Sunday, October 26, 2014

Testing and Accountability: More Oppressive and Destructive Than Ever!

"You can prep kids for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education." Mike Rose, "The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test"
It should not be a surprise at all to politicians, policymakers, and educators that the cry and backlash against testing and accountability is growing. During my 25 year career, I've seen the number of state tests administered in public high schools in North Carolina grow from 1 to well-over 2 dozen. Testing and test scores are the talk, and the focus is almost always on "how can we get those test scores up?" About the only ones, with the exception of a few teachers, who are enthusiastic about all this testing are school administrators, who for the first time have a "cattle prod" as Taubman calls it in his book Teaching by Numbers, to shock those teachers who get out of line and who aren't "producing." Blind acceptance of test scores as "the only data of importance" is common, because such data is seen as an "objective" measure, another myth perpetuated by testing and accountability supporters. But is that true?

Peter Taubman's book Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education points out some flaws with this blind acceptance of testing as "the data" on which to base all educational decisions. He writes,
"Fundamentally, tests provide little more than data, but just as one must question the confessions extracted under torture, one has to wonder just how reliable that data is, when it is wrung out of students shocked by the constant administration of tests." 
In other words, no one questions, least of all school administrators, this "data" we're looking at as measures of teacher, school effectiveness and student learning. Tests are data, but how good is that data when students have been subjected to test-after-test-after-test as we do in high schools in North Carolina? North Carolina education leaders truly believe in the maxim, "If it breathes; test it." Data collected under the oppressive, tortuous testing system in our state isn't foolproof, and our jobs as administrators, educators and teachers is to remember that when we start looking at numbers.

There's no doubt when our state education leaders, administrators use the phrase "accountability" they mean primarily multiple choice tests designed to keep teachers, administrators and whole schools in line. As Taubman writes again,
"All too evident, accountability translates into teachers' responsibility for their students' learning as measured by performance on tests." 
I would add that when our state leaders and most administrators use the phrase student achievement they are only speaking about test scores. The testing math in North Carolina is captured by this equation:
Student Achievement=Test Scores
Reducing learning to a test score is great if you are accountant, but for those of us who know teaching, we know that genuine learning is rarely, if ever, only contained between the letters of a multiple choice question. Real, worth-while learning is not always subject to being captured on a a standardized test.

Administrators love tests though, and with the same enthusiasm that politicians do. Why is this? I think Taubman once again hits the bullseye. He writes,
"One reason administrators are sympathetic to testing, the data it generates, and various practices connected to testing and data aggregation is that these provide control from a distance, a fundamental component of what is called audit culture." 
Testing allows principals to become accountants, district leaders to become accountant managers, and superintendents and state level leaders become CEOs. Through test scores, all levels of administrators finally have a tool to control what happens in classrooms. They can dictate how teachers can act, and even in some school systems, teachers are given scripts to follow to make sure they cover what is to be tested. Increase the number of tests administered and you control more and more of what happens in schools. All that talk about allowing teacher decision-making, but holding teachers accountable for those decisions is just empty rhetoric. Tests are measures of control and compliance, and they are gradually strangling public education. Testing finally gives administrators what they think is an "objective" tool for getting rid of teachers and for making sure everyone is compliant.

Test data also gives administrators at every level "bragging points." It gives them something to boast about to the public, to business, to industry, and to politicians. Never mind that testing almost always reduces teaching and learning to only what can tested. Taubman gets it right once again when he writes,
"Tests constitute one way the educational reforms show the educational system. Extracting data from students, teachers and schools, they force our noses into the bottom line. Keeping us under constant surveillance, they make us vulnerable to centers of control beyond our reach, and, providing the illusion of objective accountability and meritocracy, they reduce education to right answers and information." 
Testing is about keeping teachers and students noses to the bottom line. It is about using the "illusion of objective accountability" to make sure no one gets out of line.

There is no question that this accountability and testing culture is negatively affecting teaching as a profession as well. According to Taubman,
"High stakes tests erode the autonomy of teachers, for if tests determine the curriculum, and if tests tell us what is important to know as a teacher, and if these tests are fabricated by centers of control beyond the reach of teachers, then the teachers' passions, commitments, and wisdom count less and less." 
As mentioned earlier, accountability and testing is in some case reducing the act of teaching to little more than a "scripted lesson." Instructional delivery is simply following the state or district lesson plan. Teacher autonomy due to the massive testing load is at an all time low. Teaching is no longer a profession; it is a factory job, whose goal is to churn out test scores. If a teacher fails to "make production," they are branded "Ineffective" or "Not Making Expected Growth" as its called in North Carolina.

What is more amazing is that state educational leaders just don't get it. Enrollments in education programs in colleges and universities for training teachers is at an all time low, and it isn't just about salaries. Teaching is just not very attractive when your job is test-score production. Talk to any students about becoming a teacher, and they laugh in your face. Even worse is when you find yourself as an educator no longer encouraging young people to become teachers because being a public educator anywhere, much less North Carolina, has been robbed its ability to be satisfying career because too much emphasis is placed on accountability and testing.

Where does all this end? I wish we knew. North Carolina, as do other states, continues to ramp up its testing by adding new tests, and the state stubbornly hangs on to its massive testing regimen. Will it be when there's no one entering teacher education programs in our state? Will it be when there is no one with more than 10 years experience left teaching in the classroom? Or, will it be when parents, students, and teachers finally push back and say they've had enough? Testing and accountability is more oppressive than ever in North Carolina and elsewhere, and it is sinking public education and the teaching profession along with it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Merit Pay's Continued Failure in Education and Some Darn Good Reasons Why!

“How reward power is exercised affects outcome. Compliance is most likely if the reward is something valued by the target person. Thus, it is essential to determine what rewards are valued, and a leader should not assume that it be the same for everyone.” Gary Yukl, Leadership in Organizations
As our political leaders and state level policy makers continue to try to find ways to “improve our K-12” systems of education, one persistent idea that just won’t go away is the idea of merit pay and punishment by accountability. They still remain faithful to the idea that somehow teachers will raise test scores if they are offered a big enough carrot or if their livelihoods are somehow placed in jeopardy enough to bring about a level of fear strong enough to give them the test scores they desire. After over a decade of “test-reward-and-punish” policies under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, you would think they would finally give up. Instead, money is still being poured into even more standards development and testing, in the hope that somehow education reform magic will happen. What these educational policymakers and politicians just don’t understand is performance pay and punishments are dead in the water before they are even implemented.

One of the reasons for the uselessness of merit pay is captured succinctly by Gary Yukl in his book, Leadership in Organizations. Rewards will only bring about compliance if those rewards are something valued by the "target person.” Don’t get me wrong, teachers and educators want to be paid fairly and be able to live comfortably, but educators know going into the the job that what they are doing is an endeavor much greater that a paycheck. Most are just not built to pursue the big carrots for their own sake. That is one thing that politicians and policymakers don’t get. Perhaps they are motivated by greed, but many of us are not.

Another problem with the carrot and stick approach to education reform is that many educators just don’t believe that test scores are a worthy goal to pursue. Most teachers who have been in the classroom see the tests for what they really are: a single measure focused on a small portion of learning given at a single point in time. That means the test can give s snapshot of only a sliver of learning, but it can’t be the ultimate goal of learning because so much of learning falls outside testing. Our current public education system is asking educators to believe that test scores are an important goal of learning, and many aren’t buying it, and never will.

As Yulk points out, “Even when the conditions are favorable for using rewards, they are more likely to result in compliance rather than commitment.” Rewards only get people to do what is required; they do not engage people’s hearts and minds totally in the goal of education. Under rewards, people aren’t committed to their jobs, the kids, or to the profession. Our current system of accountability and testing along with its reward and punish for test score performance will never work because at its heart, because teaching requires more than compliance; it requires dedication and commitment and no amount of money can purchase that.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tillis, McCrory, Berger & Company's Hidden Anti-Public Ed Budget

In this News and Observer article entitled "A Hidden, Drastic Change in NC School Funding" Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske describe more sinister legislative action taken by our North Carolina Legislature and Governor during this last legislative session.

In the past, school districts received funding based on projected enrollment. This allowed school districts to plan for growth, and if their enrollments did not pan out, adjustments to funding were made. Now, the waning hours of this past legislative session, and without much public input, schools funding will be based on last year's enrollment. Basically, as Ladd and Fiske point out, "Funding to cover growing enrollments will have to be negotiated and compete with other state priorities." The bottom line, is our legislature has opened the door to being able still cut education further without saying they are cutting education.

In spite of the recent political advertising by Governor Pat McCrory and House leader (US Senate Candidate) Thom Tillis boasting about their "increased" education funding, these two have been leaders in a North Carolina government that has done more to hurt education than ever. Of course I have to throw Senate leader Phil Berger in that mix as well because he is the third prong of this anti-public education crew. The one thing all of these gentlemen have been consistent about is their disdain for public education and for public educators. They have resorted to trickery and deception on a number of occasions before, so this little budget wizardry is hardly surprising.

These are sad times in North Carolina when our North Carolina Legislature and Governor have resorted to deceptive and underhanded tactics to continue to underfund and undermine public education. Teachers and educators in general are leaving. None of our young people are choosing teaching as a profession. It has become fairly clear that our current state government continues to damage public education in North Carolina in ways I fear it would never recover, but perhaps that's the plan.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Three Days with My iPhone 6 +

I admit it. I am one of those guilty ones who set his alarm to get up at 3:00 AM Eastern Standard Time in order to purchase an iPhone 6 + on September 12. I must admit, I have been more than pleased with my experiences so far.

The issue I had with my old iPhone 4s was simply screen size. It worked well as a phone, an email-checking device, and even for occasionally checking my social media accounts, but the screen-size made it difficult for me, a fifty-plus year old to read any text for a length of time. With the iPhone 6+ I have finally found a phone, or phablet as they're called, that meets my needs.

With the iPhone 6+ I am able to do all the things I was able to do with the iPhone 4, but now, due to its size, I can now do many of the things I used to do with my tablet on my phone. For example, reading from my Kindle app on the iPhone 4 was a miserable experience for me. The screen was just too small. In addition, this same small screen problem prevented me from using my other favorite productivity apps such as Pages or Writer Pro. Now, I simply connect my MaCally keyboard to my iPhone 6 +, and I can type away, as I'm doing with this blog post.

Now the naysayers point to the size of the iPhone phablet as a negative, saying it's just too big to use as a phone, but with my extra large hands, I have had no problems. In fact, there've been few issues at all with the device. The battery life is actually better than either my iPhone 4s or my iPads, mini or otherwise. It really does hold a charge.

I suppose the question many would ask is: Why should I get an iPhone 6+? Well, if you're like me, it brings the best of two devices together: phone and tablet. I actually have found myself using the iPhone 6+ for many tasks I had relegated to my tablet. Overall, my early experiences are mostly positive. I am hoping for a little better case as these devices become more popular.

My iPhone 6+ Screen

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Truth About NC Rep Thom Tillis and Gov Pat McCrory's 'Simple' Math of Teacher Raises

Most of us have heard the old politician joke that begins with the question, "How can you tell when a politician is lying?" And the answer? "Their lips are moving?" While the humor from that joke might have disappeared from that statement after years of use, the truth of that statement is perhaps alive and well in North Carolina. Maybe the word lying isn't exactly correct, but there sure is a great deal of prevaricating going on.

Recently, in a WRAL newstory, "Letter from McCrory Stirs Pot Over Teacher Raises," it seems our governor's office and NC US Senate candidate have declared that a 5.5% raise is the same as a 7% raise. According to that same article, Josh Ellis, a spokesperson for Governor McCrory, states that McCrory and Thom Tillis are saying the same thing. According to Ellis, the difference between whether his office and the North Carolina Legislature gave teachers a 5.5% average raise or a 7% raise is a matter of "accounting differences." Methinks I see both politician's lips moving on this one.

The question I ask is really simple, "Why does our NC Governor and NC State Legislature, led by Thom Tillis and Phil Berger have to resort to deception and trickery when they should simply be doing something right for education and teachers?" I certainly know part of the answer; there's an election in a couple of months and they had to at least "give the appearance of giving teachers a raise." What better way to do that than by using "accounting trickery" to cook the books? That way, they can claim the same truth, and both be right. Well, they might use this "accounting wizardry" in their businesses, but it is just plain wrong to play those games on the hardworking teachers in this state, and to deceive the public as they've done.

What's even worse, other legislators like NC Representative Nelson Dollar and State Senator Tom Apodaca don't even appear to be sure about the amount of raise they gave teachers. Apodaca is quoted as saying that from "everything he's seen on the pay raise tells him its a 7% average hike, not the 5.5% percent raise listed by the governor." The phrase "from everything he's read" could certainly mean he hasn't read much except the lines being fed to him by legislative leaders.  Other legislators aren't sure about other things in this raise as well. NC Representative Dollar seems to be either confused or is being misleading. Hard to tell which, except his lips are moving too. He even questions whether the raise provided by this NC Governor and Legislature included taking away longevity and adding it back as part of the "7.7%" raise. He claims the 7.7% does not include the longevity. Perhaps its some of the NC Legislative Accounting again. According to our state legislature and governor's office, 2+2 can equal whatever they decide it equals apparently.

What's really bad about all this, is that appears we have a NC governor and NC Legislature that purposefully or unpurposefully made the raises they gave teachers this year murky. For Thom Tillis and Governor Pat McCrory, it makes a great deal of sense to do just that in an election year. Figure out a way to give the least amount of raise, and then use fuzzy accounting to inflate the amount of raise you gave. Instead of using reality to back their arguments, they use inventive accounting. Either these two gentlemen think the general public and teachers are too stupid to figure it out, or they are more devious that even I could imagine. Once again though, you have to keep in mind their lips are moving!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teaching Is Impacting Lives Forever Not Raising Test Scores

What the testing and accountability crowd does not get is the impact teachers have on lives. No bubble sheet can capture that, and you won't find it in standards. Each of us has a teacher or teachers that have impacted our lives. In my own, there was fifth grade with Ms. Case and sixth grade with Ms. Williams. Ms. Case captured my imagination in reading with Old Yeller which she read to us lovingly everyday. Ms. Williams encouraged me to explore my interests in the stars and science. These teachers fired my curiosity for learning and exploration. The impact teachers have on lives can't be measured using EVAAS, ACT, or SAT. As much as we would like to reduce teaching to numbers, it can't be done.

This video of a surprise party for a teacher of 40 years will move you to tears. In spite of the test score fetish our education leaders and politicians have, there are still teachers touching lives. Let's make sure that continues.

3 Principles for Creating a Culture of Creativity in Schools to Unleash Technological Innovation

"While in school, we are often educated into believing that we must succeed---that mistakes should be avoided. But to be successful, we need to learn how to fail and how to respond to failure. What we call failure is really a learning process." Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson, Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World's Most Creative Playground
In today's standardized, testing, and accountability climate, there are major penalties imposed on those who fail. For example, in some states, students who "fail" standardized tests are branded failures by being held back a grade with retention policies that tell students, "Failure is not an option." In other states, teachers whose students don't demonstrate "success" by reaching pre-determined levels of "growth"on standardized tests, find themselves labeled "In Need of Improvement," which might as well be a "Scarlet Letter of Failure" they are forced to wear across their chests until they prove themselves. Finally, in other states, there is the practice of labeling entire schools with letter grades A-F, which is just another device to make sure those who fail suffer the consequences of being a failure. Clearly in our current education system, failure is something to run from and avoid. "Failure is not an option" is the mantra, yet, in today's super-charged, technology climate, failure is exactly what we need. Our mantra should be "Fail early and often" if we want to move forward with innovation. If failure is avoided, so is risk and exploration, two primary ingredients for a culture of creativity within a school, and it is that creativity that drives the innovation necessary to make the most of technology.

If school leaders want to capitalize on what technology has to offer their schools, they must create schools where "failing towards success" happens as rule, and taking risks and exploration is expected. For, as Capodagli and Jackson point out,

"Failing forward is about learning from our mistakes---examining failures and moving beyond them to success." 

In the accountability and audit culture, any failure is treated almost as a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

What then is a school leader to do, to create the kind of culture of creativity that celebrates failure as part of success and creativity? Here's 3 principles adapted from Pixar's Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. Pixar has demonstrated what a culture of creativity looks like.

1. Remember that "Ideas come from people. Therefore people are more important than ideas." Intuitively, most school administrators begin by focusing on the technology. They assess: What technology do we have, and what technology can we get? They even use the number of smart boards and computers in their buildings to gauge technological progress. That's not how it should be. You can have all the tech toys in the world in your building, but if no one is using them, they might as well be trophies sitting on a shelf. As Catmull points out, you have to begin by focusing on people. You do this by finding "good people" and then supporting them. You develop them, and you give them "running room" to try the new. The same is true with both innovation and technology. Focus on the people first, not the technology.

2. Foster the idea that "mistakes are the inevitable consequences of doing something new" and "a positive understanding of failure." Creating a school climate where mistakes are an accepted part of trying the new is especially challenging in a an educational environment that places a premium on holding all "accountable" for failure by beating them over the head with bad ratings and grades. Too many accountability systems are scapegoat-seeking tools for hunting down and getting rid of the culprits who caused "failure to happen" instead of providing solid feedback that leads to success. It is this that creates a "fear-based" climate where no teacher or administrator is going to step out of safe territory and make great things happen with technology.

3. Avoid allowing your school or district to become infected with the desire to "just play it safe." According to Catmull,

"Even though copying what's come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe---to succeed with minimal risk---can infect not just individuals but entire companies."

There are schools and school districts all around us infected with this "be-safe" virus. They are inflexible and rigid, and the minute a teacher dares step to the edge of innovation, the school of system slaps them back in line. The early reaction of school districts towards cell phones and social media are a great example of this. When school leaders focus on safety alone, they move to risk-minimization mode, which kills creativity and innovation, the very things needed to capitalize on technology. You can recognize a school system that values safety at the expense of all else when they bring technology into their schools. How? It is simply used to do what they've always done. Smart boards become overhead projectors. The Internet becomes a massive online library. Social media becomes just another announcement system. You can't possibly play it entirely safe with technology and expect innovation and creativity.

The challenge then for today's school leader is how do you make it safe for innovation and creativity in a climate that only values success and punishes failure? How do we move our schools, districts, students, parents, and teachers beyond the thinking that "failure is not an option" so they can take risks and explore the edges of innovation with technology? We can begin doing that by focusing on our people instead of counting smartboards and computers. We can make mistake-making accepted step in the path to innovation and creativity. Finally, we need to inoculate ourselves against the "play-it-safe" virus and make risk-taking acceptable. We can't just copy what someone else is doing and call it innovation. We need to unleash creativity by taking Catmull's advice by "loosening the controls, accepting risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear."