Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How the Testing Grinch Hijacked Learning

Part A

Every US public school student, and their parents, by now have experienced the joys of NCLB’s standardized testing.  Think of it as how the testing grinch hijacked learning.

An answer is a twisted path, but the only way to enlightenment.  So let’s assume you overhear the séance of a concerned parent with the departed spirits of two architects of our public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey…

Parent:  Horace and John, please, help me!  Why is some massive “corporate reform” movement beating up our children and teachers in public schools you created?

HM & JD:  Good morning; while we try to avoid your current society, especially your Congress, we’ll make an exception.  Recognize that I, John the humanist, and fellow spirit Horace, more authoritarian, come philosophically from different places – like your present Congress – but we still communicate with harmony.

To your question, why?  Four reasons:  (1) Because what we call the “nanny state” now trusts neither you, nor your teachers to prepare your children for life and work; (2) because your “advanced” society apparently believes all children are manufactured products needing to hew to a common knowledge mold; (3) because some segment of your society believes learning can be expressed as a “metric” (not fully understood, though one of us invented the "Dewey Decimal System” for libraries); and (4) because something called the Business Roundtable, and a person labeled a CEO from an IBM, once decided your schools weren’t adequately preparing their future employees.

Parent:  Whoa, I’m deeply offended.  You are saying we are failed parents?  Are you saying our public schools – that both of you helped configure – are failing?  Are you saying our leaders don’t trust us?

HM & JD:  Unfortunately, precisely.  What was the last non-fiction book on learning you read, or last adult education class you attended?  When was the last time you addressed your BOE with questions about your school’s curriculum, teacher quality or leadership; or challenged your BOE’s lack of transparency?  In fact, when was the last time you demanded BOE candidates answer some real education questions before their election.

Parent:  Really hurtful, but reform is working, right, based on standardized testing?  Our kids will be able to cope with a different future?

HM & JD:  You wish to move to the heart of that matter?  Admirable.  A new arrival up here, Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr. Spock, heard us and had a logical suggestion:  Type into something called your browser and an Internet, the following inquiry:

The reference is a brief but devastating critique of that testing by an extraordinary and experienced educator, originally from and taught in your Ohio, Florida’s Dr. Marion Brady.
The issue is that no amount of penalty ignorantly heaped upon your public schools, even by your White House and states, will constructively improve their capacity to deliver needed learning.  Changing the schools we envisioned must happen from the inside out, with their most important asset — your teachers — playing a crucial role.  We are baffled:  Your 21st century, sophisticated concept of corporations and management seems based on understanding of organizational behavior and human interaction we never fully conceived, but your alleged reformers are acting out one hundred year-old beliefs and concepts?

Parent:  Oops, help, you’re fading!  Our medium is losing the contact.

HM & JD:  Have no fear, good lady, well try again later; we’re not going anywhere…

Part B

A dreary day in Ohio, fitting for a séance.  A partially satisfied parent, still seeking answers, is back knocking on the portal to the spirits of architects of US public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey.

Parent:  Hello, please come back, President Mann and Dr. Dewey!

HM & JD:  Good afternoon good lady.  We do wish to continue our conversation.  When we faded, we were about to probe your testing inquiry.

Testing is not just what your contemporary tongue calls “testing.”  Common use has made the term generic.  Your standardized testing is:  One type of testing; assumes one correct answer; emphasizes memorization of alleged facts or small packets of knowledge; puts more emphasis on tricks in answering than mastery; provides little diagnostic value; based on neural research we see emerging will quickly be forgotten; won’t solve complex problems; and your society has been what you call “scammed,” with a small cabal of profiteering testing companies deciding for a nation what constitutes knowledge.  To us, preposterous. There are many types of assessment, all crucial, and your knowledge is repetitively doubling; you will never succeed with simplistic learning.

Alas, the alleged reform is also failing.  Indeed, your present society’s unbalanced and discriminatory social, economic and cultural properties now rival the tableaus we mercifully departed.  These properties have more to do with your test results than your classrooms.

Parent:  Why don’t I know all of this, and what can I do about it?

HM & JD:  This is complicated.  Your “reform” has been going on for 35 years.  But your – our – public schools have ignored modernization responsibilities, and retreated into comfortable inbred enclaves avoiding change, complicated by failure of your schools of education to properly educate both your teachers and schoolmasters.  Instead of creative public school improvement we see schools fearful of government and transparency, with underdeveloped educators, and lacking the courage to change.

What can you do?  That is a tough question – you’re learning.  The representation of reformers is, that without standardized testing, you wouldn’t know what your children are achieving.  We contest this.  Many decades ago parents knew what their children were achieving because teachers developed and gave tests, they heard recitation, they gave out report cards, and parents talked to both their children and their teachers.  Right now your Congress is even conflicted on renewing what you call ESEA/NCLB, leaving in doubt whether they will double-down on, or scale back testing?

Parent:  (Censored), so now what?

HM & JD:  We both believe that local control of education is still the best path for learning.  Looking down, we see across the nation hundreds of thousands of parents now courageously opting their children out of that testing.  Testing is improving, adding more reasoning to questions; but the present format will never measure a child’s capacity for critical thought and complex problem solving, and social and civic competence, which is after all, what school and learning are supposed to be about.

Parent:  But isn’t it all about just getting a job on graduating?

HM & JD:  No!  That is rhetoric that drifted up from a political aspirant named Scott Walker, trying to re-write the mission of a venerable institution of higher education of our vintage, but that’s another story. 

Sorry, but we must go; a chorus of discordant voices from below, with incomprehensible labels, are starting to assert that perhaps the two of us don’t belong up here, versus, er, the other place…

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Public PreK-12 Reform: A Baker's Dozen Inconvenient Truths

This is the last post on public school reform before some blog hiatus on that topic.  After nearly 100 posts on various issues embedded in that alleged reform’s history, on standardized testing and VAM issues, and on other challenges in and surrounding our schools courtesy of “corporate reform” and NCLB, there seemed little to add.  But the outbreak of political correctness, and myopia permeating current rhetoric on the above called for a reality check.

The current status of test-based reform is fluid.  Senator Lamar Alexander is chairing the Senate’s education committee, taking testimony, and apparently in line to propose changes to ESEA (NCLB).  It is unclear whether the pendulum is coming down on the side of some sanity that would reduce destructive testing and at minimum cause the CCSSI debacle to be reviewed?  What is apparent is that defenders of continuation of present and proposed testing are ramping up rhetoric in response to public protests of testing, offering some marginal to idiotic reasoning why this testing is necessary to save our discriminated or disadvantaged children from “falling through the cracks,” whatever scientifically that is supposed to mean.

As egregious as the above technically disputable wisdom, the principal argument the advocates seem to muster is that the nation’s public school students will not be evaluated in grades three to eight, and again in high school, if present testing is not pursued.  Do over three million teachers, the vast majority more committed to real education than the cabal of testing companies lobbying every state legislature or the US Department of Education, simply vanish from the classroom when the time comes to do some formative or summative testing of their efforts?  Get serious.

Straight talk on public education is increasingly hard to find.  Some is proposed here, in the form of perceived truths however inconvenient to both reformers and anti-reformers:

Truth #1

Both the reformers and the public school establishment are wrong, both culpable for the state of American public PreK-12, and self-righteously turning out the least prepared generation in a half century to deal with a nation’s survival problem-solving.  

How did you get there?  Give us at least one fact that is a legitimate assertion?  Top down:  A U.S. President and Education Secretary who believe they have the high ground, but are ideologically so liberally twisted or delusional that the utopian obsession with tactically elevating all discriminated or disadvantaged children's education is rationalized as a legitimate basis for destroying a century-old public school system; the present U.S. Congress (need there be more elaboration?); and a cabal of testing companies motivated by distorted business theory and greed, given carte blanche to define what constitutes contemporary knowledge.  Bottom up: the marginal to dismal performances of some fraction of 15,000 systems and 90,000 schools, in both international testing, allegedly per the private sector in preparation for employment, and in lack of preparation for postsecondary work based on remedial work; the fumbling of some fraction of 15,000 BOE; the ineptitude to demagoguery of some large fraction of 15,000 superintendents who should not be there; and some fraction of over three million teachers unprepared for their job description.

Not complex or detailed argument, but usually conceded to be general knowledge:  That 35 years of highly involved reform challenges would not have endured if there was not some basis for deficits traceable to the public schools' performances (over and above deficits attributable to the income and cultural discrepancies among the nation's children); and on the flip side, over those same 35 years failure of testing- and VAM-based "reform" to actually produce measurable public school process and behavior changes not negative to genuine learning.

Truth #2

The present motif for reform – hammering both students and teachers after the fact with simplistic learning logic and convoluted tests – is so bizarre in the 21st century it defies societal sanity.  Truth:  America is turning out a generation of its youth with an inventory of disaggregated facts that will be neurally extinguished with disuse, so unbalancing legitimate critical thought and problem solving capacities that the nation will be populated with a constituency neither capable nor creative in discriminating among increasingly complex and risky options in every civil venue.  Truly bizarre:  Calling for every child to be “college ready” literally from kindergarten; juxtaposed against the content of that college readiness based on standardized testing; juxtaposed against the near irrelevance and even dysfunction of that alleged learning to success in the college/university mission parroted?  Does this actually go beyond simple ideology or idealism to outright stupidity?

Truth #3

The values for those fractions cited in Truth #1 are?  Truth, we know virtually nothing definitive about the full condition of America’s public systems, because – with the exception of Dr. John Goodlad’s earlier research spanning 22,000 public school students – our national leaderships have not chosen to invest in that knowledge.  The quick retort from the dissenter, that is not practical for that massive universe.  Response:  What’s needed is not necessarily census, but a valid and reliable model for assessing those systems based on data from a projectable sample of our schools, verified, then made available to our states and systems as a nationally required DIY format for self-assessment and benchmarking. 

Truth #4

America’s colleges and universities should have been in the forefront of any public system reform, because they have ignored primary/secondary education for a century, and because they have the stewardship for the training of our nation’s public school teachers.  Those schools of education have failed, for lack of intellect, and dogmatic pursuit of the wrong learning rubrics.  Our colleges and universities in turn have been too cowardly to address that higher education failure. 

The least known, but most egregious contemporary reform act, involved the creation of common K-12 STEM standards.  That chore, undertaken by legitimate scientists in higher education in concert with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was advanced with a proposed process to make that knowledge accessible for critical thinking and problem solving.  Required, however, the hand-off of that intelligence to the CCSSI crowd; the standards were promptly trashed and subverted to become more disconnected fact chaff for support of standardized testing.

Embedded in this truth, both higher education and our public systems could have demonstrable gains from breaking through the wall of mutual distrust or contempt that separates them.  Higher education could materially reduce its costs of delivery if public K-12 delivered true college-ready students (not the ersatz version insanely advocated by Arne Duncan and the unthinking), making a four- or even three-year degree the norm.

Truth #5

Some fraction of America’s BOE is a disaster.  Present methods of electing those supposed to provide oversight are not uncommonly failures of democracy.  Frequently there is no competition for joining a BOE, there is electoral manipulation by a system’s administration to promote compliant BOE members, there is ineptitude in knowledge of educational theory and practice, there is no requirement for their training on education before being seated, and in too many cases service is sought for all of the wrong reasons.  Below the radar, this may be our nation’s weakest electoral office, and until 50 states upgrade that system for assigning local school oversight, it is a controlling roadblock to any genuine change in our public systems.

Truth #6

An arguable material fraction of our public systems’ superintendents has obsolete managerial education, is poorly selected by incompetent BOE, is poorly vetted, and should be re-educated or booted from public education.  A fraction increasingly earns jail time.

Perhaps west central Ohio is an anomaly, but its schools also feature some of the most incompetent, venal, and arrogant alleged education administrators seen in 15 years of research.  Ohio has virtually no valid system for removal of such administrators from office unless they commit a high order felony; even theft of resources, failure to perform, insubordination, and violation of education open records laws are challenged as a basis for dismissal.  Just plain educational ignorance, managerial ineptitude, despotism and power seeking, and even sociopathic behavior barely tip the scale.  Incredibly, those illustrious attributes can result in promotion to broader superintendent responsibility, a sick case in this area.  One egregious example of system venality is a case where three of its BOE members cannot be conceptually viewed as having been elected, the result of system manipulation of nominations, and three candidates for three BOE seats.  They effectively elected themselves if they voted, and voted for themselves – school democracy in action?

In another large public system in a sister state, its superintendent (already on the record as educationally naive and a leadership failure) is currently seed funding an attempt to enact state law that would restrict public system transparency and reporting.  Say again?  Its BOE is complicit in the quest, and the community’s taxpayers, parents, and its press appear as dumb as rocks in response to this effort.

Truth #7

Ultimately the truth is that there are good US public schools, but no way currently in place of comprehensively identifying and classifying those successes; equivalently, the difficulty in singling out the systems that actually should be reformed.  Another truth is that the testing army can succeed in beating on our public systems for the next decade, and they will not measurably reform or genuinely improve learning in those systems.  Because any real change in the complexity and culture that is a public school system will have to be executed from within the organization, and have to actively engage all of its critical human resources.  That has been borne out by decades of sophisticated business practice, but ignorantly or deliberately ignored by the reform horde.

Truth #8

Another truth:  Present school grade bands were an invention of the early Carnegie attempts to manipulate public education; present school organization is a century or more old; both are arguably obsolete in our present society and world.  Virtually no effort has been made by any educational authority to innovate these infrastructures that are confining and misdirecting real learning.

Truth #9

The most righteous in our present uncharacterized mass of public schools, differentiated by 50 states with varying levels of educational oversight credibility, are likely its teachers.  An accompanying reality, that is because they are mostly in the profession by self-selection, and rooted in empathy that makes them valid in the classroom.  Simultaneously, that focus on the children they must support, with what is regularly now formulaic to despotic school administration, results in their retreat to their own space, rendering them incapable of leading any real reform charge.

Truth #10

Reality is that little of the substance of the genuine challenges, debates, and information that surround present school reform manages to appear in our general press, allegedly guided by journalistic integrity to see some truth.  For whatever reasons, ignorance of the detailed questions, desire to report only good news, fear of offending local systems' educators or parents, or that school learning deficits are just not as newsworthy as a good killing or scandal, our press seem incapable of informing the public of what's driving testing, VAM, and other assaults on their systems.  The most blatant lie regularly allowed past the "Pinocchio Test" is, that without present standardized testing, parents would have no idea whether their children are succeeding in their schools.  Our schools, our teachers, do not test any aspect of the learning process they conduct?  Even the most ill-informed parent couldn't swallow that.  In turn, the so-called education pages of your average newspaper report primarily the feel good propaganda put out by local schools.  That there is literally a war with public schools underway is lost or unwanted intelligence to most press.  Some editors go so far as total denial, or censorship, to deflect that knowledge from their readers.

Truth #11

Really inconvenient reality:  Too many of America’s parents and taxpayers, victims of Truth #10, are products of the same school concepts being aggressively attacked for 35 years as inadequate, and perhaps because of that education, are blind to or incapable of critically thinking about their local schools, or too timorous to object to local education failures or system malfeasance.  A perversion of the mantra “local control:”  As the costs of local public education are increasingly diverted by our states to local funding, that shift with electorate disinterest or evaluative deficits in assessing local system performance, further complicates any positive change.

Truth #12

Call this summative assessment of the truth about America’s public system attacks:  The 35 years of targeting public education did not originate out of thin air; the performances overall of our public systems in the last several decades of last century were the trigger.  Schools of education, and public systems taking their cues from that platform, adopted a series of silly liberal motifs, ignored innovation, and evolving from managerial weakness and lack of proper teacher education, led to systems dropping the learning ball.  The build-up of private sector resentment finally led to the proactive reform events that started long before NCLB, factually in 1980 spearheaded by The Business Roundtable and the National Governors Association (NGA).  This quietly stayed under our general population’s awareness until "A Nation at Risk" (ANAR) issued, formulated to panic the nation.  That Commission perverted its findings to support NCLB and a market give-away by the Bush Administration to our testing companies already deeply rooted in control of school texts.

Our public schools with any intelligence responded as expected to the testing onslaught; they did whatever it took in the short run to execute a testing work-around.   First teach to the tests as quickly as possible, then in a few quality cases also create legitimate learning.  In the not so quality cases, teach to the tests, if that came up short cheat on the testing, and if that was inadequate manipulate who was tested to control scores.  In this decade a runaway test load has in many cases invalidated even better schools’ attempts to weave in real learning because teachers are intimidated or the time simply doesn’t exist.

Truth #13

Lastly, it is almost unfathomable how an army of reformers and established educators, who must have some intellect, have managed to ignore virtually every precept of the science of explanation and increasingly sophisticated understanding of human behavior and neural processes forging learning, and wagered all on fraudulent and ignorant process for forcing change.  Is this ideology overtaking every vestige of critical thought?  Is it naïve belief in single cause systems?  Are these value systems that are truly warped to self-centric beliefs that override even common sense?  Is it all of these?  Perhaps at the most macro level our public education fabric is fragmenting into factions with only myopic self-interest, or into some subtle level of national insanity?  That is really serious inconvenient truth; because there seems no pat prescription for disrupting the present reform trajectory generating public system fragmentation and entropy.