Archive for April, 2011

Beyond Punishments and Rewards

Apr 03 2011 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Last week, in simple language that a child could understand, President Obama denounced his own administration’s policies on standardized testing in the public schools. According to Obama:

Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let"™s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let"™s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let"™s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let"™s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

Because there are other criteria: What"™s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

He said more than that, but that was the gist of his response to a question asked by a student at a town hall meeting at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. asking if he could reduce the amount of tests that are required.

More Questions
Anthony Cody wrote a blog post, Obama Blasts His Own Education Policies, in which he noted that Obama’s expressed vision for the role that testing should play in education runs counter to the reform policies being advanced by his own Dept. of Education. In what must be an education blogging coup, Cody got a response from the Dept. of Education’s press office asking him to correct what they claimed was a misinterpretation of Obama’s remarks. But wonders do not cease, and after Cody gave them some questions to answer regarding the DOE’s increasing reliance on tests to measure student progress, teacher effectiveness, merit pay, and to determine which schools will be reconstituted, Justin Hamilton, Press Secretary for Strategic Communications in DOE’s Communications and Outreach office attempted to tackle them. I am enjoying this exchange immensely, and I’ve been watching it unfold for the past few days. Thank you so much, Anthony Cody!

Cody is using the occasion to explore the discrepancies between Obama’s expressed vision and his actual education policies, pointing to the central education reform issue, how learning should be assessed in school. I want to explore this issue, but before doing that we should look at something else Obama said at the town hall meeting because it casts doubt upon the sincerity of his remark that we should not use tests to punish schools or students, and whether this is actually his “vision” or just a mirage he is throwing out there to mislead people. In response to another question at that same meeting Obama said:

So we"™re going to have to take a comprehensive approach to make sure that we reduce dropout rates. And the last point I"™ll make on this — there are about 2,000 schools in the country where the majority of dropouts take place. I mean, we can name them. We know what these schools are. And for us to put some extra help, some intensive help, into those schools to help turn them around is something that we’ve really got to focus on.

Mr. Conde and I were both at a school down in Miami that used to have a 60 percent dropout rate and now they"™ve been able to reduce that drastically because they completely turned the school around — got a new principal, got — about a third of the teachers were new, had a whole new approach, had the whole community surround them.

We can do that with each of those 2,000 schools around the country, we can make a big difference.

No matter which way I look at it, this is punitive. By “extra help” Obama means firing people, bringing in fresh blood and tearing apart the school community. These solutions to school problems do not help the people most in need, but merely shift the burden onto others. Obama is a politician, not an educator. I do not believe he has any clue about what really needs to be done to improve schools in this country. He is mouthing nonsense words that are just as meaningless as the nonsense words that are now used in curriculum based measures to assess whether students grasp “the alphabetic principle” – a perfect example of miseducation if ever there was one.

It is outrageous that children are schooled to pronounce sounds taken from lists of meaningless drivel instead of being taught the joy of verbal playfulness.

And it’s very telling that the Dept. of Education felt a need to “explain” what Obama so clearly said, and in doing so produced a much longer and tortured statement about why there might be more tests (but not necessarily) and how, “Instead of fostering a classroom culture of continuous improvement, our current assessment system often leaves teachers and parents feeling frustrated and lacking information that could help them accelerate student learning,” offering us an excellent self-referential example of that very phenomenon if ever we should feel the need to go looking for one. Justin Hamilton also managed to mention formative assessments half a dozen times, and he recommended that we read Arne Duncan’s speech “Beyond the Bubble Tests” in which the Secretary tries in vain to help us understand the “next generation of assessments.” I say tries because Arne Duncan has a speech impediment that causes everything he says to come out sounding like educratese, a.k.a. gibberish. “Beyond the Bubble Tests” is no exception. It is a word salad worthy of Sarah Palin.

Some Answers
It has taken me a while to get to this point, I know, but this business of formative assessment is important.

In the comments to Cody’s post featuring Justin Hamilton’s remarks, Monty Neil says:

As most commenters so far have noted, Hamilton completely misuses the term ‘formative assessment.’ Who knows if he simply does not understand the concept and practice or is deliberately sowing confusion. An excellent description/definition of formative by an international group of educators is at – I encourage people to use it and send reporters, educators, policymakers to it so they can understand the term. The proper definition should be in the next ESEA.

The link to the Position Paper on Assessment for Learning is important, and anyone who is the least bit curious about what formative assessment is, how it looks, or the role it might play in a healthy school system should follow that link or download this pdf. Simply put:

Assessment for Learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning.

These things can not be packaged and sold. They are ongoing practices embedded in the cultural fabric of the classroom and the school, emerging out of the real needs of participants in the learning/teaching process to help one another reach mutually agreed upon goals.

Contrast this with The Harvard Business Review article written this very same week by Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Education and Director of the Race to the Top Fund (thank you, Susan Ohanian). Addressing Vulture Capital’s real interest in education reform Weiss writes:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

And they will be more than happy to sell us as many of those next generation “formative assessments” and high tech “progress monitoring” programs as frightened, well-intentioned school administrators will buy.

Finally, at the bottom of the Assessment for Learning position paper, I found an interesting link to an organization called the Assessment Reform Group who have published numerous documents available for download. I grabbed all that I could and have been browsing them. One in particular, Assessments for Learning: Beyond the Black Box offers a practical primer for teachers and policy makers on formative assessment.

So what is going on in the classroom when assessment is really being used to help learning? To begin with the more obvious aspects of their role, teachers must be involved in gathering information about pupils"™ learning and encouraging pupils to review their work critically and constructively. The methods for gaining such information are well rehearsed and are, essentially:

  • observing pupils "“ this includes listening to how they describe their work and their reasoning;
  • questioning, using open questions, phrased to invite pupils to explore their ideas and reasoning;
  • setting tasks in a way which requires pupils to use certain skills or apply ideas;
  • asking pupils to communicate their thinking through drawings, artefacts, actions, role play, concept mapping, as well as writing;
  • discussing words and how they are being used.

At this time, I am sorry to say, I see no evidence that our leaders are encouraging us to move in this direction. Why not? Easy. It doesn’t require the collection and tracking of numerical data or the consumption of any market-based “solutions.”

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