CRAFTING THE DESIRED NARRATIVE

My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Sally Teacher took a final sip from her glass of champagne and placed the glass on the counter. The bell had rung 5 minutes ago, and the kids would be attentively awaiting her arrival in class. Poised and ready to learn, their minds scrubbed and freed from outside influences by the call to class.

Still, she felt no need to rush, Took a last look at the donuts, in search of a crueler that hadn’t been claimed. Seeing none available, she started out the door. But not before setting the timer on the hot tub. She and her colleagues would want to congregate there during lunchtime. That time to unwind, unencumbered by the sounds of children was such a welcome relief.

Arriving in her room about 10 minutes later – she had to take a bathroom break after all – she was greeted by a roomful of students, silent and awaiting direction. She looked at them and thought, what a hopeless collection of children, if only there was something I could do for them, but unfortunately they are all so far behind due to a lack of in-person instruction last year, there is no hope of them ever catching up.

She holds on to the thought of last year’s remote instruction. How nice it had been, sleeping till 10, never getting out of her pajamas, watching re-runs of The Office all day while snacking on cheese and crackers, all the while earning 6  figures. Ah…if only it could have become permanent. Oh well…all good things must end.

As she looks at the classroom, she again realizes that despite her years of schooling, she is unprepared for them. She has no ideas, no strategies, hell…she doesn’t even have any idea of what they know and don’t know. God forbid if she has to talk to one of these kids, It is a poorly kept secret that she secretly despises children. She only took up this teaching thing for the summers off and the benefits, and only until she could get pregnant and start her own family. This certainly wasn’t anything she planned to do with the rest of her life.

She finds herself again wishing that someone from the district would come by and give her some idea of what she was supposed to do with these kids. If she only had some kinda script she could read from, she used to prepare for classes, but that started cutting into her time at the gym, so something had to give. Luckily leadership saw it the same way and was starting to work on that resource. She had to give it to them, they were really attuned with her and had a clear understanding of her daily challenges.

She’d read the night before that state legislators were meeting this month to consider some ideas that also might help. Hopefully, somebody from the state department of education would email her and tell her just what the kids knew, and maybe provide her with more direction. It seemed like nobody wanted to offer her any insight into how best to serve these kids she was charged with. Wasn’t there another assessment scheduled for next week? The results from last weeks, though she hadn’t seen them, were surely out of date, so it stood to reason that it was time for another.

Oh well, might as well get started. She walks across the room and turns the TV on. At least they like Shrek, though maybe today is a day for a Harry Potter movie. The children remain quiet and attentive while the opening credits begin to roll. Sally plops at her desk and calls up the Amazon website. Time for a little online shopping while the students are engaged.

“She shouldn’t complain”, she tells herself, ‘it could be much worse.”

The reality is that it is worse, much worse. Most of you recognize the opening paragraph as farcical satire. But unfortunately, there are all too many who believe that the life of Sally Teacher, as I relayed to you, bears a resemblance to a real teacher’s life.

Over the last decade, teaching has become a near untenable profession. The responsibilities and expectations growing even as the challenges in procuring candidates to take up the challenge become more difficult. One need look no further than the enrollment numbers for teacher prep programs for evidence of a pending crisis, which many believe has already arrived.

But why should we be surprised? Why would anyone want to go into debt to earn a degree that is going to be dismissed once you are employed? Why would you pursue a career that demands twice the number of hours at half the compensation your peers receive in their chosen fields?

And yes, we’ve done some minimal work on salaries over the last year, but let me illustrate that work this way.

Housing rates appear to be currently hyper-inflated. But, if you graph out the last 3 decades with the expected 4% increase every year, you will find a huge drop in 2012 and that because of that drop, the market today is only slightly above where it would be had that drop never occurred and 4% was achieved annually. In other words, current rates are reflective of a correction that was necessitated because of the drop and therefore not really hyper-inflated.

Do the same mapping for teacher salaries and you will find that as large and welcome as this year’s increases were, due to decades of stagnation, they don’t even touch the level salaries should be at had there been modest increases year over year. It’s like me stealing 10 dollars from you, waiting a year, giving you 3 back, and expecting you to be grateful because I’d given you $3. The reality is, I owe you a lot more money.

While we’ve had preliminary conversations on compensation, we’ve failed to hold any meaningful conversation on the job itself. The ongoing pandemic has just made that element even worse.

Before we get into the pandemic, and the disservice we’ve done to both teachers and students, let’s clear up something – “Learning Loss”. As it relates to student achievement affected by the pandemic, it is a made-up terminology. Now, if a kid gets hit upside the head with…say… a football helmet and suffers a concussion, there might be some loss of previously learned skills. But being cooped up in your house, receiving instruction through a computer, does not cause previously obtained skills to flee from your brain.

“Poor Johnny, he used to be so good at tying his shoes…but ever since he had to quarantine, he’s lost the ability to make a simple loop. Now he’ll never be able to tie a sailor’s knot because of the hours that will be required re-teaching him to make bow knot.”

Sounds ludicrous, no? Language matters.

However, I’m continually amazed by the number of people that will leap to condemn the inaccurate usage of the term “Critical Race Theory”, but will bend over backward to try and acknowledge that some kind of “learning loss” took place. A prime example would be a recent Peter Greene piece where he writes,

So when I read things like “Our kids didn’t lose anything,” I cringes, even though I also understands that our path forward (as always) is for classroom teachers to pump children up, not to beat them down. Meanwhile, while there is no question that most students in this country got shortchanged last year, it’s unlikely that a whole generation will now live in a van by the river eating cat food off hot plates because they can’t read the food labels in the grocery store. But I really wish union leaders would stop making mouth noises that sound like, “Hey, there’s no problems at all.”

He goes on to write,

Even if the test were perfect, and even if the students gave it their best shot, we would still have gigantic, gaping, critical gaps in our knowledge of Where Students Are Right Now. For one, all of the tests were jiggered during the Common Core boom to assess “skills” rather than content. So they will tell us nothing about content gaps. For areas such as history and literature, that’s a big question. Were I still in a classroom this fall, I’d be thinking, “I know which works are on the curriculum for last year, but I’ll need to find out which ones they actually got to.” Different areas will experience different sorts of gaps; musicians will miss out on the kind of development that comes from playing in an ensemble, while art and CTE areas will be missing the hands-on practice that develops skills in a normal year. I know policy makers really, really want an instrument that will tell them where students are compared to where they would have been in a “normal” year. No such instrument exists. Sorry. It just doesn’t.

While I agree with large swaths of that statement, it starts with a caveat that shouldn’t be allowed to pass. It’s not the quality of the tests that should be questioned, but rather their existence at all. I’m going to put the next line in all capital letters because I can’t find a mountain to yell it from and it’s that important…THERE IS NO TEST IN EXISTENCE THAT MEASURES “LOST LEARNING”. None. If you can’t measure it, does it really exist?

In order to make such an assessment you would need to establish what kids knew, and then measure what they didn’t know while separating out what was temporarily forgotten, what was dusty due to inactivity, and what was truly lost. Ain’t happening.

That makes it possible to dispute “learning loss’ while acknowledging that last year was less than optimal. But far from unrecoverable.

What we measure now, is what kids ‘know” on the day the test is administered. Which gives us a general idea, but is far from specific. Some kids don’t test well. Some kids don’t feel like they need to take the test seriously. Some kids are adversely affected by what goes on at home. I know they are supposed to be able to tune out their personal lives in order to validate the efforts of adults, but that ain’t always possible.

Think about your own work history, For those of you who have gone through a divorce, do you reflect back on that time and think, “Man, I was nailing it every day.” Some of you probably lost jobs over your divorce, or at best hung on by a thread. Was the work that you did while going through a divorce, equivalent to the work you did when your home life wasn’t in turmoil?

This month across the country the foreclosure and eviction moratoriums are beginning to be lifted. We can debate whether this is good or bad, but what’s undebatable is the negative impact it’s going to have on children. If your family is dealing with even temporary homelessness, how do think your children are going to perform on a test administered at school? But hey, we’ll act like those results are 100% valid, right? Like we have all the information needed to proceed.

A couple years ago, I showed up at an event that I was bartending with some other folks. We arrived before the organizer, but all of the stuff was out. Despite not having any input from the client or any idea of the client’s intentions, my co-workers immediately began to dive in and start setting up. When I raised concerns that we might be doing work that might possibly not be needed, or need to be undone, I was summarily dismissed.

“Look,: they said, “The work needs to be done and we don’t have a lot of time. I think we are fully capable of figuring out what needs to go where.”

We weren’t.

When the client arrived, it quickly became apparent that we operating without all the necessary information. Not only had we done needless work, but doing that needless work had wasted precious time because before we could take the correct actions, we had to undo the incorrect. Not a recipe for success, but the formula schools are repeating in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

District officials, non-profit interlopers, and legislators are rushing off to develop solutions to a problem they don’t even fully understand yet because the pandemic itself, is still evolving. And they are doing so with little input from the very people that have insight into how we should be proceeding – teachers.

During last year’s “historic” – their words not mine – special session of Tennessee’s State General Assembly, more bills were passed than teachers allowed to testify. Bills that while long on best intentions are short on practical implementation.

For example, the legislation calls for the establishment of a statewide tutoring program. Okay, fair enough, research show tutoring can be an effective intervention provided that certain elements are included. Tutors are well trained. Tutoring takes place during school and happens at least 3 times a week. There is close collaboration between tutors and the classroom teacher. It’s also important to have a low student to tutor ratio.

MNPS offers the following guidelines, 4:1 if the tutor is a licensed teacher. 3;1 if a para-pro or equivalent. 2:1 if the tutor is enrolled in an educator prep program. 1:1 if the tutor is a volunteer from the community or local college.

So let’s ignore the first elephant in the room – taking a student out of a classroom where they receive instruction from a certified teacher and in some cases, placing them with a well-intentioned volunteer – to focus on the math involved with this proposal. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of tutors you are going to have to procure in order to make this plan work. In the case of MNPS, they are looking for 2000 volunteers in order to staff the initiative. 2000!

I’d be hard-pressed to find 2000 volunteers willing to work a Rolling Stones show on a Saturday night, let alone sign up to work with students multiple times a week for a year. I’m not doubting anyone’s intentions, just recognizing the inability to follow through.

For 3 years I managed a community garden. In April I had 30 people, gung ho and ready to go. They were going to be there every Saturday and at least one day in the middle of the week. Come late June, it was me and one or two others pulling weeds in the hot sun. The enthusiasm, nowhere near as readily available. I suspect that tutoring will provide a similar example.

Even if you were to pay a nominal salary, where would you locate the bodies needed to successfully execute the proposed initiative? I suspect they’d come from the same orchids where we currently harvest teachers, subs, and bus drivers. Fields that are already picked bare.

None of this takes into account student reactions. Some students will welcome the added attention, some will be adamantly opposed to it, and most will fall somewhere in between. What’s the strategy for convincing students that this is something being done “with’ and “for” them, and not “to” them due to their perceived shortcomings? Many of them have already become all too familiar with those perceived shortcomings.

Good intentions – 1. Successful execution – 0.

Of course, none of what I just outlined couldn’t have been uncovered by talking to teachers and principals, had policy designers been so inclined.

Now let me tell you who actually benefits from this established “learning loss’ narrative – hint, it’s the usual suspects,

Despite years of input from legislators, non-profit profiteers, and district and state officials, test scores over the last decade have remained virtually flat. In Tennessee, SCORE, and its leader Dave Mounsouri have been producing mounds of paper and data points, but little in the way of results, while continually collecting millions of dollars from outside interests. Just last month, they picked up $660K from the Gates Foundation. For what?

It’s got to be dawning on somebody that their strategies are not raising numbers, and without something changing, people are going to begin to catch on and the money line will start to dry up. Some of them might actually have to get jobs.

Somewhere a light bulb went off in somebody’s head. What if we can convince everyone that kids lost learning over the last year, and as a result, the latest test results are the new standard. So going forth we won’t measure outcomes based on pre-pandemic numbers, but rather the new standards. So when kids begin to bounce back, like we all know they will, we can claim their recovery is a result of the plans we pushed in response to the pandemic. Some of our friends may even grow their bottom lines in the process.

Better yet, we can claim full credit, since there is no reason to give more than marginal credit to teachers. Everyone will know it was only through the careful and deliberate planning of bureaucrats and their partners the education non-profits that legislators were able to illuminate a path forward. and it was they who provided teachers with the data, resources, and strategies that enabled these historic gains. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Why do think the rush to test every kid the first two weeks of school? Test them early, test them unprepared, and it’s easier to get that baseline even lower. I can probably write the stories that’ll show up in January right now. Lot’s of headlines about “historic growth” and “Education policy on the right track”, provided we can ignore this pesky Delta variant and keep kids in school buildings.

I caution you against falling for his desired narrative. A narrative fueled by tests we collectively fail to understand. In the words of educator Nancy Baily, what is “proficient” anyways?

In a recent piece, Baily shares a past visit to a school board meeting where accountability was discussed,

Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions, and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.

What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased– the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cutoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?

The phrase “set the bar high” was used repeatedly. The word “proficient” became meaningless. The Board spent hours moving cut bars up and down, labeling groups of students to support their own well-meant theories about whether certain schools were “good” and others needed to be shut down. So much for science.

The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even “lost learning” any more, without a mountain of numbers. Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children. When it comes to standardized test score analysis, we are collectively illiterate. And this year’s data? It’s meaningless.

Baily is not wrong, and compounding the issue is the fact that we are leaving the most important voices out of the conversation.

I recently worked a rehearsal dinner for the daughter of a retired fire captain. Since I was scheduled to work the wedding, we walked out and looked at the space where the reception was to be held the next day,

As we surveyed the area, I asked, “Where are you thinking of putting the bar?”

He looked at me and said, “Let’s begin this conversation with the fact that I am a firefighter and you are a bartender by trade. Do you think if we rushed into a burning building to put out a fire, I would ask you where we should spray the hose? Where do you think the bar should go? That’s where we will put the bar because you are the expert.”

It was a startling admission and one that inspired in me a desire to work even harder to ensure the success of hi daughter’s wedding. he had seen me and recognized my contribution to the outcome.

It’s long past time we said the same to our teachers.

MNPS has a stated mission of every student seen. Every student is known. Maybe it’s time to expand that out to include every district employee. For too long, too many have been forced to toil in obscurity, their contributions unrecognized and their potential unrealized. Lost is any semblance of professional respect. Address that loss, and then we can begin to address any challenges misidentified as learning loss.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. An overall great piece TC. Teacjers deserve to be heard.

  2. More accurate to say that there is no test that accurately measures learning (loss or otherwise).

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