Tuesday, August 13, 2019

“My Apologies?” OR “I Really Need A New Line of Work.”

Let me first say, I did not attend my State Senator’s Office Hours to yell at some older ladies regarding their uninformed opinions on education policy.

I attended the Office Hours to say hello because my wife and I are in frequent contact with our representatives, and because I wanted to remind the Senator that I still have some reservations regarding Ohio’s New Graduation Requirement. I believe it was sold as a reduction in testing because it eliminates an ELA and the Geometry assessment, but it in fact conceals far more assessments in the Seals students must earn. Furthermore, in requiring the passage of Algebra & ELA II, assessments whose statewide passing rates according to ODE don’t crack 65%, students will find themselves without a viable non-tested pathway to graduation, & may even find themselves forced into military service in order to earn a high school diploma.

Now, I have far more issues with the new requirement, but I was unable to continue explaining myself because these women took it upon themselves as experts in the field of education, to attack me.

Their assumption was, that despite my advanced degree and more than 20 years experience in the field, that their background dictated a more informed and higher quality policy decision.

Both women believed that the key to a student’s potential success in the future is a passing score on a state Algebra assessment. The first woman was certain of this because she studied Algebra in high school and found it to be of great import in her career of choice. Without calling the woman old, I tried to suggest that her anecdote regarding the study of Algebra some 40 years ago (give or take) is hardly relevant today. According to the Algebra teachers that I have spoken with, the Algebra being taught today is not your Grandfather’s, Father’s, or even your older brother’s Algebra. Furthermore, not every student will be pursuing the same career as this woman. As a matter of fact, every time I hear the State Superintendent speak, he’s going on and on about how we’re preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

In the interest of not getting my ass kicked by the Math Department on the first day of school, let me say that I believe that the study of their discipline is wildly important from a perspective of content knowledge, and also in the development of analytical, problem solving, & decision making skills, not to mention potential applications in developing creative thought, communication skills, and collaboration. I do not believe that a passing score on the state’s Algebra Test proves the acquisition of many of these skills, and I’d venture a guess that my mathematical colleagues would agree.

The other woman who came after me did so with a wealth of knowledge gained because her husband was a local principal 30 odd years ago. She believed, first of all, that this graduation requirement was preventing some of the mistakes made in the 1980s. I was befuddled. Second, she suggested (as the woman before) that success on the Algebra assessment is the key to success. When I suggested that a “passing score” on the test doesn’t necessarily equate to mastery in the subject, she agreed with me. Then she said she didn’t agree. My hostility grew. Then she contradicted herself a few more times before expressing the need for accountability, that old saw which feeds the myth that public schools are failures, and means if teachers like me weren’t “phoning it in,” then maybe we wouldn’t have to do these things. I rolled my eyes. Finally, she insisted that education policy is set, and cut scores on state assessments are established, by teachers. I lost my shit.

While I’m not an expert on how things worked in the 1980s when this woman was gaining her educational expertise vicariously through her husband, I do know that the new Graduation Requirement was developed by Ohio Excels in collaboration with Fordham, a business advocacy group and right leaning think tank respectively. As a matter of fact, in supporting this requirement, the state legislature voted against the opinions of some of the major organizations representing educators in the state. They even ignored a plan developed by the Ohio Department of Education in favor of this model. (To be fair, I believe ODE is far too political and as such does not always act in the best interest of students and teachers either.)

And when it comes to cut scores on the assessments... these have been established by the State School Board, a body that might, at a given time, have a teacher or two among its members, and certainly not in the majority. But the cut scores related to the new Grad Requirement are going to be set by the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board in conjunction with ODE. To my knowledge, no teachers.

All of this is beside the point, and not even the among big picture problems I wanted to voice in a meeting with my Senator. 

Nobody contested the individuals who came to discuss transportation or gun rights. No stink was made when individuals mentioned medicinal marijuana or the availability of affordable health care. But it was somehow perfectly acceptable, encouraged even, to question the legitimacy of a teacher.

Did I yell at those women? Yes, I did.

Was that nice? Probably not.

Do I regret doing so? Not at all.

It is time for people to realize, be they average citizens or legislators, that your experience going to school, or even knowing someone who worked in one, does not make you particularly informed, nor does it make you an expert in the field of education. Yes, you may possess a poignant anecdote or two on the subject, which I will be happy to entertain, but your anecdotes are just that. Until you devote some time to the study of the profession and its policies, yours cannot be the final word on the subject. My apologies?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

What do you want to be when you grow up? (HINT: it relates to your mastery of Algebra or willingness to join the military).

I went to my last graduation party for the 2019 class this past weekend. As a 10th grade American History teacher, I get invited to a few each year. They are, of course, bittersweet events, and an extension of the series of goodbyes that are indicative of my chosen profession. A few of the kids, young adults I guess, that we celebrated over the past month or so knew exactly what profession they intended to pursue. Some had figured it out during high school, were drawn through some brilliant math & science teachers to a career in engineering. Others may have known even longer, perhaps, that they’ve “wanted to be a middle school teacher since middle school”, or a “firefighter since I was in 3rd grade.”

In the summer following my senior year, I had no idea what the hell I was going to do. Very few of my friends knew their path either. There was a public service running around that time whose deep voiced message of warning stated gravely, “No one says they want to be a junkie when they grow up.” So, on occasion, my friends and I would say just that, “I want to be a junkie when I grow up.” It underscored the terrible uncertainty we were facing. We understood that drug addiction was no laughing matter, but then neither was the premise of asking an 18 year old to decide what they’d like to do to earn a living for the rest of their lives. We understood sarcasm, and off-color humor better than decision making. 

I believe most high school students fall into this category. In their defense, research on the brain proves that the decision making center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed in adult males until their early 30s, with female development occurring a bit earlier. And yet we persist in our attempts to bully kids into this terribly important decision.

So, Godspeed to those individuals who exit high school with a singular purpose regarding their future careers. But if you’re not among them, that’s cool too. You’ll find your way along like my friends and I did, making lots of bad jokes, and hopefully enough decent decisions so that shit works out in the end.

I just finished my 20th year as an American History teacher. You’d think I’d have better advice for students than this. I don’t. “Find what makes you happy. Do that.” is a summation of my advice. Furthermore, I believe that anyone claiming to have any foolproof, universal formula that will lead young people to economic success, & prepare them in the process is a liar.

I don’t believe the state of Ohio knows any better either. As I was wrapping up these grad parties, the Ohio General Assembly included a change to the Graduation Requirement in the state budget. It was written by a business coalition called Ohio Excels, and while it eliminates an ELA & a Geometry Test at the high school level, I’ve yet to hear why it is necessary or meaningful. The reformer shills from Ohio Excels & Fordham who championed it said some things about “rigor,” which I know to be a certain indicator of bullshit. Sure, some rich suburban districts backed the requirement, but they’re already successful in a system heavy with testing, & this new requirement looks a hell of a lot like a shuffling of the old requirement.

Students don’t earn 18 points from 7 assessments anymore. There’s only five assessments now, & a student has to pass 2 (Algebra & ELA), then earn two “Seals.” If a student cannot pass the tests, then they can earn more Seals. Most of the Seals are defined by the state (Citizenship, Science, Bilingual, CCP, Military). A few are defined by districts (Fine Arts, Community Engagement). There are many Seals. Most of them require the successful completion/passage of an assessment of some sort.

What does this have to do with encouraging kids to figure out what they want to do with their lives, who they want to be? I don’t know. I guess in the generalized anxiety created by this absurdly confusing system, a student is going to thoughtfully approach a career path. If it were high school me, I’d be taking the path of least resistance, and for many students who do not excel at test taking, I’m afraid that this is going to mean getting bullied into joining the military in order to get a high school diploma. I hope that I am wrong.

And how does the requirement assure that my students are prepared for college or the workforce? Who the hell knows. State Superintendent DeMaria (lots of people really) likes to say that we are preparing students for jobs that do not even exist yet. If it were me (or anyone else with a bit of education experience), I’d argue that the key to success in those jobs will be things like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Apparently, I would be mistaken. All of these jobs of the future will require a firm grasp of Algebraic concepts. At least that’s what this requirement, created by Ohio businesses, suggests. 

It should be noted that these are the same Ohio businesses who have overseen one of the slowest recoveries from the Great Recession in the nation, and watched as Ohio’s youth have fled the state in record numbers, & on occasion need a billion dollar taxpayer bailout.

Well, another dumbass revision on a tired standardized testing requirement should fix all of that. Perhaps this is what my high school friends and I were lacking. We were rich in sarcasm, but poor in Algebra.

Thank goodness Ohio’s business community, Legislature, & affluent suburbs have fixed all that.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Testimony in the Void.

I haven’t written much here lately because I’m burned out. It’s difficult to maintain the relentless optimism (or at least sense of humor) necessary to find success as a classroom teacher while attempting to influence legislators to move forward with pro-student education policies, watch them pass bills crafted by lobbyists who’ve hardly entered a classroom, and then write about it. So, I stopped writing about it, and took my anger where everyone else does, Twitter.

This post was supposed to be a thank you to my students. You see, I submitted the Proponent Testimony below for House Bill 239, The Testing Reduction Act. It was going to be presented to the House Education Committee tomorrow, our last day of school. Being that I have never encountered a student who finds value in the state’s standardized testing system, I thought it’d be fitting to say something like this to my students... 

“Hey, it’s been a great year, we had some fun, kept it weird, and learned some things when we least expected it, which is a beautiful thing. We all know the state tests suck. They’re meaningless and say little about your value as a student or human being. So, in your interest (& in the interest of all those students who will come after you) I wrote this testimony to see if state legislators will finally see it our way and reduce testing to federal minimums. Thanks for hanging out this year. Enjoy your summer.”

As it turns out, my testimony won’t be read by anyone. The House Education Committee will only be hearing Opponent Testimony this week. This isn’t the first time that something I’ve had to say about education has fallen on deaf ears. 

What’s worse than my shout into the void on testing reduction, however, is that the Ohio Senate seems poised to include in the Budget Bill a Graduation Requirement and a new Youngstown Plan, both crafted by lobbyists, with little to no input from educators, and absolutely no research based evidence to suggest that they’ve got any merit, let alone function properly. 

I am one of many teachers who does not believe that education policy in Ohio is being crafted in the best interest of my students. 

Here is my testimony on one facet of that, excessive assessment...

Committee Chair Blessing, Vice Chair Jones, Ranking Member Robinson, and members of the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify as a proponent of House Bill 239, The Testing Reduction Act.

As an American History teacher for twenty years at Elyria High School, I believe, as do the majority of education stakeholders in Ohio, that standardized assessments administered in the state are excessive and intrusive, and their minimization is a long time coming. 

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind at the federal level in 2001, the volume of standardized tests has increased dramatically and had no impact on student achievement. Over that time period, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas, have stagnated. SAT scores declined between 2006 and 2014, and ACT scores have been flat. There is absolutely no data in existence that suggests that standardized tests increase student achievement, college or career readiness, or any other positive outcome in a child’s education.

When the federal law changed from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Ohio Department of Education sought stakeholder input on the future of education in Ohio. They conducted surveys and held a series of forums statewide to collect data on how to move forward. When the ESSA stakeholder report was made public in late 2016, recommendations were dominated by “complaints of excessive testing.” Unfortunately, ODE & Superintendent DeMaria did not reduce testing as a part of the state’s ESSA Plan submitted to the federal government. After public outcry, the Superintendent agreed to form the Assessment Advisory Committee, made up of educational experts and leaders from around the state, to study and make recommendations on how to reduce testing. The Committee presented its recommendations to the State School Board in June of 2017. Among the tests they recommended for elimination are those included in House Bill 239: American History, American Government, one High School Math, one High School ELA, and the ACT/SAT requirement. At the time, Mr. DeMaria ignored the bulk of the recommendations from his own Committee, ignored the stakeholder input ODE had compiled, and only eliminated Social Studies assessments at the 4th and 6th grade levels, which were also included in the Committee recommendations.

Among his campaign promises, Governor DeWine stated that his administration would “reduce the number of tests that students are required to take.” House Bill 239 would effectively remedy the chief concern of education stakeholders in Ohio, follow the recommendations of educational experts and leaders in the state, and satisfy the Governor’s promise to his youngest constituents.

The test reduction that would result from House Bill 239 would make a child’s education more relevant, creative, and rewarding for all of those involved. Teaching, as I do, in an urban high school of approximately 2000 students, more than half of which are considered economically disadvantaged, means that success on standardized assessments is not guaranteed. Where some districts need not think about, or even mention state testing, in urban schools like ours, the assessments drive everything within the school year. 

Superintendent DeMaria likes to discuss the idea that student learning is “jagged,” meaning students learn at different rates, have different interests, and different areas of expertise. A system focused on standardization does not make any sense within the reality he describes. There is, quite simply, no time for divergent thinking, creativity, or the pursuit of areas of interest, when the curriculum must be narrowed for the sake of assessments. 

The intrusive nature of the system cannot be understated. While curriculum is criminally narrowed in the core classes, our entire school feels the impact during testing seasons. Counselors become test administrators for weeks at a time and are unavailable to students in need. Our small gym, computer labs, maker space, and classrooms become testing rooms. Technology becomes essentially unavailable for a month or more. Entire school days are devoted to testing, and when they are not, students are being pulled from classes in order to complete assessments. Reasonable teachers scale back academic activity during the testing season to optimize student effort and ability on assessments, and to avoid student burnout.

The rationale for Ohio’s excessive assessment system has been to assure that students are “career and college ready.” ODE repeated this like a mantra as if simple repetition would make it true. No data exists to prove their claim. No college references Ohio standardized test scores for the sake of admission or placement, and no employer uses these scores as a contingency in their hiring practices. Even the ACT is negligible in its function. Many colleges are abandoning the use of assessments like the ACT for admission, and it has been long accepted (including a 2014 study by the University of Chicago) that Grade Point Average is the “strongest indicator of college readiness” and is “much more predictive of college graduation than any test score.” This information supports House Bill 239’s reduction of state assessments to federal minimums, as well as the elimination of the mandate for the ACT/SAT. We have been told that forcing all high school students to take the ACT might encourage some students to attend college who may be unaware that they are capable. If their capability to graduate from college is best predicted by their high school grades, as the research indicates, then mandating the ACT is unnecessary, and quite frankly often inappropriate. In my experience, this assessment is being forced upon huge segments of the population who have no business attempting it based on their academic abilities.

It seems to me that if we were really interested in assuring that students were preparing for college or career, then we would facilitate an educational environment that does just that. In dramatically limiting standardized tests, House Bill 239 will promote “jagged” learning, differentiation, student exploration. It will make available the facilities, faculty, and resources that are being monopolized by the administration of state tests. It will free up counselors to counsel, to assist students in exploring the possibilities that exist for them as they move forward in their lives.

I have heard critics of test reduction lament the loss of data from these standardized tests. Others believe that without the tests, students will not take these courses seriously. First, any data that educators receive from ODE related to these assessments is negligible. It arrives after students have left the class, and even if it arrived earlier it is far less informative than the summative and formative assessments being administered by professional educators like myself. As for the second concern... students do not take my American History class seriously because there is a state test attached to it. They take the course seriously because this is the environment in which the course is taught, because they are students who approach their work with consideration, and because I am a professional educator who brings to the classroom a sense of seriousness, relevance, and enthusiasm regarding the subject that I teach.

At the high school level students currently take 7 assessments for the state’s Graduation Requirement. The two ELA tests are frequently administered in two separate sessions. Students retake any assessments where the scores are not high enough. They take the ACT at least once. They may take an assessment to qualify for CCP classes. They may take the ASVAB for military service, English language tests, or professional assessments related to their vocational pursuit. The volume of mandated and potential assessment is absurd. House Bill 239 brings the mandated assessments to federal minimums and requires districts to convene committees of stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, and parents to analyze and report out the level of district specific testing that occurs. 

When I first saw the information regarding HB 239, The Testing Reduction Act, I thought to myself, this is the most common sense piece of educational policy that I have ever seen. It is the logical reversal of a failed experiment in excessive standardized testing. The bill recognizes the input of stakeholders statewide, educational experts and leaders, and is in harmony with Governor DeWine’s vision for education in Ohio. Furthermore, the actions taken through this legislation are supported by the research, and begin to bring ownership of the educational experience back where it belongs, with the students. Once again, there is absolutely no evidence that suggests that standardized assessments increase student achievement, college or career readiness, or any other positive outcome in a child’s education.

Please consider supporting this bill, and thank you, again, for the opportunity to provide proponent testimony.

Matthew T. Jablonski
American History Teacher 
Elyria High School

Friday, January 4, 2019

Serendipity & Optimism.

“The DeWine-Husted Administration will reduce the number of tests that students are required to take...” 

It is a new year, and hope springs eternal.

My uncharacteristic optimism coming into 2019 has a lot to do with the total shitshow that was 2018. I may have lost my mind. You’d think by this time I’d have grown accustomed to utterly asinine education policy in the state Ohio, but it continues to wear on me...

This past year became yet another in which legislators refused to address unconstitutional and inequitable school funding. 

Despite a several year old demand by education stakeholders to reduce testing, standardized tests remain as excessive and intrusive as ever in the lives of students and teachers. 

House Bill 70’s “Youngstown Plan” continues to make a mockery of education, the democratic process, and common sense. The situation in Youngstown and Lorain has devolved into a dumpster fire of ineptitude. East Cleveland and other districts throughout the state appear poised to follow. 

Unregulated electronic, and other charter schools remain unchecked in their theft of taxpayer dollars while legislators persist in championing them.

The great achievement of the year’s end, a temporary fix to the grad problem, was resolved halfway through the school year, which amounts to at least several months (if not years) longer than the issue should’ve been allowed to go on.

So, where the hell is my optimism? It is in this...

A permanent resolution to the grad problem is in the works.

ECOT is closed.

Resistance to HB 70 is ongoing, growing, and in the courts.

In addition, leadership in Columbus appears as if they are beginning to actually listen to professionals in public education when crafting policy related to public education.

The first component of incoming Governor Mike DeWine’s “Education Plan” from his campaign website is a reduction in standardized testing in order to free up time for teaching and learning. As the website states, “The DeWine-Husted Administration will reduce the number of tests that students are required to take...” I am confident in speaking for the vast majority of my colleagues in public education on this topic when I say, “We support you wholeheartedly in this endeavor, sir.”

Fortunately, Mr. DeWine’s plan coincides perfectly with data already compiled by the Ohio Department of Education. You might recall that when the ODE asked for input on its implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, most stakeholders demanded a reduction in standardized testing. From an article in the Plain Dealer at that time, “‘The amount of testing was at the top, followed closely by concerns around charter schools,’ said Colleen Grady, the former Strongsville school board member who is now a senior policy advisor for the Ohio Department of Education.”

In response, State Superintendent DeMaria promised to form a committee, study the issue, and take action. The result was the elimination of Social Studies Assessments in 4th and 6th grade, with a recommendation to eliminate the American Government test in high school (which never happened). While I am not confident enough to speak for all stakeholders, when I provided my input and recommended reductions in standardized testing, eliminating only two tests is not at all what I had in mind.

With the new Governor agreeing with education stakeholders in what I can only describe as a case of glorious serendipity, it seems as if the time has come for legislators to take some meaningful action.

Namely, eliminate ALL assessments not required under federal law.

As a high school teacher at a school of nearly 2000 students, I would argue that 7 assessments as a part of the Graduation Requirement is excessive, intrusive, unnecessary, and essentially meaningless. Unfortunately, the Superintendent’s recommendation for the new Graduation Requirement, while somewhat varied and improved, maintains the administration of 7 assessments. This is clearly contrary to the wishes of education stakeholders and the Governor himself. Since state legislators have finally agreed that it is necessary to retool the requirement (based on their vote in December), and a reduction in assessment aligns not only with stakeholder input, but also with the Governor’s Education Plan, eliminating at least a few tests is only logical.

In the spirit of my (perhaps misguided) serendipitous optimism, my first political act of the new year is going to be to contact all Ohio Legislators with this idea. I’d encourage you to do the same.