Sunday, October 10, 2010

When do we get to teach?

It is Sunday, and I just finished putting together the testing schedule for my school for a new round of tests our Area Office (at the behest of CPS CEO Ron Huberman) has mandated for us.

We just finished the first of three yearly Scantron assessments on Friday. Next week we begin what has been referred to at my school as the "Riverside test", after the test's publisher. All third through eighth grade students will take an hour-long reading and an hour-long math test. The test is administered online, which means the two computer labs at the school will be unavailable for the next six or seven school days (plus occupying the computer carts for several hours).

I don't think we will find out anything we didn't know already, especially with the Scantron test just finished -- if CPS can't trust the Scantron results, why pay the close to $10 million in test setup and subscription fees for it and its close cousin, the NWEA assessment? [ Aside: I am looking at contracts 10-0623-PR33 and 10-0623-PR34 from the June 23 Board of Education Report, you can also see them on the CPS Procurement and Contracts listing. Click on the line item numbers to see any of the contracts. I'm guessing this is part of Huberman's effort to make CPS dealings transparent, which credit where credit is due, if there, it's Pretty Neat.)

I started compiling a list of what's wrong with all of the testing that CPS is asking us to do. Here are my main topics so far:
1. It is based on bad science.
(insults the intelligence, fetishizes data, misuses data, misuses and abuses statistics, gives science and statistics a bad name, is based on the very narrow world-view of the worst empiricism, demeans human beings, robs the world of its soul, etc.)

And as a result,

2. It hurts students.
(I'm thinking of stress, anxiety, theft of learning time; it sorts students into false categories, stigmatizes students according to one narrow definition of success, focuses on the lowest order thinking skills, distorts purpose and nature of education, etc.)

3. It hurts families.
(same as above, it is also misused to mis-measure school "progress" and so used to close neighborhood public schools, and when public schools are closed, communities are undermined)

4. It hurts teachers.
(data are (is?) abused to provide false evaluations of teachers, distorts the profession, demeans the role of teachers as teaching professionals, distorts curriculum, sets teachers up as fall-guy for failures of economic system, social priorities, government, politicians, educational-industrial complex, etc.)

5. It wastes the public's money.
(out-of-pocket cost of testing services, test administration costs, opportunity costs of test administration, lost teaching time, infrastructure costs, misdirection of administration and teacher time. In this category you can put me assembling schedules, talking to teachers, explaining the tests, proctoring, diagnosing and resolving technical issues, fixing rosters, training how to find test results, explaining what they might mean and won't they don't mean, tracking down students who missed the original test date. One might say, "quit your kvetching, that's your job" except it's not my job, at least on paper -- I am supposed to be helping teachers figure out ways to use new technologies to support creative learning.)

6. It destroys education.
(teaching to the test, lower-order thinking skills stressed, casts children as learning machines, narrows goal of education, used to falsely quantify school "performance" to provide false rationale for school closings, privatization.)
And here is a link supplied to me by Sharon Schmidt to "a zillion position type papers from FairTest": The Case Against High-Stakes Testing

As one teacher at my school said when I informed her of the looming next round of tests, "When do we get to teach?"


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Race to Nowhere

I attended a screening of the new documentary Race to Nowhere last Thursday, at the Chicago Waldorf School. It is an important film I think, but left me unsatisfied.

The unsatisfaction (not dissatisfied, mind you, just not satisfied) isn't a fault of the film itself -- it does a fine job of addressing the issues it sets out to address, namely the heaps of work and stress laid on children today out of a mad desire to make it in the crazy world of adults. The title comes from a comment by one of the students interviewed in the film, but appropriately echoes the Obama administration's abusive Race to the Top initiative.

Race to Nowhere I think benefits from being released at the same time as the Waiting for Superman film, an attack on teachers and public education by the same filmmaker that made Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. (If you are in education and by some strange phenom have not heard of Waiting for Superman, check out Rethinking Schools' site set up to address the convenient untruths in the film.)

While Waiting for Superman is doing an effective job helping to mis-frame the debate around public education, Race to Nowhere addresses only a slender part of the issue -- and don't get me wrong, it makes no pretense of trying to address the totality of the problems facing public education. But that's the lack of satisfaction for me -- I was hoping for something total.

Race to Nowhere focuses on children who see themselves having a chance in the mainstream world, either because their parent(s) are there already and are pushing them along, or the students have the academic interest or drive, and possibility, of getting a precious scholarship and attending a top university. The film reminds the viewer to return to the basic question of "what is education for?" (And so it seemed appropriate that it was screened at the Waldorf school, an pedagogical tradition which has managed to keep its bearings about what education should be for.) One section of the film portrays a teacher driven from the profession by testing and the narrowing down of what education is and can be. A major theme in the film though is the amount of homework that the students work hard at doing, and the other pressures of school and expectations students face, threatening health, and in one case in the film, driving a student to suicide. And there it became clear that this film was addressing only part of the world of education.

A whole other part is immersed in poverty, where for whatever reasons, the students have been disengaged from education, or maybe never were engaged. Most of the students I have worked with never stressed about homework, as far as I can tell -- most of them never did it (so much so that in my area, the percentage of final grades comprised by homework has been reduced to five percent). The film addressed one side of the Great Divide in America.

To be fair, the film does include a few students from poor communities who are struggling along with the well-off students to keep up with classes, homework, after-school programs and community service. But largely absent are those other students, the ones that see only limited opportunity or have given up on school entirely. So while this is an important film, it isn't the film to counter Waiting for Superman.