Sunday, April 26, 2015

In honor of standardized testing month...

I watched the news this morning, which was my first mistake. Then I read a number of articles relating to education policy. Mistake number two. I learn from my mistakes, sometimes quickly. Here's what I learned today: Education professionals must take back the dialogue regarding education.

We have to stop allowing people who have never done our jobs to dictate how we should do them. We have to stop operating within a rigged system and acting like the system is fair. We must stand against the systematic dismantling of public education at the hands of modern-day robber barons and their legislative cronies. We have to stop pretending that our jobs are not political. If taxes pay for it, government agencies regulate it, and legislative bodies craft policy for it, it's political. We must no longer be silent!

While I know that correlation is not causation, it is increasingly difficult to ignore what 15 years of consistent data have shown: poverty matters. Poorer students do not perform as well on standardized tests. Standardized tests are more accurately a measure of student poverty than of student learning (1). When the game is as rigged as standardized testing, the failure is on the part of the system, not those forced to operate within it.

The current system artificially creates winners and losers. The catch-22 is that if I do my job, and so do the state's many other teachers, and our children succeed, that is not a success; instead the rhetoric is that the test is not rigorous enough. When too many of Oklahoma's students passed the biology test, the cut scores were rigged upward, which created more failure. This was done after tests were scored and after those manipulating the data knew what that manipulation would do (2). When my students do not score as well on those same tests, the failure is said to be mine. When the data is so easily manipulated, and it is manipulated, those are not my students' failures, nor is it my failure. Such an artificially created failure rests squarely at the feet of those who created it.

We can no longer allow the rigged and manipulated data to be used for high-stakes decisions. Third graders are held back on the basis of a single test score on a test that is not designed to measure their ability to read. It's a language arts test! Eighth graders are told they will not be issued a driver's license if they are unable to pass the 8th grade "reading" test, which is also a language arts test and is not designed to measure their reading ability. High school students are not allowed to graduate if they do not pass the required number of tests, which have already been shown to be easily manipulated by simply raising the passing score after students' tests are scored. Teachers are evaluated, in part, based on the same manipulated data (but only if they teach a tested subject).

On top of that, schools are given a grade which does not reflect the true value of the school. The top performing students are often exempt from the end of instruction tests. Because they are exempt, their scores on the alternate tests do not count in the school's A-F data. You heard me correctly; the top performing students do not count in A-F if they are exempt from the EOI tests. If the district is lucky, an exempt student may count in the bonus section for AP or honors classes. Meanwhile, most of the bottom 25% of students count three times: once in whole school progress, once in the bottom 25% improvement, and usually in one or more subareas. A-F scores are skewed downward. Enough already!

Who does this system benefit? Testing companies who make billions of dollars in testing contracts with state departments of education, charter school companies who cash in on the rhetoric of failure, politicians whose campaigns receive donations from those companies and who gain campaign points by promising to "clean up public education and fire our way to the top." One thing is certain; children do not benefit from misguided, high-stakes test driven education reform.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blogger Challenge and the Hideously Ugly Object Invasion

This week's blogger challenge, which I am late in responding to (dagnabbit, EOI testing!), is to write positively and about curriculum. Here goes...

Raymond Loewy is known as the father of modern industrial design--and for good reason. He, like the Bauhaus, de Stijl, and Craftsman artists, architects, and designers, promoted the idea that form follows function: an object must both fulfill its purpose and be aesthetically pleasing. In that order. 

I love good design. It makes me giddy. My favorite designers pay attention to the details that make an everyday object a thing of beauty. I hope that my students will appreciate good design as much as I do by the end of our project. It goes something like this...

"I challenge you to find the ugliest useful object you can acquire. It can be footwear, a kitchen gadget, a pen, desk supplies like paper clips or staplers, furniture, lamps, electronic devices, any object you come into daily contact with and wish you didn't have to look at. For me, it's the ultra-utilitarian plain crank-style can opener. (Produces said can opener.) It's flat. It's uncomfortable in the hand. It's not much to look at, and it begs for improvement. The more hideous the object, the better. Please bring in objects that started life as ugly things, not objects that have been made unsightly through misuse, neglect, or purposeful and malicious defacement." 

I ask them to bring their objects in a few days from the announcement, and then we discuss great designers, what drives them, and how their work impacts society. We look at beautiful things like ideas from industrial design shows, the work of the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I ask students why the objects need to look good. Why is it not enough for an object to simply function? We look at functional ceramic objects that are relatively simple and unadorned. Is there an inherent beauty in the simplicity of line and surface? Is there a difference between good art and good design? We talk about design as a career path. Then I throw down the gauntlet. 

"Students, your task is to redesign the object you brought in with you. You know, that ugly one? What can you do to reimagine the design? How can you elevate it? How will the user interact with it differently?"

So far this semester, my students have redesigned the high school track uniforms,  screw drivers and other tools, and shoes; created sets of inexpensive yet attractive dishes and flatware; designed homes and commercial spaces; and engaged in a wide range of other design problems of their choosing. 

I look forward each year to seeing how my students respond to the challenge. What they choose to redesign and how they approach the design process varies. Sometimes their redesign is literal; they remake the object in question. Sometimes it's conceptual; they produce renderings of their improved concept. Regardless of the varied approaches, invariably, my students rise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We Have to Stop Pretending...

When it comes to #oklaed, we have to stop pretending...
  1. that one multiple choice test tells us everything we need to know about a student, her teacher, and her school.
  2. that students are engaged in or will find a future need for the kinds of learning we are requiring of them. (See #1.)
  3. that we know what college and career readiness means for this year's seniors, much less for a kindergartener (or that it has any real meaning at all).
  4. that education reform is about student outcomes. (Spoiler alert: It's about money.)
  5. that teachers are the cause of all of society's ills, or that we can cure all of them.