Thursday, April 25, 2013

All Roads lead to Rome:

All roads lead to Rome is a common English idiom.  Literally, the saying was accurate due to the fact that in the Roman empire all roads actually took the most direct route to Rome.  However, it is generally accepted to mean there are different routes to the same goal.  In today's educational climate, all roads lead to Rome.  I believe this idiom accurately describes the current state of education and the educational reform movement.

Education is in a constant state of transformation.  I have accepted that fact because I believe we should always be looking for ways to maximize our educational effort for the sake of our children and their future.  But there is a cost associated with this constant drive to do things better, and the cost is more than just dollars and cents.  The biggest cost is the toll these reforms take on our classroom teachers.  Kevin Hime summed it up best: every reform idea lands squarely on the teachers' desks.

Our classroom teachers are drowning under the tide of educational reforms.  It doesn't matter which reform you want to point to, it eventually leads to the teacher.  Teacher Leader Effectiveness (TLE) is a prime example.  Sure administrators had to sit through 5 days of excruciatingly bland training sessions.  That pales in comparison to the daily obstacles TLE bestows upon our most valuable educational tool: the teacher!  Teachers not only have to deal with the added work responsibilities of keeping up with an artifact folder, observations, observation conferences, and evaluation conferences, but the daily reinforcement that a statistical formula straight off a winner take all state assessment will make up 50% of their evaluation.  And to make it worse, 70% of Oklahoma teachers do not teach a subject that is tested.  50% of their evaluation comes from where? - how their kids do on the math or ELA test, or other factors out of their direct control.  Common Core is another reform that hits our teachers unreasonably hard.  Great teachers do not understand why they have to change the manner in which they teach when they have been so successful teaching it that way.  Now, don't get me wrong; you do not have to be a bad teacher to get better.  Sure we can all be better, but to change the way I do things to make others better is a logic they don't understand. Yes, we need to incorporate more technology in the way we teach.  Technology should be a tool in a teacher's toolkit, but it shouldn't be the only tool.  There is still value in some of our traditional methods of teaching.  We shouldn't ask a 1st grade teacher who has been successfully teaching students to read for the last 30 years to start teaching reading only using technology because we will eventually assess reading with a computer? The mother load of reforms that effect the livelihood, culture, and climate of our classroom teachers are A-F accountability systems.  I'm all for holding schools, teachers, and administrators accountable for the job they do with our students.  And I am just as guilty as the next guy for adding to the stress of teachers instead of shielding them from this 'stresser'.  The use of data to drive instruction is awesome, but using that data to "grade" individual teachers has caused pure pandemonium among a group that is already underpaid and overworked.  Guilty as charged, and a mistake I will not make again.  The A-F accountability system has teachers taking the overall grading system and applying it directly to them and their peers' classrooms.  This is a stress maxer! When they feel the pressure, so do their students, and because learning is an active and social process, this is a learning inhibitor.  Therefore, both the teaching and learning parts of the academic formula has been dealt a challenge.  Every reform I just talked about isn't necessarily a bad idea, but we need to remember that every one of these reform ideas drastically affects the classroom teacher, and not always in the most positive way.

Today, educators are generally described as 'reformers' or 'traditionalists'.  What I don't understand is why do I have to be on one side or the other?  This is the educational equivalent of the logical fallacy of 'or'; that there are only two options, and you have to choose 1 or the other.  I vehemently disagree!  Why can't we be both a traditionalist and a reformer? I think both groups want the same thing: the best education possible for students.  Shouldn't we all want to protect those time honored traditions we know work while reforming the things that will make them work better?  Traditionalists and reformers honestly have the best interests of students in mind.  The roads they take might not be the same, but – hey - all roads lead to Rome.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

To PARCC or not to PARCC? That is the question.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a consortium of states that are developing exams to assess the achievement of students under Common Core State Standards.  In the previous post, I discussed what Common Core meant to Oklahoma educators. I ended that post by saying I could live with CCSS but not the PARCC assessments.  There are many, many reasons why I think that PARCC assessments are bad for Oklahoma.  Loss of instructional time, testing costs, duplication and redundancy of testing, and educational philosophy are just some of the reasons why I believe PARCC is bad for Oklahoma.

Loss of instructional time is a major concern for schools that give several tests.  When PARCC released their testing guidelines, it was suggested that 3-8 grade PARCC assessments should take somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 total hours for each grade.  With CCSS requiring 5 total assessments per year (2 Math and 3 ELA; 1 Performance Based Assessment each and 1 End of Year Assessment each plus 1 communication exam) that means each test is around 2 hours.  My major problem with these types of guidelines is that they are never accurate.  Currently McGraw Hill suggests that the 6th grade Math online test should be between 1.5 and 2 hours for the Math test.  It has taken our students an average of 3.5 hours to complete the test.  So schools should be worried that the 9 hour suggested testing time might actually be around the 12 to 18 hour range.  This is a staggering amount of time for an 8 year old to test.  The estimated time for the GRE test required to get into most post graduate schools is only 4 hours.  So PARCC’s logic is that 8 year olds should take test totaling 9 hours (15 by my experience) but 24 year olds trying to earn a PhD only have to test for 4 hours?  And never mind the fact that these kids will sit and take tests totaling 5 school days, how about the lost instructional time because they or their school mates are taking tests.  I can’t seem to get people outside education to understand that when testing starts teaching stops.  It is not possible for all students to test at the same time, so schools stagger their assessments; which mean all other school activities cease so testing is not distracted or interrupted.  At our High School, testing is a 3 week process.  All our computer labs are used so no computer lab instruction takes place.  Kids should be in Biology, but they are taking the Eng. II test.  The Algebra I kids can’t have class because their teacher is the test administrator for the Geometry test.  I will repeat, when testing starts teaching ends.

The costs of PARCC assessments are staggering.  One estimate states that Oklahoma will have to invest $250 million (1-$500 computer for every 2 kids in Oklahoma = $250 million) in technology upgrades and testing devices to conduct PARCC assessments.  The PARCC assessments guidance for devices is comical.  They recommend 1 testing device for every 2 students and suggest a 1:1 ratio of devices per students in the largest testing grade for each building.  Not to mention that the requirements these testing devices are to have almost ensure that every school district will have to upgrade or purchase new devices.  Add to that the $186 million that the USDE gave PARCC to develop the assessment plus the $15 million the SDE has requested to spend for a test that doesn’t even exist yet.

Another major problem for PARCC assessments is the duplication and redundancy of testing.  This is a twofold problem.  First, CCSS does not do away with the Social Studies or the Science tests.  So students will still have to take those tests as well.  Furthermore, it will be another testing company and testing procedure for our building test coordinators to learn and manage (PARCC, EOI/CRT, & OAAP and none from the same company with the same procedures).  Today there was a flier released from SDE trying to convince everyone that there were actually less testing under PARCC.  The flier fails to mention that there are multiple assessments for both Math and ELA.  This adds to the duplication of testing.  We currently have 1 Reading and 1 Math test in each grade.  That moves to a total of 5 PARCC tests per grade and maybe up to 3 more that is still required under Oklahoma law.  Second, why do we take exams to determine college readiness that the colleges do not care about?  Nowhere on any state college scholarship application or application for admission is a question asking HS seniors about their EOI exam scores.  If we want to determine college readiness, then why do we not use the test the colleges use to determine readiness, the ACT?  Oklahoma already gives the Explore, Plan, and ACT to middle school and high school students.  Why not continue to use Explore, Plan, and ACT tests (that are already designed to show growth and aligned to CCSS) instead of spending another $1 million to create a value added model for student growth plus the millions to create a new test! 

These are just some of the reasons why I think PARCC is bad for Oklahoma.  And not everything about PARCC is all bad.  Some of the "drag and drop" performance tasks and some other aspects of the assessments are truly cutting edge in assessments. But overall, I think we can assess student achievement on the Common Core Standards in a manner that will not cost as much money, or loose as much instructional time, and not require the complete overall of our assessment programs.  I will get into test validity, reliability, and philosophy in my next post.  If you have any comments about PARCC please feel free to add them here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What is Common Core

Common Core 

What is CCSS? That is the biggest controversy surrounding common core.  Common core is the elephant in the room.  It has been described as being so many things by so many different people.  Some argue that CCSS are simply standards, nothing more nothing less.  Others, especially some of the more vocal education reformers, claim  CCSS, with its depth and rigor, is the answer to failing public schools. (I don't believe public schools are failing).  Common Core has been described as standards, as curriculum, a pedagogy, a resource for teachers, and as an assessment tool.

So what is Common Core?  First, common core is educational standards.  Educational standards are simply the specific criteria for what students are expected to learn.  Standards usually come in 2 forms: content standards and performance standards.  Content Standards dictate what students should know and be able to do in various subjects. Performance standards dictate to which degree those content standards have been met.

The answer - Common Core is the educational equivalent to a merry-go-round; it doesn't matter where you start or which direction you go you end up in a circle.  Common Core is a little bit of all those claims and yet none at the same time.  Let me explain - Will common core be the gateway to increased relevance and rigor? Its true the standards are written to be very narrow in scope but to provide for a more robust depth of knowledge.  If you subscribe to the "if you build it they will come" theory, then simply writing more rigorous standards for students to meet will lead to higher achievement.  But will narrowing and deepening the specific content we want our students to learn be enough to cause students to start achieving at a higher level? No, that will requiring a change in the way teachers teach; and that leads into pedagogy.  Yes, some teachers will have to change the way they teach, yet others will not. So Common Core is not technically a pedagogy, but will cause pedagogical changes.  Technology will have to be integrated, and students will need to demonstrate their understanding instead of identifying their understanding. But that means there has to be a change in the way we assess student learning. We will have to rethink how we determine what students know and can do.  The assessments will change because the performance standards have changed and the content has changed.  If the content standards have changed, then the specific things we will assess our students on dictate which things will be taught and when. And that is curriculum. Curriculum is the organized program of learning. At lower levels, it will dictate to us when to start teaching fractions or when to engage in figurative language. At higher levels, it dictates when students should learn Alg. I and when to learn Geometry. And if CCSS dictates to us when and how, then CCSS also dictates what resources we have to choose from in teaching those things.  Don't kid yourselves - if 47 states plus D.C. and territories are all adopting CCSS, how many different versions of textbooks do you think will be out there?

So what is common core? It is the educational initiative that will have substantial and far reaching consequences into everything associated with education.  If we are going to continue to compare Oklahoma students to Massachusetts, Florida, Indiana, Finland, Japan, Singapore, etc then having a national standard is probably not a bad start.  Simply adopting a set of standards and saying it will solve all our problems is ludicrous.   It will require educators to evaluate what, how, and why we do things.  I can live with that.  What I don't think I can live with is the PARCC assessments that come with it.  Can we divorce common core from PARCC? I sure hope so.  I'll discuss PARCC in the next blog.