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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!

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EdCamp Tulsa: A PD Rush

This past weekend I attended my first unconference, and I hope it won’t be my last. It was a one-day professional development meeting called EdCamp Tulsa, attended by about 150 public school educators from some 50 school districts in 4 states. This is not the first edcamp ever held, but it represents a little known but growing movement with a purpose to encourage teachers to take charge of their own professional development.

As a teacher educator and university professor, I confess I felt a bit like a fifth wheel. It wasn’t that I wasn’t welcome—I was—but I haven’t functioned in the perspective of most of the attendees for some time. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go; I think it’s important for those of us in colleges of education to leave the “ivory tower” and mingle with the folks in the trenches to keep abreast of what’s going on in schools. I think this is the only way to keep my own instruction fresh. I learned about edcamps through Twitter posts from a previous edcamp in Oklahoma City. The excitement of the participants literally radiated from those tweets, and I knew I had to go to EdCamp Tulsa when it was announced.

So you are probably asking, “What is an unconference?” And I can’t wait to tell you. It starts with a group of people who decide to organize it. They locate a site, not necessarily a large one, and invite teachers and others who want to come for a day of teacher-led learning. Attendance is totally free. Perhaps I should repeat that—it’s free! The organizers can offer it for free because there is very little overhead. They arrange to have required supplies donated, usually for a PR plug in a tweet or on the back of a t-shirt. There are also no expensive speakers for plenary sessions, as is obligatory at regular conferences. (Remember, this is an unconference.) The organizers do not set up sessions ahead of time, so there is no cumbersome and lengthy proposal process. Instead, the participants come with an idea about something they would like to learn more about or discuss with colleagues. Others come with ideas and topics they want to share and discuss. In the opening session, both groups fill out cards indicating what they came to do. The organizers then review the cards, set up the sessions, and provide a room for each. The schedule is posted on a large easel, where attendees, whipping out their cell phones, take pictures of it to use to guide their choices of sessions to attend. The rest of the day is spent in interactive sharing and discussion in individual sessions. The session “leader” may start things off but definitely doesn’t do all the talking. It is totally informal, and if a session is not meeting your needs or expectations, you can get up and walk to another and no one gets offended. Wow!

I don’t know a great deal yet about the history of the unconference movement, but it has been developing over the last couple of years. A great deal of research has been done on traditional professional development (PD), and the top-down procedures involved have been found wanting and typically ineffective. Generally speaking, when a district or an administrator (or some authority higher up) determines that teachers need to be changed (that, after all, is the real purpose of traditional PD—changing teacher behavior), they organize a “training” to introduce it to teachers and expect them to fall in line with their clearly superior ideas about how teaching should be done. It’s no surprise that teachers are typically skeptical and unengaged through these sessions, and rarely is there real change in teacher behavior, despite the thousands of dollars spent. Part of the problem is the top-down approach. No one likes to be told how they have to change, even if it’s done with peaches and cream and pretty please!

Creating professional learning communities has been offered as an alternative to traditional PD. These are small groups of teachers who meet to discuss solutions to particular problems. Unfortunately, few schools have been able to keep such communities viable and useful, and they either die out, or are taken over by an authority figure who returns them to the top-down approach.

Most teachers know full well that they need help and support, and need to continue learning more about teaching, but they’d really like to pursue it on their terms. That seems to be the genius of the unconference. The teachers are totally in charge. The teachers decide what they need to learn. The teachers take an active role in creating a learning opportunity. The teachers share with one another what they are learning and learn from one another. Vygotsky clearly explained years ago that real learning is social in nature. Rather than sitting quietly while they are talked to, the teachers at an unconference are driving the conversation—and learning from one another. They may not make a total transformation in their teaching at one unconference, but that’s an unreasonable expectation of PD anyway. Most change comes incrementally, and teachers need the freedom to make change at a speed they are comfortable with.

I did my dissertation on professional development, and I learned that changing teacher’s teaching is a very complicated—dare I say, ticklish?—process. Much like the watched pot, it can’t be hurried. And teachers need the autonomy to make their own decisions about it. In fact, as professionals, teachers should be accorded that privilege. Certainly doctors, lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals are allowed to choose their own continuing education.

At EdCamp Tulsa I saw teachers who were excited to be learning together, animated to share their ideas and hear those of others. Everywhere I went I heard people exclaiming, “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! I follow you on Twitter!” because that’s another great place for teachers to take charge of their own PD. If what I observed this weekend is any indication, I think the future of unconferences may be very bright. I’m certainly looking forward to my next one!

When Do Ethics Kick In?

Competent, Committed, Ethical–this is the motto of the Teacher Education program at the small regional university where I teach. When I began there six years ago, I was mostly concerned with the first two aspects of this motto. I set about designing lessons and projects that I felt would help my pre-service teachers build an adequate knowledge base about how to teach reading (my particular area of expertise) and how to become a reflective, life-long learner focusing on the needs of their students and how best to meet them. I really didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the “ethical” component of the motto; I think I just assumed that everyone knew how to be ethical. After all, doesn’t “ethical” just mean pretty much following the Golden Rule?

And then along came Common Core. Yes, I hear your question–what does Common Core have to do with ethics? Well, quite a bit, it seems to me. But perhaps a slice of history is in order first.

The standards movement began to gain serious traction about 25 years ago. The idea was that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn before they leave school. Unless teachers were provided with a set of goals or guidelines related to the content that should be taught, they might not teach everything a student needed to learn. Initially, the standards that were developed were not very constraining; teachers used them as general guides in planning their instruction. Standards, it was argued, were the what to teach, not the how. Slowly, with strong “encouragement” from the federal Department of Education and other policy makers, most states created a set of content standards and required school districts to implement them. In some states, a system of statewide testing was initiated to be sure that students were learning the content in the standards and that teachers were teaching the required content. At that point, the standards began to take on a more constraining character.

It must be said that as the states developed their standards, there was a serious effort to build the standards from the ground up. Educational personnel with expertise in child development attempted to match the requirements in the standards to the developmental stages of the children at each grade level. Because that was true, teachers could feel comfortable that using the standards to plan instruction would be appropriate for their students.

With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, everything changed in the world of standards. NCLB not only required the states to have standards taught by “highly qualified” teachers, it required the states to develop tests for those standards and monitor “adequate yearly progress.” If schools were not able to demonstrate such progress by their student populations, they were threatened with sanctions, up to and including the closing of the schools. Tests to monitor progress had now become high-stakes tests used to reward and punish.

No problem, we teachers thought. If we just keep doing good teaching, our students will be able to pass almost any test. And for schools in affluent and middle income areas, that was more true than not. But in urban schools and in poor rural areas, things didn’t go that well. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some schools were closed; charter schools appeared that lured the best students away, leaving a high percentage of those who struggled. Creeping into our schools came the idea that we had to focus more on what was tested, on the “bubble” kids that needed just that extra little push to pass, on skills workbooks and, although we didn’t say the words, “teaching to the test.” I suspect that push came more from administrators who feared that their schools might be the ones to be closed if their students’ scores didn’t reach that magical cut score.

Through all of this, we teachers rationalized our ethical stances. For myself, I knew that teaching to the test was not ethical, and I was not willing to do it. However, I didn’t voice my feelings. I simply took the stack of test-prep reading workbooks I was given, found whatever activities in them I could incorporate as a minilesson, and then moved on for the duration of the class period to provide a varied, differentiated fare for my students based on where they were cognitively and where they needed to go next. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing and I never offered an explanation. It was my way of satisfying my own ethics, guided primarily by the needs of my students. I made an ethical decision that my students’ needs trumped the possibility that I was misleading my administrator. Although some teachers in my building opted for the drill-and-kill mentality of the test prep workbooks, I am confident that many others were operating much as I was, guided by much the same ethical stance.

Fast forward five years. About two years into my first college teaching experience, I learned that our state had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Okay, I thought, I’ll just dig in and learn how these standards will impact my pre-service teachers’ lesson planning and teach them to use them, and for two years I tried to do that. But the more I studied the CCSS and the Initiative that they are part and parcel of, the more I questioned.

I began to see some serious deficiencies in the Standards themselves; especially at the lower grade levels, the tasks required of the students do not match their developmental abilities, resulting in confusion and frustration on the part of the students. I learned that there would be three times as many achievement tests for the students to take, and that even kindergartners would be taking these tests which would not be field tested in any authentic way. Having observed the levels of stress students experience on high stakes tests, I can only imagine the exponential increase of such stress that will occur. (Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, since a child psychologist in New York recently testified to the New York Assembly that she had seen a 200 to 300% increase in patient load that could be tied directly to the impact of Common Core teaching and testing in her state.) I learned that these tests, taken on computer, would send enormous amounts of private data about students and their families into statewide, perhaps even nationwide, databases and that the managers of these databases could not and would not guarantee the security of that data.

I also have read that many schools, rather than developing their own curricula to align with the CCSS, are opting to buy packaged programs. Since the CCSS are the law in our state and cannot be changed because they are copyrighted by other entities, administrators in many schools are requiring teachers to march through the purchased curricula without accommodating the pace or the method of teaching. The script must be followed to be sure that we have covered everything that might be on the tests. The only result this guarantees is that many students will be Left Behind.

Competent, Committed, Ethical. It seems necessary to begin paying more attention to the third component of this motto. Together we must think deeply about what the definition of ethics is and what it means to be ethical. I must find the best way to communicate clearly to my pre-service teachers the minefield they will be entering. I must help them think through a number of possible scenarios they may be faced with. I must give them opportunities to consider what the best ethical choice may be.

Could/should a teacher refuse to follow the pacing of the scripted curriculum because he or she knows that it moves too fast for many students to stay up? Could/should a teacher use differentiated teaching in his or her classroom even though it is not recommended in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum? Some folks who oppose the CCSS are organizing parent opt-out movements, in which the parents formally notify the school that they refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing. Could/should a teacher refuse to give these tests because of his or her ethical position that the tests do more harm than good for students? Could/should a teacher join with other like-minded teachers to voice their opposition to practices in the field that are detrimental to children? These are just a few of the decisions a teacher will have to make in the CCSS environment.

I recently read an article that suggested that, in the face of the behavioristic corporate reform movement, it may be necessary for teachers to become insurrectionist pedagogues. I’m not yet comfortable with that term, probably because it translates to “rebellious teachers.” I don’t like to think of myself in what are generally considered negative or oppositional terms. At the same time, my own ethics require me to provide my students with a realistic picture of the field they are entering–and pray that the ethical stance they develop under my tutelage will guide them to advocate for the children they serve.

Standards, not Standardization

Sharing this explanation of Laufenburg’s phrase, “Standards, not standardization.” It makes some excellent points from the teacher’s point of view.

Living the Dream

ImageI said this phrase, standards not standardization, in a conversation with the ever thoughtful, Jose Vilson… and he has brought it up with me a few times …  which makes me think that I need to write through my thoughts on this and will then be leading a conversation on this same topic at Educon 2.6 next month.  These are ideas in progress, trying to work through why I bristle at the mention of new standards as a key factor in ‘fixing’ American education.

Standards are developed to provide structure to the ‘what’ of what we teach.  Standardization focuses on the ‘how’ of the ‘what’.  One can have standards, one can teach with standards without being in a lock step trudge with every other teacher of math or ELA, on the same page, on the same day… crippling the ability of the teacher to practice their craft and for…

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Why Teachers Teach

I have recently been reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken. Dr. McGonigal’s very popular book helps us understand the draw and the power of gaming in our society and in the cyberworld. In doing so, she highlights the work of a number of psychologists exploring the realm of pleasure and satisfaction in our lives. Reading it, I think I have discovered what may be the single most powerful force that keeps teachers teaching despite the exhausting stress of the job itself.

Although many decry “computer games” as a sign that we are no longer socially engaged as a society, McGonigal takes issue with that stance and provides a great deal of evidence to support her position. As a part of that evidence she cites something she calls “vicarious pride.” This concept is based on the work of psychologist and game design expert Christopher Bateman, who coined the Yiddish term naches to describe the concept as it applied to the gaming world.

Naches was originally identified by a researcher on emotions, Paul Ekman, who explained it as the feeling of pride we feel when someone we have mentored or coached succeeds. Ekman saw this attribute as a vestige of the evolutionary process of survival mechanisms, since teaching the young the tricks of survival was critical to survival of the group as a whole. Those of us who are parents recognize this well and experienced it almost daily when our children were small. Think back to your baby’s first babbling when you talked to him or the sense of accomplishment that swelled your chest when she finally mastered riding a bicycle without training wheels. Naches is a highly pleasurable and satisfying emotion.

But, as McGonigal points out, most of us quickly lose that daily sense of naches as we focus on the “real” world, where most of what we do is highly individualistic. Very little mentoring is experienced or offered there and we typically lose that sense of social satisfaction, until and unless we become engaged in teaching someone else to play a computer game that we ourselves have mastered. Even if you’re not a player in a massive multiplayer online game, perhaps you’ve been addicted to Farmville or Words with Friends and loved enticing your friends to play and show them the tricks you’ve learned.

That’s when I made the connection. Teachers are never forced to give up naches! Day in and day out, despite the 60-hour weeks (I know most people don’t believe that) and the pressures of testing and teaching to the test (which goes against our professionalism) and the impossible task of bringing students up to speed who have little or no support at home, we keep on teaching. We do it for naches, for vicarious pride, for the feeling we get when we see the sparkle in the eye of the student who finally “gets it,” for the excitement we experience when students make out-of-the-box connections in a class discussion, for the relief and joy when the struggler finally passes his multiplication facts test after weeks of continued encouragement and practice. And for the catch in our hearts reading the handwritten notes at the end of the year that say in a child’s third-grade scrawl “Thank you for being the best teacher I ever had,” and the phone call that you get years later from a mom who says, “My son just graduated from high school and he says he never would have if you hadn’t taught him to read in eighth grade.” Yes, I think these instances qualify as “vicarious pride.”

So maybe it’s a teacher’s selfishness in craving that kind of satisfaction. Maybe it’s just a vestige of evolution. Whatever it is, I think we’re the lucky ones.

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