Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page
I know folks in Georgia and around the country have been watching the case of Troy Davis and wondering if he is, indeed, going to be executed tonight. The execution has been delayed (a temporary stay was granted) for now – here is a live broadcast from the prison through Democracy Now.
This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Here he critiques a report that was published by the American Enterprise Institute in August and titled, “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade.” The title tells you exactly what’s in that report.
By Peter Smagorinsky
I began teaching in 1976, first in high schools and ultimately in teacher education programs. Much has changed in my 35 years as a teacher, but one thing remains constant: I have always held myself accountable for my students’ learning. When students have done poorly in my classes, I have tried to understand how I could have taught the class better in order to produce richer learning. When they have done well, I have assumed that my annual adjustments have worked enough so that students grasped the course content and learned how to engage with it in their writing. Although some students have done poorly no matter what I’ve done, I’ve always tried to make myself responsible to a great degree for what students learn and how their grades reflect that learning.
However, in an August 2011 report written by Economics Professor Cory Koedel at the University of California at San Diego, a very different set of assumptions is at work.
To Koedel, who is the latest in the current wave of educational experts who have never taught in a K-12 school, when education students get good grades, it’s because the teacher has low standards, not because the teacher has worked hard to insure rich learning and high-level academic performances. Koedel’s report was published by theAmerican Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. dedicated to “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.” The institute says it values “independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, facts, and the highest standards of research and exposition,” yet all of their publications seem to reach the same conclusion: that free market solutions solve all problems.
I’m no economist, so I can’t say how the sort of open educational market that Koedel embraces would actually work. Yet though Koedel is no expert on schools, he and other entrepreneurs think that they know my business better than I do.
People who don’t understand schools tend to find them easy environments to manage. Everything gets reduced to simple statistics that tell the whole story (for the most part, multiple-choice standardized test scores). It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are: Facts are facts and figures are figures, and if you find the particular set of facts and figures that they favor to be problematic, then you are part of the problem.
Koedel’s beliefs rest on his finding that students in education classes, since 1960, have been awarded higher grades than students in other university disciplines. He bases this conclusion on two studies, one from 1960 and one that he has conducted more recently. If two studies find the same thing a half-century apart, he reasons, then everything happening in between — not to mention before and after — must be that way as well.
Koedel illustrates his belief about low educational standards with an anecdote about a school administrator who believes her teachers are all doing well until pressed to say whether or not she’d want her own children taught by them. The school administrator’s answer that ‘no, she would not,’ enables Koedel to condemn university education programs across the nation over a 50-year span, and by implication, forever and beyond.
Using anecdotal evidence, I could prove just about anything. My son is an economics major in college and complains that his economics professors are terrible teachers because they don’t explain the concepts clearly and because they evaluate him by means of tests instead of by more realistic and complex problem-solving that requires the application of economics concepts. Using Koedel’s reasoning process, I could conclude that economics professors are universally, and always have been, lousy teachers because they give low grades based on poor instruction and misplaced assessments. My son’s belief in their ineptitude proves it, because single anecdotes provide conclusive evidence.
Koedel’s reasoning throughout his report is specious. He says at one point, “I am not aware of any rigorous evidence that explicitly links higher grading standards in education departments to improved teaching performance in K-12 schools. But this does not mean a link does not exist” — he just hasn’t found evidence to support it yet. He then asserts the link as a fact. A stock broker friend of mine once told me that people throwing darts at a random map of corporations could predict the market as well as most trained economists do. I’ve never found evidence to support this assertion, but it looks like a fact to me if recent market forecasts are any indication, and that’s good enough for Koedel, so it’s good enough for me.
Here’s another example of his reasoning: “Undergraduate education majors become teachers, teachers become principals, and principals become district-level administrators,” proving to Koedel that easy grading in university teacher education programs (or at least the two he features in his article) leads to lax standards all the way up the ladder. I suppose that he assumes that nothing intervenes in the 20-30 years between being a college kid — perhaps with conscientious education faculty whose good teaching produces rich learning and thus high grades — and running a school district. I imagine it also enables me to blame the recent Wall Street crisis on incompetent university economics professors and the dysfunctional ethical and intellectual culture they foster.
To Koedel, “The fundamental problem is simple: there is no pressure from competitive markets in education.” First, he sees the problem and solution as “simple,” and anyone who thinks that operating schools effectively is simple is an ignoramus. Second, he’s wrong. There are plenty of alternatives, from homeschooling to private schools to transfer options to alternative schools to changing teachers to dropping out and working. But that fact is inconvenient to his simplistic belief in free markets. He also asserts that “the solution, as with any market failure, is external intervention.” I wonder how the American Enterprise Institute feels about solving problems in the corporate world by means of external regulation.
Schools of education can surely be improved; too many teachers complain about the ones they attended to think otherwise. I attended one awful teacher education program, and one great one, and I know the difference. The horrible one relied on droning lectures and multiple choice tests, and the outstanding one required extensive written work in relation to challenging texts and problems through which we synthesized theory and research into the sorts of teaching ideas that produce rich and complex learning that cannot be simplistically assessed.
From what I can see, schools of economics could use some work as well, given that they appear to condone instruction and assessment remarkably like that of the bad teacher education program I attended. At least education faculty don’t have the temerity to think that they can fix either university economics departments or Wall Street with simplistic, untested, uninformed solutions in relation to problems about which they have little knowledge or experience. Physician: Heal thyself, or at least stick to healing illnesses about which you have at minimum a vague understanding.
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Fabulous letter from a superintendent in Georgia about his insights and regrets regarding NCLB and the high-stakes testing mania that has been and continues to ruin children’s sense of what is possible for them through education:
(From Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog at AJC)
10:11 am August 31, 2011, by Maureen Downey
A while back, I ran a piece from Jim Arnold, superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Mitchell County. Several of you commented that you wished you worked for such a straight-talking school chief.
I think that sentiment is going to be even stronger after this piece, which I plan to run on the Monday education page that I assemble for the AJC. But I can’t fit all of it in the newspaper, so here is the full version.
By Jim Arnold
We’ve done it now. Eleven years we had to educate the public, to register our protests and do everything in our power to warn people what was coming, and we blew it. We knew the moment would eventually come and we hem-hawed, looked at the ground, kicked at the dirt with our shoes and failed to look the opposition in the eye and face them down. All of us saw this coming, but very few took a stand and now we – and our students – are paying the price. We could have been prophets but failed the test.
We allowed the proponents of NCLB to control the discussion from the beginning. They wrote the language, sent out the media notices and explanations, wrote the definitions of AYP, Highly Qualified and leaned heavily on the fact that none of us would dare protest anything to do with a name that implies we would be providing a high quality education for every single child in America. They were right. We chose not to speak out, not to fight against a system we knew from the beginning would set us all up for failure, and instead, in our best Dudley DoRight impersonations we set about to change the way we taught and measured and tested and graded and thought.
We knew from the outset that NCLB and its goal of 100 percent – every child proficient in every area as determined by a single test on a single day each year – was patently, blatantly and insidiously absurd, but we took no concerted action. We knew Adequate Yearly Progress was a sham, and we literally and figuratively rolled over and tried our best to meet whatever impossible goals they set for us and our students. We knew that Federal law in NCLB was a violation of Federal law in IDEA but we went along with the insanity of testing Students with Disabilities based on chronological age rather than by IEP.
We learned very quickly and much to our chagrin that some student scores – usually the lowest ones – were counted not once, not twice, but often as many as three times, but we went along to get along. All of us were aware that Highly Qualified, for all the high rhetoric that went along with it, only served to make certification as much of a barrier as humanly possible for Special Education teachers regardless of degree or experience. It seems the teachers we needed most were subjected to the greatest roadblocks to reaching the nirvana of HiQ certification.
We tried our best to play the game but the game was rigged from the start. When the AMO’s were low it was pretty easy for most schools. When the AMO’s went up and more and more schools were labeled “failing” we looked around in a panic for help. Surely nobody believed a school deserved the failing label because two or three kids in a subgroup didn’t pass a test? Yes they did. Yes they still do. We let them make the definitions and apply the labels, even when we realized the absurdity of it all.
We actually pretended to believe that it was important for us to make sure that every child was tested on those all important test days so none could escape the trauma we inflicted upon them. We even learned in some places to game the system and hold back those kids we feared might not pass the test or might raise those student numbers to create a subgroup in areas we really didn’t want to see a subgroup or, God help us, to cheat or to make sure that we could hold out two or three or four of “those kids” on test days so their poor scores wouldn’t have a negative effect.
Oh sure, some of you stuck your necks out and said something to the effect of “NCLB forced us to take a closer look at ourselves, and we are better off for that” in spite of the fact that it was our students that were suffering the consequences. What balderdash. What hubris. Our kids were the ones whose education was stilted by our submission to the belief that one test could effectively distill and determine the depth and extent of an entire year of a child’s education. They are the ones whose time was wasted by “academic pep rallies” and “test prep” and by the subtle and insidious ways we told them the test was “important” and put pressure on them to “do their best because our school is counting on you.”
They were the ones that did without art and music and chorus and drama because we increased the amount of time they spent in ELA and Math. They were the ones that had time in their Social Studies and Science classes cut back more and more so schools could focus on the “really important areas” of ELA and Math. They were the ELL’s that couldn’t speak English but still had to take the test. Their teachers were the ones that were told “your grading of the children in your classes doesn’t count any more because standardization is more important to us that the individual grades you provide.” This told them in effect that their efforts at teaching were important but only if they taught using “this” methodology or “this” curriculum, then, when things started to go badly, they were the first to be blamed for the failure of public education. They were told to teach every child the same way with the same material but make sure to individualize while you’re at it. Hogwash.
After a couple of years of this insanity, the “NI” status began to take its toll. Someone somewhere invented the term “failing schools” and, unsurprisingly, the label stuck. Students were given the opportunity to transfer to more test-successful schools, but at a price. Schools that did not meet AYP standards, oddly enough, were often those with high minority populations and high poverty. Nobody seemed to notice the zip code effect that left predominantly white schools meeting AYP standards and minority schools caught by the “failing” label. Oh surely, we reasoned, our government would not want to put public education in a situation it could not win………..or would they?
I struggled with the rest of you as to why NCLB would go to such great lengths to make public education appear to be such a failure, to set up a system that would guarantee failure for practically every public school as we advanced toward that magical 100 percent level and provide no tangible rewards for success and such punitive actions for not meeting arbitrary goals. On top of all of that, I failed to recognize why our nation’s legislators so nimbly avoided even the discussion of reauthorization to change what everyone knew was a failed policy. One day it finally hit me.
They didn’t want to change the policy, because the policy was designed in theory and in fact not to aid education but to create an image of a failed public school system in order to further the implementation of vouchers and the diversion of public education funds to private schools.
I am not usually a conspiracy theory guy, but this was no theory. These were cold hard facts slapping me in the face. We failed in our obligations to protect our students from one of the most destructive educational policies since “separate but equal.” We did not educate the public on the myth and misdirection of Adequate Yearly Progress, and we allowed closet segregationists to direct the implementation of policies that we knew would result in our being the guys in the black hats responsible for “the failure of public education.”
Now we are paying the price. AYP is here to stay in one form or another, and the vast majority of our parents and public really believe the propaganda that it actually measures a school’s educational progress. If we try to convince them otherwise we are “making excuses.”
Vouchers – especially for private and charter schools exempt from the same restrictive, destructive policies we are forced to endure – are a part of every legislative session in almost every state. High stakes testing for all public education students is considered a necessary reality and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Student test scores will soon determine teacher pay in some places even with no data to support the correlation. Students that do not graduate high school in four years are labeled as dropouts, even if they graduate in nine or 10 semesters.
Only first-time test takers are considered in the grading system for schools regardless of how many students ultimately pass the test. It will take years to undo the damage done to science, social studies, fine arts, foreign languages and other academic electives. Generations will not be enough to rid ourselves and our students of the testing mania neuroses created by our attempts to quantify the unquantifiable.
I hope the generation of teachers and administrators that follows has learned something from the failure of our generation to ward off those determined to destroy public education. We didn’t stand up to be counted, we didn’t stand in the schoolhouse door and tell them they couldn’t do that to our kids, and we didn’t educate the public about what a gigantic failure another one size fits all education policy would be. In the words of that great educator and philosopher Jimmy Buffet: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
We have all been left behind.
– From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog