This week, I need to get a few things off my chest, so to speak. Malcolm Forbes said:” if you have a job without frustrations, you don’t have a job,” the point being, of course, that all jobs have frustrations; it’s the nature of the beast. As much as I love what I do, I’ve had, of late, more than my fair share of frustrations. Perhaps they may provide a bit of insight concerning certain issues.
I saw–from my computer monitor–Jeb Bush at CPAC this week talking about Common Core. It was quite the political performance as he reiterated his undying support for Common Core while claiming that education policy should be the sole province of the states. Common Core is all about centralized control and a single mandated standard, hence “common.” Sorry Jeb, but one cannot claim unwavering support for state control of education while fully supporting Common Core. That’s rather like claiming Islam is fully compatible with western civilization while taking a sledgehammer to irreplaceable, priceless historic relics, which, like Jeb Bush’s contradiction, took place this week as well.
Who’s To Blame:
It’s worthwhile to remember that there is one thing for which George W. Bush can legitimately be blamed: No Child Left Behind, and the testing mania that is a fundamental, inseparable part of any statist’s dreams of control over education. When he became Texas Governor, Mr. Bush became aware that Hispanic kids in Texas generally didn’t do as well academically as white bread kids. To Texans, this was hardly a revelation. A great many Hispanic kids were immigrants, many illegal, for whom English was–and is–a second language. Those numbers are increasing astronomically now that Mr. Obama has posted huge, flashing “c’mon in” signs the length of the southern border, but that’s another story for another time.
In any case, Mr. Bush, his heart in the right place–I love every one of my Hispanic kiddies–wanted to help those kids. Unfortunately, he knew little about education and much about business, so he imposed business methods on education problems. The educrats of the Texas Education Agency, various politicians, businesses and others, seeing a golden opportunity to seize previously unimaginable power, leapt on board and the “accountability” movement was born. The way to accountability was to test children to death so that schools and school districts could be compared. When he became president, Mr. Bush was fooled–probably willingly–by one of the most destructive, shamelessly dishonorable, more or less continually drunk, and craftily corrupt politicians in American history–Ted Kennedy–and No Child Left Behind, Mr. Bush’s accountability movement on steroids, was born. Conservatives suddenly found themselves wielding previously unheard of power over the states and liked the money, power and influence more than they could ever have imagined. In a flash, there was little or no difference in philosophy between conservatives and liberals.
The negative consequences are still terribly destructive, and not all are yet fully manifest.
Last week was a disaster. Beginning on February 23, I had exactly 22 days remaining to teach my kids everything they need to know to pass the English STAAR test, which must be given on April 1 across the wide state of Texas. State educrats obviously have no sense of irony. Failing to pass that test–more on its specifics shortly–dooms kids to failure to graduate from high school. Oh, they can retake it, and hopefully they’ll eventually pass, but that’s more a bug than a feature.
Unfortunately, weather in North Texas is sneaky. In the spring, we have rain and snow, which, combined with freezing temperatures, produces sheets of thick ice, almost always in the early morning hours. Texans are not at all used to driving in such conditions, and the entire region is paralyzed. Such was the case on Monday and Tuesday. We began school late on Wednesday, losing several classes, and had school at the normal time only on Thursday. We came to school on time Friday, but within an hour, the day was, once again, called for weather.
What people don’t understand is that in many classes, particularly English, losing one or two days in a week is not something easily made up. Particularly when working on STAAR skills, we must do the work in class so I can provide immediate feedback in circumstances of time like the actual test. Writing an essay with a rough draft normally takes three full days (three successive class periods). Break that up, interrupt the process, and one must nearly begin again and little or nothing is learned or accomplished.
The kids were delighted to have a few days off, but after that, even they begin to get a bit edgy, uncomfortable with the uncertainty and disruption. So for the second week in a row, I had to revise lesson plans, reorganize, and ultimately, abandon experiences carefully planned to give the kids the best chance of passing the damned test. Now, they will have less.
I can scarcely express my anger and disgust at these mandated tests. Their mere existence is a lie–actually a series of lies–and very expensive and destructive lies at that.
Lie #1: The tests are necessary so parents and legislators and politicians will know whether kids are learning. Apparently none of this information was available prior to the invention of these tests. There was no way to know if children were learning anything. Discovering whether kids are learning is easy and inexpensive: parents need to be involved in their kid’s education. They need to speak with teachers, actually look at their kid’s work, and stay informed. This however, requires personal responsibility, and a bit of occasional work, not tax dollars.
Lie #2: The data produced by tests is an invaluable tool for improving education. This assumes that prior to these tests, there was no way to know what needed to be improved, nor could anything be improved. The knowledge of people that actually knew the abilities of students–they used to be called ”teachers”–seems to have somehow vanished beyond the ability of any to recover it. It also assumes that a few test scores tell us anything meaningful about individuals, schools, school districts, states or the nation. After all, what’s a mere 12 years of demonstrated academic performance compared to a single test score?
Few parents care about their child’s mandatory test scores; they care, instead, whether they passed. Colleges don’t give a damn. Their primary interest is in a diploma, perhaps GPA, and less and less these days, an SAT score. If the Smithville School District’s English passing average is 89% and the Jonestown School District’s average is 92%, no one in Smithville is going to be moving to Jonestown. Most won’t so much as give the proverbial rodent’s posterior.
But these scores are very important to the teachers and administrators, because their jobs hang on them. And because of this, much of their school year is devoted to drilling kids on the very specific skills and attitudes they need to pass the damned tests. Time spent on that is time that cannot be spent on literature, language, writing and developing bigger, better brains. One must chose, and we–society–have chosen drill over development. Thus do tenth graders arrive in my classes every fall mostly unable to define or identify the rudimentary parts of speech such as nouns or verbs. There just isn’t time for learning the building blocks of our language. Thus do colleges whine when incoming freshmen haven’t read–to say nothing about understanding–the foundational texts of the western literary canon.
Lie #3: Test scores reflect actual learning. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They reflect nothing more than a given child’s performance on that specific test on the day it was given. When the tests were invented, educrats knew that unless there were severe consequences, most kids wouldn’t even try. The kids knew–and know–that the tests are meaningless and a horrendous waste of time and resources; some may be lazy, but they’re not stupid. But this is about political power and money, not education, so the whole destructive power of the state is brought to bear on the futures and lives of children to make them fear that power.
This is why there is a reasonable argument to be made for tests like the Iowa tests, and the SAT. The only kids that take them are kids that want to take them, and their incentives for taking them and doing their best are internal. If they do well, their lives are affected for the better, at least theoretically. If they don’t, they’re not–for that reason alone–denied a basic touchstone of survival: a high school diploma.
However, over the years, providing a reasonably accurate measure of academic achievement was replaced by the need to produce data, not to serve the needs of individual Americans. Data is power fed by tax dollars. Passing the SAT and increasing SAT scores became a multi-billion dollar industry, and kids would take the tests many times, eventually increasing their scores several hundred points. They were able to do this not because they became more academically capable, but because they learned ways to game the test. I have taught such classes and my kids normally increased their scores some 300 points. I did not increase their IQs, but taught them tricks. Over time, even colleges began to realize that these tests no longer accurately predicated academic success, and many colleges no longer bother to require or collect SAT scores.
Enough of that for now. Simply thinking about it is raising my blood pressure.
I had a chat with my Pre-AP class the other day about test taking and writing. These are among the most academically oriented kids in school, the best and brightest. They get the jokes and far more of the common societal idioms and references than most kids. While most 15-16 year-olds cannot handle abstract reasoning–their brains are not yet sufficiently developed–these kids, for the most part, can. This is one reason STAAR testing so angers teachers. The STAAR tests are supposed to be more “rigorous” than the TAKS tests they replace, but this is done by simply stealing from the SAT. Pearson writes both tests. Most high school sophomores can’t do it, but I can teach them to fake it. However, when a test question or writing prompt is written in a way that requires genuinely abstract thought, thought that focused test-taking tactics cannot sidestep, kids inevitably do poorly. If, by chance, they get a more favorable test when they retest, they will tend to pass. So much for the idea of these tests being accurate indicators of academic development.
I told my AP kiddies that good writers are born, not made. I can help each and every one of them to be better writers, and all of them have made significant leaps in writing ability since the beginning of the year, but I cannot make any of them exceptional writers. Some people simply have the unique genetic endowment–and the interest–to be excellent, inspiring writers. Most do not. In the same way, some people have the endowment and interest to become great mathematicians. That’s certainly not me.
Some people, given a prompt, immediately see multiple possible ways to respond and to produce an interesting, insightful, even stylish essay that is a pleasure to read, the kind of writing that causes the reader to smile, even laugh in delight. Others can produce solid, well constructed essays on that topic that are beyond what most are capable of producing, but they must work harder than the naturals, and will never quite reach their level. If it were easy, everyone could do it.
Unfortunately, the STAAR essay writing section is rigged. In our entire sophomore class of more than 350 kids last year, only two–two–earned the highest possible score on their essays. This is far less than one percent. How is this possible? Does our high school which has, for the last five years, won the regional state academic championship, simply have poor writers, or is the more likely explanation that the grading is rigged to favor only one very narrow and specific kind of response to the essay, a response only two students were able to stumble into, while a great many excellent writers did not?
The state hires people that don’t have full time jobs to grade the essays. Craigslist was the primary method last year. They sit them in a room and “calibrate” them, giving them lists of things to look for, and then they make them read and grade example essays based on those criteria until most of them give the same grades reasonably consistently. This allows no room for creativity or style in writing, and requires absolute conformity. If a brilliant student does not slavishly write precisely the kind of essay for which the graders have been “calibrated,” on precisely the topic–with preferred inferences–chosen by the state, they cannot earn the highest grades, and may very well fail. That’s common with brilliant kids; they write about related things of interest. Because I know them, because I understand what they know, as long as they don’t go too far afield, I can give them appropriate credit. That can’t and doesn’t happen with state testing.
The problem with calibration is that the rubrics–the criteria by which the state supposedly grades essays–commonly do not match the way they grade the essays. Therefore, it is virtually impossible for teachers to tell the kids what they must do to do well. I commonly see essays without an identifiable theme, or a theme expressed only in the last sentence, receiving high scores, while very well constructed and expressed essays–among the top 5% anywhere–receive only mediocre grades.
I’ve always believed that unless I can tell one of my students how to achieve the highest possible grades, how can I justify giving them less than a maximum score? If I don’t know, and they know I don’t know, I’m incompetent and they’re adrift. If they can’t be sure how they can excel, what’s the point in trying? Achieving the highest score must always be possible for everyone–surely not everyone will earn it–in every case. If not, the best give up in frustration and disgust, and the mediocre are always happy with avoiding failure.
I now have only 17 days remaining to teach my kids the very specific skills necessary, and a weather forecast that might very well cost additional days. In response to an uplifting story I recently posted–Giving of Oneself–“Labrat” was kind enough to send a link to a rather disturbing story of a “teacher of the year” who, basking in the glory of that designation, announced she was leaving teaching because she could no longer “drill and kill” kids. It’s happening, gentle readers, to kids in elementary school. It’s harming them, and all of us. It’s worth a look.
I don’t believe in such awards, nor would I accept one if offered. Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely I would ever be chosen for such an award. I’m not the self-promoting type, nor am I a cheerleader, particularly cute, or public-relations conscious. A brief story may illustrate my philosophy of such things.
Many years ago, our principals gave out “teacher of the month” awards. Invariably, they were handed out for achievements that had nothing to do with teaching. Mrs. Smith did a great bake sale, or Mrs. Jones’ cheerleaders were particularly peppy at the pep rally. One month, out of the blue, I was given one. Actually amazed, I took an assistant principal discreetly aside and asked how that might have happened. He replied that at a principal’s meeting, he told his colleagues that I was a very good teacher. He had recently observed me and was impressed by what I was doing in the classroom. The other principals were surprised–they had never considered giving out an award for actual good teaching before; it was an entirely new concept to them–and went along. A few months later, they stopped handing out the awards. Apparently the principals were getting too much whining from people that thought themselves deserving.
I continue to love and believe in what I do and in my kids. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of my teaching career, and that’s a good thing. I’ll probably be able to get out before teaching no longer has anything at all to do with education, but tragically, it will probably be a near thing.