Monthly Archives: November 2012

How Bad Can It Get?

Let me tell you just how bad it can get – this relentless striving towards the ‘benchmark’. It reaches a pinnacle in the creation of the Pacing Guide. This nightmarish document becomes the focus of everything the teacher does in the classroom.

How is it created? Not by evil trolls beavering away in subterranean caves, lit by the flickering fires of hell. No. It is created by well-meaning souls who believe they are doing Something Good for education.

And it’s done more or less like this.

A careful examination of past standardized tests reveals the sections of the mandated curriculum that have been tested most frequently as well as the number of questions that relate to each area of the curriculum.

Each section of the curriculum is given a loading based largely on the proportion of questions it attracted in these past tests. This analysis will form the basis of the content and timing of the Pacing Guide.

A curriculum is developed for each grade level based on this analysis, making sure that previously untested areas of the curriculum are not left out entirely, but ensuring that the topics attracting the biggest number of questions also get the most time.

The school year is broken up into, for example, nine week units. The curriculum is similarly divided.

A test is devised for the end of each nine week period. Its format will closely resemble the high stakes test to be taken at the end of the school year. It will test exactly what was in the nine week curriculum and its questions will reflect the same priorities that went into the decisions about the content focus – the more likely it is to be tested, the more we focus on it.

The data obtained from these nine week tests will be provided to principals quickly so that they can call to account every teacher whose students are not meeting expectations. There will be an accountability meeting with each of these teachers in the principal’s office.

We now have a system in place that provides a ‘laser-like’ focus on the material to be tested by the State. From time to time an Assistant Superintendent will visit the school and pop into classrooms. Her task is to make sure that on this particular Tuesday, or Friday, or whenever, every teacher is teaching exactly what is expected according to the Pacing Guide. The teachers know better than to deviate from the Pacing Guide because its content will be tested at the end of the nine weeks and they will be held to account.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KIDS?

Let’s get something very clear here and now.

The role of the kids is to pass the tests so the schools are accredited and the district isn’t penalized.

The students’ task is to make sure the district doesn’t look bad.

This is how bad it can and has become.

It doesn’t matter if there is a violent thunder storm rolling about over the top of the school, fascinating the kids. We can’t talk or read or write about that. It’s Wednesday and the Pacing Guide says we should be learning about Mali.

It doesn’t matter that James has just come back from a holiday in Mexico and saw a parade on the Day of the Dead. He has photos, and a head full of questions. But it’s Monday and the Pacing Guide says we need to work hard on understanding the water cycle.

It doesn’t matter that Timmy still doesn’t understand the multiplication of fractions. He has to move on or he won’t have covered the rest of the topics by the end of the nine weeks. He can come back after school, at the weekend, in the summer … to plug the gaps in his understanding. We know that the building of mathematical understanding is a cumulative process and a misunderstanding now will undermine everything that comes next, but we just have to move on.

Yes, this is how bad it gets.

Perhaps the greatest evil of high stakes standardized testing is that it takes our eyes away from the children and focuses them instead on the tests themselves.

Children become sources of data.

Learning becomes something that is cut, sliced, packaged and weighed.

Until we rid ourselves of this impediment to education and find valid, humane, child centred forms of assessment, testing will continue to STOP our children from learning.

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A Gradual opening of Eyes

This article features in one of Australia’s most respected newspapers. The University of Melbourne (one of the world’s most respected universities) has carried out an intensive study of the many unintended negative consequences of high stakes testing in Australia.

Teachers are spending significant time in test preparation, they are teaching to the test, the curriculum is narrowing and kids and teachers are feeling anxious and frustrated. – not to mention bored.

And yet our political leaders will not accept the evidence. According to the Federal Education Minister, Peter Garrett, the findings are simply out of touch with the real opinions of the teachers who provide him with feedback. Hmmm. Wake up Mr Garrett. Open your eyes and ears.

http://www.theage.com.au/national/naplan-tests-take-heavy-toll-20121125-2a1n6.html

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It’s new and it’s shiny. The ADHD of educational policy

When will our educational policy makers learn to think in the deep end? It’s as though there is a kind of systemic ADHD at work where attention is grabbed by every bright and shiny new thing.

Let’s look at Finland again. I know, we keep doing this, but they have got a lot of things right!

Having highly qualified teachers is correlated with successful educational outcomes in nations such as Finland. So let’s sprinkle our schools with sparkling, academically gifted graduates, sit back and watch the transformation. That’s the idea behind Teach For America and Teach for Australia.

After six weeks intensive training these bright and shiny exceptional graduates are sent to some of our most disadvantaged schools where they will work with teacher mentors for around two years, transforming themselves and their students into educational successes.

Of course, the teacher mentors in these highly challenging schools have plenty of time to devote to their new chums, supporting them, guiding them, and providing them with the wisdom and strategies needed to survive and prosper in these environments. They have plenty of spare time for this.

The shallowness of this thinking is distressing. Teachers in Finland are highly qualified because of the selection processes BEFORE they graduate, not after. This is no crude “My word, you got a high GPA/ straight A/High Distinction degree, you will make a great teacher” decision.

“It’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine”

according to Dr Pasi Sahlberg (ABC Lateline, February 28th, 2012.)

Dr Sahlberg describes one student with aspirations to be a primary school teacher. She was a straight A student. She had read the required books on pedagogy before going through the application process. Yep. You heard it right. She was assumed to have thoughtfully completed required reading as a part of the application process. She took the entrance exam based on these books. Next she was required to engage in an observed clinical activity, replicating a school setting and focusing on social and communication skills.

Finally, she was invited to an interview where the most challenging question she was asked was “Why do you want to become a teacher when you could become a lawyer or a doctor?” Notice that there was no suggestion at all that she might be choosing teaching because she couldn’t get into law or medical schools. They would have been realistic options for her – maybe easier options!

She didn’t make it.

Dr Sahlberg tells us that in Finland they have practically no unsatisfactory teachers. I think you can see why.

If we continue to believe that we can take the high achievers from one environment (academic learning) and think they will continue to shine in a completely different environment (teaching) we will never improve educational outcomes for our kids.

It’s all about the teaching, and the teaching is all about the teachers.

Fiddling with curriculum, fiddling with assessments – these are all just fiddling while Rome burns if we don’t do something to ensure that we have selected the best potential teachers and given them the best pedagogical preparation we can provide. Only then are they ready to go into classrooms and educate our children.

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Testing the Toddlers

A follow up to my blog based on Diane Ravitch’s blog ‘Virtual Insanity’. The madness escalates.

Diane Ravitch's blog

A reader wonders, when do we start assessing parents and caregivers?

http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/CCSS/PreK_ELA_Crosswalk.pdf

Let’s not laugh too hard. I posted the links above in response to Dr. Ravitch’s post called “What are we doing to the little ones?” The links take you to draft Connecticut documents relating to CCSS for preschoolers. The introduction states that the adoption of CCSS for K-12 “has naturally led to questions regarding standards for preschool and/or prekindergarten students.” The next section talks about a work group that has been charged with the task of creating comprehensive learning standards for birth to age 5.

I personally am interested in the learning standards for infants. What do you think? Should the first assessments be at 6 weeks or 3 months? We probably need both formative and summative assessments in math and language arts. Since Connecticut is launching new teacher evaluations, we should probably apply the same standards to…

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Virtual Insanity

Virtual Insanity.

Online courses for kindergarten? Why not. I heard a discussion on the radio recently about children failing kindergarten! At the age of four we can already label a kid as a failure? I wonder if we might also find ways to label newborns as ‘failures’ if they don’t suckle effectively within the first 3 hours after birth, or toddlers as ‘failures’ if they can’t make it from the sofa to the door without landing on their back sides. Where will this insanity end?

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What if testing is STOPPING our kids from learning?

Our schools continue to be run as if they were nineteenth century factories. We focus on standardization and its measurement. We process in batches. We talk about ‘value added’ assessment as if we viewed our children as raw material to be processed in some kind of assembly line. We focus on eliminating outputs that do not meet our predetermined standards of quality for the end product.

We do our best to standardize the inputs in the only way we know how – by original date of manufacture or birth date. We then develop processing techniques that we try hard to standardize across every factory/school . These are the curricula and teaching practices that are required in each school district in order for the process workers/ teachers, to get positive evaluations. We design cheaply administered tests to ensure that every end product/child meets the same criteria of successful processing/schooling. At the end of each processing year every module/child submits to the same test to determine the value added to the raw material. Faulty modules/children who do not meet the standard are reprocessed through either the repetition of the previous processing system or some form of modified processing, until they do meet the standard.

The core of the assembly line factory, the practice on which its products would stand or fall, was standardized measurement of quality. It is precisely this practice permeating current education systems, that will destroy education and ensure that our children fail in the 21st century.

Why? Because our children are not widgets and learning does not work like that.

Real, transformational learning takes place when we are fascinated by something, when we develop a passion for a subject. Our strength as a species comes from our diversity not our uniformity. Every child has the capacity to be fascinated by something different and our schools, with their standardized curricula and testing, do everything they can to stifle this diversity, to ensure that every kid learns exactly the same thing.

We learn best when we take risks, when we chance failure because even though it is really difficult material, it fascinates us enough to make the risks and the hard work worthwhile. I recall my horror when I was informed by a group of young women in the final year of their undergraduate degree that they were withdrawing from my subject because they felt they would not get an A and that would have a negative effect on their Grade Point Average. Our testing regime, our relentless focus on end of manufacture measurement, is stopping our kids from learning.

Seth Godin, in a recent TED talk (http://getideas.org/resource/seth-godin-stop-stealing-dreams/?v=1352307111) uses a powerful analogy.  He says that we are focused on getting our kids to collect dots and we measure success by how many dots they have accumulated by the end of the school year. Instead, we should be teaching them to connect the dots, and this we are failing to do.

There is only one thing we need to focus on in education – thinking. Google has made the belief that there is some set of facts that is somehow mandatory learning for every student an archaic notion. You cannot think without something to think about. The content of any curriculum should be determined and judged by one fundamental criterion – how does it advance the students’ ability to think?

We need more brave schools, prepared to turn their backs on the factory model and actually encourage kids to try to do things that are too hard. We need more people in positions of influence to say, “Our kids want to come to school every day. They are intrigued by the things we do every day. They create new ideas, they innovate, they take risks, they are excited about the things they have already learned and they want more. And I don’t care if they can’t pass your standardized test. We are doing something much more important. We are educating.”

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International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand January 2013

Please join me at the International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand January 2013 where I will be speaking on the relationship between language and thinking.

This is an opportunity to hear from cutting edge thinkers, researchers and practitioners who are drawn from such fields as education, health sciences, the arts, sciences, sports, government and business.

The Conference themes of ‘Future survival’, ‘Future society’ and ‘Personal futures’ impact on everyone, from all disciplines.

Over the five days of the conference you can participate in full day master classes run by invited speakers. Listen to the world leading keynote and featured presenters and participate in a stimulating program of over 250 presentations and workshops. Combine this with a magical ‘tour’ program, artistic performances, two receptions, a conference gala dinner, and you are sure to have an unforgettable experience.

Check out the conference here
http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=4ac5b170022f98e9de26c12f4&id=6748c307f2


Supported by Massey University of New Zealand

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Diane Ravitch's blog

Pat Buoncristiani raises interesting questions about what can be learned from PISA.

Some nations see the international tests as a giant race, and their leaders all want to be number 1. This leads to more and more testing, but not the kind of thoughtful education policies that prepare young people to live in the world. There are no jobs that require bubbling-in skills.

If we could forget the horse race, we might learn what top-performing nations do and sort through it.

Pat is alarmed that New York State is blowing away $32 million on testing. How do you think she would feel about Texas spending nearly $500 million for the same testing?

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Why is PISA getting such a bad rap lately?

I have been reading a great deal of educational comment recently questioning what is described as an obsession with PISA scores. PISA is the OECD’s three year survey of educational achievement of  15 year olds in science, mathematics and reading. Let’s get one thing clear from the start.

The criticisms have more to do with us and how we are using PISA, than it has to with the PISA assessments and data themselves.

Most of the criticism of PISA seems to be coming from the USA where there is an epidemic of standardized testing that has swept across the country, causing a significant malaise in education. In the USA we are looking at PISA as if it is yet another high stakes test. Viewed this way the stakes are indeed very high, because it is the nation’s education system that is been assessed – and found wanting. In Australia there is similar criticism, perhaps because although the nation’s 15 year olds still perform well above the OECD average, their edge is slipping.

I guess it is understandable that when you see a test is not treating you well, the first thing you want to do is find fault in the test. The problem is that we are focusing on the wrong things.

Finland has been lauded internationally for some time now because of its student achievement levels on all three PISA measurements – science, mathematics and reading. I listened recently to Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a life-long educator who was traveling in Australia earlier this year. He is currently the General Director of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, Finland and previously he was a Senior Education Specialist with the World Bank as well as the Director of the Centre for School Development, Helsinki.

Finland, it seems has a very different attitude to PISA and, in fact, to all forms of standardized testing. PISA testing just happens to be something that they do. It is not viewed with anything like the significance that countries caught up in the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) give it. In Finland students do not take any externalized standardized tests until they have finished high school – at around 18 years of age. They do not judge the quality of their education using PISA data, but they do acknowledge that PISA data reinforces what they already knew about their education – that they had excellent teachers and successful schools.

And they knew all this without ever having resorted to widespread standardized testing.

The problem with our way of looking at PISA is that we focus on the numbers (are we above or below the OECD average?) and the ranking (who is beating us?). Our efforts then are directed towards trying to improving the score, competing with the others and moving up the ranks (the Prime Minister of Australia is determined to have Australia back in the top 5% of PISA by 2025). We start asking questions about how to tighten and standardize the curriculum, how to ensure that everyone is teaching the things that are going to be tested, how to give our students the test taking skills they will need to be successful in the tests.

But PISA is far more than ranking tables and scores. If only we would take the time to examine the data we would learn much more about how to improve our education systems. We would discover that we will achieve nothing if we continue to focus on accountability and standardizing curriculum.

We know from PISA  that in the 2006 round of testing less than 10% of the variation in student performance was explained by student background in five of the seven countries with the highest mean science scores of above 530 points. PISA demonstrates that equity and performance are highly related. In Finland, equity is considered more important than excellence. Dr Sahlberg tells us that “we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done.”

What are we doing to ensure that all our young people have access to the same quality of education regardless of socio-economic circumstances? In Finland it is illegal to charge fees for any education program that leads to a qualification, because education is deemed to be a right for all its citizens. There are no private schools in Finland. If we only looked more closely at the PISA data we would see that equity, not accountability or curriculum, is foundational to high achievement.

In Finland it is virtually impossible for a ‘bad’ teacher to enter the profession. The demand for teacher training positions is so high that last year 2,500 people competed for 120 positions and the selection panel was able to cherry pick the best of the best. Teachers are not paid dramatically high salaries, but they are highly respected. According to Dr Sahlberg “it’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine.”

We could also learn much about student attitudes towards specific curriculum areas as well as their views on the world. For example, a majority of students reported in PISA 2006 that they were motivated to learn science, but only a minority reported interest in a career involving science. This information needs to be fleshed out if we are hoping to create a nation of innovation and creative development in the immediate future. Why is it that one significant feature of a student’s background in terms of science achievement was whether they had a parent in a science-related career? What is the significance of the fact that PISA reveals USA 15 year olds did not do well in mathematics and yet they feel very confident in their mathematical abilities?

It is disturbing to discover that there is some degree of pessimism among the students about the future of the natural environment. On average across OECD countries, only 21% of students reported that they believed the problems associated with energy shortages would improve over the next 20 years. Are we taking this into account when we review our educational priorities?

PISA is a powerful resource if we would dig more deeply and use it to do something more than hijack the ranking tables to justify a test taking industry that is capitalizing on our failure to think below the surface. In New York, Pearson Education currently has a five-year, $32 million contract to administer state tests and it creates and sells education programs seamlessly aligned with the high stakes standardized tests for students and teacher assessments they are also selling. Pearson reported revenues of approximately $9 billion in 2010. This is big business.

What a tragedy if the most tangible outcome of a comprehensive review such as the OECD’s PISA was to be the creation of a multi-billion dollar industry rather than a successfully educated generation of our nations’ children.

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