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An update on my vision for “accountability” and “standardized testing” in education

Today I read a very insightful article by Justin “Juice” Fong, the head of Internal Communications at Teach for America. While I do have my own… often critical opinions of his other pieces about TFA, he published something today that I found very insightful (and you should definitely check it out!) I took the time to write a reply, offering further thoughts on how we can change standardized testing and thought I’d post it here since I have done a bit more research/brainstorming on this matter and should probably update my blog with my ideas 🙂

So here it is!

I like the idea of making tests purely diagnostic. This is something Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on learning and creativity, has always suggested. I agree with all the points that you brought up, especially the point you made about how it will lower the high stakes currently put on testing and the high pressure put on teachers to teach to the test. But what are your thoughts on the tests’ effects on students still? Especially if this is how they are welcomed back to school at the start of the year?

Also, what kind of tests did you have in mind for the diagnostic exams? I would like to suggest that the tests be assessments of deeper learning that assess skill and performance with content rather than narrow assessments of multiple-choice that don’t fully encompass student ability and instead reduce student learning to meaningless metrics. Tests can provide useful data, so shouldn’t we give students the best tests that will provide the most useful data?

If it were up to me there would be none of the standardized tests that we currently have. Tons of research show the negative effects of the current testing model on students and schools (and I’ve seen the effects with my own eyes, even in my own family) and I think that we can do better by our students if we move further away from traditional multiple choice testing towards methods of assessment that are also productive, in that they encourage student learning simultaneously.

My current vision for “accountability” and “assessment” in school is portfolio and project-based, as standardized tests that are merely multiple choice tend to omit a wide range of skills and personal assets that are important to ensure in an education. I actually don’t see portfolios much as assessments, but more like educational tools, as students are able to learn, exercise their creativity, and demonstrate the interconnected mastery of essential skills (reasoning, research, argument, craft, etc…) as they are being evaluated for their progress. Portfolios can also give a more vivid picture of student progress while test scores show more outcomes. They are truly assessments of the deepest learning (see writings of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond) that encompass student learning in a well-rounded and accurate manner. I think we can get a better picture of a student’s mastery of a skill through the work that student produces rather than his/her answer on question #46 of the state standardized test, right?

What’s even better: these assessments will not only capture student performance in a more holistic manner, but will also allow for teachers to foster student growth through many unrestricted pathways. What I mean by this is that these pathways can involve projects that incorporate skills and concepts across various academic disciplines, especially in higher grade levels, accomplishing a lot more with a lot less. On the other hand, test questions test skills individually and on a shallow level; they don’t allow much room for the application and connection of different skills like student-produced projects do. For instance, a project for a unit on the Civil War can include a research paper on an event/aspect of the war (this helps students develop research/writing/argumentation skills) paired with a creative piece (video, 3D design, poster, diagram, song, etc…) that perhaps connects the Civil War to 21st century society (this helps students sharpen the skills of application, connection, creativity, and critical higher-order thinking). The possibilities are endless! I think there is a unique opportunity here for students to get a layered, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted education.

Now I’m going to go into the logistics of all this. These are ideas that I’m still developing as well, however, so feel free to comment on or question anything you see!

I’m envisioning that portfolios would consist of the highlights of a student’s work throughout the course of a school year and would be submitted for review at the end of the year. Teachers can be trusted to assess student work in written evaluations and a third-party can intervene every year or every few years to go over student work in schools (as well as observe classrooms like you mentioned… I really like that idea; it was something my own school had and it worked very well). This might take more effort (and perhaps time, although I do think it’s time that’s better-utilized than test-prep or test-scoring), but students are worth the investment and if it happens on a local level, it won’t be too tough.

Standards that portfolios will have to meet will build upon each other rather than be unique to a sole grade level (so perhaps we can improve upon Common Core, this time with more student/teacher/parent input). These standards can serve as sort of a flexible rubric for student work portfolios (flexible in that students can demonstrate mastery of a skill of concept in many different ways, but all will have mastered the skill).

As for the diagnostic part of this, teachers would be able to receive their students’ portfolios from the previous year during the summer so they can be able to look at their incoming class’s abilities. They can also do a diagnostic assignment at the beginning of the year, something perhaps a little more exciting and engaging than a test, and use that data to figure out the best paths to take for their class. (side note on this: I think it’s really important during the first week of school for teachers to not only lay down expectations but also listen to their students intently and figure out what they expect.)

Let me know what you think of this idea, and if I missed anything important! Always eager to hear different perspectives. Thank you for your insightful post!

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Something I find a little hilarious about the arguments in defense of high stakes testing

I’ve pretty much heard all the arguments for and against high stakes testing, and feel pretty confident that I wholeheartedly disagree with it and can give a solid counter argument to any arguments for high stakes testing.

But recently I’ve been getting some new arguments that… kind of throw me for a loop.

Whenever I say that test scores shouldn’t be a factor in teacher evaluation or determining school progress (and likewise funding for schools making progress) because they are an unreliable source of data that can’t capture student performance, let alone teacher performance or school performance, I get either or both of these response:

  1. Why do you care so much about teachers/schools? This should be about the kids!
  2. Test scores are only [some percentage] of [something]!

These throw me for a loop because they’re kind of ridiculous. The first one is easy. Caring about kids means also caring for the teachers that are dedicated to educating them and the schools that are their learning communities. That’s how you care about kids. And don’t forget that testing hurts kids (not just teachers and schools) as well. If you don’t believe that, then you aren’t looking closely enough.

Now to the second argument. It’s a phrase that would be a fact without one word. And that word is “only.” 

When I hear that tests ONLY account for a certain percentage of teacher evaluation or school progress reports in various states and districts, I hear a concession. I hear an acknowledgement that a lesser percentage would probably be more beneficial for students and schools. I hear a, “Chill out, Hannah! Yeah, it’s a problem but at least it’s only a percentage of a problem!”

And this is what I don’t understand. If people see the issues with testing, why do they still allow it to factor into pivotal decisions that impact students? 

Update: Got a reply from SFER USC chapter’s President! – Here’s my reply back.

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 herehere, 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.

  1. Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
  2. Let teachers teach and let students learn.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
  6. 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:

  1. 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!)
  2. 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.
  3. 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! 🙂

Vergara vs. California – A Letter to the SFER-USC Chapter

So recently, I unofficially announced that I will be writing an open letter to the members of Students for Education Reform, just like Katie Osgood, wrote an open letter to new Teach for America Recruits.

Strangely, I also recently got an email from a SFER California representative, inviting the members of SFER USC to a meet and greet with SFER’s co-founder Alexis Morin. She also sent this “fact sheet” on Vergara vs. California lawsuit for us to learn about before organizing to support it. In summary, the lawsuit was brought forth by 9 students in California and is funded by StudentsMatter, a corporate education reform organization. Basically, if the plaintiffs win, 5 education due process laws will be eliminated:

  1. One teacher tenure law
  2. Three laws regarding the dismissal process of teachers
  3. One law on seniority (Last In, First Out)

First of all, I was completely shocked by the one-sidedness of the fact sheet and how it failed to take into account so many factors at play. Second of all, I’m not currently in Southern California, so I can’t make the meeting unfortunately. I would have loved to discuss my views in person with SFER members and Ms. Morin.

So instead, I wrote a letter to the members of my university’s SFER chapter, detailing my views on the lawsuit. Good head start on the bigger letter I hope to write I guess. I’m posting it here because I think I sum up most of my main arguments and this could reach other SFER members from other CA chapter potentially. Awareness needs to be spread!

Hopefully, I was able to encourage members to find out more for themselves. Many of them joined when I joined, and were sucked in with the same rhetoric that I was.

I encourage you to read what StudentsMatter (the plaintiffs) have to say about the case, before reading my letter to SFER.

The letter:

Hello USC SFER members,

Sorry to interrupt your summers with this, but I seriously could not believe my eyes when I opened that document. Whoa. Seriously, whoa. 

Let me first say that I really admire the people in SFER. I joined SFER because I want to dedicate my life to inspiring and helping students, and I wanted to start now by being active on key issues within education. Education is an issue I have always been passionate about and I understand that all of you probably share that sentiment as well. We all are here with young, bright minds and empowered hearts, eager to make a positive difference for students everywhere. And as college students, we leverage a unique kind of power to make that change. That’s something very exciting.

Now with that said, as college students just starting to delve into the incredibly complex topic of education, I think that it’s so important to look at ALL sides of any issue and question the information presented to us. There’s so many moving parts, intertwining and working together or against each other. It’s dangerous to blindly accept information thrown at us without viewing it first with a critical lens, because that leads to oversimplification of the issue and an oversimplified, “blanket” solution. I hope you will all agree with me that there is no ONE solution to education. We must target education from all sides.

That’s why the fact sheet that was sent out really alarmed me. It was very one-sided and didn’t take into account the bigger picture. I am afraid some members will blindly support without looking into the case carefully and other alternatives.

So in the spirit of open discussion, I’d like to present my thoughts on the issue for anyone who wants to learn more. Of course, go out and research the exciting world of education yourself! There’s a lot out there 🙂 Also if you have questions, concerns, or rebuttals, feel free to contact me!

In a nutshell, I think this case is a waste of time and money that could be directed towards better solutions rather than setbacks. I came to this conclusion after a lot of research. Here’s what I found:

Vergara vs. California aims to make sure every student has the right to a great education, which the plaintiffs (funded by a corporate education reform organization called StudentsMatter) believe means getting rid of due process laws that affect and protect teachers. There are 5 laws targeted: one tenure law, three dismissal laws, and one seniority law. Getting rid of these laws would result in “ineffective” teachers being fired more quickly and no overall protection for teachers. They say that this will then make teaching become a more respected and prestigious profession.

This sounds all fine and dandy, but I’m ultimately arguing that the solution to “reforming” education does not involve eliminating “ineffective” teachers first. Rather, it begins with eliminating high-stakes testing and devoting additional attention to building better communities around schools. I’m going to take a long path to argue this, but I hope the path is clear.

Whenever looking at education, it’s important to look at both in-school factors and out-of-school factors on a student’s education. Let’s start with the out-of-school factors, which are virtually absent in any discussion about “education reform”. Education reformers (I’m talking about the adults who fund SFER, not SFER members) argue that targeting the in-school factor of teacher quality will make the biggest difference in reforming the education system. You can literally look at the websites of any “Education Reform” organization like StudentsMatter, StudentsFirst, or Teach for America (oh the irony) to find this information. They don’t hide it. Their main goal is to ensure that students are taught by a force of highly skilled and effective teachers.

That is a very noble goal. It is one that we should strive for. Teacher quality is important. As an aspiring teacher, and as someone who’s had amazing teachers who believed in me and helped me tremendously, I understand this. I think that good teachers (along with abundant and skilled school counselors) are the most important in-school factor on a child’s performance.

But it isn’t the most important factor overall. Research shows that no matter how effective a teacher is, they won’t be able to completely undo the effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequity on a child. Countless evidence proves this. You can find that evidence herehereherehereherehere, and most of all, HERE. For a shortcut, just take a look at this wonderful article by Pasi Sahlberg, a world leading expert on school reform.

Salhberg is also from England and if you haven’t already heard, Finland basically kicks every country’s ass when it comes to education, and they do it without standardized testing or without tearing apart unions. Instead, they focus their attention on professionalizing the teaching profession and helping teachers improve, along with building up communities, eradicating poverty, and providing students with comprehensive social services outside of school. To sum up the article, if Finland’s highly skilled and experienced teachers taught in the US, student test scores wouldn’t change. 

It’s often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

I’m not saying that poor kids are incapable of learning as much as their wealthier peers. Quite the opposite actually. Poverty is not personal; it’s structural. If we really cared about our students and if we really believed in their abilities, we would invest in them fully. That means building strong communities and healthy environments along with building great schools. Both are required. If you still don’t believe me, at least listen to a fellow reformer that you might all know. Comprehensive social services and community building programs are the secret ingredient to what makes Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone so successful. And if you check back at some of the links I listed above regarding studies about poverty’s effect on schools, you’ll see that countries with strong education systems focus on economic equality MOST. They understand that building strong schools starts with building stronger communities.

Ignoring poverty as a large factor in education unfairly shifts blame to teachers, and creates a gross oversimplication of the bigger issue. Now is tackling poverty the only solution needed? Of course not. My argument is that we need to properly and effectively tackle both out-of-school and in-school factors simultaneously.

Now let’s look at the in-school factors. The plaintiffs of the Vergara vs. California case argue that teacher quality needs to be looked at carefully. But I’m going to state this plain and simple, how the hell can we look at it carefully without evaluating it accurately?

Laws currently mandate that teacher effectiveness be measured with student test scores. That is a load of bullshit and any student and educator can tell you that. All that has led to is teachers being fired, teachers being forced to teach to the test, and teachers resigning because it is a completely disrespectful demeaning of their profession. If most of us can agree that a test score does not holistically and accurately capture student performance, and if we know that out-of-school factors affect student performance, why the hell would we attach such high stakes to test scores and put very skilled teachers’ jobs at risk? Learning cannot be quantified, standardized. Neither can teaching. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.

The first step is to invest in building a more equitable method of teacher evaluation. Something that is much more holistic, well-rounded. Something that encourages growth, gives constructive advice for improvement, and involves both student voice (project portfolios, class evals) and teacher collaboration (peer evals, third-party educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and here.

Until that happens, I don’t think we can get rid of laws that protect all of our teachers. With the way teachers are being evaluated now, our schools districts will lose some very good teachers because of factors beyond their control. This is harmful to students as well and if we really want to put students first then we NEED to change the structures in which they learn and in which teachers teach. That means ending high stakes testing AND devoting more attention to bravely confronting structural issues of poverty and economic inequity.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But this court case came about because students were abused their teachers!” I understand that. I am very glad students spoke up and that these “teachers” are being brought to light. Student voice is very important to consider and it’s something I value A LOT. I think it is a very important aspect of holistic teacher evaluation. We should trust our students to make fair judgments about their teachers.

But instead of using these incidents to shed light on the effectiveness of student voice in teacher evaluation, the court case takes it to the extreme in the wrong direction and aims to destroy due process laws for teachers that protect them against things like… oh I don’t know, terribly inaccurate methods of evaluation and attacks from people who’ve never step foot in a classroom.

Yes, I understand that while teachers’ unions do protect good teachers, we all know they protect bad ones too. I’ve had not-so-great teachers before. I get it. But this is why we need fair methods of evaluations first.

Now I’m just going to quote myself because this is a topic that I’ve written extensively on before, and I think these two paragraphs sum up the point well:

There are a few (and only a few) teachers out there who actually ineffective. Teachers who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.

One last word: Getting rid of laws that protect all teachers de-professionalizes the teaching profession. Quantifying teaching, which is an art as much as it is a science, disrespectfully demeans the profession. Implementing robust and fair evaluation systems that foster a strong force of highly skilled, professionally trained teachers brings prestige to the profession.

Thank you for reading 🙂 I hope I’ve offered an enlightening alternative to lobbying for this lawsuit and that some of you will consider looking at the other side of education reform. I encourage you to continue your learning journeys through the field of education. Your passion and commitment to American education is something very beautiful and powerful; please do not allow anyone to use your passion and drive for their corporate agenda. Please continue to learn more and become informed activists!

Miledy, as you know I cannot make it to the meeting. I hope my words reach the discussion somehow, or that some members will consider these points of view in their educational policy learning journeys.

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!

A Reply to Mariam (part 2) – A look at the infamous Finland, a place with no tests

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:

Finland

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 🙂

A Reply to Mariam (part 1) – A Look at Merit Pay

So first I want to say that I have the best best friend. She doesn’t only support my work and journey through the field of education, but she engages with my work, challenges my thinking, and helps me grow as an educational activist. Oh and did I mention that she’s a total badass advocate herself? She’s totally going places.

With that said, here’s the first part (part 2 gets its own post) of very thoughtful comment I received from my best friend Mariam, on my post “My ‘Conversation’ with Michelle Rhee”:

Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).

Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!

1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?

There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)

Hey buddy!

I hope she read this… but something tells me she didn’t and even if she did, I doubt she’d reply. No one’s got time to reply to a little college student if they’re too busy raising money to destroy public education, right?

Anyway, I really appreciate your comment and I hope my response covers all your questions. If I’m missing anything or if you have any more questions, of course feel free to let me know!

Let’s start at the top with your first question about teacher unions protecting unmotivated, careless teachers.

I completely understand where you’re coming from (having been to the same high school with you). There are a few teachers out there who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

Now, there is a difference between teachers who enter the profession unmotivated, and teachers who become unmotivated and feel defeated by the destruction of their profession through high-stakes testing and budget cuts (and now privatization and personal attacks from billionaires who’ve never stepped into a classroom). But it’s hard to distinguish them.

But before I go into my proposal of what we should do about this predicament, I want to go back to something you said in your comment about properly compensating teachers who do their job. Currently, we have something in place that tries to do this.

Merit Pay

Merit pay is a product of education reform and it basically gives higher salaries to effective teachers, essentially using incentive to motivate teachers.

This sounds like a great idea right? Incentive is a great motivator, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded for doing a good job?

Let’s start by defining an “effective teacher”. Here is a great definition from one of my favorite articles on merit pay:

Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life.

So does merit pay actually reward effective teachers? The answer is no.

If you go to the article and find the paragraph I quoted above, you’ll see that the last sentence, is the simplest yet perhaps the most powerful of all:

Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.

The problem with merit pay (as is the problem with most education “reforms”) is that although it has good intentions, it is poorly implemented and has unexpected counterproductive consequences. Merit pay narrowly assumes causation between teacher performance and test scores, and it ignores the many other factors that require attention in order to holistically assess a teacher. Sometimes teachers are evaluated based on the test scores of students that aren’t even theirs! This is an entirely unfair process that consequently quantifies and de-professionalizes the teaching profession and forces teachers to teach to the test. It sends a terrible message that teachers are only as good as the test scores they can produce. Teachers then feel even more disrespected and unmotivated. They also can’t do much about it because they’re trapped in a lose-lose situation.

And so I ask… how can we compensate teachers who do their job, if we don’t let them do it? 

Before any judgments can be made on teachers, we need to bring respect and autonomy back into the teaching profession. We can do this through a variety of ways, starting with eliminating high-stakes testing and merit pay. We can then begin to develop an equitable evaluation system that encourages growth and involves student voice, student work, and teacher collaboration. This cannot be dictated by a few people in power (merit pay was the ingenious idea of a select few including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates). Collaboration is key to create a truly democratic education. It’s time for politicians and bankers and billionaires and corporate reformers to step aside and for the voices they’ve silenced to speak up once again.

I also want to add as a side note that I don’t think we can buy a teacher’s respect. Yes, pay is important, and teachers should be paid more in general, but if we want to ever get to that point we need to tackle systemic attitudes and frameworks that attack and look down on teachers. We should value teachers the way we value doctors and lawyers and let them do their job.

Now, going back to your point about the “teachers” in our education system. I first want to point out that you yourself are a student, and that your voice is valuable and should be heard. Can your test score really indicate that your teacher is doing a poor job? No, you can tell a lot more about your teacher than your test score can, right?

Currently, student input is not valued when it comes to evaluating teachers and I want that to change. If more administrators listened to students about “teachers” working in their schools and worked with teachers union to investigate further and come to a fair and sensible conclusion, we wouldn’t have “teachers” that stay in schools and threaten the well-being and safety of students. So first we need to work on implementing FAIR methods of teacher evaluation that are fully collaborated on, that will justly distinguish teachers from a few “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.

My “Conversation” with Michelle Rhee

michelle rhee

So a while back, I talked to Michelle Rhee (CEO of StudentsFirst) on a Tioki Forum after seeing on Facebook (I follow StudentsFirst just to see what kind of shenanigans they’re up to next) that she would be available from 4:00-4:30 PM to talk to the common folk and discuss any questions we may have. For a forum, there wasn’t much discussion going on. It was mostly question and answer, where some questions were not fully addressed or even answered and rebuttals were not responded to. But half an hour isn’t a long time, so I cut her some slack.

I submitted my question early, because I really did want a response. When I posted it, I received a message saying that my question would be submitted for review before being posted. Well then. It looked like Michelle would be spared from answering questions from her most ardent critics, and the discussion would be less authentic dialogue and more filtered propaganda.

But luckily, my question was posted! Probably because I tried to appear not so threatening.

I couldn’t limit myself to one question, so I chose two things that are two of the biggest flaws and faults of the education reform movement:

Here was her reply to my question about poverty:

Q: Hi Michelle, I’m a student and currently starting my research in education and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know you talk a lot about accountability, teacher unions, and the structure of public schools as being the causes of our failing public school system, but I recently came across a considerable amount of research that highlights out-of-school factors such as poverty and economic inequality as the root cause. Whether public or charter, a school in a wealthy community almost always outperforms a school in a poverty-stricken environment. What are your thoughts on this? What are you doing to address this issue and ensure a quality public education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background?

A: Well let’s start at the top. I have repeatedly said teachers’ unions are not the problem. But yes, the governance structure of public schools is a big issue. Antiquated bureaucracies stifle innovation and are bad for kids & teachers. But you bring up a good topic – education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought. 1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad vs. 2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame. There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

And here’s what I think about her reply. Let’s start at the top:

Teachers’ Unions

Chicago Teachers Union fighting alongside parents and students to save over 50 public schools from closings mandated by education deformer and Michelle Rhee worshipper Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

First, I honestly don’t know when you’ve “repeatedly said that teachers’ unions are not the problem” because I watched you tear down teachers’ unions in Waiting for Superman (which ironically paints you as the hero???), and I know that StudentsFirst is funded by Walton Family Foundation (the one in control of the money controls the org!), who are historically known for being anti-union (Wal-Mart. Enough said.)

And here’s a quote that also makes you look like a complete hypocrite:

“People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’?” – Michelle Rhee at the 2008 round table at the Fordham Institute.

Furthermore, I listened to my SFER/USC President spew his brainwashing rhetoric about how if I wanted to be a real reformer, I needed to stand against teachers’ unions (SFER is basically a branch of StudentsFirst, and you can read Stephanie Rivera’s excellent critical analysis of it here). “Teachers no longer care about students and they are the problem!”

And boy was I fooled. Every starry-eyed student just entering the realm of “educational policy and reform” will be fed the whole “teachers unions are the problem” crap. It made sense, didn’t it? Teachers, people who dedicate their lives to helping students, would put their career before students. As if their career wasn’t about the students.

It didn’t take long for me to realize what a load of bullshit that was. No teacher goes into the field wanting to destroy a student’s love of learning. No teacher wants to dull their students down to test scores. No teacher wants to teach to the test and lecture material in order to satisfy standards. Teaching is a noble and creative profession, an art that requires a system where that art can flourish.

But what would a Teach for America corps member who taped her students’ mouths shut and calls herself an education expert after very little classroom experience know about teaching? Probably only that experienced teachers protected by unions are hurting students. Because that totally makes sense. Here’s a thought: Why do we trust experience in every other field BUT teaching?

Of course, some teachers teach better than others. You don’t need to look at data to know that; any student can tell you! You want to help students and save them from “bad” teachers? Help the “bad” teachers. Stop taking the easy way out and tying teacher quality to test scores. Stop busting teachers’ unions and firing teachers. Start implementing some meaningful evaluation (student work portfolios, student surveys, third party holistic observations – preferably by people who have experience teaching). Unions protect good teachers too, and eliminating them would be dangerous not only to the teachers but also the students. Teachers fight for their students. That’s their job.

Bottom line: Teachers’ unions are NOT the problem. They’re a part of the solution.

Now onto the part of Michelle’s reply about

Poverty

To reiterate, here’s what she said:

Education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought:

1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad

2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame.

There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.

Again, let’s start at the top. I agree, both these ideas are extreme and entirely flawed. I didn’t say that poverty was the root cause of a failing public education system. But it is a contributing factor. And for education reformers to basicaly embody the second camp of thought and tie test scores to teacher performance and ignore other factors that could contribute to low scores is terrible data analysis and quite frankly, very narrow-minded.

Poverty is a large part of the equation. Study, after study, after study proves this. High-poverty environments can cause severe stress and damage in youth brain function. Academic performance correlates with family income and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap. And the “no excuses” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude of the reform movement is ignoring this glaringly obvious STRUCTURAL issue.

Of course, we should believe that students are capable of achieving no matter what ZIP code they come from. This is an attractive, and admittedly genuine idea that Michelle Rhee preaches. But if we truly have faith in students, we should also show them that we do and invest in the communities they live in. If we want to build better schools, we should start by building healthy environments that kids can come home to after school, and the “following up with health and academic and social policy programs at school.” But of course this isn’t what the education reformers want. Because that would mean the tax dollars that they are taking for their own corporate gain would go toward solutions that actually benefit students and their communities!

Once again, I’m not saying that poverty is the sole reason, or excuse, why students from poorer communities don’t do well in school. Far from that actually. I agree with Michelle in that respect: “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.” But I’m saying that poverty, along with in-school factors (which I’ll get into later in this post), exacerbates the problem and we need to be brave enough to confront it.

I’ve often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

Poverty NEEDS to be considered. Yes, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson; teachers are the lifeblood of a classroom, of education. Teachers have magic powers, and they can definitely be sources of inspiration and true learning, but to expect a teacher to undo all the pernicious effects of poverty on a student is a tall order. Collaboration (something Michelle is sorely against) between teachers, students, parents, communities, and government is necessary to ensure that every student gets the education he/she deserves.

To truly invest in kids and do what is best for them, we need to recognize that there are BOTH in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to the problem. We cannot take an extreme side and focus on one or the other. If any progress is to be made we need to step up and target both ends of the spectrum equally.

Bottom line: Poverty cannot be ignored.

Now, what about those in-school factors that we also need to tackle? Education reformers seem to think that apathetic, low-quality teachers are the source of the problem, but what they fail to look at is the strict system and troubling predicament these teachers are placed in. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top (basically NCLB on steroids) and now, corporate America’s Common Core State Standards, we have turned our public education system into a terribly run business, with meaningless data that only serves to punish students, teachers, and communities, all under the guise of “accountability.”

Let’s see what Michelle had to say in response to my question about

Standardized Testing

Q: Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on lessening the unnecessarily tight grip of standardized testing on our students and using that time and money to focus on providing all students with a well-rounded education that helps them become better people, not better test takers. I feel that over-emphasis of standards and test scores limits creativity (for teachers and students), critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning, and attention to the many other dimensions of an education that simply cannot be encompassed in a multiple choice exam and 3 digit number.

A: When it comes to testing, as a parent, I don’t want my daughters’ teachers to only be teaching to a test. I want them to have a well-rounded education & curriculum. However, we must have an objective way to measure whether kids are learning so that schools and educators can use assessment feedback to improve how they educate kids. Accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents is essential.

Okay first off, great appeal to parental emotion there, Michelle. But of course no education reformer is going to directly endorse teaching to the test. However, that has been the unfortunate consequence of what they call “data-driven assessment” and “accountability.” First, No Child Left Behind let the giant claw of standardized testing get a grip on our education system. Now, Race to the Top has tightened that grip as it promises large sums of reward money to districts with the highest scores (because competition is how we ensure equal opportunity, right?). Alongside this, Common Core State Standards, which are corporation-created standards for language arts and math, are being implemented all over the country, and enforced through yet another onslaught of standardized tests.

Oh, and did I mention these tests are produced by corporations, sold to schools, and protected from peer review and public scrutiny? Yes, these are people who have never been teachers, never even step foot in front of a classroom, dictating what students should learn and reaping profits from this added pressure on students and their teachers. Do they care if teachers teach to the test? Not really.

But moving on from that… whenever I bring up my views on standardized testing, I almost ALWAYS get the same retort, even from my parents:

“We need an objective way to measure progress! It can’t just be a free for all!”

Alright. I admit it. We need hard data to know how to improve. But let me quote Timo Heikkinen, a principal of a school in Finland where there are no standardized tests:

“If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Right on, Mr. Heikkinen. Yes, we need data to track progress and project growth. But beyond being objective, it needs to be accurate, and by accurate I mean that it should take into account every part of a student. Is such accurate yet still objective data on human beings possible? Probably not.

But then the question becomes: do we care about our kids enough to put in the extra time and money, value their humanity through meaningful assessment, and shift the focus to providing well-rounded educations?

If we do, then we should aim for accurate data. But in order for data to be meaningful and accurate, it needs to be comprehensive. Michelle said in her reply that data from tests is used to improve how kids are educated, but I fail to see how numbers in a data chart (that don’t even take into account a student’s creativity or critical thinking ability) can give effective and constructive criticism to teachers. These numbers only tell part of the story, and are unfairly used to punish teachers for not raising scores. This adds pressure on them to teach to the test in order to fulfill standards and appear “accountable.”

For data to be comprehensive and useful for teacher and student growth, it needs to cover all the bases. Data should try to tell the whole picture of a student, something that standardized testing doesn’t even come close to achieving. To meaningfully assess students, why don’t teachers ask students to compile portfolios of their original pieces of work for evaluation? Work that is able to demonstrate a mix and myriad of skills and understanding, from civic engagement to scientific method to literary analysis. And then, why don’t we give them feedback that shows them that we value their effort enough to write more than one letter grade on it? From there, portfolios can be submitted as a part of the teacher evaluation process, to a third party review team composed of teachers who will then decide how the work meets curriculum standards also created by students and teachers.

Yes, the national standards created by Common Core have good intentions, but poor implementation. It’s yet another get-rich-quick-scheme by the education reformer crew. It’s created even more standardized tests and pulled focus away from funding for and focus on the arts, music, civic ed, the sciences, humanities, physical education, and enrichment programs (all of which are a part of a well-rounded education). The standards were also created and imposed upon schools across the country without teacher or student input.

What we need is a set of standards constructed through collaboration of students and teachers inn various communities, in every subject and area of learning, that are enforced through comprehensive data collection (portfolios and written evaluations).

This will only be one part of improving education, because we should also be evaluating teachers in comprehensive ways that gives them comprehensive feedback from which they can work forward from. Student portfolios are a piece of that puzzle.

Completing the rest of the puzzle takes more emphasis on student voice, rather than numbers. This may come as a shock to reformers, but students can say a lot more about themselves and their learning experiences than a test score. GO FIGURE!

When evaluating teachers for the purposes of accountability, why don’t we ask students:

  • What do you want to see in a teacher? What do you feel a teacher should do (not just academic-wise)? This provides a backbone checklist of expectations that teachers should meet.
  • What does your teacher do well? How can your teacher improve? What do you wish your teacher did differently/more? This gives a broader look into how teachers are serving their students and provides tangible advice teachers can use to improve.

We can also invite a third-party team of teachers to come observe and evaluate the teacher using an assessment that is, once again, comprehensive and covers all the bases of teaching, as well as provides concrete ways the teacher can improve in the future. The key here is to shift from narrowly test to holistically assess.

We should trust our students and value their voice enough to do all this.

We should also trust our teachers to work together with students, teach them with passion and creativity, and assess them holistically.

We should trust teachers to collaborate with and help one another for the sake of their students.

Once this happens, wonderful things can happen in education. I refuse to believe, Michelle, that objectivity is necessary to improve education. Accuracy and comprehensiveness is what we really need. It shows kids that we care, provides clear steps forward, and leads to providing students with the well-rounded education we always talk about, but never act upon… the same education that is made impossible in the face of the standardized testing monster.

And as for accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents? How about input from and collaboration between schools, educators, students, & parents? There are valuable voices out there in education, and we can no longer afford to silence them.

Bottom line: Standardized testing is not necessary. There are better solutions.

I would have replied on the thread… but by the time I saw her reply to me, I realized it was too late and she would never read my post anyway. And she still might not read it. But at least I can reach more people this way. Hope you enjoyed reading! Please spread the word and awareness! The education reform monster needs to be stopped!

The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do – by Dennis Hong

Dennis Hong, a molecular biologist turned biology teacher, writes in this wonderful post about the profession that is the backbone of this country, but it still so disrespected and underestimated.

Here what Hong says is the reason why people have delusions that anyone can do what a teacher does, but doesn’t have those delusions when it comes to other fields of specialty:

Have you ever watched professional athletes and gawked at how easy they make it look? Kobe Bryant weaves through five opposing players, sinking the ball into the basket without even glancing in its direction. Brett Favre spirals a football 100 feet through the air, landing it in the arms of a teammate running at full speed. Does anyone have any delusions that they can do what Kobe and Brett do?

Yet, people have delusions that anyone can do what the typical teacher does on a typical day.

Maybe the problem is tangibility. Shooting a basketball isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at shooting a basketball. Throwing a football isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at throwing a football. Similarly, diagnosing illnesses isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Winning court cases isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Creating and designing technology isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure.

Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

Amazing article, definitely check it out for yourself. He brings up some other really great points.

This is a perfect segway into a piece I’m working on about Teach for America. All I’m going to say now is, people who think they are fantastic teachers after 5 weeks of training are not only embarrassing themselves, but also being incredibly disrespectful to the teaching profession.

Nikhil Goyal Advocates for an Education Revolution in America

Well said, Mr. Goyal. I’m also very excited to begin your book.

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:

Reinventing the Education System… with a business model of technology?

So tomorrow… I am traveling to Thailand and Vietnam! I’m pretty excited but that means I might not be posting as much. I have a LOT of drafts saved though, so I will do my best to find time (and internet connection) to blog.

Since I have to start packing soon, I will just do a brief post (you will soon learn that I love lists and bullet points).

Here are some of my thoughts on this article about reinventing rather than fixing the education system.

Yes, it’s from Forbes, which made me wary at first and it did feature some pretty appealing education rhetoric which, from experience, I know is hard to analyze because it makes you just want to agree with everything being said.

The author’s basic argument is that the education system is “not broken” but simply “obsolete” in that it no longer caters to the needs of the current generation. Thus, to solve the issue of education, we need to reinvent the system, and move away from the monotonous “assembly line” style of education that is currently implemented in our schools in order to move towards making education experiential, exciting, and as “addictive as a video game.” This means promoting creativity, critical reasoning, and collaborative learning.

Sounds pretty much everything I fight for right? Well… let’s see.

Here’s what I agree with, or at least find interesting:

  • First of all, I have to say that I was really happy to see an article about education on Forbes.
  • Very true that our current education system seems to be outdated… I think I’m going to devote some time to looking at the history of education in our country…just to see the path it has taken.
  • Yes yes yes to everything about:
  • fostering creativity and critical reasoning
  • embracing students’ various learning styles
  • promoting experiential education and interdisciplinary approaches to learning
  • making education that works for, not against, its students (“If they can’t learn the way we teach, why don’t we teach the way they learn?” – Ignacio Estrada)
  • moving away from standardization, which limits individuality and what I like to call out-of-the-scantron-bubble thinking
  • implementing well-rounded and exciting curricula for students

Here’s what I’m not so sure about:

  • “I want all entrepreneurs to take notice that this is a multi-hundred billion dollar opportunity that’s ripe for disruption.”
  • NO NO NO
  • Okay, I am a social entrepreneurship minor at USC, which is a minor in the School of Business. So I hear this all the time. And it literally makes me cringe.
  • I am pursuing social entrepreneurship because I have realized that current movements of “education reform” do not fit the model of social activism that I wholeheartedly agree with. On my journeys as an aspiring educator and educational activist, I have come to realize that in order to make the best difference that I can in education, I have to pave my own path.
  • My social entrepreneurship minor equips me with the tools and skill sets to put my educational theories and philosophies into practice.
  • What I don’t appreciate, however, is corporate agendas and motives of profit, because no matter how much you want to make a difference in education, those two things get in the way of truly and genuinely working for and with students. They dilute the focus on students and educational equity, which are the real focus here.
  • Education is not a business to be profited from. Period. If you want to make a real difference, work from the bottom up. Really get to know students, work with them, listen to them, and start with local change. Slowly, students everywhere will have equal access to the quality public education they deserve.
  • Also, I feel like the article was moving in a direction of using technology as the core of education, rather than a tool.
  • “It is time we flipped the model on its head and used technology to focus on our learners.”
  • I believe that while technology is definitely very useful in the classroom, its influence on curriculum should be limited to only a tool.
  • To have technology infiltrate every aspect of education in a classroom for the purposes of creating curricula that works for all types of students is… a little counter-productive in my opinion.
  • Not all students learn with technology, and there are many more methods and styles of learning that don’t need technology (lively discussions/debates, collaborative projects, creative projects, field trips, hands-on learning)
  • Also, technology can be very limiting for students, since it can tend to think for students and doesn’t really leave room for the student to create something him/herself. Well there goes that whole “fostering creativity” bit.
  • All in all, technology should assist learning, not dominate it.

Those are just my thoughts on this article! If you agree/disagree/have an idea of your own, feel free to comment!