Thursday, November 20, 2014

No amount of data can replace a good classroom teacher

The following is my latest Huffington Post blog:
With age comes a longing for those wonderful times of youth and like most people I have no problem in clinging to the belief that everything was better when I was growing up.

Nothing tasted better than homemade strawberry ice cream at a community gathering on a Saturday night in the Missouri town of Newtonia, population 186, give or take a neighborhood dog or two, where I spent my younger years.

Naturally, the music was better. Why else would I turn off the car radio when a Taylor Swift song comes on and pop a Roy Orbison, Elvis, or Ricky Nelson CD in the player.

And as for CDs, didn't the music sound better on vinyl?

Those things have always been at the top of my list when my thoughts run to nostalgia, but lately, I may have gone off the deep end.

I miss the Iowa Basic Skills Test.

Unlike the ice cream, the music or those sandlot baseball games of old, the annual Iowa Basic Skills Test was not something I remember enjoying. Each spring, all students were brought into the cafeteria, we were handed the booklets, and we diligently filled in all of the circles.

It was the only time we took the tests each year, so we knew they must serve some important purpose, but it was just another tool that our teachers used to evaluate us.

It must not have been that important; they wouldn't even let us use our number one pencils.

Things have certainly changed.

Now the test is the thing. During my last years in the classroom, I taught in a district that bought into the nonsense that the way to prepare for the high stakes standardized tests at the end of the year was to buy a series of practice standardized tests.

When our district began comparing the practice test scores of our schools, we were told to take practice tests for the practice tests (McGraw-Hill was happy to provide them for a fee) And if students were falling behind, they were even given the opportunity to take extra practice tests to practice for the practice tests that helped us practice for the practice test that prepared us for the standardized test at the end of the school year.

Soon teachers were being pulled out of the classroom for half-days or sometimes full days to review data and compute and compare scores. Our district pulled out all English and math teachers for full-day sessions in which we built curriculum and pacing guides around these practice tests.

Learning became something we tried to sneak in whenever it was possible. Enjoyment of learning, like the Iowa Basic Skills Test, was a dim memory.

Administrators kept feeding teachers the basic nonsense that we could do much better teaching now that we had data we could use.

So we kept giving the tests. It was obvious that students were not putting any effort into the practice tests, which were taking up weeks of class time and who could blame them?

When scores on the end-of-the-year tests went down, no one looked at the overabundance of practice tests. It was the teachers' fault because we were not using the data correctly.

We were told to double down on the tests and double down on the data.

That's why I was so pleased today when I read about the Tulsa first grade teachers who said enough was enough and sent a letter to parents explaining why they were refusing to administer standardized tests.

Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones' letter detailed to parents exactly what tests their students have been required to take, what software teachers are required to use with the children and how much the children are losing out on because of the overemphasis on testing:

We, in keeping with best practices, are unable to administer the MAP and student surveys to your children. They simply deserve a better educational experience than what either of those elements bring to the table. We informed the district of our decision last week. However, we felt like you had the right to know as well.

Education is about finding the deeper meaning. Education is about acting upon curiosity and utilizing creative attributes to figure something out. Education is about highlighting multiple intelligences and valuing uniqueness. Education is not squelching. Education is not standardization. We realize that we are just two teachers in a sea of many. In being conscientious objectors to these two items, we realize we are a number, just like the students in our classroom where the SDE is concerned. We realize that we are jeopardizing our jobs. But, if keeping our jobs means harming children and squelching them during a prime developmental span, then we want no part. When we walked across the stage and accepted our diplomas, when we received certifications from the state to teach, when we signed contracts with TPS, when we represented the model for early childhood education for the nation, when we accepted awards and recognition, we simultaneously accepted responsibility to uphold ethical practices and do what is in the best interest of children. The SDE has robbed us of our ethics. They are robbing children of their educational liberties.

I fear for the immediate future of these two young teachers. If the response from the Tulsa Public Schools superintendent is any indication, they are about to get smacked down for daring to stand up for what is right.

A couple of excerpts from Superintendent Keith Ballard's letter:

While I understand teacher and student frustration with testing, it is not an option for teachers to refuse to administer the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. We need this critical data if we are to guide and tailor instruction to students who all have very different needs.

And this one:

While I understand the frustration of these beginning teachers, it takes a person experienced at using data to know how to use it to guide instruction. We need this data to monitor growth and improve results for all of our students.

Every student is capable of learning, and our job is to make that happen. Developmentally appropriate assessments in kindergarten through third grade give us the data to identify what kids know, what they are ready to learn and what they must be taught in order to ensure all students grow. It is every teacher's obligation to assist us in that effort and it is what is right for students.

If that is truly what Dr. Ballard believes, and I have no doubt it is, then he is part of the problem and unfortunately he represents the nightmare that education has become with this obsession with data.

When Ballard and the rest of those who have turned schools from citadels of creativity into an Orwellian nightmare of students who exist only as numbers on a data list, finish with what they are doing, bright young teachers like Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones will no longer be in the classrooms.

There is no data that has ever been created than can replace an excellent teacher.

I miss the days when the Iowa Basic Skills Test was our only brush with standardized tests. In those days, teachers were allowed to teach and the good ones were appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Keep your eyes on the road.

When we drive a car from point A to point B, it is essential that we check the map to see where we are and where we are going. We also periodically check the speedometer to make sure we do not go so fast as to crash and not so slow that we do not arrive on time.

We all see the need for this data.

Now, we are told to ignore the road we are on, and focus only on the instrumentation. We are even asked to leave the wheel to climb into the backseat, so the "backseat drivers" can explain the importance of the speedometer and map.

The end result: the backseat drivers want the actual drivers to explain why the car and all its passengers are lost or in a ditch.

"Let teachers teach," is analogous to letting the driver keep his or her eyes on the road in order to get the passengers where they need to go. The driver still uses assessments as a means to an end, just not as the end itself.

Anonymous said...

Those tests are insane!
How in the world is this test that is given one time a year supposed to let those teachers know what to teach their students? Do they get the results immediately?
There is NOTHING developmentally appropriate about these tests.
Randy is right. These teachers are going to be in trouble.
Parents are going to have to say NO MORE TESTS!

Anonymous said...

The tests are political. The most successful nations do not use tests until the senior year. If you don't pass those, you don't go on. Those same nations divide the kids by ability and work ethic early in high school so as not to waste money on kids who don't want to learn. They get trained to go to work. The others get trained for college, and it is very tough. America should have followed the lead of those nations instead of letting bureaucrats set a level of "proficient" for all students and then make tons of money as districts struggled to do the impossible. Politics and money go hand in hand. That certainly applies here.

Anonymous said...

Randy, I would like to draw attention to a letter posted online that I think everyone who is not entirely familiar with the ways in which education has been changing recently should read. Go to and read the "One Mother's Plea" letter. It is long, but it does a fantastic job of highlighting everything that is wrong with Common Core and the way in which it is being implemented. So many of the things described in the letter are happening in the Joplin school district. Teachers are well aware of the ways in which education has been rapidly deteriorating, but not every parent may know. I would love to see everyone take a stand against these politicians and corporations that are simply seeking to profit from our students. It is time to restore quality, all-around education and get rid of the absurd testing and obsession with data. Let teachers teach.