Will DeVos Have Mastery Rule Roost?

“Now, by jettisoning the debate on proficiency versus growth for a more productive discussion of mastery, [Betsy DeVos] is making clear that what a student learns and is able to do with those lessons is the key factor. DeVos has laid down a rhetorical marker that the top-down, one-test-fits-all model may indeed be a thing of the past.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest for The 74 Million, Beyond Growth and Proficiency Lies Mastery: DeVos and the Crowning of Competence as King 

From Opting Out to Opting In

While the testing opt-out movement is incredibly hot, and is now credited with being far better organized this year, Eduflack gets personally frustrated with those parents who are opting their kids out of testing to make a political point. Forget the impact it might have on their school district, their school, or even their child’s personal education. It seems its is far better to “damn the man” and amplify the urban legends about those dreaded “high-stakes tests.”

Such a position may not come as a surprise from someone who has long advocated for the Common Core, for stronger state tests, and for greater accountability. But it may be a shock that Eduflack was an opt-out parent during the 2014-15 school year. We did so for very personal and real reasons, that I wrote about for Education Post. And now we are opting back in, with that same child taking the PARCC last year after sitting it out the previous.

As I opine:

Yes, this opt-out parent is now opting his child back in.

The reasons for this are simple. Our son has worked very hard over the last year and a half, and it is important for his teachers and his parents to see how he is progressing. PARCC is the best tool available to know where our son falls when it comes to fourth-graders in his school, our state and across the country. And it helps his fifth-grade teacher best know the knowledge and skills he is coming in with next school year.

His IEP is not an excuse, it was merely a new compass. It is also not an opt-out from accountability.

A week into the 2016 PARCC and I can report that both of my kiddos are proclaiming that the state test is “easy.” No stress. No vomiting on keyboards. No emotional breakdowns in the computer lab. Just another test in the course of regular quizzes, tests, and assignments the average elementary school student experiences.

Give the piece a read. Let me know what you think. Just don’t opt out of reading it.

 

 

Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.

 

“Easing Student Pressure” Starts With Letting Educators Lead

Over the holiday break, Kyle Spencer of The New York Times reported on how testing and a school district’s effort to ease student pressures has led to an “ethnic divide” in the community. It is an interesting read, a read that taps into many of the issues and concerns that have been rippling through public education in recent years.

But Spencer’s piece only tells a part of the story. How does Eduflack know? Because the edu-kids are students in the New Jersey district profiled by the Times. Currently, I have a fourth grader in an upper elementary school and a third grader in a lower elementary school. I wish it were as simple as the Times tried to make it seem.

For instance:

  • Spencer reports on how a gifted and talented math program has been moved from a fourth grade start to a sixth grade start. But there is no mention of parents lobbying hard to get their kids in that fourth grade program. Or of families that put their third graders through hours and hours and months and months of test prep so they would do well enough on the program entry exam to be accepted into the fourth grade class.
  • Spencer cites a researcher on how hard it is for Chinese and Indian immigrant young people to boost their way into the middle class. But there is no mention that the vast majority of these parents pushing for more are already 1-percenters (median family income in the district tops $150k), immigrants with advanced degrees, working on Wall Street or for one of New Jersey’s many pharmaceutical companies. In many of these families, middle class is far back in the rear-view mirror.
  • The article makes passing mention to “homework free” nights, but should include that there are four of those a year. And as a reference point, last year my then-second grader was doing nearly two hours of homework a night.
  • In drawing the fault lines between white parents and Asian parents in the district, the Times completely overlooks the local elections that were held this past November, where the candidate (a graduating high school student, actually) who was demanding higher standards and higher quality lost to the candidate urging a more holistic approach (exactly what the superintendent is now enacting).
  • And it certainly doesn’t mention the experience the edu-family had last year at back to school night, where a sea of parents surrounded the special education teacher, not because their children were special education, but because if it was a service the district offered, an offshoot of G&T they thought, then they were going to make sure their child got full access to it. The sea only parted when the sped teacher had the courage to point to a parent across the room and inform the throng that “there is a parent that I actually need to talk to about her child.”

In criticizing the district superintendent’s efforts to address the “whole child,” one parent is quoted by the Times as saying, “if children are to learn and grow, they need experiences.”

She is absolutely right. But those experiences require more than six hours in a classroom and three hours a homework a day, coupled with test prep and some time for extra-curricular foreign language classes and an instrument. (and for those who think I am exaggerating, let me introduce you to a girl who was in my daughter’s second grade last year). They need experiences that address both academic development and social-emotional learning. They need experiences that allow them to be kids, before they have to get into the cut-throat world of adulthood so many of their parents are pushing them into.

Since The New York Times article has come out, there has been a lot of criticism of Superintendent Aderhold and his focus on the “whole child.” Some have attacked him for dumbing down the district and denying students an opportunity to succeed. Others are appalled that he would impose his own vision for the district over the will of the parents. But maybe, just maybe, the supe is doing exactly what he should be doing, and exactly what we need from those leading our schools.

Dr. Aderhold is putting the needs of the children first. He is ensuring that educators have a voice, a real voice, in the direction of the public schools. He is showing there is more to student development and growth that reading, writing, and arithmetic. And he is working to demonstrate that the quality of a public education is about more than how many AP classes one takes, now many community college courses a high schooler enrolls in over the summers, and how many extra hours of math a fourth grader “earns” by getting a slot in a prized G&T program.

In the process, he might just be ensuring that elementary school kids get a little more time to ride their bikes and play a video game or two. He might just help a few more kids find the time to play baseball or take gymnastics.  And he may even help more families spend evening time together around a dinner table, talking and exploring, rather than just working through the hours of homework expected of a middle schooler these days.

 

Presidential Candidates, Time to Defend Testing

Over at Medium, I have a new piece, a different type of piece for me. I offer up a stump speech to all of those individuals currently seeking the presidency of the United States of America. Sure, we have heard many (most?) bash Common Core and testing and the like. But what would it look like if they were to come to defense of testing.

My stump speech, I Believe In a Tool Called Testing, offers just that. I dare a candidate to use all or part of it in talking about the importance of GOOD testing and how it can and should be used to improve both teaching and learning in our schools. As I write:

Good tests are invaluable tools in improving student learning outcomes. They track progress and identify gaps in learning. They provide teachers with valuable feedback on what is happening in the classroom. They equip parents and families with a true understanding of how their children are doing and how they stand against their classmates. Used properly, they can instill confidence in all of us when it comes to our schools, our kids, and our future.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen test results misused and downright abused. We have seen outcomes bastardized and we have seen shortcomings held up as proof of failure of our schools, our teachers, and ourselves.

Give the whole thing a read. If you’re running for office, try saying it loud when you have a few thousand people around listening to you. You won’t be disappointed.

Asking Why on ESEA Accountability

Instead of asking which superintendents and jurisdictions would sign onto such a belief—that we need strong standards, tests to measure students’ learning those standards, and test data getting into the hands of teachers do so something with those learning outcomes—we should be scratching our heads wondering which school district leaders AREN’T signed onto this and why.

Patrick Riccards, in Education World’s Those Held Accountable for Standardized Tests Want Greater Accountability

Urban Supes: We Want Greater Accountability

While all the things that go bump in the night tell us that tests and standards and accountability are responsible for the complete and utter fall of western civilization as we once knew it, a large and impressive group of superintendents (present and former) representing some of the nation’s largest school districts have a different view. They believe strong standards, assessments, and accountability are required if we are to provide all kids with a top-notch school experience.

Over at Education World, I write about how this group of school district leaders is calling on Congress to ensure a great public education for all kids. In asking Congressional leaders not to lose sight of the gains many of their districts made because of accountability measures in place, these educators offer a very simple equation for success. As Eduflack writes, these supes are telling us:

We believe in strong academic standards. We need annual tests in core subjects to determine student progress in meeting those standards. Those test results need to get back to teachers quickly, so they can adjust classroom instruction accordingly. States need to make sure this happens as intended. If it doesn’t, the feds need to step in. That’s how we make sure all kids—regardless of race, family income, or zip code—get a world-class public education.

It’s an important lesson from an impressive list of education leaders on the front lines of school transformation and improvement. I hope you will give it a read.

Do We Need a “New Approach to Accountability?”

In public education, the term “accountability” often brings out the best and the worst in folks. Some see it as a necessary measure to understanding if teachers are teaching, students are learning, and districts are doing what districts need to do. Others see it as a “mandate” that measures the wrong things and places one-time student performance over the learning process as a whole.

Yesterday, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools issued their statement on testing, offering another voice opposed to “high-stakes testing” and calling for assessments that are meaningful and less stress inducing. President Barack Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan quickly backed the CCSSO/CGCS opinion (though I still maintain it is the path that Duncan has been largely advocating for nearly six years now).

Today, we have some new thinking that gets factored into the equation. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) released Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger, the manifesto outlines for changes that need to be addressed in the accountability debate, while offering some fresh thinking on accountability 2.0 (or is it 8.0?).

What changes are needed? Put simply:

  • More sophisticated assessments that get at a deeper understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and the like;
  • More equitable and adequate resources with regard to teaching, materials, and technology;
  • Greater capacity among schools and educators to reach more challenging content; and
  • A more effective model for change and improvement that moves schools from the current industrial model to “innovative learning systems for the future.”

To get us there, the authors point to a new accountability model that focuses on four key components: 1) meaningful learning; 2) professional accountability; 3) resource accountability; and 4) continuous improvement.

And what of those dreaded assessments that seem to block any meaningful discussion on true accountability? The good folks at SCOPE call for a model that looks to both standardized tests and performance-based assessments and portfolios. Standardized tests would inform the performance-based assessments, and results from the latter would be used to improve and enrich the former (while also informing teaching as a whole).

It’s hard to argue with what Darling-Hammond et al put forward, for it is really common sense. We need better assessments, tests that inform instruction and focus on student learning. We need to do a better job of delivering resources to all classrooms, particularly those that would be labeled historically disadvantaged. We need to push the envelope with regard to teaching more challenging content (which I would argue is why CCSS is an important floor to start with).

And we definitely need to move beyond the misguided notion that a single test, taken on a single day defines the success of a school, a teacher, or a kid.

But how does such a frame fit with the anti-testing zealots (or advocates, depending on your view) out there? Can we accept there is a meaningful role for standardized tests in the learning process? Can we use such tests, along with performance-based assessments, without cries of drilling, killing, and death by bubble sheet?

Even more importantly, can we all agree there are significant achievement, learning, and opportunity gaps in our public education tapestry and that we need a strong accountability model to bridge those gaps? Can we agree all is not roses, lollipops, and rainbows in our schools, and we have a need to improve and thus need to chart the best course to get there?

The ideas moved forward by SCOPE help us see where we need to go. The notion of moving from our current industrial model to a more innovative, future-focused one is particularly valuable. But the devil is always in the details. Can we use these sorts of ideas to move the discussion forward? Or are we destined for another round of “testing bad, accountability badder?” I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

Local Districts, Standardized Testing

Last evening, the White House released a statement from President Obama on efforts from CCSSO and CGCS to cut back on unnecessary testing and the dreaded test-prep focus so many fear is taking over our classrooms.

Where I’m scratching my head is trying to see what the “news” is. The full statement is below. The so-called directive to EdSec Arne Duncan seems to be an effort that the EdSec has focused on for years now. That parents have more info on student learning. That classroom time is used well. That assessments play a part, but not the whole part, of teacher eval.

Perhaps Eduflack is missing something. Maybe this action is worthy of presidential proclamation. But from the cheap seats, this reads far more like “stay the course” than “let’s break new ground.”

Here’s the full statement. You tell me ….

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them. In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning. I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever. We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before. I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

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!