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So last night, I decided to do something daring and send an email to my SFER chapter, voicing my opinions about the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. And I got a reply late last night, which I then responded to this morning.
I won’t publish his reply here, for the sake of his privacy but in a nutshell, he found me misinformed, asked ME to question both sides (and trust me I have been doing that before opening this blog which I only did after I took a clear stance), and brought up his personal experiences with teachers’ unions and working for Parent Revolution and how those pushed him to support the corporate education reform movement. He says we “need high stakes testing”, “accountability”, and basically ignored my points about a better more comprehensive solution to getting rid of “teachers” in favor of simply bashing teachers and tearing down unions.
I could go on, but you can glean most of what he said in my reply:
Hi [omitted for privacy],
Thanks for the prompt reply! I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.
Before I respond to individual parts of your argument I want you to know that I have looked into both sides, very carefully. I actually was once a fierce supporter of the corporate education reform movement. I felt change was necessary, and I had hope that ed reform leaders would create change.
It took a LOT of evidence for me to change my mind. After looking at not only the stagnant progress but also the dire consequences this movement has inflicted upon our public education system, I cannot bring myself or my conscience to support such a movement. From Chicago public school closings, to Philadelphia budget cuts, to charter schools “creaming”, to Atlanta cheating scandals, to student opting out of tests all over the country, to teachers having to form a Badass Teachers Association to get the point across that they actually want to teach (more on this later), to my students (who were from charter schools) asking me why the “rich white people” who partly fund their school can’t give them paper towels in the bathroom or a soccer field with grass (this isn’t even the full list). I know injustice when I see it. I’ve only started it voicing my opinions about education after I fully understood both sides’ arguments. I’ve thoroughly questioned both sides, actually questioning my current side much more than the corp ed reform side.
I recognize that you’ve experienced many things throughout your own educational activism journey. I appreciate you bringing those experiences to light and working hard to fight for what you believe in. That is something very noble. I have my story too, and very good reasons that fuel my passion against the education reform movement. I’ve stepped into classrooms, listened to what students are saying, listening to dedicated but frustrated teachers, worked with students and understood how incredibly difficult yet rewarding it is. I was also lucky enough to receive a high quality education, something I want every student in America to experience.
Now let’s start at the top: I know you’ve studied Geoffrey Canada, religiously. I’ve studied him as well (probably not religiously) but I know enough to know that I cannot side with him when it comes to his views on accountability. I only quote him because he is one of the few reformers who gives a damn about bettering the communities around schools, and that is something I can respect. I believe that that has been the key to his success. If it isn’t, then why does the high stakes testing model elsewhere do more harm than good?
High stakes testing and data-driven accountability are something I cannot support. This is one stance in education that I have held since the start of my high school career. High stakes testing puts too much emphasis on test scores, outcomes, stats and far too little emphasis on student growth, learning, and humanity. You can celebrate stats all you want, but I prefer to celebrate humans. Learning (we can talk a whole lot about education but forget to talk about learning… isn’t that the point of this all?) cannot be encompassed by a test number. Anyone who’s ever gone through the education system can tell you that. The corp ed reform movement, which promised change, just takes a broken model that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it even more, using up more learning time and money for resources and inflicting more harm on the quality of students’ education. It’s ridiculous, terribly poor data analysis, and it needs to have stopped yesterday. Countless evidence shows that high-stakes testing is harmful to students, and if you don’t believe the evidence from professional psychologists and researcher-educators, then at least listen to what students are saying and DOING (walking out of tests, boycotting). Teachers aside, high stakes testing is doing the most harm to students in school.
Instead of reform, I support a learning revolution that builds a solution from the ground up, starting with students. We need to eliminate structural forces that hinder true learning, critical reasoning, creativity, classroom collaboration, active discussion, and a well-rounded education that includes the arts, humanities, and civic engagement. If you really want to put students first, think first about the purpose of education and then the purpose of high stakes testing. Do those purposes line up?
Can something else achieve the purpose of high stakes testing without dulling the quality of our students’ education? The answer is yes. I highlight more in depth my proposed solutions here, here, and here. Short answer: data is useless if it’s not accurate, even if it’s objective. Do we value our kids’ learning and development enough to put in a little extra time to get data that’s meaningful, holistic, and useful? You don’t need numbers to hold people accountable. There’s other kind of data that people collect, other kinds of data that have proven to be much more revealing and valuable than the objective data the corp ed reform movement funds so vigorously.
Now back to what we are discussing, which is teachers. I think you completely misread my point. I am NOT arguing to keep these protections. There is evidence, student, parent, and your testimony, that these protections are harming a number of students. That testimony is valuable and should be honored. What I have a problem with is the current method by which we measure teacher effectiveness.
Removing the protections but still tying teacher performance to test scores is what demeans the profession. Not only does high-stakes testing prevent student learning it inaccurately measures teacher effectiveness. And what really is the point of data that’s inaccurate?
Just as there are better ways to look at student performance, there are better ways to look at teacher performance. Schools are communities in and of themselves. They are not businesses. Corporate privatization never works outside the financial sphere and if you want to think of students as standardized products then I cannot support your goals. Teachers should be given respect and autonomy to teach and foster creative and thoughtful young minds. Students’ work should be valued FULLY, and their growth celebrated, rather than reduced to a chart. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Assessment is not a spreadsheet. It’s a conversation.
Now, I want these terrible teachers out of the system as much as you do. But is targeting the entire teaching profession really the answer? No, that causes way more problems than solutions. With the current implemented methods of evaluating student work, more truly effective teachers would be fired than truly ineffective ones. And students would continue to receive test-centered education. Is that a price we want to pay? Collaboration cannot be forced. You (not you specifically, but the whole reform movement itself) have angered countless people who truly care about children. How do you not expect people to fight back?
Believe it or not, teachers go into teaching to teach students! I know it’s hard to believe but teachers actually don’t go into their profession for a pension (you can get that in many other places), or to test students until their brains are numb, or to kill a child’s love of learning! They have been reduced to being defensive after many threats on their profession and many years of being trapped in a terrible system that works AGAINST the very people they’ve dedicated their lives to working FOR. We need to start with doing the right and smart thing, eliminate a system that harms both students and teachers.
[And if we’re going to talk about teachers and their pensions, how about talk about billionaires that fund the corporate education reform movement and their tax breaks? I’m not saying that every reformer ignores poverty. I’m saying that I’ve never heard a single billionaire who is funding the corp ed reform movement mention tackling the issue of poverty and working on building safer, healthier communities for students. Ask yourself why that is.]
You want accountability and for teachers to become more skilled. You want the terrible “teachers” who are completely unfit for the job to begin with to go. I completely understand that and I want that too. But you want to get rid of a problem without looking at the other problems tied with it. That’s not going to lead to any solutions.
You mention in your second email a process that I think should be implemented. “This is a job, if a worker isnt good at their job, you give their professional development, if that doesnt fix the issue, you fire them.” Sounds like a plan to me! Guess how we can get to this process and still do something that benefits students.
- Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
- Let teachers teach and let students learn.
- Evaluate and hold schools accountable through student voice (testimony), student work (Student project portfolios are a great way to track growth. It’s a win-win because they also encourage and foster rather than prevent learning and student growth), and peer evaluations (teachers will work as teams, collaborating, helping one another)
- Work WITH (not against) unions to immediately fire anyone posing a danger to students. Continue to work with them to revise tenure and seniority laws.
- With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
- If they don’t show improvement, move to fire.
All of this can be done before the Vergara vs. California case goes on trial in 2014. Seriously, it can. And if you don’t believe it can, than you’ve never experienced believing in the nearly impossible. That’s something that teachers do every day for their students.
The solution is not either unions or no unions. It’s looking at the system in which both teachers and students are trapped. If we wait for unions or union opponents to “do the right thing and work for kids, we will be forced to wait idly by as history will crucify us for failing to fight.” Your words ring true and that is why I am fighting. I am fighting against a system that puts everyone in danger.
Now for the other points that you bring up:
- Thank you for acknowledging that the corporate education reform movement is funded by billionaires. I don’t care if billionaires want to donate their money to helping education. That is a good thing to do! But what is happening is that they profiting from this system. SFER members, I really encourage you to look into this issue yourselves. Here’s a good place to start (but remember to always check the facts and question everything!)
- Finland wasn’t doing so well before. Their country was in economic turmoil and their education system was lackluster for decades until they put their differences aside and worked towards building economic inequity. It’s something everyone on the right and left agree on. Poverty was just as widespread as it was here. As a sociology major and someone who has studied the intersections of race and class tirelessly, I definitely understand the intricacies about how “we got here”. That’s why I understand the importance of working together as a country to eradicate poverty in children’s’ neighborhoods. The reason I bring up Finland is that they don’t have high stakes testing, and the professional educators over there scoff at our system for caring so much about scores and even tying those scores to teacher performance. They aren’t surprised that teachers over here are angry about this.
- Your last point about unions preventing fair discussion cannot be brought up until we systematically implement fairer ways of evaluating teachers and students. Once that happens, if unions still fight back, then I am with you that we need to “cut off [their] heads”. But I doubt they will because unions are also fighting for what I am fighting for: ensuring that every child has access to a quality education by eradicating a flawed model of high stakes testing. That is the real civil rights issue.
Thanks for reading! I hope we can continue this discussion.
Hope to hear more from the members soon! And of course to see how the president of SFER USC would reply to me.
Thanks for reading! As always, post your comments and questions below! 🙂
Here’s my response to the second part of Mariam’s comment. You can find part 1 here.
2) I completely agree with everything you had to say about standardized testing, and I thoroughly disagree with Rhee’s ‘objectivity’ business. Ever since high school, I have been in favor for shifting the emphasis from standardized tests to holistic assessments that tell far more about the student as an individual. However, I hear from many that standardized testing is convenient, and that’s why it will stay. I was wondering how you would respond to those who cite convenience as the reason standardized testing will prevail because I honestly don’t know how to respond to that… I mean, to be completely honest, it’s true. Standardized testing is too convenient and can allow any school administration to compare students with each other, rank them, and use that data to admit students into college/graduate programs. How would admission committees use student work portfolios to compare students ‘objectively’ (ugh there’s that word again)? It’s far easier or convenient to cut off students because they don’t meet a certain GPA or test score, but once standardized testing is out of the equation, how do these institutions select which students should be admitted since the portfolios will be unique to the student and comparing a unique portfolio of one student to another’s would be like comparing apples with oranges?
Hey again Mariam!
I answered most of your questions in my reply to Byron, but I did some more research since then and I’d like to add more to my answer than just referring you to my reply to a previous comment.
As you already know from hearing me talk about it for years now, if it were up to me, there would be no standardized testing. Schools would teach students how to learn, rather than how to take tests. No one would be reduced to numbers and ranked. They would be fully educated, prepared to ace a test if they had to, but never programmed to do so. Teachers would be respected as professionals and would have freedom to do what they’re meant to do: teach creatively and passionately.
This isn’t an out-of-reach dream. It’s happening in other countries. Here’s a great example:
And here’s an excerpt from the article I linked:
There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.
From the article, there’s a lot of evidence that proves this model works. Lots of positive teacher and student testimony, lots of observation from third parties of very creative classroom lessons that engaging students and helping them learn, lots of evidence of collaboration rather than competition that fosters strong, tight-knit learning communities. Teachers in Finland are guided by the philosophy that they know more about their students than a test score does, and I absolutely commend their efforts.
But this isn’t the first thing most Americans look at. No, Americans are really hung up on is how in the heck Finland’s students can outscore almost every country on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), an exam that tests reading, math, and science literacy in 15-year-olds worldwide. Results on the PISA are hardly a fully accurate indication of the state of education in a country, but test-crazed American educational leaders are putting a lot of weight on these results.
What is Finland’s reaction to all this? Frankly, they don’t give two damns.
“We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
— Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Ministry of Education
“Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts.”
–Kari Louhivuori, Principal of Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School
I guess it is a little baffling to see a country that doesn’t care much for standardized tests, perform so well on them. That’s because they focus on the more important things, like creating creative and captivating lessons, and they know that their students can demonstrate learning better through the work they produce than through the scores they get. Students then acquire skills that are unlimited by what’s on a test. Their education system is definitely something to envy.
Along with the interactive and engaging classrooms, educators and Finland citizens alike understand that poverty and economic inequity plays a large factor in student performance. That’s why “all political parties on the right and left” strongly stress equality and bravely confront the issue of poverty. They support and provide comprehensive social services for students, such as adequate counseling, medical care, free student health care, and even a taxi service. All of this makes a pretty good package, in my opinion. And they did it all without scores.
Now, I can definitely see how difficult it is going to be to revolutionize America’s education system and build a model that’s similar to Finland. You said that it’s unlikely that standardized tests will be eliminated because testing is so convenient. I agree. Testing is very convenient. But more than that, I think that it will be difficult to eliminate testing because we’re so addicted to it. It’s like what Louhivoiri said. We like bars and graphs and colored charts. We like quantifiable data. We like rankings and competition and comparisons. Testing and data have infiltrated every level of our education system, now from kindergarten (yes, there are now tests for kindergarteners) to post-secondary. The minute kids begin their educational careers, they are now statistics and will have numbers attached to them as they move through the system.
But I’m saying that it’s possible. It’s possible to eliminate high-stakes testing and significantly reduce the time we spend to test our students. It will take work, it will take a lot of fighting on the part of parents, students, and educators, but it is possible. We can shake the addiction to the “objective”, where honestly, it’s not really needed. We can stop ridiculously comparing students and schools, and instead work on fostering individual growth through holistic evaluation.
But even if we eliminate standardized tests for grades K-12, shift to well-rounded curricula and portfolio-based evaluations, revitalize our education system, shake the addiction to rankings and charts, and focus on developing each individual student and supporting their individual growth (which is a pretty damn good investment and definitely possible), we still have the issue of what to do when students apply to college. Because you’re right. Unlike the K-12 system, which should provide equal opportunity for all, colleges have admission requirements and rates.
Admittedly, I haven’t thought about this in depth to settle on a solution that I would wholeheartedly endorse. But after doing a little more research, I have a few ideas that might work.
Before I begin I want to stress again that I don’t think college should be treated as the main goal and destination of education, as it is so often treated right now. I think that many other options for students should be made available, viable, and acceptable. This whole “college-bound” attitude is dangerous and excludes many students who might not fit in to the picture of higher education (or who can’t afford it because holy crap what is happening to tuition and student loan rates?!). But there will still be students who want to pursue higher ed, so here’s a way we can still eliminate high-stakes testing at the K-12 level, implement holistic evaluation, and improve the college admissions process all at the same time.
In my reply to Byron, I came up with a way to increase the speed and precision of evaluating student portfolios if they were to be used in the college admissions process (side note: I mostly think of portfolios being used in the context of learning tools and teacher evaluations, not so much college admissions). But then I came to a dilemma when I realized the real problem was comparing two portfolios, which would be, as you suggest, like “comparing apples with oranges”.
So, I’d like to go back to my thought that perhaps we should devote time to developing a very meaningful and useful exam that can potentially be used as the “objective” component of college admissions. To maybe get an idea of how this might work, I decided to check out universities in Finland and look at their admission criteria.
In Finland, college admissions are based mostly on an entrance exam. Some weight is given to high school grades, extracurriculars, and the interview (only for those going into Education), but most weight is on the college-created entrance exam. There are no recommendations, personal statements, Finnish universities have internal autonomy, and so their exams vary. But typically the entrance exam entails open-ended questions and student-produced responses where students write essays, solve problems, and demonstrate their critical reasoning skills. There is no multiple choice.
This might be a good alternative to the SAT, which is not a very good exam anyway. Instead of a nationwide exam used for college admissions, colleges could fashion their own exams that they feel will determine who is best fit to attend their institution. And unlike Finland, American colleges can still consider high school grades, community involvement, personal statements, work portfolios, recommendations, and interviews. Colleges should really only care about how students fare against other students in their applicant pool when making a decision, so why doesn’t every applicant take an assessment created by the college?
But then again this might not be feasible in the US. Finland is a fairly small country with far fewer colleges that America. It’s easier for students of Finland to take an exam for a college on the other side of the country. Representatives from the college would simply set up test centers in other regions of Finland and offer the test on a certain date. With the number of colleges we have, that doesn’t work so well for us. That would actually be complete chaos. (If you have an idea on how this might work… let me know, I think this would be a very good solution).
So perhaps a nationwide exam is necessary for college admission. Personally, I think colleges can make decisions using the current criteria they use now, minus the SAT test score. Some colleges aren’t even looking at SAT scores anymore. But if we really need the aspect of objectivity, perhaps we can work on that developing that one meaningful and useful exam.
Just out of curiosity, I took a look at Finland’s one exam that students are mandated to take throughout their entire education careers. It’s a matriculation exam that is administered at the end of their secondary education, sort of like a high school graduation exam. It’s a very well-constructed exam, in my opinion. You can check it out for yourself. Exams require all student produced responses, come in different levels for students to choose, and provide a variety of subjects beyond the “common core” (native language and math) that students can choose to take. They are required to take at least 4 exams, with the only mandatory one being Finnish (or Swedish if that is their “mother tongue”). The other three exams can be chosen from the following 4 exams:
- Second Language exam (if they speak Finnish, Swedish, or Saami besides their “mother tongue”)
- Foreign Language exam (sounds very similar to an AP Foreign Language exam in the US)
- Mathematics (student-produced responses only)
- General Studies exams (choose at least one from “Evangelical Lutheran religion, Orthodox religion, ethics, philosophy, psychology, history, social studies, physics, chemistry, biology, geography and health education”)
Exams are graded twice, first by teachers and then a national board. Scores are on a scale of 1-7, with the only failing mark being a 1. Failing scores can be compensated with other passing scores and tests may be retaken.
This sounds way better than the SAT to me. The only problem I have with this exam is that it has a lot of weight put on it. I’m against the use of high school exit exams, because the stakes are high and using a score as a condition of graduation can hold back a diploma from people who actually deserve one. Perhaps these people aren’t the best test takers or they learn and express learning in less of a “paper and pencil” way, but they still worked so hard in school and learned a lot of material that can’t be encompassed in a test score. I think completing coursework and building robust portfolios are a good enough graduation requirements.
Thus, I think this kind of exam might be more useful as one of the factors of college admissions. And perhaps educators from American colleges can come together and collaborate and the development of such an exam (rather than a testing corporation).
I’m honestly just throwing ideas out there. Please feel free to comment further and offer your opinions on how we can approach fair and equitable college admissions. Your questions have really challenged me to think deeper and in more detail about these issues, and I’m really thankful for this opportunity to sort through some logistics. Because ideas can be great but they aren’t worth much if they aren’t feasible.
Thank you so much again for your wonderful comment, Mariam! I hope my answer has been enlightening!
Here is the last portion of Mariam’s comment. It wasn’t a question but simply her response to the part of my post on poverty. She says some very wise words that I’d just like to share with y’all:
Overall, I love everything you have written in this post especially the way you describe the effect of socioeconomic factors on public school education. “The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap.” YES. This is entirely accurate. Not only can one’s socioeconomic status affect a student’s performance in school, but it also contributes to the ‘unequal’ public schools of our country. Some public schools are perceived to be ‘better’ than others. No surprise there when public schools are funded by property taxes. Some communities do not have the resources, and their schools naturally reflect that. (This is where race and class intersect too, and we are left with inner-city schools where the student bodies’ makeup is predominantly African American & Hispanic… courtesy of redlining)
If anyone has any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to let me know! I’m still in the process of learning as well! Thanks 🙂
This about sums up my stance on standardized testing, while also giving a great solution that I shoot back at anyone who asks me,
“What’s going to happen when we cut down on standardized tests? How are we going to hold students and teachers accountable?”
Portfolios are a GREAT way to start. It not only gives more meaningful, holistic, and accurate “data” on the growth of a student, but it sends a positive message to students, one that says,
“You are more than a number. You are more than a letter. You are capable of accomplishing so much. Your work is valuable and important.”
Take a look! It’s a short but worthwhile watch.
Further suggested readings by Nikhil Goyal, an 18-year old author, speaker recognized by Forbes 30 under 30: