Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Bust a Deal and Face the Wheel" - The Craziness of High Stakes Testing!

Sometimes moments in your life become juxtaposed to create a heightened awareness of reality - or -  a new view of it.

I just watched Mad Max - Return to Thunderdome for the umpteenth time and then a few days later during the holidays I listened as my nephew described the depressing situation in his elementary school.  The story thrust a line from the movie into my head - "Bust a deal and face the wheel" uttered by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner).

First, the background. Dan is a gifted special ed teacher who has dedicated his career to helping children, like his mentally disabled brother, achieve the highest levels possible. Yet, it is challenging to say the least. Every day he sees slight progress - he's a professional and recognizes and can measure his students' progress.

Yet, once a year the teachers are forced to administer the state tests. And here's the "deal": if your students pass with adequate yearly progress, the government will leave you alone. But if they don't make the expected progress, and you "bust the deal." you become a failing school and get to "face the wheel" - choosing between longer hours for more drill and kill, getting fired or furloughed, being taken over by a charter organization, etc.

So he is now in a failing school.

Here's the craziness of it all. Our rules around testing in the U.S. seem almost as strange as the rules in Barter Town in the movie, a bureaucracy carved out for a failing system. When Dan tests his kids, they must be tested at their grade level and they must read the test by themselves. Now the population in his school is 25% special education (it is a kind of magnet school) and on top of that, 50% ESL, leaving only 25% of the students without these challenges. He told me of one boy who had just arrived in this country from Africa, who could speak no English, and was directed by the teacher to 'play the game' of marking one circle per question - questions that he could not read!

One test, on one day out of 180 school days, determines the fate of an entire school community. Welcome to Thunderdome! "Two men enter, one man leaves" - 50% drop out rates have some root causes and this is one of them!

Dan is thinking of changing careers, though he really doesn't want to - he loves his students. But for his mental health, he might have to.

We must stop the insanity! Give back the schools to their communities and apply what we know works to make all schools better!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bill Gates - Education Reform Expert Strikes Again

Once again, billionaire Bill Gates, philanthropist extraordinaire, announces his simplistic solutions for education reform at the Council of Chief School Officers annual meeting (Gates Urges School Budget Overhauls). In his speech, Gates recommends re-aligning school budgets, but then he focuses on specific teacher-related budget cuts like ending tenure (I agree, but for different reasons), eliminating incentive pay for graduate work, and worst of all, creating larger class sizes and reducing the number of teachers.

This article really frustrated me. How can Gates appoint himself an expert on education when he doesn't even take the time to back up his beliefs with research? Focusing solely on teachers is just wrong-headed. Sure teachers can get better, and I am against tenure - I saw enough bad teachers protected not only by the union but by administrators who simply liked them. But teaching is the core competency of education. A lot can be done to improve medical services by improving doctors' skills, for example, but would we undermine them by not rewarding them for keeping up with the profession? 

If we want to improve teaching, let's look at the top performing countries in the recent PISA report from OECD. The top countries view teachers as professionals and spend a lot of money on training them initially and then continuing to improve their skills with professional learning communities. They look at teaching and learning as processes that can be documented, replicated, and measured. 

Let's look at the process of teaching and learn from best practices. Targeting a few specific band-aids and focusing only on outcomes will do nothing to improve teaching and will only alienate those who are doing a great job and not being recognized.

By the way, great teachers are leaving American schools on their own. Several studies have shown that 50% of teachers leave within the first 5 years. This isn't only about pay, it's more about the hostile, bureaucratic, and stifling environment these professionals are working in.