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Archive for the category “Achievement Gap”

A Perversion of Terms

A number of aspects of the corporate/bureaucratic reform movement make me angry, but among the most egregious is the deliberate attempt to pervert and twist the meaning of valid educational or other terms into something that is often the opposite of their true essence. I first became aware of this phenomenon when I began teaching pre-service elementary teachers in a state that had bought into DIBELS in wholesale fashion, but I have become aware of many others, and I will address several in this blog post. No doubt you can think of more.

Perversion #1: Fluency

In my course work to become a Master Reading Teacher, I learned about fluency. Fluency is a concept that identifies a good oral reader; a fluent reader reads at an appropriate speed using emphasis and expression that suggest the reader understands what he or she is reading. In fact, comprehension is one aspect of true fluency. Fluency was identified as one of the five critical concepts that readers must master and that teachers must teach to help their students become competent readers by the National Reading Panel. Then, along came DIBELS.

Since our newly minted teachers would be asked to administer this assessment in most schools they might be hired in, our teacher education department felt it was important to give them some experience in how this collection of assessments is administered, and in the process, make them aware of its shortcomings. Although I had heard about DIBELS, I had no experience with it, so I learned along with my students.

I learned that DIBELS assessments are composed of one-minute “probes” of minute skills related to reading (but in most cases, not actual reading), all of which were labeled as some kind of “fluency”–First Sound Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, etc. None of these tests have the remotest connection to real fluency; yet by naming them with the word “fluency,” the idea is fostered that they must have something to do with the kind of fluency confirmed by the National Reading Panel. I have no idea what bureaucrat at the USDOE decided that DIBELS was exactly what was needed by schools who received Reading First Grants, but a huge percentage of the recipients of the RF grants adopted DIBELS as their screening tool. Of course there is much more to that story, but that’s for another post. What I do want to point out here is that the only aspect of fluency that DIBELS even tenuously incorporates is the idea of reading at a proper pace. However, because the tests are timed for one-minute, and smart children know they are being timed, they quickly catch on that what is important is speed, not accuracy, not expression, not even true understanding. Fluency has become “How fast can you say it?” and children become brilliant word callers with little or no comprehension. So, this perversion of a valid educational term has had and is having a negative impact on many students.

Perversion #2: Choice

Choice sounds like such a good thing, a really democratic thing. Making our own choices about how to live out our lives is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. How can choice be bad? It’s bad when it isn’t really choice at all.

What Choice has come to mean in the current political dialogue is choice in name only. The idea is this: since public schools are failing (a contention thoroughly discredited by many experts), students who attend a school that they believe is not serving their needs may either receive money in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at a private school (which has its own problems in terms of the separation of church and state), OR they may attend a publicly supported charter school. These charter schools claim that they do a better job of reaching these underserved students, but the research casts serious doubt on these claims. In addition many of the charter schools are organized as non-profits, but then hire for-profit corporations to actually run the schools. Thus public money is moving to private coffers.

Moreover, these charter schools often limit the number and kind of students they will accept (that is they refuse to admit students on an IEP or English Language Learners), or they take the money for these students, then find reasons to drop them or expel them for behavior or lack of progress or whatever excuse they can find. These students are then “dumped” back into the public schools, which now have even less money to meet their needs. The students who perform well on tests are the ones who get to remain in the charters. The level of accountability for charter schools is rarely as high as for public schools. One of the results of this kind of choice then is even less opportunity for the most at-risk students and ultimately a wider achievement gap than ever. Not much real choice going on here. I’m not at all sure these are the facts that people think of when they adopt a pro-Choice stance. Thus Choice is a good candidate for the perversion label.

Perversion #3: Accountability

Accountability is the name given to the idea that a person is held “to account” for his or her performance regarding something that is a requirement. So an “accounting” means that an explanation must be given as to whether the performance is acceptable and why or why not. We hold people accountable who have agreed to meet the performance requirements, not those who have NOT agreed to meet them. With the case of children who are students in the classroom, because we have compulsory attendance laws, they have no choice in being in school; therefore, when we hold them “accountable” for their school work, we have to ask how much accountability we can justifiably expect. Beyond that concern, what should be our response to a student who is not “accountable”–punishment or support? Of course, we train our children to do as they are told and for good reason. But we also want to train them to think for themselves, evaluate situations with logic, and make their own decisions, a scenario that is somewhat at odds with training them to follow our rules and extremely difficult to assess with standardized tests, which have become the only measure of “accountability”.

With the development of the theories that ultimately led to the passage of No Child Left Behind, we saw the push for accountability initially focused on students. The implication of the legislation is that children are inherently lazy and will not achieve the levels of learning required without pressuring them to pass tests. Tests are not inherently bad, but the tests that NCLB gave us were high-stakes tests; if the students were not accountable (i.e., didn’t pass the tests at the required level), bad things could happen. Even that might be tolerable IF the tests actually accurately assessed the students’ learning; they do not. One test alone can never be a valid litmus test of the depth and/or breadth of a student’s body of knowledge or thinking on a topic.
NCLB required that all third graders in the nation be proficient in reading and math at grade level by 2014. It quickly became apparent even to the most optimistic that this goal was impossible, so the accountability piece was moved to rest on schools for not pushing the teachers hard enough to raise student test scores and then to the teachers themselves, lazy sloggers who lap at the public trough, and finally to the teachers colleges that did a shoddy job of preparing the teachers to raise student test scores. (It strikes me that when the buck has been passed that far, the only place left to pass it to is the education policy creators–oh, no, of course not! They can’t be held accountable for anything!)

Nevertheless, the result of adopting this stance is that accountability comes to mean a method for sorting good test takers from poor test takers and punishing the poor test takers and those who are responsible for their poor showing. Any reasonable person would have to agree that this is a perversion of real accountability.

Perversion #4: Rigor

Closely related to accountability, at least in the minds of some, is the idea of rigor. Rigor is defined in most dictionaries as making something extremely and unreasonably difficult. As NCLB morphed into Race to the Top and Common Core, we began to hear that standards needed to be rigorous, and the accompanying tests that assessed the students who were learning under those standards should be rigorous. Perhaps they meant “challenging,” but that is not the word they used. Again the implication is that students (and teachers and administrators) are simply not expecting enough of themselves; they are taking the easy way out; they are lazy. But is rigor really what we want for our students, our children? Do we want them pushed to and beyond their highest stress levels? In the past, rigor was a term used in very negative contexts, and it was not even an educational term–but it is now! The perversion-of-terms menace has struck again!

Perversion #5: Close Reading

Speaking of Common Core, the requirements of the English Language Arts portion of these standards have led to yet another perversion of a good educational concept. For decades reading experts have recommended a series of word attack strategies to help students identify unknown words. One of those strategies is the use of context clues, that is, using other words in the sentence or paragraph to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. This is a very basic form of close reading. Re-reading is another recommended procedure. Both of these concepts are inherent in close reading. The idea is to thoroughly read a passage to glean as much information from it as possible. The twist comes when Common Core advocates maintain that students should not use any other information outside of the specific words in the passage to build comprehension. This is in direct contradiction to years of research that show that it is important for a reader to activate and use prior or background knowledge that they may have about the topic in the passage to build a complete understanding of it. Limiting an interpretation to only the words in the passage can and will lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Score one more for the reformers’ perversion machine.

Perversion #6: Personalized Learning

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what personalized learning is supposed to mean. With my background in education, I interpret it to mean the following: a teacher very carefully presents material to be learned to a student at an appropriate rate using knowledge of his/her ability, level of prior knowledge, interest, and preferred engagement mode, and providing supports as needed (we call this scaffolding) to enable the student to eventually construct an understanding or complete a task on his/her own. This is the essence of differentiated instruction and is as old as the one-room schoolhouse. It is difficult to do in our current factory-model of schooling, but many good teachers accomplish it. I believe this is the model that the minds of most classically trained educators jump to when the term “personalized learning” is used.

Sadly that is not what the corporate reformers mean when they use the term. In their minds, personalized learning cannot happen without a computer of some sort, be it the traditional desk top model, a lap-top, or a tablet. It involves something called adaptive programing, in which the computer has algorithms built into its programing that evaluate the answers a child gives on certain questions, then make a determination (instantaneously) as to the next item to present. Some of these programs actually can use physical feedback from the child’s hand on the mouse, perhaps even eye movement tracked by the computer, to determine stress levels, and adjust the material presented accordingly. Sounds great, right? Not! No computer can understand a child at the level that his human teacher can. The computer has no way of assessing whether an incorrect answer was given because it is too hard for the student or because he was distracted by something going on in the classroom or something that happened at home the night before or whether he didn’t get breakfast this morning. Corporate reformers envision large classes of children working primarily on some type of computer without much interaction with teachers or peers, taught “personally” at their specific level by the computer. What is missing here is an understanding of how children really learn. Children learn through manipulation of physical objects (sorry, the mouse or a touch screen doesn’t count as manipulative) and interaction with knowledgable others, either adults or peers. They learn by being in their world, not passive observers of it.

Personalized learning as touted by the corporate reformers is really pretty scary. Imagine how much data the computer needs about a child to be able to respond in a logical way to him. Imagine where that data is stored and where it is going. Who creates the programs that teach the child? If you guessed Pearson, you are correct. Adaptive learning and “personalized learning” is the focus of their new business plan.

I have reviewed only six of the terms that have been perverted to support the corporate reform agenda. Perhaps you would like to comment and add some of your own. Feel free!

On Waivers and Budgets and Things…

Over the last several days I have heard and read several different takes on the loss of Oklahoma’s NCLB waiver as a result of the passage of a law to remove Common Core as the state’s educational standards for Math and English Language Arts. The opinions of the effect of this loss range from “It really isn’t a big deal” to “It’s a disaster!” Clearly, if NCLB remains in place, there is the potential for gut-wrenching readjustments in school budgets and other painful realignments. I have never served in a public school administrative position, so I admit I do not understand the full impact of that. However, if we focus just on this outcome, I believe we are being short-sighted.

As an educator, I opposed Common Core and worked to dismantle it in Oklahoma for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons was the fact that the standards, though in many cases well intentioned, were often developmentally inappropriate, unnecessarily complicated, and not clearly based in recognized research. However, the most important reason that I fought Common Core was that the Initiative of which it was/is the linchpin represented a dangerous undermining of the democratic republican form of government that we have lived under more or less successfully for the last 200+ years.

When the Department of Education was established by Congress, it was with an accompanying fear that such a department might attempt to establish a national curriculum, and lawmakers actually built language into the legislation to prevent that from occurring. What has been happening, slowly and almost imperceptibly, over the last several decades has been an encroachment by the DOE into education at the state and local level that represents exactly what Congress feared. Under the tenure of Secretary Arne Duncan, this encroachment was thrown into high gear. Duncan used Gates money to promote the development of a set of standards that he then tricked and extorted 45 states and DC into adopting using a competition to win grant money to develop the high-stakes tests that would be used to evaluate students taught under these standards, thus establishing a de facto national curriculum. When high-stakes tests are tied to standards, the standards automatically become the curriculum, no matter how the promoters of Common Core do protest. Then to further coerce states into accepting Common Core standards and the tests and the data transfers, he offered them waivers from the draconian effects of failing to meet the 100% requirements of NCLB if they would just pay a little price. The price was, among other things, confirmation of the adoption of Common Core Standards and the use of VAM (value-added modeling) to evaluate teachers using student test scores, a concept that has been repeatedly repudiated in multiple research studies. I do not pretend to know what Duncan’s motivations are, but the effect of his efforts is undoubtedly to federalize public education, and the practical effect will ultimately be the privatization of most of public education, the widening of the achievement gap, and increasing segregation of schools.

A movement is growing to push back against not just the Common Core Standards, but against the excessive use of high-stakes standardized tests and inappropriate collection of student data. There are those, myself among them, who have said all along that the waivers were themselves illegal, amounting to lawmaking by a federal agency, which would also be unconstitutional. Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has just written an article (discussed by Peter Greene here)in which he elucidates a clear and reasoned argument as to the validity of this assessment. I understand that Governor Jindal of Louisiana has filed a law suit against the federal government related to at least some part of this issue; I would be surprised if Black is not called to testify in this trial. All across the country, educators, university professors, and legislators are deciding not to roll over and play dead any longer while the federal government rides roughshod over their rights in regard to the constitutional provision that powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states. They are blogging and talking and learning that they are not alone. It seems critical to me that we seize this opportunity to make a supreme effort to take back what is ours, even if we must pay a price to do so.

One of the concerns of many Oklahoma administrators has been that they are not provided enough money to pay for all the programs and requirements laid on schools and still do the job of educating children, and I agree with them. It seems to me, however, that the most permanent solution to this problem is to fight the machine that is setting up all these requirements, that is, the federal government and its Department of Education. When schools are not required to fulfill unfunded mandates whether at the federal or state level, this should have the effect of freeing up millions of dollars to spend on students, teachers, and classrooms. This, in my mind, is a better solution than asking for more money to do the things we know we should be doing after we’ve spent so much of the money schools are actually given on things that don’t really help kids but are required by silly laws.

So I guess what I’m suggesting is that instead of wasting energy arguing over whose perception about the impact of the waiver is right or wrong, let’s all get on the same page to get rid of high-stakes tests altogether, to get rid of VAM, and to pull down unnecessary databases that serve no one but third party testing and curriculum vendors, all of which suck state and district educational budgets dry. We can only do this when legislators hear us as one powerful voice. Students have been the collateral damage in this fight for years, and I don’t see that ending until we press on to make the voice of free public education heard loud and clear. That means doing even more of what parents and educators in Oklahoma did this past year. It means not wearying in the fight. Ending Common Core was just one battle in a war that will take several years to win, and if we fight each other, we will surely lose. This seems an appropriate place to quote Ben Franklin (who, I understand, is ignored by the new AP History “curriculum”): “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” And ineffectively, I might add.

More thoughts about roses and names

In my latest post, I discussed how some of the leadership roles in education are misnamed. Still in that frame of mind, another misnomer reared its ugly head—and this one is no fragrant rose. The term is “achievement gap.”

If you’ve been in or around education in the last 45 or 50 years, you’ve heard the term achievement gap repeatedly. It was coined back in the 1960s to refer to the difference in educational performance between whites and non-whites. It came to be documented clearly on the periodic NAEP assessments, first administered in 1969. The term became standard fair in any discussion of perceived problems in American education and eliminating it became the goal and rallying cry in many quarters. No one likes the idea of an “achievement gap” in the education of a country supposedly committed to educating all of its students.

Just prior to the organization of the board that developed NAEP, another event occurred which I remember well. It was Sputnik. This was the first satellite ever sent into space by man and it was put in place by (horror of horrors!) the Russians! Anyone who was not alive at that time cannot appreciate the abject fear this induced in the American people. The knee-jerk reaction of many was to look around for someone to blame, and guess who they found. Yep, you guessed it—education. It had to be that schools weren’t producing enough graduates who went into science! Congress passed legislation to address the perceived problem, including low interest National Defense Student Loans for college students. I was the beneficiary of one of those early loans.

The fact is, however, that education was not to blame. The blame belonged on the American people who, after World War II, were focused on consumer goods provided by a booming economy, and on investors who saw money to be made in those products rather than in space, and in a government that refused to believe that Russia was willing to commit itself to being first in space. But blaming schools was much easier, so our leaders decided we needed to develop NAEP to keep tabs on these “failing” schools. And so was the “achievement gap” discovered.

Since the 1960s there has been a never ending litany of the chorus–“Our schools are failing!” Why Johnny Can’t Read, A Nation at Risk, the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations Report, the PISA tests, the PIRLS tests, Waiting for Superman, to name a few. The script was “our schools are not “rigorous” enough, we can’t compete economically with the rest of the world, we won’t be able to maintain our position of military strength if we don’t fix (read reform or close) the schools!” And all the time, despite bumps and dips, our economy and our military remained the strongest in the world. Hmmmm…it seems to me, if schools were as bad as we were told they were, we should be living in a third-world country by now.

But, no doubt, the achievement gap was troubling. It became the focus of numerous academic studies and think tanks. What could be done to close it, many worried. Most of those studies pointed clearly and unmistakably to a correlation between the achievement gap and poverty. While no one said that poverty prevented all students who were living in poverty from being successful in school, they were observing that a large majority of those students were unsuccessful, whereas students in affluent schools tended to be successful. Some even asserted that reducing poverty in America would have a positive impact on the achievement gap.

However, another group of influential people thought differently about the achievement gap. They decided that the problem lay with the students, who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t apply themselves. We simply didn’t expect enough of them. Or perhaps it was the teachers who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t know how to teach or care enough to learn. The solution to everything, they determined, was to provide both incentives and punishments and demand more of teachers and students and schools. And so, Congress passed NCLB, the first untested and unproven nationwide education experiment. It was a total failure, as we all know, because its demands were unreasonable and its methods draconian. Fast forward thirteen years to the Common Core Initiative, otherwise known as NCLB on steroids. The same groups of people continue to make the same claims with the same, ratcheted-up, unworkable, inappropriate solutions.

Unfortunately the achievement gap term has played into the hands of these reformers. If it’s simply a matter of “achieving,” they conclude students can be bribed or punished to “achieve.” Thus the use of the term achievement gap seems to lend credence to the rationale of the “reformers.” Of course, this flies in the face of decades of psychological and educational research.

Recently amid much controversy, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released the 2013 school and district report cards a few days ago. One blogger took the time to plot the correspondences between schools that got Fs and schools that are located in areas of poverty. See it here. To nobody’s surprise, the correlation was high. Yet, those in the reform camp still want to claim that schools that are making As and Bs are simply doing a better job of teaching to the rigorous standards than those who got Fs. They refuse to accept that affluence may really be the determinate of educational success.

Some have suggested the use of a different term to describe this persistent difference between affluent and non-affluent students’ performance. They propose an “opportunity gap” and this makes sense to me. I believe as long as we focus on achievement in the gap, it is too easy to blame the students, as well as schools and teachers, which is a much too simplistic solution. If instead, we use the term opportunity to describe the gap, we tend to focus on other factors which are extremely powerful but over which the student has little control. It’s a real game changer.

And so we come back to names and labels. What you call it makes a big difference in how you think about it. Looks like Juliet is wrong again.

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