Monday, December 30, 2013

Test Scores and Standards: An Inhuman Marriage

In 2000, when President George W. Bush wondered, “Is our children learning?” no one anticipated his nonsensical question would spark a nonsensical education reform movement based on nonsensical tests. Many Americans took Bush and his question seriously, however, electing him as our president for two terms while hanging our children’s futures on curriculum and tests designed by faceless corporations. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in the error of test-based accountability, when answers to written questions suddenly meant the difference between achievement and failure, prosperity and closure.  The corporate bottom-line seduced a desperate populace, and students, teachers, and principals began rising and falling to the tune of test scores.  If it couldn’t be measured, it couldn’t be counted.

With the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the testing mountain rose even higher, and the first students to reach the top became more important than those left behind.  The Obama administration closed more schools and fired more teachers while championing (some say illegally) the Common Core standards, measurable only through nebulous, age-inappropriate tests. Kindergartners needed “college and career” readiness as much as high school seniors, with Bill Gates’s “powerful market of people” sucking districts dry. Companies like Pearson swooped in to sell curriculum materials for their own flawed tests.    

Though high standards are elemental, we cheapen these standards and the accompanying curriculum when pairing them with high-stakes tests. Politicians and profiteers have wed the Common Core standards to test scores, expecting expedient, objective measurements of learning while undermining schools and communities in the process. Fearful teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, often relying on unwieldy or flawed curriculum copyrighted by corporations. In New York, for example, up to 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on Common Core tests, and the state recently paid private companies $50 million to create curriculum modules (units) related to these tests. Though much of these units are poorly designed by non-educators, many teachers in New York and elsewhere have no choice but to use them because their districts require it and/or they cannot anticipate what types of questions will appear on the tests.  This is like forcing a doctor to prescribe the wrong medication even though he knows it’s killing the patient. 

The human mind is complex, and measuring the mind is even more complex. While a test might tell us if a student can apply a formula or decipher a vocabulary word, it is limited to a narrow set of questions administered on a specific day. Is what’s not on the test of equal or more value? If so, how do we measure this? Unfortunately, the answer is not as easy as feeding blackened bubbles through a machine. The answer involves talking to and interacting with our kids, something a bureaucrat cannot do from behind his desk in the capital.

Through daily interaction, parents, teachers, and administrators are best able to determine if our children are learning. After all, they know the faces behind the test scores, and any educator will tell you that there is no sight greater than a child’s face lighting up with knowledge. This light is unlikely to shine during a standardized test, however, but through other, more human assessments.  It shines in the creation of paintings, poems and plays. It shines in scientific experiments and historical reenactments. It shines in philosophical discussions and musical compositions. It shines from our kids daily in how they treat themselves and others as they join the ranks of an enlightened citizenry.

Measuring learning is not supposed to be easy. Like gold beneath a river, everyone wants to find it, yet few want to dig for it. It requires persistence and commitment from those in the water. Parents—who fortunate kids typically spend the most time with—must look for evidence of learning daily, be it subtle or overt. Teachers must personalize learning, making knowledge more applicable to authentic situations rather than generic multiple-choice tests. The third and most consistently ignored point is the role of school administrators, who must recognize effective teaching when evident. Administrators across America must be able to pinpoint the presence of the standards in the faces of students rather than in spreadsheets. This means fighting for great teachers in the classroom while escorting ineffective ones out, sidestepping the mythical obstruction of tenure. When local principals and superintendents surrender control to bureaucrats and shadowy state boards,  however, the faces of our kids and teachers become obscured by data points and dollar signs.   
"Is our children are learning?" Politicians and corporations should be prepared for an even more complicated answer than Bush's original question.  The answer is complicated simply because human relationships are complicated, and knowledge cannot and should not be deduced to a number.  School leaders must wrestle with this question daily, however, throughout their schools in their communities. Let's hold these leaders accountable through direct engagement of what works and what doesn't, scouring for evidence of results among truly human pursuits rather than a marriage of consequential tests to consequential standards.

Are our children learning? Look into their faces and you will find out.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

Something's Rotting in the State of New York

Something’s rotting in the state of New York, and it’s not the apples.

Due to a property tax cap passed in 2011—which requires localities and school districts to raise taxes no more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation—funding for schools withers in the meadow, as tests and class sizes grow all around it.  With the stench of decay thickening in the midst of a NYSUT lawsuit over the tax cap, the state recently argued in court that education is “not a fundamental right.”  This should surprise President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who’ve called education the “civil rights issue of our time”, even awarding New York $700 million as part of the Race to the Top (RTTT) contest.
 Are “civil” rights “fundamental” rights? If so, shouldn’t the federal government ask for its money back from a state which passes laws to undermine this civil right?

New York has outpaced most states in the implementation of Common Core testing and a more rigid teacher evaluation system (APPR), two key requirements of RTTT. While these programs have been controversial because of their emotional and monetary costs, the tax cap has been largely ignored as an issue, with many New Yorkers against Common Core, APPR, and InBloom but in favor of the tax cap. In the coming years, thanks to the tax cap, many districts will attempt to implement these programs and other unfunded mandates with fewer teachers and fewer resources, as they watch their RTTT and reserve funds dry up, with or without the reforms.  With funding for education in New York already at a 20-year low, the tax cap has the potential to damage New York’s rural and suburban schools more than testing, APPR, and InBloom COMBINED.  You can’t reform insolvency.

Albany claims that the tax cap is not a state dictate. After all, local voters can override it. Yet a school district seeking to surpass the cap must receive approval from a 60-percent supermajority of voters.  The law therefore undermines the essence of democracy—simple majority rule. In New York, one person now equals less than one vote, and a minority of voters can determine how much money schools receive. In the face of this, what district would risk having its budget voted down? Out of only 28 districts that attempted an override in 2012, 21 failed. However, 14 of the 21 that failed received more than 50 percent approval.  Our kids deserve no less than a majority of minds determining what goes into and comes out of their schools. After all, how can we call public education a democratic institution if a mere minority of citizens determines its funding?

Hatched in an inequitable egg, the tax cap breeds even more inequality once unleashed across the state. Rich communities who stay under the cap have more money (for now) to play with than poor communities, as spending is limited to two percent of the previous year’s budget.  According to a NYSUT affidavit, “The chasm between [rich and poor districts] will only widen if lower performing districts continue to be deprived of local control over budgeting, particularly in light of the state’s failure to meet its funding obligations.” For example, in 2012-2013, the wealthiest districts were able to raise their tax levy per pupil over $500 dollars more than the poorest districts. Though test scores are hardly an indicator of academic superiority, it should come as no surprise that students in wealthier districts also outperform their poorer counterparts on state exams.  Poverty at home conjoins with poverty at school, spawning a preternatural beast set on devouring our kids’ futures.   

With the idiot wind of the tax cap at his back, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to withhold even more money from schools. His Tax Relief Commission, led by former governor George Pataki, recently recommended rebates over the next two years for homeowners in districts which do not override the tax cap. In essence, districts will be awarded for spending less money on education, while Cuomo cuts corporate taxes and pushes casino construction throughout the state.  The self-proclaimed “lobbyist for the students” suddenly cares more about gambling than education. This proposal, along with the tax cap, only exacerbates the economic divide throughout the state, as residents in more affluent districts will bite the better half of the apple. Oddly, much like Arne Duncan, the only money Cuomo can find for schools is through gimmicky competitions, not realizing that education is not “bowling for dollars”, as one Long Island superintendent quipped. 

Opponents of New York’s tax cap are not pro-taxes, but pro-democracy. A democracy depends on an educated populace. Ironically, many of those first to slash education budgets equate education with our “global economic competitiveness.”  Regardless of whether it helps or hinders our economy, education is weakened when citizens are incentivized to underfund it.  Public education feeds on fair and equitable funding, not worm-infested refuse.  Let the simple majority determine how much our kids should get before there’s nothing left.