Guarding Democracy

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fullsizerenderA few weeks ago, the Tennessee Department of Education released an early Christmas present: last year’s TNReady scores. In case you are not familiar with TNReady, it is Tennessee’s version of an annual standardized test. I know, you are probably like me and thinking, “What the hell good are scores from last year in the middle of December?” Releasing them now is just an offshoot of the multiple problems that Tennessee had with standardized testing last year. It’s really no surprise that they are just releasing them now, just in time for some holiday hand wringing.

According to Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales, “Only 22.8 percent of all high school students are listed as on track or mastered reading in their grade level, and 12.2 percent are on track or mastered their grade level in math.” That means if I walk into a roomful of 100 students in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), only 23 of them will be reading on grade level and only 12 will be able to do adequate math. Hmmmm…. What about in neighboring Williamson County where they are known for their superior schools? Take that same room of 100 and only 41 will be able to read or do math on a grade level. Anything starting to smell a little fishy?

Think about this. We are giving kids a test where only 41% are deemed on track or better in our very best schools under the very best circumstances. What? If I showed up at your place of employment and gave you a test that less than 41% of the staff could pass, would you not raise questions about the validity of the assessment? So why are we not questioning the validity of these tests? Why are we instead wringing our hands, rending our garments, and blindly accepting that our kids are underperforming?

What if I showed up in a classroom of 6th graders and said that I believe running a 100-yard dash in under 9 seconds is essential to your success as a human being? We all recognize that I would never get over 20% of the kids able to do that. It wouldn’t matter how much we practiced, how much we changed our diet, or bought new gear, the majority of the kids would fail. Yet if I raise that question about our literacy and math standards and the tests we use to assess them, people lean back, scowl, and say, “You don’t think all kids can learn. If all kids were held to high expectations, they would achieve.” Yeah, well you can expect things all you want, but if students are consistently falling way short, then I’d say you need to assess your assessments.

Invariably someone shows up and says, “You may be working hard, but you’re not working smart.” And they’ll proceed to lay out their brilliant strategies that always include longer hours and a narrower focus. After all, nobody ever got a 6-figure executive job by coming along and saying that the guy before them was doing it about right. Yet we continue to see similar results with the narrative of failing schools getting further and further ingrained into our day-to-day conversations. Periodically we see a large short-term gain and we rally around, slap each other on the back, and proclaim a success. But do those results hold upon deeper inspection? Not usually.

Last year, Neely’s Bend Middle  School was a school that was in the bottom 5% of performers in the state, and therefore was subject to takeover by the state. In an effort to stave off the takeover, the school and the community rallied together and buckled down to show enough growth to make the argument that the school shouldn’t be taken over. Though they succeeded in showing great growth, they failed to prevent the takeover. Everybody took great pride, and rightfully so, as those numbers had been produced through tremendous dedication and work.

Recently I asked several district administrators if they felt that in working for those numbers the children had received an equitable education to their peers in whiter, wealthier schools. Yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, Neely’s Bend is made up of primarily black and brown children. Just like nearly all priority schools, but hey, there’s not a pattern there or anything, and poverty isn’t destiny and all… but I digress. As far as the question goes, none of the administrators were able to answer in the affirmative. This begs the question of who was the beneficiary of this undertaking? Was it children or was it adults? I’m not trying to take anything away from the hardwork of those administrators, teachers, or community members, but it’s essential that our actions always strive for equitable educational experiences and not just short-term test results.

Don’t think test scores overly influence our educational strategies? If you want affirmation, all you have to do is take a look at MNPS’s proposed vision statement: Metro Nashville Public Schools is the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career and life – and that every school is a great school. How do you make the claim to be the fastest-improving urban school system without emphasizing test scores? So the vision for our district is based on an assessment that appears to be pre-disposed to ensuring that less than 50% of students pass. Is that really for the benefit of children, or does it give adults talking points up at Legislative Plaza and at cocktail parties? What will be sacrificed in the classroom for children so that adults can verify that claim? Will this not further instill the perception of education as a competition instead of a continuous process? Why are we content to reducing our children’s experience in schools to test scores? It isn’t right.

These are questions I continually wrestle with. We never stop talking about rigor and being college and career ready, but to what end? Are we teaching kids that is all there is to life? Are we teaching kids that their worth is entirely measured by how hard you work and how you scored on the annual standardized test? As a kid, my parents had high expectations for me, but they also had a bigger expectation that I would do my best. As long as I did my best, if the results fell short, they were disappointed but there was a recognition that different people had different skills. We seem to have lost this understanding and instead have become enamored with the so-called growth mind set.

On the surface, I take no exception to the growth mindset. We as people should never be completely satisfied with what we’ve learned and should always strive to go deeper. I do believe, though, that the belief that all people can reach the same heights if they just keep working harder is disingenuous at best. That’s like saying everybody could be a starting quarterback in the NFL or everybody could be a world class concert pianist if they just practiced harder. We also need to recognize the amount of sacrifice it took for that NFL quarterback or concert pianist to reach their pinnacle. That sacrifice is not, nor should it be, something everybody is willing to make. In thinking about the “Growth Mindset,” it’s important that we keep in mind the words of creator Carol Dweck on the false growth mindset: “It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.”

I believe that in order to inspire a true growth mindset, our assesments must not demand unrealistic expectations. It is essential that our assesments reflect true learning and not just the creation of data points that cater to adult needs. And maybe more importantly, that growth itself isn’t best measured on a standardized test, but rather daily, by our teachers who know and observe our children best. The further away from assessments designed by actual educators we get, the more we run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture of our educational system.

These unrealistic expectations play out not just in our poorer schools, but equally as much and maybe more so in our more privileged communities. I have friends who are parents in those schools, and they’ve talked of the demands placed on their children. Of 6th graders getting home at 4 pm only to have 2 hours of homework, followed by dinner, bath time, reading time, and then off to bed by nine. Where does that leave time for kids to be kids? Where does that leave time for families to interact? My father used to say to me, “Enjoy these times because once you become an adult, you’ll have responsibilities and won’t have as much time to enjoy life.” I’d argue that kids today, as early as age 8, have nearly as many responsibilities as adults. How is that healthy?

I’ve worked hard all my life, sold at an early age on the mythos of the working class, and at age 51 I find myself with a bit of a crisis of faith. I remember being in my late 20’s and managing a music venue. The father and brother of the woman I was living with took an annual trip to Vero Beach for the Dodgers Spring Training, and they invited me. Of course I couldn’t go. The job needed me, and I needed to constantly prove how hardworking I was. In hindsight, I wish somebody would have instilled in me the belief that you don’t always have to be producing, and that sometimes life is just about enjoying the experiences. This is the kind of thinking that we are instilling in children – to think more of the achievement than the experience. But both hold valuable lessons and need to be balanced with the other.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the toll these unreasonable expectations place on teachers and principals. It is not uncommon during the school year for me to head to bed around 11:30 pm and find my wife on her laptop, still working on lesson plans or grading papers. I inquire if I can help, and she responds, “Sure, do these TLA’s, then write this discipline plan, and these papers need grading.” I just shake my head and go to bed, knowing that this scene is playing out in countless other professional educator’s homes. How do these demands lead to a sustainable profession?  How does this enviorment get a quality teacher in front of every student? It doesn’t and we are already seeing cracks in the talent pool. These cracks will only grow as long as we foster unrealistic expectations. In my opinion, these unrealistic expectations divert teacher’s energies away from actual teaching and more into test prep.

In looking at the tests, it isn’t clear at all exactly what these tests are really testing. Is it a student’s knowledge of the state standards? Is it their ability to decipher the test? Is it their ability to use technology? Who knows what the results even mean. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat Tennessee does as a good job as anyone explaining it, but the bottom line remains: If less than 50% of students can be proficient, you are setting the bar wrong, and you open yourself to the question of whose benefit is this for? Is it administrators and lawmakers trying to build a resume or is it kid’s who are trying to attain skills in order to build a better life? If it’s for the kids, then it is imperative that we create accurate assesments of what teachers teach and what students learn not some hypothetical pipedreams of  those who never enter our classrooms or interact with our kids.

Don’t think for a second that kids aren’t asking that question of who this is for. They can smell hustle a mile away. Talk to teachers, and they will tell you how hard it is to get kids to take the tests seriously. They’ll tell you of their frustrations at trying to get kids to understand the ramifications of these tests. But can you blame them? If I demanded you take a test that I couldn’t administer properly, and the odds were that you would fail it, would you take it seriously? Furthermore, as your teacher, would you take me seriously?

As Maury County Director of Student Services Ron Woodard pointed out in a recent blog, “The overemphasis on testing seems to create school and classroom environments where ‘test-prep’ is the priority. This ultimately thins the curriculum and narrows the focus of learning down to what will actually be assessed at the end of the year.” He goes on to give voice to the concerns of young teachers, who feel like this: “I need every single minute everyday. There never seems to be enough time to teach the standards that will be assessed and my overall evaluation will be impacted by these results.” Not to take fault with the young educator – after all, it is us who placed them in this precarious position – but who is benefiting from this setting of unreal expectations? And what are we asking to be sacrificed in pursuit of those so-called standards?

My children are still young and relatively new to the public school experience. I look at them, though, and silently pray that when they get to high school, it’ll be ingrained that learning is an ongoing process and doesn’t just happen in the classroom. I pray that they won’t be afraid to take a day to cut class. I know it’s heresy to utter such a thought, and I certainly won’t encourage it. After all, Dad’s approval would defeat the purpose, and if caught, I will mete out the appropriate discipline. But I hope that my wife and I as parents have instilled in them the knowledge that rigor, high test scores, and constant production are not the only things that one is measured by, and that sometimes it’s okay to just step out for a day and follow your heart. Sometimes just living life is the biggest learning experience and that all learning doesn’t have to go hand in hand with rigor.

In education circles, we talk ad nauseum about that word rigor. Unfortunately that means the majority of the focus is on the measurable results. I would argue that the imeasurable results are equally important, and that in our rigorous pusuit of academic standards we shouldn’t neglect all the other important work schools do. As Mike Bannen, a Kansas City teacher, writes in a recent article in the Kansas City Star, “But it is equally important to understand that the historical (and ongoing) struggles to provide equal education to women, minorities and the disabled demonstrate that public education has been about more than just providing access to the educational conditions needed to secure a good job; it is also about the democratic need to value human dignity in furtherance of democracy.” An important reminder that our schools are the source of the shape of our democracy. Neil Postman, former chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, puts it even more succintly “Public education isn’t important because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public.” That needs to on the wall at the entry to everyone of our schools.

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One comment on “Guarding Democracy

  1. sooxie516 says:

    Was does it say about a test when it is so poorly administered that the company who created it is fired before it is even scored? Students were well aware of the problems of this test and asked me repeatedly when they would get the results and whether they would receive a grade on them. When students found out that they wouldn’t get the results until October (which would have been better than late December!), their response was “Pff! Who cares?” Of course, I wanted students to do the best they could on the tests, so I never really told them when results would be in. I just said that I didn’t know, because I honestly didn’t. Who is going to try their hardest on a test when you don’t even know when the results will come back and if you will be graded? Who is going to try their hardest on a test that was supposed to have been done online, but obviously had such major problems that it had to be taken on paper?

    I strongly dislike the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” It is used to justify a heavier and heavier workload for teachers. The implied message is that if you have to work harder to accomplish some new mandate, then you obviously are not smart.

    These test results need to be discarded. Students didn’t take these assessments seriously and they were problem-ridden from Day One. Maybe they are being used, so we can show a manufactured dramatic improvement next year.

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