Wednesday, February 11, 2015

High-Stakes End of Course Exams Harm Students in Washington State

In the state of Washington, high school students who want a diploma this year must pass four exit exams known as end of course exams (EOCs). However, three bills were heard before the House Education Committee in Olympia last week that would decouple these exams from graduation requirements. As a national board certified teacher from a low-income school, I and fifteen students felt compelled to go down to Olympia on February 3 to speak in favor of one of these bills, HB 1363. We were all from the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) on the Tyee Campus of SeaTac in the Highline School District, and a majority of our students speak English as a second language. Inspiringly, four students were even brave enough to testify before the House Education Committee in favor of HB 1363. (You can watch the testimony in the House Education Committee on tvw.org from Feb. 3 around 25:00.)

The most powerful testimony came from the most heroic human I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Violeta is a senior at our school who lives in her own apartment with her daughter. She works a job after school, and has nevertheless earned a 3.6 GPA in her four years at ACE. Even though she received an A in Biology, she hasn’t passed the Biology EOC, which will be the only thing that might hold her back from graduation this year. She pointed out that few, if any, of the legislators in Olympia likely had to take an exit exam for their high school diploma. 

However, some representatives, like Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah), ask how the state would ensure that students take the EOCs seriously if we don’t tie them to a graduation requirement. Rep. Magendanz seems to be unaware of one of the most highly respected assessments in the US, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is so respected precisely because it’s not high-stakes and teachers are never told in specifics what’s going to be on it. NAEP is used as barometer for how students in all fifty states fair in comparison to one another. And this is one of the ways that assessment can be used responsibly. 

To be sure, among professionals who study and implement standardized testing, there is profound agreement around the issue of making them high-stakes in nature: it’s a bad idea. What’s worse is that it’s clear that they exacerbate inequities in a public education system already chock full of them. Bruce D. Baker, professor of education at Rutgers, makes this point in a recent column published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post Blog, The Answer Sheet. A study in 2013 by Kevin Lang and Olesya Baker at Boston University found that increases in high-stakes exit exams are linked to higher incarceration rates. John Papay, Richard Murnane, and John Willet at Harvard found that high-stakes exit exams stopped low-income urban students in Massachusetts from graduating at disproportionately high rates. Multiple studies have found questions on these tests to harbor racial bias. In other words, a majority of questions asked are repeatedly answered correctly at higher rates by Caucasian students than by African-American or Latino students.

Furthermore, when a majority of students at a school speak a language other than English at home, we have a hard time knowing for sure whether the tests are actually measuring what they purport to measure, or if they’re measuring a student’s English language ability or cultural knowledge. 

I remember proctoring a test a few years ago during which students who’d recently arrived from the Dominican Republic could not explain why the main character in a reading passage would live in someone’s yard, and subsequently answered most of the questions associated with the passage incorrectly. It was because they didn’t know that, in the United States, Rover is nearly always a dog’s name. However, the test didn’t consider that that might be an issue.

When students from ACE met with my legislator, Senator Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), she rightly asked if there wasn’t a collection of evidence (COE) course offered, which the legislature created years ago as a means of offering students who couldn’t find success on the tests another way to meet the requirement. 

When Senator Nelson asked about the COE, students spoke at length about how, at our school, the COE class has been a terribly disorganized once-a-week class, sometimes lasting as long as three hours, where, for the Biology COE, teachers are essentially doing an hour of test prep covering biological concepts that are normally taught in class over the period of a month or more, and then students get online to take a test without help. 

Worse, because our district was unable to find the money to include the COE in the regular school day schedule, teachers in their first few years of teaching were asked to give up their after-school time (normally used for grading, planning, and making parent contact) to teach an additional class that often lasted two or three hours. Because the Biology COE is in its first year, and nobody has ever taught it before, teachers felt compelled to give up whole weekends trying to make the COE course meaningful for students who often weren’t even able to show up due to after school jobs. This is one sure way to speed up the burnout rate so many teachers already give into before they even get to year five as an educator. The issue was so concerning that nine students and five staff members went before our school board in December in hopes they might find a way to better support us.

While the COE classes are a good idea in theory, our circumstances speak to a larger problem with the EOC/COE requirement in our state: we’re not equipping our schools with the resources they would need were they to truly prepare all students to achieve success on these tests. 

Still, many argue that colleges have been, for some time, complaining of the low level of skills that students enter with. They continue to suggest that these high-stakes EOCs and/or COEs are one way of hedging that phenomenon. 

Wayne Au, a professor of education who studies high-stakes testing at the University of Washington at Bothell, has repeatedly harped on the fact that tests have historically been used by the state to deny people living on the margins of our society from finding ways to assimilate and become a stronger part of the fabric of our culture – going back to the eugenics movement. Many professors of assessment will tell you that, despite studying standardized, high-stakes tests for years, they’re still not convinced they can say with certainty what they’re actually measuring. However, we do know that scores on them are strongly linked to the zip code the student lives in and the educational attainment of their parents. 

Delinking the EOCs from graduation requirements would not mean that teachers could not still make them an integral part of a student’s grade. Their score on the EOC might, for example, comprise a certain percentage of the overall grade in that teacher’s class. But teachers know that one-time high-stakes measures of learning are damaging to students, not least because all assessments are human constructs and likely have at least some flaws. In professional development courses across the country, teachers learn that ongoing, multiple assessments of student performance are a far more reasonable way to assign a grade and determine whether a student is ready to move on. 

Is it important to ensure that students graduate high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to join the work force or enter college? Absolutely. Are high-stakes tests a part of that solution? Absolutely NOT. 

Rather, lawmakers should spend their time finding ways to lower class sizes in schools where it’s already difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. They should also seriously consider bills like HB 1541, which would address issues of equity by ensuring better access to cultural competency training for school-based staff.

It is wildly inappropriate for lawmakers to stick to their guns on an issue for which there is so much evidence suggesting the possible harm of high-stakes tests. Are we, as a state, comfortable denying students like Violeta access to participating in the economy in more meaningful ways because she’s a few points short of achieving an arbitrary cut score on a Biology test that has been poorly implemented? I say Hell No.

Leaving these requirements in place could mean thousands of students who've earned all of their credits this June have to simply wait until the next time a test is offered before they can work with a high school diploma.

Truth and urgency emanate from this argument like heat off the sun for those of us who teach and learn in low-income schools of color around Washington. So I urge students and families from around the state to take yourselves down to Olympia and pack legislators’ offices on this issue – particularly the office of the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island), who told a group of students from Tyee last week that there is no support for eliminating the EOCs as graduation requirements in the Senate – despite that Senator John McCoy (D-Tulalip) put forth just such a bill.


Join students from Tyee, who are planning on returning to Olympia on February 16 with upwards of thirty students to lobby legislators around this important civil rights issue. Contact your legislators, in person if possible, and see if you can’t clear some of the clouds down in Olympia, and hope the Senate might see some of the blinding light the rest of us deal with on a daily basis. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wait! I'm a Radical Educator?

A version of this post was published at The Answer Sheet.

When I started teaching, I had a radically different understanding of public schools and their purpose than I do today. Back then, I believed that great public schools could be the great societal equalizer for otherwise disenfranchised people in our society (I say much more about that in this post). And so, in this post, I'd like to discuss how that view has changed, and why I no longer believe schools can serve that purpose.

I want to start by telling you about a student I once taught. (Here, we'll call him Guillermo.) Guillermo had long, dark hair that usually covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. When he spoke with you (or, more often, sat while you spoke to him), he would keep his head down. I can't remember a time that we made eye contact. After a long day at school, he would arrive late to the last period of the day with various colors all over the skin of his arms and hands. His friends had used markers to write their phone numbers, pictures, or messages on him.

Many days, Guillermo slept through class. Although he rarely spoke back to me when I asked him about his life, I had the distinct impression that he wanted to do well in school. To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo's behavior that made me think that. For one, he was in school virtually every day. I caught him, on multiple occasions, asking other students what he was supposed to be doing when he didn't think I was looking. He always brought a pencil. And even though he never turned in work, I saw him occasionally writing on paper during work time.

A few years after I had him in class, I learned from our school counselor that the reason he slept in class so often was that his mom had relocated their family about twenty-five miles from our school. She wanted them to have an uninterrupted education, however, so she had them take public transportation from the temporary housing she'd found to our school, which required Guillermo to wake up at 4am to catch the bus. After school, he would hang out with his friends in the courtyard until the bus home arrived (around 5pm). He would return home around 7:30, help out with chores like grocery shopping, and fall asleep around 11 or 12.

Getting to and from school wasn't the only challenge Guillermo faced, though. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was four years old after some years of verbal and physical abuse, and his mom wasn't able to afford a regular housing situation on her own. Although I didn't learn about these facts until after he'd left my classroom, it made a lot of sense. Guillermo was a student who had suffered the loss and abuse of a father, and the emotional instability of a mother. On top of that, he struggled with the same challenges that teenagers who don't face such tremendous trauma deal with on a daily basis: hormonal changes, fitting in at school, and finding an identity.

I'm telling you about Guillermo because it's so very important that people who don't work in high-needs schools understand what the lives of the people who attend them are like. Of course, nobody else had Guillermo's unique situation; but most students living in material poverty experience a high degree of what one might call emotional poverty as well. It's not just about not having money for food and housing; it's often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health.

The challenges students face range vastly. There are students who live with two parents who are both unable to work due to disability; students who never knew their parents and grew up in the foster system; students who fight their parents' drug addiction; and students who have been routinely abused since the time they were born.

If I'm not careful at this point, I might be accused of attempting to foster a sense of pity for youth who grow up in poverty and trauma. But our reality is that, in many communities, trauma stemming from abuse and neglect are a way of life.

This reality, when fully grasped, suggests strongly that the primary purpose for school, particularly for tremendously disadvantaged students, should not be preparing them to compete in the marketplace, as I often feel our society believes it to be. Furthermore, the policies advanced in our country that are designed to make students competitive job seekers often do far more harm than good for students like Guillermo.

In one famous study from the 1980's, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children of professionals amassed a vocabulary that included 32 million more words than did children raised in poverty by THE AGE OF 4!

When you enter kindergarten at such a profound deficit in the skills and knowledge public schools assess young people for, it can be both difficult and debilitating to find that your teachers, and perhaps some of your peers, consistently judge you to be a failure. Compound that with the reality of what's going on at home for you with your parents and family, and the real inspiration is that so many students persist in school.

While we might, with extended school days and outstanding teachers, find ways to make up for the deficits of skills and knowledge our culture believes to be important to competition in the marketplace, it is a tremendous task.

What I finally realized, in my ninth year, is that it's not one that I support. That's right, I said it, I DO NOT SUPPORT NARROWING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - at least not with school alone.

Let me clarify a little. What we mostly mean, as educators and as a society, when we talk about narrowing the achievement gap is finding ways to get students of color to score as well on standardized tests as white students do. As Hart and Risley's work suggests, skills and knowledge essential to performing well on standardized tests (like vocabulary) are not easily gained, particularly when a student's social-emotional issues (and perhaps hunger or lack of safety) stop them from focusing in school.

Does public education have a history of doing disservice to poor children of color in our country? Absolutely! Is it because they haven't closed the achievement gap. Actually, ironically, I would say schools continue to disservice students because they're so hellbent on closing the achievement gap.

Schools leaders who focus on closing the achievement gap often do things like eliminate art, music, social studies, recess; and, instead, spend lots and lots of time analyzing student performance on math, reading, and writing tests in an effort to improve those skills. Are these skills important? Certainly. But this kind of schooling comes with grave costs.

It's high time education policy acknowledges that we live in a tremendously unequal and unjust society that creates the problems we see in schools before students ever even arrive there. Students need to feel safe, to feel loved, to eat, to sleep, and to have friends before they can engage in learning. When students don't feel safe or loved or are hungry, they don't learn very well, if at all. Because the students who often don't have their social-emotional needs met in and out of school are the same students who are on the bottom end of the achievement gap, force feeding math and language down their throat becomes terribly inhumane.

Visiting the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco last month, I was delighted to hear one of the staff members say, "I'd rather have a student come to us, drop out their sophomore year, and go on to be a good person than graduate with a 4.0 and go on to be an asshole who doesn't know how to deal with other people."

Students who have to spend the vast majority of their day doing reading, writing, and math instruction geared toward helping them pass tests lose valuable opportunities to practice myriad other skills and learn vast amounts of other knowledge that are so critical to being human and participating in society. Why don't we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition or personal finance in public schools? Why do we still cling to a curriculum that is so outdated and bareboned?

When you put people and animals in environments that do not stimulate them, like solitary confinement, they start to go crazy. It feels like that's what we're doing to students with our curriculum.

It forces one to ask questions: Why are we doing this? Why do we support a system of public education? Is it to ensure all of our kids can participate in the economy? And if it is, for whose benefit? For theirs or their employers?

The truth is, making a shitload of money isn't a universal value. When I asked a handful of my students last month if they were considering going to a four-year university when they graduate in June, all of them looked at me like I was crazy. "Why not?" I asked. "It'd be a phenomenal opportunity."

"Yeah. Probably. But my family comes first, and they need me here, with them right now" one of them said.

It reminded me that I come from a family and culture that puts great import on individual success. Different people and cultures will define success differently, and our public schools must be a place that accommodate those differences, particularly regarding how we talk to students about their post-secondary life and aspirations.

So what should the purpose of schools be for students like Guillermo and the family he belongs to?

In low-income communities, schools should serve as centers for civic dialogue, healing, and humanity. While learning the basics like math and language should certainly constitute some of what goes on in schools, our primary effort should not be to stress everyone out trying to bring underprivileged students' math and language skills up to par with their counterparts in affluent communities. Because, the truth is, those skills are not the only skills in life that matter. And so they shouldn't be the only skills that determine whether you receive a high school diploma.

Rather, schools should spend much more time serving students by identifying their strengths, helping grow them, and using the buy-in that's created by that work to motivate them when they work in academic areas in which they're less able.

Ultimately, schools are places we can go to take a glimpse into what our future society will look like. Since that's the case, it's imperative that the adults who work in them (and who create policy for them) are guided not by a desire to mold children into the model employee, but rather by love for the child. CHILDREN SHOULD FEEL LOVED IN SCHOOL.

And that's pretty much when I realized I'd become a radical - when I had that thought in my brain, and I realized I agreed with it. Because there are so many more conventionally minded people who would read this and think that I'm soft, that school is naturally the place where preparation for the marketplace should be front and center, and that individual competition in pursuit of monetary success is the appropriate way to live.

I can only respond by noting that Guillermo desperately needed a school that understood and accommodated for his unique needs. His six-period day packed with notes and homework and math tests did not do that. And we never reached him. He dropped out when he turned sixteen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Complex Problems; Simple (and Harmful) Solutions

Public education seems mundane an issue enough. Schools, teachers, kids, learning, life-preparation, etcetera, etcetera.

International relations, astrophysics, calculus, or third-world economics all sound so much more complex and potentially interesting.

To listen to public opinion, this must be the way many people think. If Haley Sweetland Edwards' recent piece in TIME is to believed, David Welch is one glaring example. 

Since it came out, the article has unleashed a fury of backlash from educators across the country. Sadly, too much of the counter-narrative (i.e. the narrative resisting the corporate reform of public education) often comes across as vitriolic. It includes ad-hominem attacks and equally poorly reasoned, ignorant charges.

Both sides over-simplify the issues at hand.

One example of such over-simplification is evident in Edwards' piece here:
"It seemed crazy to Welch that teachers in California receive tenure–permanent employment status designed to protect them from unfair dismissal–after less than two years on the job and that principals are often required to lay off the least experienced teachers first, no matter which ones are the best. It seemed even crazier to him that in some districts it takes years and tens of thousands of dollars to fire a teacher who isn’t doing a good job. Welch remembers asking a big-city California superintendent to tell him the one thing he needed to improve the public-school system. The answer blew Welch away. The educator didn’t ask for more money or more iPads. 'He said, ‘Give me control over my workforce,'” Welch said. “It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about that? Why isn’t anyone fixing this?'"
To read the article (after this quote), one gets the impression that, armed with a single insight from one superintendent, Welch went on to finance a tremendously costly lawsuit aimed at stripping California teachers of due process rights. 

I should hope that Welch did more research before making that move. If you're going to use your tremendous personal means to influence democratic institutions in ways that only a small sliver of extraordinarily privileged people have access to, it might behoove you to spend a significant amount of time gathering information from as many different stakeholders as possible before doing so. I hope Edwards just left that part of the story out. 

In the part of the story that I hope Edwards left out, I wonder if anyone suggested to Welch that superintendents should not necessarily be trusted as the eternal protectors of students' well-being and development. I wonder if anyone pointed out to Welch that superintendents often have personal agendas. And I wonder if anyone talked at length to Welch about the standardized test movement in this country and how it often plays into those agendas.

The article portrays Welch as having made an elementary mistake. He assumed that public education can be understood and treated like private industry. It's a mistake made time and again by well-intentioned wealthy philanthropists, and most eloquently captured by The Blueberry Story

In my experience, there are a number of different types of superintendents: the teacher's superintendent, the administrator's superintendent, the people's superintendent, the state's superintendent, and the superintendent's superintendent. 

Just like in business, the people who move up the pecking order at district offices typically have career ambitions. Too often, those who climb the ladder to the position of superintendent aspire to continue up that ladder. Sometimes the goal is to take state or national directorship roles, or possibly go into highly-paid consulting work.

The more noxious elements of NCLB and Race to the Top have guaranteed that central to the strength of the rungs on the career ladder for superintendents is performance on standardized tests and other one-dimensional measures of student achievement. 

Administrators oriented in their work primarily by the career ladder naturally have an interest in giving a majority of their attention to the appearance of their schools according to these one-dimensional measures. 

Ironically, and particularly in low-income districts (where we are ostensibly most concerned with the quality of pubic education), this attention to looking good often inspires compliance-oriented work on behalf of teachers and principals. This, in turn, takes time away from dedication to thinking through the hard issues around achieving quality for their particular students. 

If Welch had called me, I would have coached him through his thinking a little further before mounting any lawsuit. I would have agreed that it makes sense to give district leaders control over their workforce when those leaders are incredibly intelligent, compassionate public servants deeply attuned to the needs of their particular communities. I would have suggested that his money might be more meaningfully spent dismantling the choke-hold standardized testing currently has on education politics. Maybe try sorting out the details of labor-management challenges later on.

The challenge of providing truly public, truly equitable education is tremendous. 

Referring to the fight over education policy, Edwards notes: 

"It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses. And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions–judicial and otherwise–made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes."

It seems antithetical that much of the movement in public education policy is spurred by privileged individuals, many of whom advocate against the public part of public education. This is not only a problem because public problems should be solved publicly, but also because the individuals with the money clearly don't understand the breadth of the problems.