Friday, December 29, 2017

This Year’s Resolutions

Be more humane.

The process of determining resolutions for the New Year is difficult at best and impossible at worst. After all, if I were to backfit my resolutions as an educator into Ohio’s existing social, economic, and educational system, then I’d have to go with something like the following...

Resolution One: I will believe that education is the great equalizer.

Resolution Two: I will pretend that policy-makers are listening chiefly to educators when developing education policy.

Resolution Three: I will attempt to find value in data from state assessments.

Alright, alright, that’s enough. I have tried all of these before, and it’s utter nonsense. 

Problem One: There is, as yet, no great equalizer. School as a mechanism for upward mobility is a part of the same mythology as Horatio Alger, hard work, bootstraps, rags to riches bullshit whose very dangerous flip-side demonizes the poor for being poor, as if their poverty is simply a product of not having taken advantage of opportunities or worked hard enough. 

Problem Two: Despite a depiction of the Superintendent’s many Workgroups, or the Ohio Department of Education, or some legislators touting their collaboration with teachers on new legislation, I have yet to read any legislation that provides opportunities and not punishment for students, teachers and schools. Representatives from the Fordham Institute are not teachers, and neither are analysts from the American Institutes for Research, nor are veterans of Teach for America (I’m looking at you Mr. Hardy). The entities from the state should also not defer to educators who are too frightened of their perceived “superiors” to stand up for what is right.

Problem Three: Regarding value in assessment data... the data is negligible and its value is laughable, especially when compared to the information that I gain on a daily basis in my classroom. As has been illustrated time and again, the information we gain from state assessments portrays a wonderful correlation with economic status. Nothing more.

It struck me this morning that our bizarre judgement of students, teachers, and schools by this method is a lot like the judgement kids levy on one another in middle and high school. They’re checking off who’s got the right clothes and shoes and phone, and if you don’t, then you lose. It’s the same bullshit valuation of character based on haves and have nots that existed when I was in school, and I guess kids will be kids except that when it comes to evaluating students, teachers, and schools, it’s not kids.

We’ve got a state capital riddled with education lobbyists and bureaucrats with a short sighted middle school mentality. Their assessment system is the hand they can’t see in front of their face. If these assessments measure economics, which we know they do, then aren't the State Superintendent and the Ohio Department of Education just seeing who’s got the right clothes and shoes and phones? 

Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but as I sit here reflecting upon the end of 2017 and what I might do differently going forward, I can’t help but think that I’m falling prey to the relentless attacks on my profession by those who would seek to blame societal issues on my colleagues and I, rather than look in the mirror.

Teachers like myself, and the kids we teach are portrayed as failures within this system, and the bureaucrats would have us blame ourselves as if we haven’t worked hard enough and seized our opportunities. If we’d only do that under the informed guise of their valuable data, then achievement will trickle down like a better economic situation.


That’s why I’m not taking on an education based New Year’s Resolution. Lord knows I’ve done plenty of goal setting as it is through my Professional Development Plan, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, my Teacher Based Team, and otherwise.

I’m going with one Resolution this year and I’d like to suggest that educators and policy-makers consider this one as well when thinking about curriculum and lessons, assessments and evaluation. It is this...

Be more humane.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Gift of Hope.

I just overheard this kid say something like, “Man, I didn’t do all this work for 12 years for them not to let me graduate.” He’d just retaken some tests and was clearly overcome and agitated by the prospect of not receiving a diploma. I’ve eliminated a few four letter words that peppered the above quote.

I didn’t know the dude. He was a student venting to his friends in the hall. In a school of 2000, give or take, I really don’t know many people. Even if I had known him, I probably wouldn’t have said anything because as unwritten policy I try not to get involved in student hallway conversations. After all, high school is difficult enough without your square History teacher horning in on your business.

There are, however, a few things that kid should know.

First, “Yes they will.” That is, you have indeed worked for 12 years and will not be permitted to graduate due to a test score. This is the reality. It is not right. The assessments provide no indication of your potential for success going forward, but policy-makers (many of which have zero education experience) have established the system with which we must comply.

Second, there is hope. Seemingly overwhelmed by the holiday spirit, the State School Board this month has said it will recommend the same pathways granted to the class of 2018 be extended to the classes of 2019 and 2020. Their vote to make the recommendation will be made next month. While several board members weighed in positively on this temporary solution and the prospect of something long term, including Stephanie Dodd and Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings, I was most heartened by a quote from Meryl Johnson who, according to the Plain Dealer, said,

"I'm not in favor of standardized tests. I'm not in favor of high stakes testing. It disenfranchises a huge amount of students in Ohio."

I agree wholeheartedly, and if I were a betting man, I’d wager that a majority of education professionals in the state, and nationwide, would agree.

Unfortunately for all of us, policy-makers tend to disagree.

As for that student and his friends, regarding the extension of the 2018 pathways, this sounds like good news except that the Ohio Department of Education has yet to conduct any research on how many students will benefit from the 2018 assistance. They have said that they’ll talk to some districts about it. One would think they’d be a bit more concerned about the impact of their “solution.” Apparently not enough to see if it will work. As it stands we’ll amble blindly forward hoping for the best.

Also cranking up the holiday cheer for concerned high schoolers was Rep Andrew Brenner, who indicated that a bill related to a long term solution to the graduation problem will be presented to the House Education Committee, of which he is the Chair, very soon. While I am eager to hear more, and desperately want to be optimistic, Rep Brenner has previously denied the existence of a graduation problem. He was of the same mindset as the Ghosts of State School Board’s Past, Jones and Gunlock, who believed that diplomas are meaningless without a standardized test score or 7 to go along with them.

As a teacher, I tend to believe the opposite, that the standardized tests actually decrease the value of a child’s education by narrowing the curriculum and focus. Of course the ODE remedies this by demanding differentiation and personalized learning while narrowing the curriculum and focus through high-stakes testing. Their gift to all of us this season and all year long is unabashed hypocrisy.

They’re the ones who disagree with the school board’s other recent tear jerker of an announcement, that they believe standardized tests in Ohio need to be cut further. Yes, Superintendent DeMaria and the ODE have championed minimal cuts in an attempt to appease stakeholders, but they resist the ultimate cut, reducing state assessments to federal minimums, which is really what we should be discussing. They still argue that the “data” that we glean from these assessments is far too valuable to live without. I think they hand pick teachers who agree with them (or are hoping for a sweet ODE gig in the future), and have those folks present to the State School Board on the merits of the existing assessment system. Despite all “expert” testimony to the contrary, I’ll double down and suggest that most educators could effectively do their job without the aforementioned data.

The very organization who makes their living analyzing assessment data (unless it has to do with graduation, see above), is deciding whether or not we should maintain the same level of assessments. This is madness. It’s like allowing millionaires to decide whether or not millionaires should get a tax cut. 

Ask educators in the field what should happen with the grad requirement and assessments overall. Ask all of them, not a chosen few. Ask students. Ask parents. Ask the kid that I mentioned earlier. I’m sure he’s got a few words he’d like to share on the subject.

I believe that the State School Board and a few legislators have begun to listen. They’ve given me the gift of hope.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Remediation & Belief

On Monday I finish the American History remediation course for the fall. Retakes are this coming week. I’ve spent the last 8 weeks teaching a year-long course, as well as modeling analytical (and other) test taking skills and strategies. In our last meeting, I’ll teach the entire course one more time as a refresher. I’ve thought about recording this last session to underscore the utter absurdity in attempting to remedy issues on an assessment with short-term courses. Where we should be developing meaningful opportunities for students to connect to content in order to make sense of their place in the world, we instead make the goal a 400 on an End of Course assessment, whatever that means.

On the one hand we want students to explore academically to discover interests and talents so they can make an informed career decision, and on the other we are asking for success on a standardized assessment. Remediation exemplifies the painfully obvious contradiction in these two goals. It’s role in the process requires both student and educator to seek the path of least resistance. In 8 weeks, with 2 sessions per week of an hour or two apiece, with a year’s worth of material to cover, it is impossible to create meaningful experiences, difficult enough to raise a score.

So, I’ve spent these weeks trying to travel the distance between A and B, or between a 392 and a 400 (depending on the individual), trying to create a tolerable experience for students more consumed by the unsettling prospect of not graduating than any real possibility of connection to content or consideration of what they might do after high school.

Fortunately, I’m hearing far fewer policy-makers in Columbus suggesting that the solution to our assessment problem as it relates to graduation is simply to provide remediation. Now, perhaps this is still being said and I’m just not there to hear it, a tree falling in the woods kind of thing. I’m choosing to be optimistic on this one, though, and believe that the powers that be have begun to realize that the problem is in the assessments themselves. 

Having written the members of the House and Senate Education Committees and the State School Board last month, I received some positive, if minimal, feedback. House Ed Committee Chair Andrew Brenner called to voice his agreement on some issues and suggest that there is a path forward. Several members of the State Board also responded in support of finding a better system. I have included those messages below.

So, I guess I’ll continue to believe. It is a season of belief. If I made a Christmas List, a permanent solution to the Graduation Problem would be at the top of it. 

As it stands, I have one more remediation class in which I’ll review an entire course. I’d better rest up.