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.