Reason 3/5 Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference:

The Tests Dumb down the System in General

Go back to the pretest vs. post test notion of evaluating teachers. If a child can ace a pretest, why should he take the class? Great question. But historically all tests with great intentions, after a while, are revised to become easier and easier as ”too many” children fail them. Even the SAT in the last years has become easier by degrees. First the College Board rid themselves of the dreaded analogies. More recently they took out the tough vocabulary. Instead of words like Alacrity and Beneficent. . .we now test words like flush and wholesome. So year after year test writers are asked to figure out where the failure point is. Often illiterate is the cut off point. On high school writing exams, the kid who fails truly cannot write an intelligible sentence. ANYthing above that can pass. So earning a passing score, and even a high score is then not a sign of excellence.

Thus, as we ease failing points in order to include more kids in the passing range, as we adjust the test to be more passable, we are also lowering our standards. The tests I used to design for my own students 15 years ago were ten times harder and more demanding than the standardized tests teachers must give today as final exams. AND GUESS WHAT? My kids used to do really well on them. The kids earning an A today, think they are on par with kids earning A’s years ago, and they aren’t. Even worse, Teachers today spend more time “teaching to the test” for tests that measure irrelevant, low level skills.  Teaching to the test might be fine if the test were valuable.

Yes, you can argue that if a kid is failing this, then we really need to target teachers and education. But I respond that as kids recognize the irrelevance of an “all-defining” test, they are less inspired, less motivated to learn. We’ve created a nasty cycle.

PLUS, more parents are pushing to allow their kids who earn an A or even a B on a pretest to skip the class completely. School Boards like that idea; it could save tons of money.

I understand that. But can a 100 question multiple choice test with invalid questions that have been designed to get the most kids through the test really be the same as practicing essay writing and reading challenging text all year?   Do we really want a generation of kids coming out of high school this way? And if your argument is that this is fine with you, why in the world are you worried about the standards that testing is supposed to support? Why in the world do you care if APS cheated?

Many Standardized Tests do not Measure What they Should

Reason 2/5: Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference:

Ever looked at a high school’s English curriculum? The objective strands look like a list of “shoulds”: Child will be able to synthesize primary and secondary documents. Child will be able to recognize post-war poetry elements. Child will be able to use punctuation properly. Child will be able to properly conjugate helping verbs. There are scores of these objective strands.  And on a standardized post-test, because there are so many strands, and they all need to be represented, each one of those elements gets usually just one question. So apparently using proper verbs is equal to recognizing Post-War poetry elements; worse, if the child misses the single question about verbs, then apparently he knows nothing about verbs, and I’ve taught him nothing about verbs.

A strand that says the child can develop a thesis and defend it with strong writing cannot be accurately tested on a multiple choice exam. So wrongly, in order to assess that strand, the child is asked to find the thesis statement in an offered essay. Test writers often do not spend enough time writing these questions well, and honestly, there really might be two or three sentences that could work as a thesis statement. As any good writer knows, essays don’t really have just one sentence that guides the whole flipping essay. (Tell that to the testing boards.) So, based on these standardized tests, a kid who can select a thesis out of a choice of four answer options, but not ever write an essay is deemed just as educated as the kid who writes well.

One year a major writing test that our county system gives to tenth graders had a major flaw. Over forty-five percent of the kids went down the rabbit hole created by this flaw and failed. Instead of retesting the whole population with a valid test, because there were already scheduled retests in place for kids who fail, the board did nothing about this flaw; they let the failures go on the children’s records and simply retested those students. The next year a new question was developed and applied. 85 percent of the kids passed on the first attempt. Suddenly, our county was bragging about how much better we were all doing as educators. LOOK how high this year’s scores trump last year’s! Aren’t we grand?   These scores didn’t represent what they are supposed to, at all.

So not only are objectives unbalanced in terms of importance, not only is success defined inaccurately, but we misuse the data collected.

How does the APS judge expect teachers and children to take any of these tests seriously when we know we are all being misrepresented?

Next up: Reason 3/5 Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference:

The Tests Dumb down the System in General

Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference

Good teachers don’t worry about being measured and evaluated. But I have to clarify, we don’t worry about valid, worthy testing, testing that actually measures what it says it will, and measures knowledge that is relevant. Right now those sorts of measurements don’t exist

The teachers from the Atlanta Public Schools system deserve what is coming their way. . .To a degree. Did they know at the time they were committing something immoral and unethical? Did they know they could lose their jobs and careers? Yes. They had to. Did they know they were committing a racketeering felony? Probably not.

Elementary school teachers are not famous for being overly educated. Yes, I know plenty who are sharp and brilliant. But too many of them graduate from local paper mills with low entry and exit standards,; they earn what many college students know is the least intellectually challenging degree offered (if not the most tedious):a Bachelor of Education. (Face it: a course called The Theory of Education is never going to be as challenging as Thermodynamic Chemistry, nor Math for Children as deep as Legal Statistics.) So more than likely, those fraudulent APS teachers didn’t think clearly enough to wonder if they could be arrested.

What law did they think they were breaking? None. I’d bet they believed fraud laws were all about money and theft. Silly them. But then when they were arrested, they didn’t believe they’d go to jail, be convicted. 21 of 36 defendants admitted they were guilty before trial. Of the eleven remaining, only one of the accused took the D.A.’s bait to plea bargain down his sentence. The other defendants took their chances and went to trial. AND then, after being convicted and called Felons, when offered a chance to bargain again for their punishments, no one took that offer either. They believed perhaps they could go win an appeal? On what grounds?

I understand that sometimes when one feels righteous, one doesn’t want to knuckle under. I also get that sometimes the plea bargainer affects the outcome of those who choose to go to trial. But ultimately, these folks did commit fraud. They did racketeer. And they did so for financial gain (their incomes.)

And my bet is that they did this with impunity because this sort of illegal manipulation is overly common. It’s the “everyone is doing it” defense.

Here is my beef:

The judge thinks he is helping the children of our future with his severe reaction of long jail times. Perhaps. But the system of testing, and performance-for-pay is so broken, has so many flaws and loop holes, that his ruling barely makes a ripple in improving the structure. Yes, it might stop a group of teachers and administration from sitting around a table and openly defying the rules in the future. But that doesn’t mean the testing currently in place is now going to help the children at all anyway.

Five Serious Reasons why:

  1. There are still plenty of ways to cheat.
  2. Many Tests do not Measure What they Should
  3. The tests dumb down the system, in general.
  4. The children rarely fail anyway nor get remediation even if they fail the test.
  5. The tests can be manipulated to fire or secure workers who don’t deserve it (see number 1)

Teachers know this, so it is hard for them to feel supportive, patriotic, even ethical when it comes to testing. It’s like being asked to take the gossip on FB or Nightline as serious.

Let me break this down in a series of Four separate posts, if you care. This knowledge is important for anyone who can affect the political machine called education.

Reason 1/5: There are still plenty of ways to cheat.

These Atlanta folks got caught because an AJC reporter who was paying attention began to wonder what this one elementary school, a school that had for several years in a row gained in their scores by leaps and bounds over its comparable sister schools; if the gains were real, why wasn’t APS requiring the sister schools to do whatever it was that the “successful school” was doing, the reporter asked. But there was no difference in anything they did. And from there the story began.

Someone at these sister schools blabbed. See, teachers shift schools, though they are still employees of the same system. They develop allegiances and conflicts with former bosses. Someone who used to be in the law-breaking circle ratted them out. But even if the tattler hadn’t come clean, there is an independent group that can take the scantrons from the tests and do a comparative match. Too many erasures in the same places? Too many kids getting number 36 right, when number 36 is predicted to be the question that only half the kids will know? Hmmm.

So cheat method one is to literally change the answers. APS did this as a group. But there can be one principal who does this him/herself in the wee hours of the night. Who would know if no one is auditing the scantrons?

When I have had to proctor high stakes tests, here is how it has often worked. I go collect my testing materials. I sign them out. I get a box with a particular number of scantrons, pencils, test directions, test booklets. I sign something that says I won’t even look at the test. I administer the test. And at the end of the testing period, sometimes at the end of the day, I return all materials.

BUT imagine Student Bobby is the first to realize there is an odd typo in test question 32. Then Suzy. I’m not supposed to look at it. Do I go ahead and try and help them decipher the question? George shouts out the answer anyway. I have to report this “aberration in the testing environment.” Glancing at the questions to see if it is ethical to help overcome the typo, I realize George is wrong. He might be shouting out the wrong answer on purpose because he is a brat. Who knows? Do I help? I don’t know. But either way, I could easily tell everyone the answers.

I’m supposed to proctor everyone else’s students, not my own, in order to “maintain the integrity of the testing environment.” In otherwords no favorites. But I’ve been around the school and community for a long time. The kids all know me. I’ve taught some before. I taught their siblings. I hate this test. I go ahead and answer their question when they get stuck and try to get them to “figure it out” with hints. They are so stressed out. . .am I less or more ethical than the convicts from APS? This method of cheating could show up on an audit, but probably won’t because it is one class set of tests.

I return my boxed set to the administrative helpers (teachers who are not supposed to be teaching any of the test takers currently, so they won’t be tempted to cheat.) They pass it along to the testing administrative secretary, who supposedly locks it up for lunch until the testing administrator comes back, and they count all the booklets triple times, sign a bunch of documents, and lock them up for the night; someone from the county delivers them to a central location later when absentee kids get a chance to take their test.. At this point, three separate people besides me at the least have touched my tests, and each has had the chance to change answers without me knowing. (Did this happen to any of the APS crew?) An audit might be able to catch this one too, though it cannot tell anyone who was responsible.

Or kids themselves, knowing the proctor doesn’t know who they are can send in another kid to take their tests. One kid takes the math tests, the other the LA tests. We don’t check IDs and you’d be surprised how few students will rat on each other.

Plus, every now and then, we get to proctor our own kids, especially if the tests are given online. These labs get used over and over for tests through the day, and kids will literally write the answers on the desks for the next incoming group. Kids have pens with cameras in them now, too, and can sometimes pass along whole test pages. I’ve heard of teachers who will write certain answers on the board without drawing attention just to see if the kids will notice. And some do. “Hey, look. . .24. A.” Of course, these accusations can never be proven after the fact except through an audit, or a confession, which a school system never asks for.

But here’s another way many teachers can cheat. At my school, teachers are assessed by the jump from a pretest score to a post test score of a set of kids. The system decides what this group of kids should be able to score once they have learned. The closer I can get them to that score, the better. BUT it is even more rewarding for me as a teacher to have a huge jump. So if my illiterate kids score a 12 on the pretest and a 70 on the post test, this is better for me than my gifted kids who score a 91 on the pretest and then a 98 on the post test. And guess what, since the pretest is not “secure” I get to give it to my own students.

I’ve known of teachers who literally tell their kids to “Christmas tree” the pretest. It takes two days to give. I’ve also known of teachers who give it one day, and if the kids don’t finish, oh well. SO those cheating teachers look like they are masters when the post test comes around, because obviously, the kids will do better on the post test which gets averaged into their grades than the pretest they were told to Christmas tree. And guess what? Noone wants to dig into my accusations of this unethical behavior, though auditing pretest scores , might easily show what I am describing.. I cannot prove it after the fact myself if the accused won’t confess.

Again, the “everyone is doing it” defense makes it hard for teachers to put any serious belief behind testing. The judge’s harsh punishment of these teachers, though warranted, as affected this beliefminimally.

Next up: ”Reason 2/5 Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference: Many Tests do not Measure What they Should.’”

When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?

Really?

Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

Can Competition and Collaboration Co-exist?

Is true collaboration possible in a competitive environment?rolling

I recall a rush of articles about the American Business Model decades ago
asserting that though the foundation of capitalism was competition, as our world went global, Americans needed to examine a new model: cooperation, collaboration.

Group work? Seriously? Sure, we learned in Apollo 13 that a small group of men collaborated with an inner tube, a box and some toothpaste to bring home a space capsule of Americans. . .but how often do we really need to do that?

Group work over individual accomplishments has gone in and out of fashion in the classroom far longer than businesses have attempted it, because it cuts the grading work load by half for teachers, (though we slyly argued that it helped in student engagement, and we quoted all the business magazines about the futuristic wave of collaboration.) However, Americans notoriously have a love-hate relationship with group work; we all know that one person seems to get the brunt of the work, others resent feeling unheard by control freaks, and still others exploit riding on the backs of the workhorses. This has been sticky enough-uncomfortable and unnatural to our competitive roots-so much so that whole businesses have developed just to cash in on ridding us of our ignorance of how to behave productively in group-work situations.

And when that fails, group work in schools is discouraged, considered unfair, even sometimes called lazy. There was a point as recently as ten years ago when my own school made group work against the rules, simply because of potential law suits in “truth in grading.” (Read, Parent A didn’t want Parent B’s kid to affect or benefit from Parent A’s kid’s work/grade.) So out the door group work flew. Slowly as power changed hands in my school, people forgot it was against the rules, and it became again de rigueur, to the point where it is now the trend, not just in the classroom, but in the conference rooms among teachers, across the nation.

The American redesigned business model has finally filtered into the mandates (not just the personal preferences) of our teachers’ work lives. Instead of working in isolation, building our lessons from books, online sites, and our own creativity, we are encouraged to, in some cases forced to, meet with our colleagues and plan, even submit, lessons together on often a weekly basis.

By now, however, I question in a different way those articles of years ago: can competition and collaboration thrive together? Sure athletes can be friends with those against whom they compete, partly due to admiration, partly due to common burden, but they rarely will share their secrets to success if it means the opponent has an edge over them. Think of what the NFL goes through to make sure the opposition doesn’t get hold of their play-books. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha! Indeed.

In the education setting however, we are forced to collaborate, but then often we are held in competition. Teacher of the year? Teacher of the month? Teacher who gets verbal accolades of any kind. Those things alone might not slow us from sharing. . .but a fan base of students might. Or far worse, a conniving powerful administrator.

I have sat in collaboration groups where Teacher So and So is held up as superior. . .”The rest of you should be more like him. . .” He is notorious for not playing well with others; he balks at collaboration; he shoots holes in other people’s ideas vocally, cruelly. Okay, how much of that is arrogance?

And how much of that is trying to keep more of the praise spotlight for himself?competition

The same conniving administrator, whose job depends on students’ scores, likes to pit teachers against each other, making it seem like a friendly competition to see whose state mandated test scores will be higher. (Then administrator rewards winner with smaller class sizes, the room with a window, the course everyone covets teaching. Puppy-treats to teachers.). So then. . . why would teachers share lessons with each other if this comparison results in honor or rewards from winning? (Wouldn’t that be like Microsoft passing along tech ideas to Apple?) Recently, when someone noted how different a colleague and I are in style, I heard from conniving administrator: “Ewwww. I can’t wait to compare your AP scores. . .it will be exciting to see whose are higher.” Does this encourage my colleague to help MY students do their best?

In one weekly “team”, members were once told that another teacher, let’s call her Ms. CheaterButt, had the lowest failure rate (as in zero kids ever fail her classes; we collaborators all know she just passes kids because she doesn’t believe 9th graders should fail, even students with a 27 average days before grades are due suddenly pops out with a 70.) Then we heard we have to sit there and learn “from her” how to design our lessons because she beat us at some unseen competition called “failure rate rally race.” Again, we would have, at one point, happily shown her how to design her lessons so that she doesn’t just have to arbitrarily pass her students, and we certainly don’t want to take any of her lessons. But we won’t now. Instead, we resentfully sit quietly on top of our knowledge. . .while conniving administrator sings CheaterButt’s praises. This particular collaboration group got so competitive that the only time people shared any novel, effective ideas at the weekly meetings was when the conniving administrator occasionally appeared; suddenly we were cutting each other off at the feet to dazzle our boss.

I admit it: I am sometimes guilty of not wanting to share simply because I like being my kids’ favorite teacher. I am a natural competitor. I like having lessons students both enjoy and learn from, and yes, then silently lording it over my pals when kids want me, not them, for a teacher. Who doesn’t. This is probably the same as an actor winning the People’s Choice Award. But the trouble is, this attitude isn’t good for students. Yes, it motivates me to come up with good plans. But it keeps many of us from wanting to share lessons. I force myself to ignore my inner emotional beast because. . .well. . .it is the right thing to do. I have friends with whom I collaborate nicely, and I always have, even before it was fashionable; and I am always open to sharing with anyone, competitors and cheaters alike. But even then, the open ranking of my being “better” can cause people not to want share with me, or even hear my ideas (Oh, she thinks she is such hot shit. . .) Competition when it comes to collaboration does not necessarily lead to mature thinking. . .

In one of those popular American Business Model articles of years past, there was a story of an American Technology Company that had opened a location in Japan, hiring some of the brightest, most innovative people in the country. They were hoping to have fresh ideas, growth, etc.. The employees were set up in groups, departments, teams as they saw themselves. The company started a program, where individual employees could suggest ideas for improvement, cutting costs, enhancing productivity, design ideas. The single employee who suggested that month’s best idea, would win a dinner to a local restaurant. Months went by with not one idea in the box. The company repeatedly upped the stakes, even offering a weekend trip away, to no avail. NO ideas. Where were these Japanese brains, the American owners wondered.

Eventually the American manager heading the idea box pulled one of the Japanese managers aside and asked for his opinion. What he found was that competition among individuals of a team was considered bad form, dare I say dishonorable. To take an idea for improvement, to call it your own, to lay claim to the individual rewards was an insult to your team members, since very few of us work in a vacuum. This concept of pitting fellow employees against each other was distasteful, and went against the sense of community and family that was traditional in Japan. As soon as the company began rewarding teams, departments for successful ideas, the box was full of innovative ideas.

The lesson learned here has filtered to some of the most successful American companies today: Apple, Google, Ford, even Starbuck’s. They have all embraced collaborative thinking, and team reward to obvious results.

collabThis sticks with me as I continue to be forced to collaborate under the rule of a competition loving boss. Are children benefiting from such open individual comparisons between teachers? Is it really good for me to be Teacher-of-the-Year, “Most Inspirational Teacher”, or will it cause my peers to withhold their successful lessons from me, and thus my students. . .? Yes, I hate group work for the same reasons everyone else does: I sometimes end up writing more than my share of documents, or doing more research than others, but collaboration isn’t group work exactly. It’s idea firing. It’s sharing of what works, what can be improved. If honors, awards, titles, and even Pay-for-performance falls to individual comparisons between teachers, who will ever want to pass along effective plans? Only those with children’s best interests at heart. I’d like that to be every teacher, but it is unlikely.