The EdSec, The Educators, and The Testing Conundrum

It’s no secret that the education community is in the throws of a major debate on testing and its proper use (or its improper misuse). Whether it be a lack of assessment literacy on the part of most involved, a distrust of the providers of said tests, or the fear that tests are the first step down a slippery slope of moral and educational decay, testing seems to be the issue that is holding up many a school improvement, educational reform, and standards implementation effort.

It’s also no secret that much misinformation and misattribution regarding testing has been directed at EdSec Arne Duncan. Listen to some, and it seems he is traveling city to city, selling the latest and greatest tests, and checking off more educational souls that have been captured in the name of accountability.

So Eduflack was glad to see that the EdSec offered up a blog post earlier today to try and set the record straight. Posted on SmartBlog on Education, Arne writes:

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.
 
First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.
 
These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.
 
This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.
 
That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.
 
My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.
 
Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.
 
There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:
  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.
I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.
 
To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.
 
But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.
 
But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.
 
I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.
 
That’s why we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.
 
States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators. We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.
 
I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.
And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.
 
There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.
 
But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.
 
From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.
 
Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.
 
Well said, Mr. Secretary!
 

Cast Your SxSWedu Votes Now!

It’s that time of year! Only a few more weeks left to have your say in some of the edu-panels that will be on the docket for next year’s SxSWedu event.

As always, there are tons of terrific ideas out there. But not every good idea gets a time slot. They need the backing of the audience as well. So it means you need to go to the SxSW PanelPicker and give a great big thumbs up to those sessions you think are worthy of SxSWedu.

When we go to the ballot box, we usually face a gauntlet of folks handing us sample ballots of those we should vote for. SxSWedu is no different. Take a gander over at Twitter and you can see tons of folks lobbying for their sessions. All can be found at #SxSWedu.

Your cheat sheet is here, though. Three panels worth your consideration and your endorsement:

Disruptive Change in Higher Ed: Replace or Repair?

In the digital age, higher education, willingly or unwillingly, will undergo disruptive change. Existing institutions can lead the change or become its victim. If higher education resists, new digital institutions will be established to meet the needs of the time. Tradition simply cannot save a college or university unwilling to adapt or unable to learn from those who adapted previously. It will explore what disruptive innovation really means for higher education in the 21st century learning.

Forget Leaning In, We Need to Dadprove

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi have preached the merits of “leaning in.” But if we are serious about boosting student achievement and inspiring successful children, we need less leaning in and more fathers who are “diving in” to their families. Instead of encouraging more to prioritize work over family, we need to inspire a generation of men to realize what they can and should do as dads, being active in their children’s lives and involved in their learning process. (Fair warning, this is a presentation by dear ol’ Eduflack)

Tech x Teacher Prep x Disruption = Student Success

In different ways, these panelists are leaders challenging the status quo in education to help teachers and students today and tomorrow. They understand a continued rise in teacher attrition is a huge problem for all, and solutions come in the form of a smart intersection of tools and technology, support, education and mentorship. Successful teachers help us get to student success, and leadership in learning takes on new meaning when this group covers what it will take to get us there and why.

Each one unique. Each one important. Each one worthy of your endorsement. Vote early. Vote often. And make sure you vote for these sessions for SxSWedu 2015!

The New PDK Survey Is Here, The New PDK Survey Is Here

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from the movie, The Jerk, “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” Only instead of talking the latest white and yellow pages, where the inclusion of our name shows we are somebody, we are talking about this year’s PDK/Gallup Poll, which validates all we’ve been thinking, hearing, and saying these past 12 months on the shifts in public education.

What do this year’s results tell us? A quick sampling:

  • Overall, only slightly more than a quarter surveyed (27%) give President Obama a grade of “A” or “B” for his performance in support of public schools. That’s down nearly 15 points from three years ago.
  • We have more fait in our local school systems. Half gave their local schools an “A” or a “B.” But when asked about our nation’s schools as a whole, only 17% give similar grades to ‘Merica.
  • As we hear more about the “federal role” in education, the public is starting to absorb it. More than half (56%) said their local school board should have the greatest influence on what is being taught (a big surprise to this former school board chairman who found that the vast majority wanted the school board out of such decisions, and to just focus on the basics like funding). Only 15% though the federal government should have the most influence (and we would ask who actually thinks the feds have much influence at all, let alone the most, on what happens in our local schools.)
  • More than half (54%) do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers (though I am guessing they are talking about high-stakes, summative tests, and not the formative or interim assessments that even teachers say they want).
  • On the controversial issue of Common Core State Standards, 81% of those surveyed have heard of CCSS, up from about two-thirds last year. And six in 10 say they oppose CCSS. The biggest reason? Standards limit the flexibility of teachers ot teach what they think is best (not the testing issue we hear so much about).
  • And in those further depressing stats, only 30% were familiar with PISA. Only half believe that American students perform below the level of other students around the globe.

What do we take away from all of this? To be kind, we don’t know what we don’t know. Public school performance and President Obama’s education positions have been relatively unchanged in recent years, yet we see huge swings in what we think of both of those today. At a time when most school board meetings go unattended and few can even name who sits on their local board of ed, we now place the greatest trust (and presumed power) in the hands of those unsung officials. We lack an understanding of assessment literacy, and are now equating everything we’ve heard about “high-stakes testing” to anything that bears the name “test.”

And let’s not forget that, while we may have these positions, they still aren’t strong enough for us to act on them. Education policy remains one of those issues that we are all concerned with, until it is time to head into the voting places. We may believe our nation’s schools are headed into the crapper, but we still elect the same federal, state, and local policymakers to oversee those schools. And while we may be concerned about teachers not being able to teach what they think is best under CCSS, other surveys show we are enthusiastic in taking away their tenure and job protections, the very things that may allow them the power to actually do what they think is best in the classroom.

Yet the PDK poll is an important measure for understanding the populace’s temperature on these issues. While we are unlikely to act on them, we are seeing a steady shift that shows we are more cynical when it comes to public education in the United States. We are lest trusting. We remain fairly uninformed. And we seem content in carrying on as is.

Sigh …

 

The Future of American Higher Education?

Last week, The Atlantic ran a cover story on “The Future of College.” As we have heard many times over the past few decades, the article lamented the death of higher education as we have long known it, focusing on a future “by stripping it down to its essence.”

In this case, it meant looking to the work of the Minerva Project, a for-profit effort to “replace the modern liberal-arts college.”

Of course, one could ask what the “modern liberal-arts college” actually is. If we look at the thousands of college campuses around the United States, there is little modern about them. Sure, we may have new buildings and have replaced card catalogs with technology, but what is taught and how it is taught is largely unchanged. Liberal arts, as our parents or grandparents may have studied it, is very much like the liberal arts education our children have received today.

We’ve heard many stories like those coming from the Minerva Project. University of Phoenix made a similar promise. Just a few years ago, we were told that MOOCs were going to do the same thing, put the final nail in traditional higher ed’s coffin and usher in a new era of consumer-based higher education.

Years ago, when Eduflack was working in for-profit higher education, I remember having discussions with researchers about why we would expect traditional higher education to change. People will pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to access the current model. Acceptance rates and wait lists tell us that the demand is larger than the supply. That just tells us we should be charging more. There is real hunger for what we have now, so why change it? Why have a “New Coke” moment in higher ed when we all are clamoring for Coke Classic?

The arguments are enough to frustrate even the most aggressive of cynics. Why repair or replace our existing IHEs? Why fix something that so many people don’t see as broken?

We are reminded of why this past weekend in an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (and was republished in the Indianapolis Star here). Its editorial board looked at the efforts of current Purdue University President (and former Indiana Gov.) Mitch Daniels and his push to reinvent the American university on the Indiana campus.

In its analysis, the Trib noted, in looking at Daniels’ approach to financial management at the IHE:

Daniels isn’t the first college chief to cut costs or hold tuition steady. We know that many schools are pushing hard to make higher ed affordable; a few have even trimmed tuition rates. But it’s big news when a major university freezes tuition, even for a year. Would that such news, accompanied by news of frozen spending, were ho-hum routine at many campuses.

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Daniels offers a chart (reproduced nearby), which won’t shock parents struggling to pay for college. It traces how tuition costs have outstripped inflation since 1990.

“In our view, that game that relied on jacking up costs year after year is over,” he tells us. “The marketplace is beginning to rebel.” Does he worry that Purdue could be unilaterally disarming against other schools still investing lavishly in amenities for students? “It could be that we’ll still lose students to someone with a higher climbing wall, but we are prepared to take that chance.”

 

Daniels isn’t focused solely on cost cuts. He’s also invested in expanding Purdue’s engineering and computer science programs, among others. In a letter to the Purdue diaspora, he set this goal: “If we can maintain a campus-wide commitment to holding costs down, counting every $10,000 saved as a ‘student tuition equivalent,’ we can fulfill our duty to our students, taxpayers and everyone who chooses to invest in Purdue’s enterprise.”

 It is an interesting approach, and one that is far too unusual in higher education today. Focusing on the students as consumers, and ensuring they are getting ROI and tuition (and state) dollars are being spent wisely and focused on educating the students themselves. Investing in new programs that better provide students the pathways from higher ed to the jobs their communities and states and nation have the most need to fill. And a recognition that just because we have done things one way in the past, and just because our peers may now do it that same way, does not mean it is what is best for our institution, our students, and our nation.

As the Trib summarizes:

The ultimate test of Daniels’ tenure: Will a focus on value help lift moderate-income students into productive lives and careers? Might a degree from a leaner, no-nonsense Purdue gain luster at a time when other campuses project the creature-comforting images of country clubs?

 

Ultimately students and hard-pressed parents will vote with their feet, and their checkbooks, on whether Daniels has succeeded at making an already fine institution a greater value than it is today.

 

A greater value, that is, than other major universities that compete with Purdue to educate the best and brightest.

That is indeed the case. When we talk about the future of higher education, it will be decided by the outcomes and byproducts of its work. The universities that will thrive will do so because they will meet the changing needs and expectations of their customers. They will offer a high-quality product that aligns with their students and the career opportunities they seek. They will be prudent with the dollar. And they will realize we must begin to change structures and approaches to ensure we are meeting the future needs of our students and communities, and not simply using IHEs to pay homage to educational days of yore.  

Help a Trojan Out!

For those of us who live social media, we hopefully find a lot of use from the #edchat hashtag. Whether you participate in the official weekly #edchat discussions or just use the tag to throw out ideas that others might find interesting or provocative, it is a useful tag for taking the pulse of what is happening in education.

Well, the good folks over at the University of South California’s Rossier School of Education are doing a little survey to better understand how #edchat is being used and how it might be improved, particularly so it is of more use to classroom educators. So now is the time to have your voice heard on the matter.

Five minutes of your time Just go visit the USC Rossier #edchat survey. Help improve the Twitter space.

If surveys aren’t your thing, you can always check out the Essential #Edchat Resource Guide that those well-meaning Rossier folks (and Rossier MAT Online) have made available.  

And for all you non-Trojans out there, I assure you it is not an endorsement of their football team (unless you want it to be). I offered my opinions, yet will still be rooting for the University of Virginia (and, to a lesser degree Notre Dame) as college kickoff comes …

Wahoowah!

 

Public Engagement vs PR

Those who know Eduflack in a professional setting know I am a firm believer in public engagement. This moves beyond the typical PR to an approach where we first inform then build support, then mobilize those supporters for action.

The framework that I have long preached is one that was taught to me by a dear friend and mentor years and years ago. It is the public engagement model developed by Dan Yankelovich and Public Agenda. I can’t count have many times I have deployed the model, and how it always worked when implemented with fidelity.

So when I saw the below meme, I just had to share. The lesson from Yankelovich is an important one, particularly as we look at the future of education reform and where school improvement efforts may head.

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