Friday, January 20, 2017

Ohio's ESSA Draft Plan is not what I heard suggested at my Stakeholder Meeting.

 Superintendent DeMaria listens to input on ESSA.

Having read the Ohio Department of Education's draft plan to comply with the Every Student Succeds Act, I have become convinced of what I had feared all along. The ODE and its esteemed leader, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria, had little intention of actually acting upon the suggestions of education stakeholders when crafting Ohio's plan. I guess ESSA said they only had to "engage" the public, not actually listen. Their documents celebrate their compliance, indicating that they have "engaged 15,000 Ohioans in the development of the draft." What is seemingly between the lines then is this: then we did whatever the hell we wanted to, which is very little.

According to their expansive public engagement, Philanthropy Ohio, the organization tasked with making sense of the input reported in its "white paper," "All sectors of the community—parents, families, teachers, administrators and community members—raised concerns about the assessments." 

When I skimmed the document last night and became blind with rage that they'd decided not to reduce testing to federal minimums, nor revise punitive measures related to testing like the report card, teacher evaluation, and the 3rd grade guarantee, I thought perhaps I'd read it wrong. Later, my wife directed me to Patrick O'Donnell's article in the Plain Dealer entitled, "Ohio proposes no testing cuts in its ESSA plan -- yet -- despite feedback pleading for them," and my impressions were confirmed. According to the article, both senior ODE policy advisor Colleen Grady and Philanthropy Ohio spokesperson Lisa Gray indicated that the chief concern of all stakeholders was too much time consuming testing.

The ODE's response...

One of the main themes communicated during stakeholder engagement was the need for stability in the state testing system, as Ohio has changed tests two times in the last three years. Accordingly, Ohio is proposing to maintain its current state assessment system. However, the Department will work in partnership with Governor Kasich and the General Assembly to re-examine any state assessments not required under ESSA – an area in which Ohio has already made significant progress. Thanks to the leadership of the Ohio General Assembly, administration time for state assessments was reduced by 50 percent between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. 

Obviously, the first problem with this is that it fails to address what an ODE spokesperson, as well as a representative from Philanthropy Ohio (who organized and compiled public input) classified as the top concern statewide.

Problem number two is the stated desire to work with Kasich and the General Assembly. Anyone who has had opportunity to listen to a politician speak should realize that this is classic spin...

Politician: "We are looking into that issue."
Translation: "We are going to create a process to appear as if we care about your concerns, undertake a charade like establishing a Workgroup to placate the most vocal, and in the end hope you forget about the issue because we had no intention of doing anything."

Having been regularly bullshitted by people in positions of power, I don't even see that as the biggest problem. My biggest gripe is the congratulatory language at the end. Let's be clear. The General Assembly reduced the testing time because they had created an unmanageable system to begin with. If I punch you in the face, and then get you some ice for the swelling, should I be congratulated as a humanitarian? Furthermore, all the General Assembly did was eliminate the early testing window. Let's not forget that the number one concern of stakeholders, as indicated after that change took place, is still too much testing.

Earlier this year, I overheard an administrator at my school suggest that 'we don't have a small gym anymore, we have a large testing room.' With thousands of students, two school year retake sessions, combined with first time tests (the mind reels at the number of individual assessments administered), I'd add a few things. We don't have technologies, we have testing devices. We don't have teachers, we have test prep specialists. We don't have counselors to help transition students to college and career, we have test administrators. Feel free to add a few of your own.

We also don't have less testing. This year all Ohio high schools are required to administer the ACT to all juniors regardless of capability, intention of going to college, or need for the test. Also, as I understand it, there is going to be an additional extended essay added to English assessments this year. This development has driven my school to have the ELA test completed in two testing sessions. Yes, the General Assembly ditched PARCC and a testing window, but the tests aren't really markedly shorter. Let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. I would encourage the Superintendent and the ODE, as they work with Governor Kasich and the General Assembly to "re-examine" the assessment system, to look at the reality of the system, and think about investigating how this functions practically in an actual high school (it doesn't), as opposed to looking at this as just a number of tests.

A word about the Graduation Requirement...

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the state's draft plan mention of the Graduation Requirement. The language is as follows...

Any discussion about high school level end-of-course exams will be done in coordination with the State Board of Education’s current reexamination of Ohio’s graduation requirements. 

The Graduation Workgroup got down to business on Wednesday, introducing one another, and seeing a presentation from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. From what I've seen of the presentation and corresponding research, most of the skills necessary for college and career success are NOT things that can be measured by standardized tests. This would seem to limit the importance of using said tests as a requirement for graduation. I'm guessing those in power at the ODE see things differently. 

One individual who attended the meeting indicated that Superintendent DeMaria said that the tests are essentially off-limits for discussion in the Workgroup. I would be interested in having that verified by other attendees. If it is true, then DeMaria and the ODE are clearly involved in some sort of shell game regarding state assessments. After all, if the ESSA report, signed by DeMaria, says the discussion of end-of-course exams is occurring within the board's investigation, which is being undertaken by the Workgroup, but the Workgroup has been forbidden by DeMaria to discuss the tests, then nothing is being addressed with regard to the assessment system at the high school level. I would also question how adequately the Workgroup is going to be able to address the graduation problem without discussing the root of the problem.

The Superintendent wants to hear from us...again.

When Paolo DeMaria took over as Superintendent, he told Ohioans he wanted to hear from them. As reported in the Plain Dealer at the time, "I want to listen- to get a clear sense of what's happening out here," DeMaria said. "Share with us. Communicate with us, Tell us what we're doing well, what we're not doing well." He has consistently positioned himself as the benevolent bearded face of the ODE, ready to listen, prepared to take action to do what is right for Ohio's kids.

Unfortunately, he's more often proving to be inclined to fall in line with a partisan agenda that features test and punish, attacks on public schools and their teachers, and privatization, just like his predecessors. His recent inaction related to the takeover of the Lorain schools is the best evidence so far. This ESSA draft plan, and its utter lack of a plan to fix the primary issue indicated by Ohioans when they stepped up to share with Mr. DeMaria seems, unfortunately, to be another example.

It's not over, though. True to form, Superintendent DeMaria and the Ohio Department of Education have opened up a period of time to comment on the state's ESSA plan. That's right, they want to hear what we think  The full plan will be released in February, and the window to weigh-in will be open until March 6th. In theory, this feedback will be used to shape the final Ohio plan to comply with ESSA.

Let's hope they prove more capable of responding to stakeholder input than they have thus far.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mr. Gunlock responds as I grow weary of his unfounded rhetoric.

As an act of civic engagement in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wrote what I believed to be a well thought out and researched email to Ohio School Board members regarding the imminent "Graduation Crisis." In it, I encouraged them to keep a close eye on the State Superintendent's Graduation Workgroup, and to be sure to protect Ohio's most vulnerable students. I have included this email first.

When I sent the email, I did not anticipate hearing from anyone, least of all the most vocal of the opponents of adjusting the graduation requirement. Much to my surprise, Kasich appointee and former State School Board President Tom Gunlock responded with his usual talking points, but also a surprising vitriol in which he questioned my (and all Ohio teachers, administrators, and school personnel) ability to provide a quality education. Not only did I find his message absolutely without the research to back it up, but terribly insulting. Mr. Gunlock's email is included second.

Outraged at the typical unfounded attack on teachers and public education that you'd think I'd be used to by now, I penned a reply to Mr. Gunlock. This is included last. Please read this exchange of ideas. Having done so, if you feel the need to contact Board Member Gunlock, his contact information is as follows...

Tom Gunlock

 First: My initial email to Mr. Gunlock and the Board.

Board Member Gunlock, and Members of the State School Board,

On the eve of the first meeting of the Superintendent's Graduation Workgroup, I felt it was important to contact you regarding the gravity of the situation and to reiterate some facts that have been largely ignored in this conversation regarding the graduation requirement. Most important among these is the fact that there is absolutely no federal requirement for graduation to be tied to standardized tests. Ohio is one of only 13 states to require this, and through a testing system that has undergone significant changes over the past three years.

We are told by advocates of the system at the state level that this "increased rigor" is necessary because our students have been found lacking in work skills, and been in dire need of remediation when entering college. The problem is that evidence doesn't back this up. Ohio's students score above the national average on the ACT. Furthermore, according to a report published in January of last year by the Ohio Department of Higher Education, the college remediation rates dropped from 37% to 32% from 2014 to 2015.

As for work skills, a recent survey of business leaders by Forbes indicated the following as the top 5 qualities of graduates: being able to work as a team, decision making, communication skills, organizational management, and the ability to obtain information. What is significant here is that these are not qualities that can be measured by a standardized assessment. 

The reality in Ohio is that we are preparing to refuse a diploma to 30% of our students statewide. In urban areas like the one in which I teach, the rate of non-graduates will be far higher, 40-70% depending on the city. We are punishing students to solve nonexistent problems, with an unproven assessment system that cannot measure the soft skills students need to be successful in college and on the job.

We've been told that the 3 paths to graduation will solve the graduation problem, but the viability of the multiple paths is a myth. The WorkKeys path reaches terribly few vocational students, and those who can earn a remediation free score on the ACT are the same students who are on pace to graduate through the state assessment path. Three paths are a misnomer if fewer students graduate.

I understand that the Workgroup plans to analyze the situation, and suggest possible solutions by April. Unfortunately, I am not confident that there is much interest in protecting Ohio's most vulnerable students from being excluded from a diploma, those who earn their education at Ohio's urban high schools. State leaders have suggested that they anticipate graduation rates stabilizing over time. My students at Elyria High School and I have no interest in "rates stabilizing" over time because for us this isn't an issue of rates, but an issue that impacts our students, classmates, and friends.

Please consider these things, and do not lose sight of the fact that you are weighing-in on people's lives as you make decisions regarding the graduation requirement. My students and thousands of others across the state are counting on you. If you need the sources to legitimize the information that I have provided here, or if there is anything else that I can do to be of assistance, please let me know.

Yours in education.
Matthew T. Jablonski

 Second: Mr. Gunlock's thoughtful (if not hurtful) response. Copied and pasted. All grammatical errors, lack of appropriate punctuation, and incoherence are included here as written.

I need some help here.  In your opinion is an education more important or is receiving a diploma more important.  From your letter I will assume that in your opinion it is the latter.  If indeed that is the case then lowering the cut score to a 7 would be the answer to the problem.  To receive a 7 which is one point on each of the 7 exams the students would need to sign their name and "attempt" 5 questions.  We would then have close to 100 percent graduation and we could all feel great about ourselves.  Or maybe we could actually educate our kids.  Currently kids graduate by receiving the 20 credits and taking and passing an 8th grade test in the tenth grade.  We expect them to pass this test by the time they graduate.  Most citizens in this state believe that those who receive a diploma have a 12th grade education but in fact they have at least an 8th grade education.  So now we want those who receive a diploma to have at least a 10th grade education at a very minimum level.  In fact all the cut scores to be proficient is below 50 percent and a student only needs to be proficient in four of the 7 exams.  So that means that they can score at the basic level on three exams and still graduate.  As an example  the cut score for the geometry exam at the basic level is 22 percent.  Sad but true.  I know something will be adjusted to help the adults look good because that is what we always do.  Instead of holding adults and that includes the parents accountable for the performance of the kids we will dumb down the requirements until it no longer matters.  Kids will continue to graduate with a diploma that means they have at least an 8th grade education.  Employers will continue to struggle to find employees who are qualified and we adults will slap ourselves on the back and say what a great job we are doing.  It is sad that we cannot teach our kids to be low performing 10 graders in very basic subjects but  since the Strickland administration passed HB 1 in 2009 I guess we have proved that case.

Thank you for your email.

 Third: My reply regarding his accusations.

Mr. Gunlock,

The failing in your thinking, and that of those like you, is that you believe we are not educating Ohio's students because you have little to no experience in education. You also believe that your standardized assessments are measuring something that has to do with career and college readiness.

Please provide documentation and data regarding the validity of your claims as they relate to the current assessments, including grade level implications and the validity and reliability of the tests themselves.

Please provide documentation from employers regarding the lack of employee skills, as I have only heard this claim from you and your peers.

Then, please provide a research based argument that illustrates how standardized tests elevate the level of a child's education, and bridge educational gaps.

Diplomas are meaningful because teachers like myself work very hard to educate equally hard working students in American History and other core subjects. We teach skills vital to student success like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and organizational management. I resent your implication that I am not doing my job, and would encourage you to contact my students, their parents, or administration in my district if this is, in fact, your implication.

I'll look forward to the evidence you're able to provide me on these issues. This is an opportunity for you as an educational leader in this state (however appointed) to model the academic skills you claim to be promoting in your assessment system. Until you can provide a data driven argument, as opposed to your usual rhetoric and talking points, I will continue to believe that standardized testing is meaningless, along with Ohio's accountability system.

Thank you for your email.