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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

It’s Always Something (a post for the start of the school year).

Today is the first day of school in my district, and I’m sitting at home due to a heat index set to hit above 95 degrees. Much as I hate to use the phrase “It’s always something,” it’s always something.

As a matter of fact, last week, a few colleagues and I had just finished some professional development on how to identify bed bugs, proper use of an epi-pen, and the details of a mass evacuation in the case of a bomb threat, or lock-down should there be an active shooter, when I asked them what they thought it would be this year.

Without hesitation they knew what I meant, and Amanda said, “Tuberculosis.” I nodded, believing this was a reasonable answer, and legitimately figured that it has been awhile, and we’re probably due. Of course, it’s also been awhile since our locale became one of the first cities in the country to have a confirmed case of swine flu, waves of bomb threats, etcetera. All of this is beside the point.

It’s always something.

Having given it some more thought, I believe that the answer to my own question is that this will be the year that the state of Ohio abandons its senior class. Believe me when I say that I really hope that I’m wrong, just as I hope that none of the other horrors visited upon classrooms nationwide rear their ugly head. It just seems to me that there is simply too much backward thinking on the graduation requirement, and an article in the Dayton Daily News only further confirms my fear..

I sat down with my legislators in July to convey the reality of the situation at my high school. Basically, an alarming number of students are unable to earn the 18 points on 7 assessments, necessary for graduation. To be specific, of the 438 graduates from the high school where I teach, 148 graduated through the “Additional Pathways,” which permitted 2018 graduates to use a means other than assessments to prove they were deserving of a diploma. All things considered, if not for the pathways, I believe that these numbers would have boiled down to a Graduation Rate of around 60% in a school whose rate is typically 85% (give or take).

Further complicating the issue, I told them, is that the Ohio Department of Education claims that the 18 points are the threshold at which students prove that they are “college and career ready,” despite the fact that no data driven analysis by the state, or anyone else for that matter, can prove this claim. No college references state test scores to predict success (most look to GPA for that), & no employer is looking at these scores as a part of their hiring practices.

Add to all of this the fact that the State Board of Education recommended in January to extend those Additional Pathways for the classes of 2019 & 2020, big urban districts are reporting the potential of 50% non-graduates, and even the affluent burbs say 10-20% needed the pathways, and the solution seems obvious. And yet...

In Jeremy Kelley’s DDN article Republican Senator Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee says, “At this point I can’t say for sure that anything will be done. I am certainly looking at the data very closely, and I’m going to be encouraging my colleagues to do likewise.”

With due respect to Senator Lehner & her colleagues as they consider a deep dive into that data, the system you have thus far failed to change does not measure what it claims to measure, and seeks to prevent the receipt of diplomas among some of Ohio’s most vulnerable students, lots of them. I do not believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the ramifications of this scenario on their lives, the lives of their families, the health of their communities, the economy, and the entire state of Ohio is quite dire.

Unfortunately, the Ohio Department of Education doesn’t seem to get it either.

The ODE’s representative Chris Woolard said, “I think the real question here is, what’s the graduation rate going to be, and is it going to be significantly different? I can’t answer that question.”

Well, fortunately for Mr. Woolard, every single representative of a public school who has commented on this situation has answered that question. The answer Chris, is YES, THE GRAD RATE IS GOING TO BE SIGNIFICANTLY LOWER! Sweet Fancy Moses, one would think that the Ohio Department of Education might listen to a Superintendent. They’ve spent 4 years ignoring what I’ve got to say on the topic, but I’m just a teacher.

Then, he doubles down on his lack of understanding... “Based on where we saw things six months ago, from an on-track perspective, things looked better than what people were concerned about two years ago.”

No, no, no, no. Six month’s ago, two years ago, 4 years ago, critics of the grad system like myself have been saying that big urban districts would see grad rates around 50%, smaller urbans at 60%, and so on. Believe me, I remember suggesting this and thinking that it would be awful whether I was right or wrong. If I was wrong, then I look like a paranoid wackaloon (but at least kids are graduating), and if I’m right, then we find ourselves right where we are. We weren’t wrong.

The ODE is officially painting a rosy picture as they persist in attempting to polish the turd that is their Graduation Requirement while the Ohio Legislature isn’t sure whether or not they’ll remedy their broken and meaningless system.

Sound about right?

It’s always something.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Congratulations Graduates, Don’t Listen to the Naysayers.

First of all, congratulations to Ohio’s high school graduates in the class of 2018, especially those who were able to use the additional pathways to obtain your diploma.You are the first group of young Ohioans in several decades who’ve not been wrongly prevented from graduating due to a meaningless and obtuse assessment system.

According to an article from the Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell more than a third of students in the urban areas he surveyed would not have graduated if the assessments alone were used as the measure for graduation. I realize that the Ohio Department of Education & other advocates of the system would argue that there were three pathways to graduation beyond the state tests, prior to the additional pathway. To which I would retort, one is a remediation free score on the ACT/SAT, an assessment, and the other is an Industry Recognized Credential, also requiring assessments.

So... good for you young people, but if you decide to read the article, beware there are a couple of naysayers who would attempt to diminish your accomplishment. They are advocates of the “rigor” (bullshit meaningless word they like to use) of the new assessment system & grad requirements.

Representative Andrew Brenner, Chair of the House Education Committee, is quoted in the article asking, "What's going on here that they're not able to get kids up to being college and career-ready?" He is completely off base here on several levels.

First, he is referring to teachers in urban districts where more students were unable to meet the points on the assessments in order to graduate. What Mr. Brenner fails to recognize is that students in these districts have a greater likelihood of being economically disadvantaged, which is widely recognized as having a negative impact on a student’s education  After all, an individual will be more concerned about their next meal, caring for siblings, a lack of health care, housing or transportation instability, & other related issues than they will be about the remote details of Algebra, American History, or Biology.

At the heart of Brenner’s nonsense, however, is his terribly dubious claim that the state’s requirement of 18 points on 7 assessments equals college & career readiness. There has, to my knowledge, never been a data driven analysis to indicate that this is true. We are simply expected to believe it because Mr. Brenner, and others of his ilk, repeat the phrase so often. As a matter of fact, the other assessment advocate & naysayer referenced in the article, Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute, has often made this claim. When I questioned him about his claim of readiness after Fordham penned an attack on Akron Superintendent David James this week, he admitted that he has no idea whether or not the requirement actually measures college & career readiness.

Mr. Aldis does not make the CCR claim in this most recent article, but calls the additional pathways “absurdly easy” and the diplomas “meaningless.” He also suggests that if teachers like me simply worked harder, then students would perform better on the tests. With due respect to Mr. Aldis, (whose employer is an advocate for, & sponsor of charter schools who benefit from public schools being labeled as failures by state testing systems) we teachers could work ourselves to madness or death, but that would not make this assessment system any more meaningful. You and Mr. Brenner would still not be able to find a single college that refers to score from Ohio’s assessment system for use as a predictor of college success. Furthermore, you will be unable to find an employer whose hiring policy is dependent upon scores on Ohio’s state tests.

As for the difficulty of the additional pathways, we know that more students graduated under this system. I find this to be a fantastic development. The idea of “too many kids graduating” is beyond my comprehension.

If we are legitimately interested in assuring that students are ready for life after high school, then wouldn’t the components of the additional pathways... work experience, volunteer work, maintenance of a Grade Point Average (the greatest predictor of college success), and other items of the sort be vital to that end? Sure working 120 hours might be “absurdly easy” in the mind of Mr. Aldis, but I’ve had some jobs where I’d classify that time as nightmarish, but where I learned some important lessons about work ethic, collaboration and communication, if not the necessity of staying in school in order to avoid shitty jobs. These experiences were sometimes more valuable than those in the classroom, and certainly more validating than a score on an assessment.

The Graduation Requirement does not have to be impossible, or even terribly difficult, in order to be meaningful.

What Rep Brenner, Mr. Aldis, & other pro-assessment shills like them are attempting to do is to infuse meaning into a meaningless assessment system, and because the media repeats their unfounded opinions as fact, people believe them. They would have us believe that the only thing of value accomplished by students in their educational career is a collection of test scores.

They are wrong.

Perhaps instead of giving Brenner & Aldis the opportunity to trot out their same tired, unfounded line of bullshit the next time an article is written about graduation in Ohio, the reporter will give me a call. I’ll congratulate ALL of the graduates on their meaningful accomplishment despite an utterly meaningless assessment system.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Our Education Policy Priority is Nonsense.

Allow me to put this in perspective. At the high school where I teach, approximately 200 of 450 seniors in the class of 2018 were using the additional pathways to earn their diploma. For those of you out of the loop, this means that they were unable to earn 18 points from the state’s 7 assessments, or particular point values in content areas. Statistically speaking, the tests that have given students the most trouble, both at my school and statewide, are Algebra and Geometry.

Unable to earn the scores deemed appropriate & indicative of college & career readiness by the state (with no data driven analysis to prove the readiness they claim), these seniors worked to complete their coursework successfully while simultaneously studying in remediation (test prep) classes in order to retake problematic assessments. They were also required to satisfy 2 components, or additional pathways, to earn their diploma. At my school, overworked administrators and counselors met individually, frequently with students and tracked their progress on 3 possible pathways selected by the student. This way, if a student found themselves unable to meet 93% attendance, often difficult among economically disadvantaged students for health care and transportation issues, those students could focus on attaining the necessary GPA, or score on the WorkKeys assessment, or hours in employment or volunteer service, or another of the additional pathways.

Setting aside the fact that the inordinate amount of time and effort expended could have been better used to actually counsel students regarding their mental health, career choices, college options, scholarship info, etcetera, the system created seemed to work. It is gloriously pointless, does nothing to encourage appropriate life choices for students, is a fantastic waste of resources, but at least students were able to graduate.

I bring all of this up now despite this being my first full week of summer break, a time in which I should be sitting quietly in my backyard, staring blankly into the distance as my mind makes sense of the past school year, a bemused smile on my face, a cat circling my ankles. I bring this up because I keep waking up with uncertainty, the uncertainty of a man who knows that in a few short months the class of 2019 will be stepping into the school in which I teach with no alternative pathways to graduation outside of a meaningless assessment system.

If the numbers are comparable to last year, and every measure we’ve seen indicates that they will be, then somewhere around 50% of seniors (give or take) in every urban district will be starting the year with some measure of anxiety regarding whether or not they will receive a diploma. Half of those kids might have a shot, despite already having retaken their Algebra assessment 2 or 3 times to no avail, so will show up and bust their asses even though the odds are steep.

At the other end are those kids who’ve got maybe 9-11 of their necessary 18 points having already taken all of the tests, who know damn well that the system has been stacked against them to such a degree that there is no way in hell that they will improve that many test scores and graduate, despite all of the remediation, hard work, and best intentions of teachers, counselors, and administrators.

“Why bother showing up?” is likely the question that will enter many of their minds, and I’m not sure that I have a good answer.

A bill exists right now that would extend the pathways for the classes of 2019 & 2020 until a more meaningful Graduation Requirement can be crafted. House Bill 630, introduced by Representative Galonski, awaits the appropriate hearings which have yet to be scheduled by House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner. Rep Brenner told the media that there would be action taken on graduation when the state board recommended it in January. He called me at my home and told me the same.

And yet, no action. Not on graduation anyway. Mr. Brenner’s bill that would require the State School Board to develop a cursive handwriting curriculum passed the House this week. While the class of 2019 twists in the wind, our education policy priority is nonsense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sparrows, Absurdity, Contradiction, Purposeful Ignorance, & the Right Thing to Do.

In the spring, outside my classroom, on the window ledges of this hundred year old building, the sparrows call to one another in something of a song. It is idyllic. The morning sun angling through the third floor blinds casts shadows onto the wood floors while I’m seated at my desk prepping the day’s materials. And through this, the sparrows call to claim their territory.

We have reached the end of the school year again, late this time due to our post-Labor Day beginning. The lateness has afforded our students the opportunity, for better or worse, to see their state test scores prior to leaving for the summer. Unfortunately, just like last year, there has been no long term solution established regarding the Graduation Problem, and no short term extension of the additional pathways to graduation for the classes of 2019 & 2020 as recommended by the State School Board. 

What this means is that sophomores and juniors have only their assessment scores as a path to graduation, and for many of them (50% or more in the urban districts) this is an unsettling uncertainty.

I’m not sure any of us arguing for a solution are terribly surprised by this lack of action from the Ohio Legislature. After all, a Republican majority in the House took months just to choose a new Speaker. Ohio suffers nearly triple the US average in opioid overdoses, and this same leadership has done little to remedy that situation. Ohio’s poverty rate exceeds the national average, and yet Republican gubernatorial hopeful Mike Dewine supports rolling back Medicaid expansion, potentially stripping poor families of their health care. Meanwhile, the state has as yet been unable to reclaim the 80 million in tax dollars taken fraudulently by ECOT, and some Ohio politicians still celebrate its accomplishments. We have plenty of fish to fry here in Ohio.

Why should I care so much about graduation when students don’t have enough to eat, and issues with addiction tear families apart, while politicians celebrate low unemployment while ignoring poverty, children are being taken from their parents by federal agents, and we’re being encouraged to consider Canada as a threat. The world is filled with absurdity and contradiction, gross inequality, and purposeful ignorance.

Each problem alone is built in this way. The graduation problem is the same, and as a high school teacher this is the issue at which I’ve chosen to take my swings. As I’ve indicated many times before, Ohio is one of only 13 states to require assessments for graduation. Advocates of the system make the dubious claim that the assessments assure that a student is college & career ready. Of course, no proof exists that standardized tests prove either of these things. Ohio leaders insist otherwise with no data to back up their assertion. When questioned on this punitive use of tests, they often become agitated, and suggest I’d hand out diplomas to kids for doing nothing.

In response to that, I suggest that the wealth of coursework taken during a student’s four years in high school (not to mention their efforts PK-8) are sufficient to qualify as achievement, and are certainly not, as they say, “nothing.” So far, Ohio Legislators have not wanted to hear my ideas on this issue, however thoughtful or data driven they may be.

Standardized tests best correlate to economic status. Generations of testing data prove this and yet policy makers refuse to acknowledge reality. For them, the assessment score seems to be the only item of value produced by a student throughout their educational career. This thought process has created in Ohio a situation where leaders believe that we are encouraging our children in poverty by punishing them by withholding diplomas. Again, absurdity, contradiction, gross inequality, and purposeful ignorance.

The consensus in Columbus seems to be that we could possibly allow too many students to graduate. I understand the idea of raising expectations and preparing students for the future, but nothing suggests that assessment based punishment is working to that end. And to be fair, higher expectations are contradictory to the state’s policies on other educational issues.

Ohio wants its students to seek career training, vocational credentials, & college degrees, but legislates in favor of charter schools that can be run by individuals with no experience in education. Districts that face HB 70 style takeovers are riddled with criminal absurdity. In Lorain, an unqualified CEO, a veteran of slapdash training in Teach for America, hires uncertified administrators to lead a severely economically disadvantaged district, promising that all future graduates will either be credentialed or have a degree in addition to their diploma. But the district leaders don’t have the appropriate credentials?!

Asking me to believe that complete deregulation of education in empoverished urban centers, and that often uneducated, unqualified, & uncertified personnel are best suited to encourage students to seek education and certification makes as much sense as asking me to believe that Canada is a threat, or that withholding diplomas due to test scores is in the best interest of students.

I cannot let go of the graduation issue because I see the terrible interconnectedness of many of these things. Poverty correlates to low test scores, and low test scores currently prevent graduation. I believe that preventing 40-50% (maybe more) of students in urban areas from earning a diploma based on a meaningless assessment system will only exacerbate poverty, potentially compound the opioid epidemic, & create more problems.

One of my students this year asked me what I get for all of this. “Like what do you get paid,” she asked, for following legislation, writing articles, communicating with (& getting insulted by) policy-makers, working toward fixing the graduation problem? “Nothing,” I told her. “There’s no, like, extra payment or anything.” 

This small interaction really made me wonder why I keep after it. I’m tired, demoralized, and sometimes physically sick over this shit. Leadership in Columbus consistently fails to see my side of the argument. Why bother?

First, I am bemused by the absurdity that is being passed off as education policy.

Second, children are being done wrong, so it is the right thing to do.

And finally, I’m territorial just like these sparrows. My students deserve a better system.

Friday, April 20, 2018

I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.

“You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.”

Ever since I provided feedback on the Ohio Strategic Plan for Education  I’ve been thinking about this quote. You see, the plan embraces a holistic view of education, one that seeks to allow children to develop academically through diverse coursework in order to pursue their interests, become creative and critical thinkers, and learn about their place in their community and the world. 

The plan presents 4 “Equally-Valued Domains of Learning” that include the academic skills & knowledge, but also creativity & analysis, well-rounded content, and social-emotional skills. There are specific references to promoting the arts, wraparound services to help remediate the effects of poverty, and promoting student interest and career driven exploration through choices. These are precisely the ideas that make school a valuable experience, and even fun.

Furthermore, these ideas coincide with much of my own reasoning in going into the field of education. As a young teacher I was interested in building relationships, offering choices and opportunities for students to learn about themselves and their develop, in the words of the Strategic Plan, lifelong learners. Then things went awry. No Child Left Behind placed an inordinate focus on standardized assessments, and the state of Ohio cranked up the high stakes to include promotion, graduation, teacher & district ratings, and all sorts of irrelevant punishments.

Our focus had to shift. My focus turned to the kids who primarily needed to pass tests in order to graduate. Sure, I’ve worked to infuse interest and creativity, choice and exploration, communication, critical thought, social-emotional The reality, however, is that all of these things remain secondary (at best) in a system reliant upon high-stakes standardized tests.

I could’ve been a great teacher.

The Strategic Plan is lacking an adequate sense of reality. Its EachChild, or Whole Child view is contradicted by the existing system, and there is absolutely nothing in the plan to suggest that the existing system will change to facilitate these valid expansive ideas. 

In an education system saturated by standardized tests, where their outcomes determine promotion and graduation, evaluation results, success of levies (so economic stability), and potential district takeover by the state (Youngstown & Lorain currently), the educational focus must remain on the assessments. In districts where assessments scores suffer (read impoverished districts), an inordinate focus will remain on  ELA & math, as well as other tested subjects as necessary. 

This is a focus on a single domain, Foundational Skills and Knowledge. There is simply no time or resources to devote to the other domains. Opportunities for creativity lack in the current system. Art, music, phys ed, and electives are sacrificed for attempts at success on high stakes assessments. Social and Emotional growth becomes secondary to the numbers on assessments.

As long as there is punishment attached to tests, schools will purchase Chromebooks to administer assessments instead of hiring art teachers. They will invest in reading software that mimics assessment questions instead of organizing field trips. Our gymnasiums will continue to turn into testing rooms. Our Counselors will primarily serve as Test Administrators. Teachers will continue narrowing their focus to the tested material, and student experiences will continue to be limited.

Sure, affluent districts that do not even need to think about the assessments will continue to move forward promoting all domains, while less affluent students will suffer under a system that has not promoted growth over the last 20 years. With this said, all Ohio’s Strategic Plan will do is to highlight the inequality that exists, while its vision is supposed to be one of equity.

Without significantly dismantling the current system by moving toward federal minimums in assessment, eliminating all high-stakes associated with assessments, and fixing school funding, the Vision, Goals, and Strategies in Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Education are utterly meaningless. I appreciate the work that has clearly gone into the Strategic Plan, but it is once again attempting to shoehorn reform into a system based on punishment. It simply will not work.

A Few Other Thoughts for the Ohio Department of Education on the Strategic Plan.

1) Standardized Assessments are not "robust measures." Stop with this nonsense. Recognize that poverty impacts education, and that this is what your assessments measure. Then move forward with remediation of poverty through wraparound services as indicated.

2) Recognize the innate problems with a high-stakes assessment system. (3rd grade, Graduation Requirement, Teacher Evaluation, District Takeovers are not accomplishing what you believe or claim)

3) Do not pretend that Teach for America has been successful. It hasn't. It brings less qualified individuals into the classroom. Then they leave the profession after a short time, which provides little consistency, harms children, and the educational culture in schools. Similar programs for administrators are unproven as well.

4) Personalized learning is unproven in the research, as are digital methods. Presenting them as viable is terribly misguided.

5) Actually follow the feedback on the Strategic Plan given to you in the Stakeholder Meetings, and through the Survey by educators like myself. You didn't do this with the ESSA plan until we all called you on it. Your actions have been disingenuous and disrespectful. I’m not a bum. Don’t treat me like it.