Monday, November 3, 2014

Time Travel and Rats in a Shoebox

Well, fasten your seatbelt. Let's go back in time. While I have been nursing my cold, someone else wrote a great description of what I had been planning to discuss. Let's start with that.

Once upon a time "standardized tests" were administered periodically, without any particular fanfare, to students across the country. The results were looked at in general terms to see how districts compared, and which schools within a district might be stronger or weaker --- and that information was used to initiate additional review. Somewhere along the line scores began to get out and were used by some folks to claim one school was better than another --- then property values went up around "good schools" --- then schools began to chase high test scores. That wouldn't be a problem if it were purely a function of improved instruction... but it wasn't. In many cases instruction became so focused on test scores, that large chunks of other important education got lost. ----Cindy Vaillancourt, member, Howard County Board of Education and candidate for re-election.

To be clear, the words "somewhere along the line", clearly refer to No Child Left Behind and its aftermath. With the institution of NCLB, a decision was made that the way to accurately assess progress in remediating the achievement gap would be through standardized testing. And the way to make sure schools took that testing seriously would be to attach serious consequences to "failure". Hence, the term, "high-stakes standardized testing."

The problem is that lawmakers chose an inaccurate measure on which to focus their efforts. Since 2001 study after study shows that these tests show correlation with the level of poverty or affluence of the student. In addition, studies also show that the greatest indicator of school failure is poverty.

Look at this list, included in a recent letter by Assistant Principal Nancy Chewning to Time Magazine.

*Childhood poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years

*1 in 4 children lives in a food-insecure household.

*7 million children lack health insurance.

*A child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds.

*1 in 3 children is overweight or obese.

*Five children are killed daily by firearms.

*1 in 5 experiences a mental disorder.

*Racial/ethnic disparities continue to be extensive and pervasive.

*Children account for 73.5 million Americans (24%), but 8% of federal expenditures.

*Child well-being in the United States has been in decline since the most recent recession.

(From a study released by JAMA Pediatrics)

This tweet from teacher Will Valenti speaks to the disconnect between the focus of NCLB, Race to the Top, and other similar education reform:

@WillValenti: The entire #edreform narrative is a manufactured crisis. To fix real issues in education, we first must fix the wage gap for working people.

Now, to those who are concerned about who we are to know whether students are on grade level, I ask--how did we know before 2001? I know it seems like a long time ago. But the truth is school systems had established curriculums. Teachers worked with students. Students participated in learning activities and assessments. None of it was perfect, of course, because people aren't perfect nor has income equality ever been optimal. But standardized tests played a much smaller role in understanding the educational progress of the child.

There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but I still have one more place to travel today. Here. Do you remember learning about spontaneous generation? I remember being fascinated that people once believed you could put shredded paper or rags in a box and produce rats. How delightfully wacky. How clearly wrong-headed.

But it took systematic, laborious research by Louis Pasteur to disprove this long-accepted concept. And he was clearly challenging established thought.

We have years of research and results that show that high stakes testing does not help close the achievement gap. We have studies that show how attempts to adhere to NCLB and Race to the Top have narrowed educational experiences and opportunities for our children. And yet we still keep putting shredded newspaper in a box, hoping for rats.

Coming back to the present day, my suggestions for addressing what the "Ed reform" movement was meant to address?

  • High quality prenatal care
  • Addressing childhood poverty
  • Including the expertise of teachers, who have been on the front lines all along, in creating and sustaining plans for improvement.

To those who say, "what will we do instead?" I remind you--it was not ever thus. And it need not be now, if we so choose.

Think outside the box.




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