Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Bomb Threats and the Bittersweet End of the Year.


I've had a great school year, so it's disappointing to get to the end and see everyone just want to get the hell out, to a far greater degree than is customary. I understand, though, because when I say the year was great it is a commentary on my classroom and the young people I've been fortunate enough to teach.

If I were to dwell upon the grinding nature of state regulation, compliance to building and district improvement protocol, the albatross of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, the insistence of elected officials that they're listening to educators as they promote policy that is contradictory to sound educational practice and research, then my assessment of the year would differ.

I spend a lot of time on this blog worrying aloud about the graduation crisis, the intrusive nature of state assessments, their inability to measure much beyond socio-economic status, and the absurdity of state official's insistence that a battery of tests can measure college and career readiness, or high stakes outcomes tied to those assessments somehow improve educational opportunity. These things are a threat to the well being of students, and the quality of their education. They make the task of providing a meaningful educational experience far more difficult.

On a very basic level, I am an Elyria kid who now has the good fortune to teach American History to Elyria kids, and these policy issues feel like an attack on all of us. I'm not cool with that or any other threat, and appreciate the opportunity to stand up for these kids that I have come to know, regardless of the circumstances. We help each other out. It's what you do.

Now if I add to these issues a few bomb threats in a few weeks and a short-term police occupation of my school, then it's easy to see why everyone has begun looking at their watches. I get it. It's been exhausting, and that's only my perspective, a teacher with a bit part. I can't imagine the toll this takes on administrators, police, and others who deal more directly with the threats, or the toll this takes on students, who often have enough going on in their own lives personally, economically, environmentally, or otherwise, to make school a challenge. 

So, admitting that I cannot fully understand the depth of another's experience, I'll speak for myself and perhaps you'll agree. I'm not going to let a few misguided individuals ruin my perception of an entire year, any more than I'm going to let a handful of misguided politicians ruin my career as a teacher.

It's been a more than a week since the lockdown at school, since a half dozen heavily armed officers entered my classroom looking for a student who was targeted for some absurd internet revenge. A kid who, a few moments prior, had told me he believed the whole thing was just a threat based on some information he'd received.

By that time we knew the building was occupied by local police, sheriffs, highway patrol, and 3 or 4 ambulances had assembled outside. Four officers with rifles had come to the door of my classroom with a student who'd been stranded in the hall. They had us let her in, and with all seriousness, instructed me to lock it back up.. Based on what we'd seen, along with info from student cell phones, one kid listening to the police scanner, online news, other hearsay and rumor, we believed there was the possibility of multiple gunmen. Preparations had been made for mass casualties. It was an unsettling situation to say the least.

Twenty minutes earlier the class was wrapping up a film on the counterculture, film footage of San Francisco circa 1967, Janis Joplin, peace love dope. We were supposed to be wrapping up the year tying the anti-war movement to these cultural elements. The next thing we knew, we're crowded out of the door's line of sight, standing around in pools of Monday afternoon sunlight, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It is easy in those situations to let your mind wander into a worst case scenario, and I know that there were many who went there. I guess those things crossed my mind, but as a teacher in the classroom I've experienced other stressful situations, and have felt more helpless than I did in that moment.

The bottom line was, we hadn't heard anything. That is to say, no gunshots, explosions, or otherwise. I kept thinking, let's not freak out until it is absolutely necessary. As a teacher I have learned that there are so many variables involved in a kid's education, you control what you can, provide support appropriate to the circumstances, then hope for the best. As for variables, this one was a mess, but it didn't change my approach to treating the people in my classroom as humanely as possible.

Naive as it is, I also kept thinking about how this couldn't possibly happen. We've got a week to go, man. These have been some of the best classes I've ever had, no bullshit (and no offense to previous years which were lovely in their own right). There is no way this is going down with some of the most pleasant people I've ever encountered. I know, my thought process was literally "bad things can't happen to good people." 

I'm an idiot. 

As my students and I hid in our classroom, one of the few 3rd floor rooms, I joked that no one, threat or not, wants to climb all those stairs. There is safety in isolation and elevation. We talked quietly about who had heard what, what news crews were on the scene, who had contacted their parents. We controlled our situation with small conversations. I told a few students about the time years ago when, in a lengthy practice lockdown during my study hall, two surly girls threatened to kick my ass if I didn't let them use the restroom. Ultimately the girls agreed to wait, and spared me the beating. I was a little afraid that humor might do a disservice to the gravity of our situation, but humor is often all I've got. 

When the cops came in to take our classmate, that most difficult moment when the crisis came to us, our seriousness returned. After which, everybody took a breath and responsibility for one another. Even having been there, I am unable to satisfactorily articulate the manner in which these young people, often without words, were able to maintain their composure and provide the actions appropriate to the situation. Like many achievements in education, these are impossible to objectively measure.

After several hours in all, we were released, everyone searched by police in the interest of our safety. Then we filed out into sunlight on Middle Avenue, and down 6th Street where our friends, parents, police, and the media waited. It was warm and strange and expansive to be outside. Everyone started to quietly tell their stories about being unsettled or afraid or inconvenienced, maybe all of the above, as they made sense of the situation. We'd learn later that there were no guns, no bombs, no threat at all. It was just as the quiet of the 3rd floor suggested, just as we had suspected all along.

I'm an Elyria kid who has the good fortune to teach Elyria kids. All in all I couldn't have dealt with this difficult situation with a better group of people.

The school year ends this week. My students and I will part ways. If anything, I find that more upsetting than the lockdown. Even though the end comes every year, it is always bittersweet.

If my students learned some American History, something that the state intends to attempt to measure as a determinant for their career and college readiness, I'm happy.

If they've learned something about the importance of empathy and compassion, the ability to communicate with people with whom they have differences, the medicinal value of humor, how to manage challenging situations, the importance of standing up for yourself, how to be a decent human being, or something new about their place in the world, and how they can act to better their community, so much the better.

As we walk out into a world that is often frightening, or strange and expansive, let's go with the knowledge that we've done it right. Though it has had its challenges, it's been a great year.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

I Guess It Is All About Assessments.

"What these students deserve from our state, first and foremost, is an apology for the abysmal assessment system that they and their peers have been subjected to, a system that has only limited their educational opportunities, and not measured what state leaders claim. Then, they deserve a safe harbor for graduation, the elimination of any connection between Ohio's assessment system and their ability to graduate."

It's nearing the end of the school year.

Of course, many people operate under the assumption that it's already over because testing has ended. "The whole thing is about testing right, so why do anything after it's over."

Well, because it's not about testing, contrary to the message we've been given by nearly every significant piece of education legislation over the last 20 years. It's about education. It's about facilitating a safe and entertaining environment that develops curious, creative, critical thinking, compassionate human beings. Which is why I've still been showing up, shirt and tie, and putting on a show, much to the chagrin of many of my students who I'm sure have had just about enough of my bullshit.

To them, I apologize. I teach, it is what I do, and I've got only a few short weeks left to do it with this group of students. After that, we'll go our separate ways and I will want to believe that I've done everything that I could in their interest while I had the chance. Teaching in a building that covers two city blocks, there is no hyperbole in saying that I'll never see some of them again. This is what makes the time so vital.

For this year's juniors, 30% of whom will not graduate under the current grad requirements, time is especially vital. A few weeks ago, I emailed every member of the Ohio Legislature to argue the limitations implicit in a high stakes assessment system, and encourage them to fix the situation in the budget bill. I got a few emailed replies that were either vague or supportive, and fielded a phone call from House Education Committee Chair Andy Brenner. Rep Brenner was diplomatic in our conversation and believes that a fix could come via the Senate in the budget bill, through the state school board this summer, or from the Legislature by September. He is interested in seeing the results of the ACT's and retakes of state tests. I believe that students who score poorly on state tests are not going to earn remediation free scores on the ACT, and I'm not convinced that retakes will improve scores in enough cases to make a difference. I told Rep Brenner that when many people consider this issue, they consider the numbers, 30% or 30,000 students for example. I think of the kids who are in my class, young people for whom the waiting, anxiety, and frustration must be immense. I believe legislators would be well served to consider policy decisions in terms of people.

In the interest of facilitating a solution to the grad crisis sooner rather than later, I submitted testimony to the Senate Finance Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee this week, a group that I think sounds completely made-up. I would encourage you to contact your Senator (or all of them if you're motivated), to advocate for a safe harbor for the class of 2018. 

I guess it is all about assessments. Maybe the school year is over. 

My testimony is as follows...

Thank you members of the Senate Finance Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee for allowing these thoughts to be heard.

With regard to the ongoing crisis related to Ohio's graduation requirement, I believe a safe harbor for the class of 2018 is the only equitable solution considering the 3 year assessment mess that created the situation. I would sincerely encourage the Senate to include language in the budget bill that disconnects assessments from the graduation requirement. This should be followed by a sincere move toward the minimization of assessments overall, and abandonment of high stakes measures associated with them, as has been recommended by stakeholders statewide.

When my wife and I first looked at the scores from the class of 2018's PARCC tests nearly two years ago, we were terribly alarmed. With 20-30% passing rates in some subjects in urban districts, we anticipated 40% graduation rates in those places. While this was speculation, and we hoped we were wrong, as a teacher I recognized that remediation and retesting would have a limited impact on both learning and scores. Teaching and living in one of Ohio's urban areas, Elyria, I became concerned for my students, my neighbors, and my community. My wife and I proceeded to contact decision makers at all levels, and were generally told to wait and see. The time for waiting is over.

Much has already been said, and is now widely accepted about the existing "Graduation Crisis," which the Ohio Department of Education admits will result in 30% of Ohio's students being prevented from receiving a diploma. As we had feared early on, in Ohio's urban centers the percentage of non-graduates could reach 60-70%. This year's juniors are the first graduating class required to satisfy the new requirements which demand earning a total of 18 points from 7 state assessments. The tests have changed vendor and/or form in each of their high school years.

As students and parents panic, and schools scramble to provide remediation for tens of thousands of retakes statewide, some facts have gotten lost in the discussion. Most important among these is the fact that there is absolutely no federal regulation that insists graduation be tied to standardized tests. Ohio is one of only 14 states with this requirement.

Advocates of the system insist that the assessments bring "increased rigor" that improves education. They argue that the assessments are necessary because students have been found lacking in work skills, and been in dire need of remediation when entering college. No evidence suggests that a change or increase in assessments can change student performance.
No Child Left Behind ushered in this test and punish mentality in 2001. During the time since, scores for high school students have stagnated on the NAEP, SAT scores declined between 2006 and 2014, and ACT scores have been flat. A generation of students tested has not resulted in any significant improvements and yet we persist with this philosophy.

As a long time teacher of American History, a tested subject linked to graduation in Ohio, I believe we should question the value of the assessments overall, and the data they provide. It is widely accepted that High School GPA remains the best predictor of college success. The assessments or other graduation pathways do nothing to promote student pursuit of vocational programs. Even when the ODE was forthcoming with data from state assessments, which they are not now, the only real purpose it served was to direct educators to help students be more successful on assessments.

If the concern is the development of work skills, a recent survey of business leaders by Forbes indicated the top 5 qualities of graduates: teamwork, decision making, communication skills, organizational management, and the ability to obtain information. Generally speaking, these are soft skills, not qualities that can be measured by a standardized assessment.

Ohio students will be prevented from graduating in order to provide data with little meaning, due to an assessment system that has not improved achievement by any measure, and cannot measure the soft skills needed to be successful in college and on the job, the very things the state claims we're measuring.

All ODE materials on the graduation requirement celebrate the options created through the Three Paths to graduation which include the WorkKeys and ACT remediation free routes. These are often framed as a solution to the problems created by the standardized assessment system. Unfortunately, even these "expanded" opportunities seem primed to result in far fewer graduates.

According to The Ohio Education Policy Institute, in analysis of 2014 state data, only 15.1% of students scored remediation free on the ACT in districts with greater than 90% economically disadvantaged students. In areas with high rates of poverty this is not a viable path to graduation. In districts with only 10% economically disadvantaged the percent of students scoring remediation free is only 69%. Not an assured solution in either case, the remediation free rate is 4.5 times greater in richer than in poorer districts. The premise that students who are scoring poorly on state standardized assessments will score remediation free on a college entrance exam seems contrary to conventional educational logic, especially when you consider past results on those exams. They simply will not graduate.

As for the vocational certification, a 2014 report by the Fordham Institute indicates that only one in four students in Ohio's Career and Technical Planning Districts earned an industry credential. Superintendent of Eastland-Fairfield Career Center, Bonnie Hopkins, told the Columbus Dispatch, "Not all programs have credentials to earn in high school, and other programs have industry credentials that aren't on the state's list," she said. These issues make the career path open to very few students.

State leaders have suggested that they anticipate graduation rates stabilizing over time. In an economy lagging behind average national growth, and the Governor himself warning of a localized recession, Ohio may not have that kind of time time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school graduates earn a median weekly income of $678, while non-graduates earn $493. If the current graduation requirements are not sufficiently remedied, state education leaders risk exacerbating economic issues as well.

If we are to move toward excellence in education, we should be more concerned with providing opportunities for students, as opposed to doling out punishments. In that, education on the whole needs to become less reliant on the weight of standardized test scores which have always, though especially recently, provided negligible data. If it is philosophically impossible to eliminate standardized tests as a determinant for graduation, again federal law does not require it, then they should at least be limited to something akin to the OGT. In combination with this, the point totals necessary for graduation should be lowered AND additional ways of earning points should be established. Standardized tests do not measure, nor do they promote, career or college readiness. They also do not begin to convey the level of work that is required of a student through the process of their education. Offering points for active participation in student groups, service organizations, taking on leadership roles, internships or employment, course grades, extracurriculars and otherwise should be considered.

It is, however, far too late to consider these things for the class of 2018. What these students deserve from our state, first and foremost, is an apology for the abysmal assessment system that they and their peers have been subjected to, a system that has only limited their educational opportunities, and not measured what state leaders claim. Then, they deserve a safe harbor for graduation, the elimination of any connection between Ohio's assessment system and their ability to graduate.

While I seriously question the need for an excessive testing system such as we have in Ohio, I understand, politically, that some testing will remain. However, the time for punishing students on the basis of standardized tests is over. Please consider a safe-harbor for the class of 2018. Then move forward toward the minimization of assessments overall, and abandonment of high stakes measures associated with them, according to the demands of stakeholders statewide.

If there is anything that I can do to be of assistance, please let me know.

On behalf of myself and my students, thank you for your time and service to the state of Ohio.

Yours in education,

Matthew T. Jablonski