, a coffee mug, or other sign of appreciation – especially in early May as the school year had almost taken me for everything I had.77fe9ba7943da3e93160eb3816590495

What do we mean by “appreciation” when we talk about our nation’s teachers?  How do we appreciate those who give so much of themselves while constantly hearing the fabricated refrain of public school failure? A batch of cookies or candy bouquet doesn’t seem like quite enough to show how much our teachers mean to us.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers love to be appreciated, and my experience tells me that they also love candy, coffee, Diet Coke, and pretty much anything else that comes from the hearts of their students.  I still have several gifts from my former middle school students and I remember who gave them to me.

But the word “appreciation” doesn’t quite seem enough for how we feel about our best teachers.  Appreciation is nice and everybody likes to be appreciated for what they do, but take a minute to think about how often you tell somebody you “appreciate” something.  If somebody holds the door when your hands are full you appreciate it.  When somebody picks up the tab at lunch you appreciate it.  Here in Arkansas people often say “I appreciate ya” instead of  “thank you” when you make a purchase.  My point is that “appreciation” is something we hand out relatively easily.

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Scottye Allen – Teacher Extraordinaire

I’m not sure what we should substitute for “appreciation” but I’m going to use this platform to honor one of our teachers who goes above and beyond all expectations in order to give her students the education that every American kid deserves.  She also happens to be my son Jackson’s teacher.

Ms. Scottye Allen is a fourth grade teacher at Butterfield Trail Elementary School in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  She has taught for 35 years in classrooms ranging from 1st to 11th grade in Montana, Washington, Missouri, and Arkansas.  I sat in on her class yesterday, a period she characterized as “nothing special” but as somebody who knows a few things about “special” teaching, I found her disclaimer to be not entirely accurate.

A former high school basketball player, Ms. Allen towers over her students in stature, but couldn’t possibly be any closer to them in spirit.  She uses her experiences as an athlete to connect to many of her students, which on the surface might seem like a relatively easy connection for a teacher to make.  A lot of 10 year-old kids are just becoming serious about sports, but dig deeper and you find that sports are just one way that Scottye Allen makes those connections.  For example, a few years ago she had a student in her class who was deaf.  In order to make sure that he was able to participate on the same level as her other students, Ms. Allen learned sign language.  Not only did she learn sign language, but she also wore a microphone so that she could translate his signed thoughts, answers, and questions to the rest of the students.   It was important to her that this student felt as though he wasn’t talking just to her but to all of his classmates as well.

When you get to know Ms. Allen you find out more about how much she values this sort of participation and success for every student in her classes.   I was able to witness this first hand as she took the time outside of her district mandated lesson plan to display and celebrate her students’ work.   Students sat in rapt attention as she used the document camera to project their recently completed book reports on the screen.   Everybody wanted to put their work on display for all to see, and 100% participation is something that Ms. Allen carefully cultivates over the course of the school year.  She believes that the most powerful learning happens when kids are willing to take risks and she promotes risk taking in her classroom through a culture of trust and honesty.    Watch Ms. Allen in person and you’ll see her push students to reach beyond their comfort level while never wavering in her support for their efforts.   Imagine scaling a cliff that looks impossible to climb with the reassurance that one of those giant air bags stunt men use to cushion their occasional fall is waiting below just in case you need it.  Her students scale that cliff more often than not, but when they don’t she’s waiting there with a soft place to land.

Her students are willing and even eager to take on these challenges because her expectations for them are extremely high and she has convinced them it is important.  I’m not referring to the vague notion of “rigor” that you hear people who know little about good teaching constantly blabber about.  I’m talking about pride, hard work, and a sense for what is important in life.   When Ms. Allen starts a sentence with “If you’re living…” her students finish it with a chorus of “you’re learning!”  When exhorting them to put forth their best effort you’ll hear, “don’t ever put your name on something unless you’re proud of it,” and when she feels as though a student has met her expectations she’ll remind them that, “The only person who needs to push you now is yourself.”  Ask one of her students how they are doing and they’ll tell you that they are “well” instead of “good”, and they are all aware of the proper use of use “I” and “me” in conversation.  These aren’t just old school lessons on grammar, because Ms. Allen makes them fun.  When one student stood up and proclaimed that she was “done”, the other students responded with “please don’t die!” because she was not “done”, she was “finished”.

Of course, Ms. Allen also wants her students to do well on the standardized tests our leaders have come to care so much about. She consistently has over 90% of her students score as “proficient” on the annual test, thanks in large part to an 8 step test taking strategy she has developed to help her students be successful test takers.  She isn’t trying to game the system, though given the ridiculous lengths other schools have gone to in order to boost student achievement on tests it would hardly matter if she was.  Instead, she believes that teaching her students how to do well on tests is now a necessary skill in American education.   She also knows that despite her success in preparing students for high stakes testing, it’s what she does after her students are ready to take the test that has the most lasting effect on their lives.

Standing with me outside the computer lab while her students take a mandated test that helps determine if they are prepared for the other mandated tests, she explains that “the best learning happens outside the lesson plan” and that she plans to keep chasing that learning as long as she believes she is doing it well.   When I ask her how she knows if she is making a difference, she explains how it happens at different times throughout the year and not for all students at the same time.  One by one she will see a student do something they haven’t done before, but maintains the belief that it matters little how much we know students have learned if they don’t know it too.

I see the results of Scottye Allen’s hard work every time my son comes home from school.  Ironically, he won’t be among the 90% of her “proficient” students this year because we opted him out of the standardized test.   I wrote at the time about how we didn’t need that test to know how well he is doing because we trust his teacher.  Perhaps now you can see why we feel that way.

As Ms. Allen’s students filed out of the computer lab from taking the standardized test she passed out fist bumps, high fives, and hugs – each one  accompanied by a “Thank you for working hard.”  Then she shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, and followed them into the classroom to get back to work.

Reflections of Canceled Kindergarten Music Programs

If you look at the curricular history of the United States you will see that our nation’s educational focus has been greatly affected by the tenor of the times.  In the early 20th century we sought efficiency in learning while the nation was industrializing.  We were inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930’s to study problems of society and democracy.  The 1950’s saw a renewed focus on American history and civics as the Cold War heated up.  In the 1960’s we frantically scrambled to fund math and science education when the Soviets launched Sputnik.  The “rigor” era was born in the 1980’s as the United States struggled to keep up with imports from Asia.  “Rigor” lived on through the focus on educational standards in the 1990’s and our infatuation with “accountability” in the 2000’s.   In many ways the 2010′s are a reaction to the Great Recession of 2008 as “college and career ready”  has become our mantra.

When America stares into the mirror of education, we see our societal self staring right back.

So when I looked into that mirror this week I was particularly disturbed by the image staring back in the form of a story about a kindergarten show in New York that was cancelled so that the students could continue to work towards becoming “college and career ready”.

In the letter, the school’s interim principal explains:

“The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.”

Holding the language of this letter up to our education mirror provides a reflection of what we have come to value in American schools.  For example, the suggestion that the show was canceled so the students can focus on “valuable lifelong skills” suggests that skills learned while practicing and performing a show are definitively less valuable and timeless.  The letter also parrots the rhetoric of “college and career readiness” by stressing the importance of becoming “strong coworkers”, presumably inferring that time spent in preparation for a show today will somehow have a negative effect on performance reviews 25 years from today.

The End of America's Prosperity

My Future Unemployable Skunk

“Did you hear that Cooper was fired last week? Third negative review in a row.  He’s down at the bar drinking and mumbling something about rehearsing to be a skunk.”

You might also notice that the letter uses the word “professional” instead of “educational” to describe the nature of their decision.  Perhaps they believe that there is great educational value in working together to sing, dance and perform, but far less professional value unless one plans to make a career of it.  It’s also hard to miss the autocratic and businesslike tone of the letter.  This was not a democratic decision made with input from parents or students, it was made unilaterally by the administration.  Parents, teachers, and students must simply live with it.   Finally, the principal writing the letter argues that this decision is in “the interests of all children” as though there is a one-size-fits-all approach to educating kids – one that apparently does not include frivolity or fun.

C’mon Endacott, you’re blowing this out of proportion!  This is just an isolated incident right?  Well, I can’t say for sure that other shows around the country are being canceled so that Kindergarteners will be better prepared for Monday’s conference call in year 2039.  However, I can say that research shows that kindergarten is skewing farther away from being a children’s garden (translation) as teachers prepare students for standardized tests.

A study by Daphna Bassok from the University of Virginia found that teachers in kindergarten are spending substantially more time on tested subjects.  From the article:

“Consistent with our hypotheses that a heightened focus on tested academics may crowd out other types of learning experiences, we find that time spent on subjects that are not tested as part of NCLB (social studies, science, music, art and particularly P.E.) has dropped… Our results clearly demonstrate that today’s kindergarten classrooms focus on more advanced academic content, are more literacy-focused, and rely more heavily on teacher-directed whole group instruction… For instance, kindergarteners in the later period are exposed to much less PE, science and social studies and much more standardized testing.”

On that note, let’s drop the pretense that canceling this show is really about “college and career readiness.”  It’s about tests.  You know it, I know it, and the school that canceled this show knows it.  What do you see when you look in the educational mirror and see a nation that endorses a testing regime that leads to the cancellation of kindergarten programs so that students can prepare for standardized tests… sorry, college and career?

I see a nation that needs to look critically at whether or not this is what is best for our kids.  Our national “failures” have long been blamed on our public schools, but could these claims simply be an attempt to avoid looking deeper into our society’s reflection?  Was the failure to launch a satellite before Sputnik really because the Soviets had better math and science programs than the United States?  Did the Soviets really do ANYTHING better than we did?  Do you know what Sputnik did?  It beeped.  That’s it.  It circled the Earth and beeped.  Twelve years later we put a man on the moon and we did it with graduates from the same American schools that were considered horrible a decade before.

Were Japanese cars and electronics really superior to our Chryslers and Zeniths because American schools did not prepare students for global competition?  If you can blame the Pinto, Gremlin, or Pacer on teachers with a straight face, then more power to you.  The business sector has mastered the art of shifting responsibility for their lousy ideas to our schools.  But do you know what country leads the world in patents issued since World War II?  We do.  That’s right, our lousy American public schools have been cranking out more innovative thinkers than any other country over the past 70 years, and Ford now ranks with Toyota and Honda in terms of quality.

What about the housing bubble that destroyed our economy in 2008?  Are our schools to blame for the Wall Street greed, government deregulation, and predatory lending practices that led to the Great Recession?  Hardly, but thanks to a nifty diversion by the federal government, testing companies and wealthy venture philanthropists we are now using that recession as a reason to take even more of the “American” out of our American public schools.

I say that because Kindergarten music programs are what Americans do.  We dress our kids up in cute costumes, teach them songs they will sing incessantly at the dinner table, charge up our video camera, and pack the school cafeteria for a rousing performance of “Bear Went Over the Mountain” or whatever these shows are called (you know you only pay attention when your kid is singing).  I did it, you did it, Warren Buffett did it (probably), and I’d bet the house that Joe Biden did it.

We sang songs about friendship or teamwork or sharing or something and became the best country in the world doing it.

As Bassok points out later in her article:

“…teaching academic content need not be at odds with “play” and other types of pedagogical approaches considered developmentally appropriate in early childhood.”

That’s the America I want to see when I look in the mirror of education.  The America that learns and plays.  Because that’s what we do better than any other country in the world.

Dare to be Different? Not in Arkansas

University of Arkansas colleague Dr. Dennis Beck penned the following piece relating the unique experience of homeschooling in the accountability era through the story of his daughter’s experience with the third grade standardized test. 

I live in Arkansas, and we homeschool. My oldest child has never taken a standardized test before, and was now being required to take one.  We value education rather highly in our family, and talk about college and career quite a bit. We have great conversations about topics that she cares deeply about. We also talk about how her interests may someday combine to form a career – a series of things that she could pursue together and in the process earn an income. Well, when I first described the standardized test to her she was dumbfounded.  Why would anyone want to waste her time in such a manner?  Didn’t they know that even the format of the test (multiple choice) made it nearly impossible to gauge what she was learning?  Add to that the reality that there is no real way to compare each student’s individualized learning path with that of another, and she was thoroughly confused.

She was also more than a little anxious. So we bought her a book with a few sample problems and she learned how to color in bubbles on a test sheet.  I asked her if that made her feel smarter. “Not really” was her disinterested reply.  So I explored the possibility of her “opting out” of the test. I was told in a rather condescending way that my daughter was required to take the test, or that she would be counted as truant and referred to the courts. The result might be that we would be forced to place her in public school the next year (a bit of an overreaction?!?).

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So we decided to have her take the test.  We told her that it didn’t matter how she did on the test and that she was really the best person to assess her own learning because she knew her own strengths and weaknesses. We also told her that if she encountered a problem that she didn’t know or a word that she didn’t know the definition of, she should try her best or just skip the question and move on to the next one.

After the test, we talked about her experience.  This is a young lady who is thoroughly enthused and engaged by art, music, literature, math, science, history and other subjects when she is learning at home, but when placed in an artificial testing environment, she immediately disengaged. She told us about how the instructor wouldn’t answer any of her questions, that the questions were extremely easy, and how most of all, she didn’t learn a thing.  Later she even mentioned doodling on her paper when she finished early.  She was bored.

Since taking the test, she has asked me what will be done with the tests.  Arkansas’ official policy is that no one, including the state, sees the exam results except for the parents – to which I sarcastically wonder why she had to take an exam that I do not value and will not look at in the first place? My daughter also wanted to know whether the test makers will consider what she wrote at the end of the test, “I did not learn a single thing as a result of taking this test.  It was a complete waste of time. Please do not make me take it again.  I would like to be learning instead.” She has also wondered how any of what on the test would prepare her to succeed in college.

Just in case you were wondering, my daughter is in the third grade.

Now I’m the anxious one. I’m worried that my daughter will be steered off the path of authentic, meaningful learning and taught that learning is about being able to regurgitate information on an exam and to color neatly inside the bubbles on the test sheet. I’m worried that she will be trained by society that everything worthy of learning is black and white and answerable in 4 or 5 different choices.  I’m also concerned that she will be raised in a community where people don’t question what they are learning and don’t spend time reflecting on why and how they are learning something. Where people are effectively told to shut up and go along with what the state says because they know best.

I don’t want her to become another cog in the machine of “progress”, however you define it. And I recognize that the over-testing phenomenon that has hit our nation is only a symptom of a much larger problem.  Instead of embracing individualized instruction for all students, we choose to compare them to each other. Are comparisons useful enough to warrant their use, given the huge amount of data that show how destructive they are to students’ self-efficacy? No.

I want all of my children to grow up loving learning.  I want them to understand that education is not preparation for some job in the future; it is life itself (John Dewey). Thus it should be enjoyed just as life is enjoyed – one moment at a time, uniquely for each person. I want them to grow up knowing that “revolt is the right of the people” (John Locke) and not just willingly allow themselves to be squeezed into doing things the way their society tells them. I want them to know that “the person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years but the one with the richest experiences” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Thus they will spend their lives seeking out rich learning experiences, whether in formal or informal education.

Yet people like my daughter and I are being labeled as problems and threatened to conform or else suffer legal action. We are being asked – demanded – to align our educational approach to an approach that has no backing in educational research. Those who seek to do this, and to implement regular comparisons of student learning should be recognized as the backward, flat-earthers that they are, and treated as such. People learn at different paces, and have a huge variety of interests and strengths.  That is reality – not their artificial world of lock-step widgets that all advance at a particular time and in the exact same way.

Dennis Beck is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Arkansas. He enjoys teaching instructional design and how to thoughtfully integrate technology into instruction.  But he finds most of his enjoyment in spending time with his wife and children – learning and living the rich experiences life has to offer. Contact Dennis at debeck@uark.edu

Why We Chose to Opt Out

Thousands of children in our state are headed into schools today to take standardized tests mandated by the federal government under No Child Left Behind.  Our fourth grade son won’t be one of them.

opt-out5Opting your children out of standardized tests is a very personal decision, and one that has been far more difficult to make than we originally thought it would be.  There has been a lot of attention given in the media lately to children who won’t be taking standardized tests and the parents who have chosen to opt them out.  In response to this attention, those who have the most to gain from high stakes testing have begun to push back, even chastising parents for their personal choices.

Today’s post is dedicated to explaining the personal decision we made to opt our son out of standardized testing.  In writing this I don’t hope to convince you to opt your own children out of future testing.  In fact, that’s why I waited until today to post this, to provide some food for future thought.

I’m an educator, an academic and a parent. In the current climate of education in the US I have very little power over my kids’ education in any of these three roles.  As an educator I have watched politicians, corporations and wealthy philanthropists take more and more control over K-12 schools.  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards are all examples of how education is guided by those with wealth and power rather than those with wealth of knowledge.

No Child Left Behind started us down this path in 2002 by tying federal money to standardized tests.  Give the tests or lose out on millions in Title I funds that go to schools with the neediest children.  President Obama used the billions of dollars that were part of his Race to the Top to program to double down on NCLB by enticing states to compete for grants.  In return, states were expected to adopt a common set of college and career ready standards (CCSS) and institute teacher evaluation systems that used test scores to measure teacher performance.

In the future, these test scores will be based on the Common Core State Standards, a set of de facto national standards that were created undemocratically, were not written by single classroom teacher, endured absolutely no field testing, suffer from dubious developmental appropriateness, and were forced down the necks of states by the federal government during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

So its no wonder that we sometimes see schools and teachers losing their minds in order to make sure that their students do well on these tests.  They are required to administer them, federal monies are attached to them, their performance evaluations depend on them, and the legislatures of some states are already looking for ways to make it easier to fire them.  Standardized tests are a gun that is being held to the livelihood of every public school teacher in the United States. Knowing all this makes it easier to understand why some schools have turned to disturbing practices like DATA WALLS, forcing teachers to teach from scripted lesson plans that don’t allow for differentiation, narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested subjects rather than a well-rounded education, and judging students by the numbers they produce.

Meanwhile, a $500 billion dollar national market has been created in education thanks to Common Core and the endless tests our states and schools purchase.  The Education sector is now 9% of G.D.P in the United States.  That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Money.  And there is no shortage of “edupreneurs” who are jumping into that market to get their share of the pot.  As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done.  The only problem is that none of this is true.  None of it. Don’t believe me?  Read this.  Or this.  Or this.  Good old common sense says these reforms will work.  High quality research says they don’t.  In fact, we have been trying to “save” our public schools with standards, testing and reforms for so long that they’ve actually become the “status quo”.

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together.  Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with.  Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states.  Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners.  Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are.  Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used.  Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve.  When used for that purpose, tests are great.  Still limited, but great.  However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive.  As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed.  But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.  Federal laws clearly give us the right as parents to guide the education of our children.  While the Secretary of Education has recently pushed for changes to  those laws in order to give corporations as much access to your child’s data as any teacher or administrator has, he hasn’t been able to take away our right to decide what’s best for our child.  Not yet anyway.

So we’re exercising that right.  We’re taking one bullet out of the standardized test gun that is being held to the heads of our nation’s schools and teachers.  It’s only one bullet, and there’s millions more left in the chamber, but it is OUR bullet so that’s what we’re going to do.

Some would say that our decision actually hurts our child’s school because they NEED those test scores in order to stave off the federal government’s punishments under NCLB.  Schools automatically “fail” under NCLB if schools don’t test at least 95% of their students each year.  We prefer to take the long view on that issue.  Educators have become so concerned with meeting short term testing goals in order to avoid punishment that many of them have lost perspective and a vision for the big picture.  We are far more concerned about what will happen if the status quo is allowed to continue unchallenged.  We will not allow our child’s test score to be used to punish schools or teachers.

Others ask, “How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?”  The answer to that is pretty simple.  We trust our son’s teachers.  The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon.  There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students.  We believe this should still be the case.  We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of.  Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government.  Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer?  Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer.  They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity.  As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous.  Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine  what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles.  Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

These are only a few reasons why we have decided to opt our son out of high-stakes and punitive standardized tests.  We don’t expect everybody who reads this to agree with us.  As I mentioned at the outset of this post, opting out is a very personal decision.  In fact, it is the personal nature of the decision that makes it a legitimate one in our eyes.  We just hope that reading this will give you something to think about as you make your own decision about your own child.

The No Number Parent-Teacher Conference Challenge

I met with my sons’ teachers yesterday for parent teacher conferences.  Both of their teachers are amazing in their own unique ways, but they share a common love for young people that long ago convinced me that my boys were in good hands.

I started with Cooper’s second grade teacher and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, we sat down at the little table where my adult knees didn’t quite fit and I told her I wanted to issue a friendly challenge.

“Let’s discuss Cooper’s progress in your class without using a single number that you did not generate.”

She was clearly surprised by my challenge but quickly recovered and we discussed Coop’s social developments, his leadership qualities and how much he likes to learn.   He especially loves to read.   She showed me sophotome of his writing and I found out that he loves his mommy, his family, and his teacher.  Actually, I just had my previous suspicions confirmed.  He’s been pretty clear about these matters in the past.

We eventually got to the point where I was discussing how we were trying to limit the amount of time our kids spend on their electronic devices.  Did she have any suggestions for how he could spend some time productively with academic enrichment?  She told me about a math enrichment program the district had purchased that could help students with things they specifically needed to improve.  Then her look of uncertainty returned as she pulled out a page of his test scores generated by a computer-based testing program and said,  “I didn’t generate this number but…”

We had failed our challenge but I was okay with that because I had actually achieved the challenge’s purpose.  To understand what I mean we have to go back in time a bit.

I’ve noticed a drastic change in parent teacher conferences over the past 15 years.  Back in the late 90′s when I first began teaching, parent conferences were often unstructured conversations in which we would talk about grades, homework completion, social development, and just “how they were doing”.  These conversations were helpful, but when parents asked me what their sons or daughters could do in order to improve in class, my responses were usually informed only by the data I had at hand, which consisted of my grade book and some examples of work.  I didn’t have the data to provide a really good answer beyond “make sure he does his homework” or “study for tests”.

Now we have the data.  A lot of data.  It’s a veritable DATAPALOOZA in schools today.   So much data that I’ve found that parent conferences are now mostly guided by stacks of test score data.  I only experience parent-teacher conferences from the other side of the table now, and in those meetings I’ve seen State test scores, MAPS test scores, Accelerated Reader test scores, District created benchmark test scores…etc.  Data driven indeed.   Sometimes the discussion of test scores would take up the entire 15 minutes I had been allotted.  Eventually, my wife and I would just politely tell the teacher that we both had statistical training and could decipher the pages on our own.  Could we discuss “how he’s doing” instead?

Not having solid data back in the “old days” wasn’t ideal, but neither is the data avalanche that turns conferences about kids into a blur of numbers.

Thus the challenge.

I wanted to start the conversation with “How’s he doing?” because I believe that’s the most important question.  Does he work hard?  Does he get along with others? Does he have friends?  Does he like to read as much as he tells us he does?  These are questions that only a caring adult who is paying attention like a teacher does can answer, so that’s where we started.  There isn’t a test score in the world that can answer these questions.

But then we came to the question that I didn’t always answer very well back when I was a classroom teacher working from just a grade book.  “How can I help him improve?”  Fortunately, since she is the “smartiest and niciest teacher ever”, she knew just where to look.  Whipping out a single page of data, she was able to circle the aspects of math that Cooper scores well on, and the aspects he can improve upon.  Then she told us how he can use the district’s program at home for some enrichment in that area.  That was the only test score we talked about.

I felt like I had accomplished my goal as a parent because together we had achieved what I had sometimes failed as a teacher.  I had talked about my child’s progress with his teacher for 15 minutes, found out a lot about “how he’s doing” and left with a concrete suggestion for how I can help him improve a specific area of relative weakness in math.

I won’t presume to know how his teacher felt about my challenge.  I know that she has to explain test scores to many parents because they may not understand them otherwise.  I also know that explaining data over and over again to different people can feel very impersonal.  I couldn’t help but notice that she looks a lot happier when talking about children than she does when she’s talking about data.

My challenge to the readers of EduSanity is to try to make sure that you have both parts of this discussion at your next parent-teacher conference.  Learn how to read standardized test scores if you don’t already know how so that you can spend more time talking about “how your child is doing” and less time deciphering graphs and percentiles.  Most modern test score printouts contain an explanation of what the numbers mean.

At the very least make sure the discussion starts with anything but a number.

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