Archive for April, 2009

The impoverished competitiveness agenda

Apr 27 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Three more weeks of school to go, and I’ve had to give the blog a rest – swimming hard just to tread water. But a surge of interest in curriculum reform holds promise for messy conflict and endless debate about what school is – or should be – about, and this seems like a good time to jump in. AFT president, Randi Weingarten, making a case for national education standards, touches on the problem of reaching consensus on what those standards would be about:

Education is a local issue, but there is a body of knowledge about what children should know and be able to do that should guide decisions about curriculum and testing. I propose that a broad-based group — made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content — come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model. Teachers then would need the professional development, and the teaching and learning conditions, to make the standards more than mere words.

Aside from the logical difficulty of having a “broad-based group” come together to address “a local issue,” we might also wonder how that cadre of leaders and experts would be formed. As it happens, the list of people scheduled to attend Congressman George Miller’s hearing on “Strengthening America’s Competitiveness through Common Academic Standards” this week might give us an idea. And if a recent statement [pdf] by Miller holds any clues about where he stands, we should expect to hear a lot more about the Data Quality Campaign, which has many endorsing partners. Benchmarked common standards will be the accompanying theme.

The track record of the standards movement over the last 20 years leaves little good to show for itself. To bring some coherence to what is, and maybe should be happening, Thomas Mertz asks and answers the question, “What’s at stake with the standards movement?: ‘[T]he kind of individuals we are developing and the kind of nation we wish to be.’” He posted a video with an interview by William A. Proefriedt, author of High Expectations: The Cultural Roots of Standards Reform in American Education,” which was reviewed in TC Record.

From Emerson’s Education:

I confess myself utterly at a loss in suggesting particular reforms in our ways of teaching. No discretion that can be lodged with a school-committee, with the overseers or visitors of an academy, of a college, can at all avail to reach these difficulties and perplexities, but they solve themselves when we leave institutions and address individuals.

Worth a look.

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Make Your Mark Heavy and Dark

This is testing week, and I’ve been listening to what the kids are hearing about the tests.

“Relax; just do your best.”

“The tests give us information about how we can help you.”

“You will not be held back or get a bad grade on your report card if you don’t do well on the test.”

“Some questions may be difficult for you.”

“The tests help us to see if you are on track to pass your high school qualifying exams.”

“Get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good breakfast. Relax, do your best, and don’t worry. Nobody likes testing, but it’s something we all have to do.”

“Think positively.”

When I passed out the official practice materials from The State two weeks ago, I asked what anyone knew about the tests. Not much, it turns out. One person thought maybe they needed to pass a test to get through middle school. Not yet, I said, but you do have to pass one to graduate from high school. Nobody else said anything, and everyone looked kind of glum when they saw what we were going to do that afternoon.

Other than just regular teaching, I do no test prep all year. Rehearsing test-taking skills never helps low achievers pass tests, in my experience, and even it did I wouldn’t spend much time on it because it’s perverted to practice things that have no inherent value. The official practice test is my one – perverted – exception to the rule.

Before I handed them out to the kids I talked a little about the history of standardized tests, about how they’ve been used to measure student progress and evaluate educational programs. I told them that the current tests were developed about 10 years ago, and that they’re intended to show us if kids are learning what they need to know to pass the high school qualifying exams. “So we can know what we need to work harder on,” someone added. Yeah, something like that.

Then I told them that each year, more and more kids were expected to pass, leading up to the year 2014, when everyone would be expected to pass. Loud guffaws and unsolicited comments broke out all around.

“That will not happen!”

“I thought the people in charge were supposed to be smart.”

“What about kids who have learning disabilities?” said one little guy. “Like me, I have trouble with math, and I don’t know why; it’s just hard for me, and it takes me a long time to do it.”

I said that we were working on it, and it’s like a game with levels. Level 0 is the best. The school drops a level each time not enough kids pass, and each level has new consequences until we get to level 5, when the school can be closed down. Right now, we’re at level 2, I told them. And if we pass this year, we go back to level 0 and start over. They wanted to know more about the consequences. Oh, I said, it’s stuff like other people getting to tell us how we teach and what books and tests we have to use.

“That’s harsh,” said a boy in the back.

He got that one right.

But it’s not all bad. One of my former students, a kid with an excellent grasp of writing mechanics, but who never wrote anything, nonetheless passed the writing test one year. Evidently, writing ability is not absolutely necessary even though there are a couple of essay questions. This should be a comfort to teachers with students who are resistant to writing – break out those drill sheets. You, too, can get by with bubbling answers if you choose.

When we talk about the pressure to teach to the test, one of my dedicated colleagues says, “I’m just going to be the best teacher I can be, and when that isn’t good enough, they can tell me to leave.” Me, too.

No teacher who is paying attention needs a standardized test, longitudinal or otherwise, to find out whether students are learning what they need to know. If, as Arne Duncan says, “The path to real reform begins with the truth,” he’s going to have to make some new friends and stop kidding himself about how this stuff actually works.

This afternoon before they left, I told my students that tomorrow was the writing test. “I hate writing,” I heard someone say.

“No you don’t,” I told him. “You guys are great writers and you write all the time.”

“Oh yeah. We have a whole website full of our writing,” he said

I’m waiting for someone to ask why we only give out snacks during testing week.

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