Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I decided to be a teacher so that I can spend my free time defending public schools, dodging verbal abuse, suffering uninformed criticism,disseminating information to the contrary, studying pending legislation, and lobbying legislators.

I get asked often why I became a teacher. To be fair, there are a lot of reasons. 

To be honest, it wasn't a decision I was equipped to make at 18 years old. I feel very fortunate that a decision that I made as an old child (more than a young man) has worked out as well as it has.

My favorite answer to the question is that, like a lot of kids, I didn't have an easy time with high school. It wasn't terribly problematic, but it wasn't a walk either. 

While I was there, though, I had the good fortune of encountering some teachers who treated me with interest and respect. I saw that it didn't matter to them if a student was different, didn't have money or wear the right clothes, play the right sports, or quite fit in. They also seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs, to be having some fun with it. Yeah, some content you had to grind through, but that didn't mean you couldn't keep it entertaining along the way.

On a very basic level, these people were reasonable and decent enough human beings to make time for kids, and not seem put out by the effort.

So, in deciding my career I suppose that my thinking went something like, "Hey, I'd like to be a reasonable and decent human being. Those guys were good people who made me feel like I was good people. Kids have a hard time. I'm going to be the kind of teacher that makes school a more inclusive and fun place to be."

You'll notice the relative lack of depth in my process. I certainly didn't consider the fact that there were absolutely no jobs for history teachers. 

What I think is reflected here is what I valued most in my education, all academic advantages aside, which is the value of relationships. I'm sure that somewhere in there lies the importance of education to a democracy, and a desire to promote critical thought and individuality. However, I got involved in this business to help kids, and have some fun in the process.

This is a terribly simplistic view of a teacher's job. Don't get me wrong, I also understand the professionalism involved. If I took myself too seriously I would reference my degrees and years of experience. I might even provide a copy of the electronic documentation of my satisfaction of the state of Ohio's professional standards for teachers through the albatross that is the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, the evidence, the artifacts, the pre and post tests, the all important data that supposedly proves my worth. But these things hardly demonstrate the value of a good teacher intent on providing an environment that facilitates the relationships necessary for a quality education.

Coming out of 2015, I feel as if I've spent an inordinate amount of time and energy in a political fistfight to defend the ability of public school teachers to do just that.

It's too much.

This is not why any of us got into education.

So I guess this is about a New Year's resolution, then. 

In 2016, I'm going to focus on being a decent and reasonable human being, accepting of the students I encounter, focused on making school a fun (or at least more tolerable) place to be, just like many of my teachers did for me.

I'd like those in legislative, and other power, positions to consider the same resolution from their own perspective. Strengthen the ability of public school teachers like myself to provide a quality education.

If 2016 is another year of excessive high-stakes testing, the demonization of teachers, unconstitutional school funding, the absurdity of championing a failing charter school system, furthering a process that facilitates the privatization of public schools, and then purposefully misleading the public (I'm looking at you Dick)...

Well, if that's the case, I'm not afraid of the fight.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"An Assessment Written By Ohio Teachers"

Much has been made of the new and improved testing system that will be rolled out this spring. With its shorter assessments and elimination of PARCC as a vendor, the state and accountability advocates claim that the people have spoken, so the state has responded with a more humane system, a more effective system.

Except that it isn't. Length and vendor issues completely miss the point. These tests are telling us nothing about student learning that classroom teachers couldn't answer in greater depth and in a more timely manner. 

It has also been widely documented that the single thing that standardized tests measure best is economic standing. Generally speaking, we can accurately predict test scores from rates of free and reduced lunch in our schools.

As a classroom teacher, this would be the point in my discussion where I offer the obligatory disclaimer that I believe in accountability. Sure, OK. Come into my classroom, interview my students, survey their parents, but please stop insisting that this system of assessment is anything more than it is, a measure of relative poverty.

In a discussion of scores from last year's PARCC and AIR assessments, I heard it suggested that next year's tests will be more valid because they were "written by Ohio teachers."

This is a problematic statement for several reasons. First, they were NOT, in fact, written by Ohio teachers. As has been documented, Ohio is borrowing questions from Florida, Utah, and Nevada for this new round of tests. It would be more accurate to say that portions of these assessments were not even written in Ohio, let alone by Ohio teachers.

To be fair, what those in question were referring to was Ohio teacher participation in a group that also included administrators, members of the Ohio Department of Education, and reps from the American Institutes for Research. These stakeholders met to select existing questions that they believed would accurately depict student mastery of Ohio's standards thus making the tests valid. While this process is commendable in its inclusion, it is hardly "an assessment written by Ohio teachers."

These assessments will also hardly be valid. First, questions regarding validity have become common in states administering tests electronically. Second, the new tests, some being given now as make-up tests in high school and for the 3rd grade reading guarantee, have never been administered before. There have been no field tests or live high-stakes precedents for these assessments, unless you count the use of individual questions on disparate assessments in multiple other states as validating mastery of Ohio standards. The scenario is problematic, and should raise some significant questions. The situation is criminal, especially if you're a 3rd grader relying on this assessment for promotion, or a high school student acquiring points toward graduation.

Once again, I'm stuck quibbling over technicalities that completely miss the point. To say that the next round of tests will be more valid because they're written by Ohio teachers is terribly misleading, and I am not at all happy about the suggestion. However, the larger issue is that we're still suggesting that we can fix a system of punitive standardized tests. We cannot.

Shorten, lengthen, change vendors, include or exclude teachers in the process, and the assessments will continue to measure what they have always measured, the economic standing of the students assessed.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Assessments and Poverty

Say what you will about the "Every Child Succeeds Act," it ain't no Race to the Top, nor is it No Child Left Behind. Yes, there are issues, but it is better than the current system. 

Best of all, it brings the fight regarding accountability, among other things, to the states.

I took this week's House passage of the ECSA, and combined it with some unsettling news about poverty rates in the city where I live, threw in the annual study that illustrates that standardized testing measures poverty better than anything else, and delivered the message to my legislators.

We have spent a long time and a lot of money on an assessment system that does a terrible disservice to our children. It's time for it to change. Check out the letter below, then go contact your reps as well. 

Senator and Representative Manning,

I hope this finds you well and in anticipation of the holiday season. I also hope that you had the opportunity to read the Plain Dealer article regarding the correlation between test scores and poverty. If not it can be found here...

Perhaps you read the similar report at the Columbus Dispatch here...

Put simply, the only thing that our system of standardized tests is accomplishing is indicating to us which students are wealthy and which are poor. This corroborates the evidence found in studies from previous years which indicated the exact same thing. Schools with high poverty rates will perform at lower levels on standardized tests than those with low rates of poverty. I would be so bold as to predict that if we continue testing for another hundred years the same would be true.

What is at least equally problematic are the Lorain County poverty statistics shared by the Chronicle Telegram this week. In case you missed it, the article is here...

Median income countywide has dropped from $57,357 to $52,610. 

In my city, Elyria, the poverty rate has climbed from 15.9% to 20.3%.

Obviously, these economic conditions have an incredible impact on the students that I encounter daily at Elyria High. If we were to couple the findings that I've mentioned here, add in an atrocious new testing system and graduation policy, then I believe that we could predict overall lower test scores in years to come as well as lower graduation rates. 

It doesn't have to be this way. We test far more than the federal mandate in Ohio, and at higher stakes. As you know, requiring tests for graduation is not federal law, nor is the 3rd grade reading guarantee. And it gets better...other news this week indicates that the revision of ESEA (No Child Left Behind), the so-called "Every Student Succeeds Act" has passed the House, will likely pass the Senate, and is nearly certain of a Presidential signature. The bill is not great, but it is far better than the "test and punish" philosophy of the current law. There is some information on that bill in a Wall Street Journal article here...

We have spent a ridiculous amount of time and money on assessment here in Ohio and found that we can consistently measure levels of poverty, not achievement. The federal government is about to provide us with an opportunity to dramatically scale back this senseless system, and I look forward to continuing our dialogue on doing just that. Perhaps then we can allocate our resources to more valuable ends like supporting programs that help to remediate the effects of the growing poverty in our communities.

Thank you, as always, for your work and consideration. 
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your families.

Matt Jablonski