"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Friday, April 25, 2014

For Teachers Only

I met with the Alpine Education Association (AEA) last week.  I have appreciated their support and their collaboration with our district through some very difficult decisions.  I have been pleased to work with these very good people who serve in the AEA.

The biggest concern of the AEA was that teachers feel frustrated by my vocal, but honest, opposition to Common Core.  As a teacher, you have to implement Common Core.  The district has to implement Common Core.  (I did support funding for new textbooks for Common Core.) The AEA stated it has to put out fires when teachers and parents have concerns.  They wished I wouldn't say anything about my opposition to the Common Core Reform Package.  It increases their workload to have to address the questions of parents and fellow teachers who hear my concerns, I think.  It would be better for the district leadership (including those of us on the board) to not voice our concerns about Common Core when it just has to be done. Additionally, they added that if one of you were to be vocal about your opposition to Common Core, it wouldn't bode well for you, professionally, and those in the family of Alpine District would view you differently.

This is precisely my point.  As an employee, perhaps you can't speak out, if you find things amiss.  It's your job; you have to do it.  It's the same with my job.  Sometimes, you have to just put a smile on your face and do what needs to be done, whether you agree with it or not.  I completely understand that.  Do I wish it weren't the case? Yes.  But I acknowledge the reality of it.  Elected officials, however, are elected for a reason.  We can't be fired or lose our job for speaking out, except at the hands of the voters.  If anyone is going to stand up for teachers against a program that isn't good, it must be the elected officials.  And every new change, program, or implementation that comes along really should be debated, discussed, and vetted all the way along the line, especially at the local level. 

Let's take something we probably agree on: teacher evaluations being tied to SAGE testing.  This is wrong.  I've said so.  I will continue to say so.  It, too, is state law.  We have to do it.  But it's horribly wrong.  Placing so much of a teacher's evaluation and thus, his/her livelihood, on a single (pilot) test is absolutely the worst use of a standardized test.   Like Common Core, should we just go along with it and be supportive?  I know you all will do the best you can, trying to not focus overly much on the test and still teach as professionals, but it's got to weigh you down.  The direction we are going is that once all education and all educators are evaluated on a single test, funding will follow.  It's nice and simple, but still wrong.  I can't sit by and be supportive.  I have to find a way to scream from the rooftops that this can't work, and that it gives way too much authority to the test makers over teachers, over local boards, over HOW standards are taught in the classroom.

Let me give you an example.  Several years ago, my son had a phenomenal teacher.  He LOVED class, loved her lessons, enjoyed nearly every moment.  He learned a lot and enjoyed it.  She even expressed appreciation that he had shushed the rest of the class one time because he wanted to learn what she had to teach.  Do you think I cared what he got on the CRT's that year?  Nope.  I don't think I even looked at them.  He had a wonderful year with a wonderful teacher.  That was worth more to me (and to him) than any standardized test score.  And I am afraid that, despite her best efforts, that love and that thrill of teaching will be reduced to making sure she can keep her job by getting higher test scores.  (Note: She was/is his favorite.  But he's had many, many others who were just as wonderful, just as dedicated, and just as appreciated.)  I don't choose and evaluate my kids' teachers by their test scores. 

So, back to Common Core.  It is top-down, which violates the principle of local control.  A little bit of local control isn't local control.  And just to be clear, my opposition isn't just with the standards. The Common Core standards come in a nice little package along with tying test scores to teacher evaluations, courtesy of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waiver.  The other two parts of that package are 1) a longitudinal database on students and teachers and 2) "improving" low-performing schools (determined by the test scores and "improved" by shutting them down and bringing in private enterprises, and redistributing successful teachers to these "failing" schools).  The entire package is flawed, and it's flawed on principle.  You, as a teacher, need to be able to have the freedom to connect with your students--the freedom to do what you know is best, regardless of where the student falls on the 'testing' rubric.  The Common Core Standards are just one tree in that forest of standardizing everything: tests, schools, teachers, curriculum.  Already, there are calls to use the copyright of the Common Core standards to 'certify' curriculum.  And, in the end, if your wonderful lesson plan doesn't deliver the results on the test (even if it delivers the results you, your students, and your students' parents want), it won't be around for very much longer.

You got into teaching because you love kids, and you wanted to be able to affect their lives for the better through education. You have natural talents and professional training on how to make that human-to-human connection that makes teachers irreplaceable. We need more of the individual attention you provide. Common Core, with its associated numbers-driven, top-down, accountability to the state, not parents, can only take education in the wrong direction. The Common Core standards, and the rest of the NCLB Waiver package, will reduce teachers to standards-implementers, test-preppers, and data points. I realize this is your job, and you have to make the best of whatever is presented to you.  But that is why we have school boards and a political process.  It is my job to fight against policies that interfere with the parent-child-teacher partnership. I am happy to do this job. I hope you will understand that my opposition to Common Core and its "package" is to support you as the professional you are. Our community must stand strong and eliminate all obstacles that stand in the way of you doing your job and realizing the highest aspirations that originally brought you into education. You may not be able to do it, but I should.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why I Opted My Kids Out of SAGE testing

The primary principle in education is that parents and teachers must be the ones in control of what a child learns in school.  As the child gets older, more of the responsibility transfers to him/her.  But, parents, teachers and students are the three-legged stool of education. The dependence on SAGE scores removes all three legs.

I have opted my kids out of the SAGE, end-of-the-year state tests.  Here are the reasons why.
  • Eliminates parental/local control
  • Grading teachers and schools, based on a test is wrong
  • I don't agree the test is assessing 'critical thinking'. 
  • 'Fuzzy math' methods and answers are rewarded
  • A pilot test: no validity or reliability
  • I can't verify the test is actually testing anything I want; going on faith
  • No data privacy guarantees
  • Individual stress levels for a child
If you want more information on each of these bullet points, read on.

Tying teacher and school grades to SAGE scores eliminates local and parental control of education.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the use of the SAGE scores for teacher and school grading eliminates any other measurement of success.  For example, let's assume you are someone who wants a lot of focus on traditional math methods and standard algorithms.  As such, you request a teacher who you know has a very traditional leaning.  Since the Common Core standards are requiring, not just the traditional algorithms and math facts, but "how" you got to the answer and "communication" about math, a teacher who doesn't focus on these additional methods will probably have kids who score lower on the SAGE test.  The fact that you may want exactly what this teacher is providing is irrelevant.  Others have determined what this teacher must teach in order to be 'successful'.  A teacher who uses, as one educator calls it, the "closed-door veto" (a teacher who closes their door and does what parents want in spite of what they were told), will be subject to penalties for their test scores.  What used to work with facts, will no longer work with specific "processes" required by the tests.  The importance of what is taught and tested is being dictated to us at the state-level.  Parents will, eventually, have no choice over what their kids learn in any public school setting.  Tying teacher and school grading to the tests replaces accountability to parents and teacher individuality.  How to make kids get good scores on the SAGE test is the most important thing--the job of the teacher now, wrongly, depends on it.  Everyone is in favor of accountability.  But accountability to whom?  AIR and the USOE, but not parents.

Grading teachers and schools this way is wrong
There are so many factors that go into teaching and learning and testing.  To evaluate a teacher or a school based on how my child takes a test is wrong.  To elevate the importance of a test over the 180 days the teacher spends with my child is offensive.  The grades my child earns from his teachers indicate, much more, how my child is performing and learning than a single test.  We are trying to create a science out of what really should be an art.  Additionally, what teacher will want to teach the "more difficult" students or those with special needs who don't qualify for an alternate assessment?  If your job is linked to how your students do on the test, why would you teach special ed?   Is education just about how well you can contribute to society?  Or is education about the improvement of the individual?  This model is horribly wrong.   

"Critical Thinking" questions aren't
As I have gone through the sample questions, and seen the examples presented, I am not convinced the 'critical thinking' questions actually test critical thinking.  Instead of testing a division fact: 12/4 = ?, we ask students to take stars and put 12 stars into 4 boxes, showing there are 3 in each box.  Then, we provide the division symbol (the hardest part of a word problem--which operation am I using), and the students fill in the numbers.  To me, this is a counting problem, and a convoluted one, at that.  Just because a question is complicated or written out as words doesn't necessarily mean it is testing critical thinking.  It may just be convoluted and confusing.

Math questions are not testing math, but communication, and fuzzy math processes
The two examples given, so far, show that if a child knows basic math, it may not be important.  However, they need to know "the process" or how to "communicate" about math.  (Is it critical thinking about math?  I don't think so.  You may disagree.)  If a child doesn't complete the star problem, is it because he can't read or is it because he can't do division or is it because it took so many steps to get the answer, he gave up?  We don't know.  What about a child who speaks English as a Second Language or who has a disability?  It isn't uncommon for a child who might struggle with English to be very capable in math.  Are we testing their math skills or their communication skills?  Do we know? I'm opposed to 'fuzzy math', and I don't want to provide any legitimacy to a test that rewards fuzzy math methodology.  In it's bid to test 'critical thinking', we have moved from fact-based assessment, to communication and process.  And that means, SAGE skews the questions in favor of a fuzzy math methodology. 

No validity or reliability: This is a Pilot Test
SAGE is being piloted this year by the entire state's public school students.  The parent panel flagged about 500 questions, most of which were left in the test to see how they worked out.  Our children are being used as Guinea Pigs and free Quality Control Testers for the SAGE test.  Why should I have any confidence in the result? (While this article talks about the PARCC and SBAC tests, not SAGE, the process and the conclusion are the same: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/27/march-madness-millions-of-kids-being-used-as-common-core-testing-guinea-pigs/)

I can't see the test questions
Associated with the validity or reliability, we are trusting the people at the State Office of Ed (USOE), AIR, and the parent panel to make sure the questions our children are being asked are not problematic and  they are actually testing what we want tested.  Perhaps they are not blatantly objectionable, but if they are testing division by counting stars, I'm not impressed.

Data Privacy
I have no say over how, when, or with whom my kid's information will be used.  It might be okay.  It might not.  It might be okay right now.  In five years, will it still be okay?

Our contract with AIR, references FERPA (the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act) when it comes to data privacy.  AIR also says they will comply with other state and federal laws (not sure what those are, if they exist).  FERPA is the only standard that is used to protect individual student records.  (It isn't the "Gold standard", but it was, at least something.)  In 2012, the US Dept of Ed, changed FERPA.  FERPA used to require parental consent for the use of student information.  Now, it is optional, and pretty much anyone can use or share personal student data with any other entity without parental knowledge or consent.  In short, the reference to FERPA provides no guarantees on what will or will not be done with my child's data.

Originally, our contract with AIR didn't contain any language preventing the sharing of student information with a third-party.  Fortunately, AIR signed an addendum to their agreement, stating they wouldn't share personal student data with a third-party without the USOE's permission.  (But the USOE isn't me.  So, I am still concerned and dependent on trusting the USOE.  If they are offered enough money, will they? Others have.)  Still, as a research organization, there isn't anything in their contract to prevent AIR from collecting and using any information passing through it's servers (including our students' responses to writing questions, personally-identifiable information, etc) for its own internal research.  They have provided a letter indicating the contract precludes this, as well as prohibits using behavioral indicators.  I have yet to find those references in the contract.  State Law does allow the use of "behavioral indicators" on end-of-the-year tests.
In conclusion, AIR is not prevented by state law or their contract from using behavioral indicators.  They are not prevented by state law or their contract from using our students' data for their own internal purposes, including research.  They are, currently, prohibited from sharing any personal data with a third-party, unless the USOE allows this in the future.  They have sent a letter stating they will not collect behavioral data.  I hope they will be true to what they promised.  I have no legal guarantee. 

The final issue is the amount of stress and concern this places on some children.  The first time I opted my elementary school child out of end-of-the-year testing, the response was one of overwhelming relief.  Even though the results of the tests would not have had an impact on the overall grade in the class, the amount of emphasis and preparation reminded me of studying for the MCAT.  A post-graduate test like the GRE, LSAT, or MCAT is one thing, but stress over a test in elementary school?  It's not worth it to me to find out my child's supposed "proficiency".  As I said before, the time spent with the teacher and the teacher's evaluation are infinitely more beneficial to me and to my child. 

In the end, I have to take everything about this test on faith.  My children, their teachers, and their schools will be evaluated by a brand new test over which I have no control.  I must have faith in the USOE and AIR.
  • Faith the test questions accurately assess the stated performance
  • Faith that the results are reliable for assessing the quality of my child's teacher and school
  • Faith that the USOE and AIR will protect personal information on my child
Faith, faith, faith. Instead of faith, I am looking for concrete information, black and white prohibitions, an actual validity and reliability study (which can't be done without a lot of student data).  I refuse to abdicate my parental responsibilities over my children's education.  I refuse to allow my children to be used as Guinea Pigs.  And I refuse to be complicit in grading our teachers with an unknown, untested evaluation tool.