Education Opportunity Network

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Failing To The Top

I have this recurring nightmare – one that, I fear, is about to become reality for most of America’s school children.

In my dream, I’m back in elementary school. It’s testing day and I’m struggling to remember my locker combination and get to class on time. My backpack implausibly opens and spills its contents into the hallway. Indifferent schoolmates rush by.

Finally I’m seated in class. The other students are already busily filling out their tests. An unfriendly proctor passes out the exam, and as I scan down the page, my stomach seizes into knots. I can’t answer a single question. The math problems are a confusion of numbers and symbols. The readings are worded with vocabulary totally foreign to me.

Oh, and did I mention I’m not wearing any pants?

Why do I fear my recurring nightmare – except the part about not wearing any pants – is becoming a reality for more of America’s school children? And why should anyone professing to care about the welfare of the nation’s school children care about this?

A Nightmare Writ Large

Earlier this year, students in New York state public schools took statewide exams aligned to the celebrated Common Core State Standards that are rolling out in most states in the nation. Last week, the results came in, and it’s obvious, given the numbers of students who failed the tests, that the students were about as well prepared for their tests as I had been for the tests of my nightmares.

One reason for why so many of the students failed –”nearly 70 percent of elementary and middle-school students” statewide – was because teachers weren’t prepared to teach students what students needed to know to pass the tests.

According to an article in Education Week, a new report issued just before the New York state results were revealed found that nationwide, “Many teachers in states that have adopted the common standards have not had any professional development to help them adjust to the new expectations.”

The reporter, Catherine Gewertz, explained, “Fewer than a dozen states reported that three-quarters or more of their teachers have received professional development for the Common Core State Standards.”

The report backed up a survey conducted earlier this year by the American Federation of Teachers that found that although 75 percent of teachers said they “support the Common Core, less than one-third said their school districts have given them the training and resources to teach to the new standards.”

In New York state specifically, at the time the tests were given, in April, an article in The New York Times reported, “This year’s tests … are unlike any exams the students have seen. They have been redesigned and are tougher. And they are likely to cover at least some material that has yet to make its way into the curriculum.”

Also in New York, students confronting these tests were facing severely stringent passing rates that heretofore had never applied to high-stakes testing anywhere. As education historian Diane Ravitch explained at her blog site, “State officials decided that New York test scores should be aligned with the achievement levels of the federally-administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” This is “a completely inappropriate model,” according to Ravitch, because “‘proficient’ on NAEP is what most people would consider to be the equivalent of an A,” and “any state that expects all or most students to achieve an A on the state tests is setting most students up for failure.”

In fact, many public officials,  including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, expected large numbers of students to fail. And now, many of those same officials are trying to convince New Yorkers, and the rest of us, that purposefully failing students is a good thing.

Rejoicing In Failure

In light of the high failure rates, business leaders in the state of New York immediately expressed their confidence in the way things are going. In a letter, they intoned, “As business executives, we understand how challenging it can be for organizations to operate in a changing environment.” But “moving forward” is “crucial.”

The high rate of failure is “good news,” trumpeted former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein in an op-ed in the New York Post.

The editorial board of The New York Times was quick to reassure that “the new tests require different and stronger skills than the old ones,” and “scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out.”

Critics of public schools such as Jonah Edelman of the group Stand for Children explain that the high failure rates are an example of being “honest with our kids and families” because the new tests are more accurate assessments of the “knowledge and skills” students “truly need for college and career training.”

Why Set A Course On Failure?

Regardless of what you think about the new tests and their ability to assess what students “really need,” there’s little doubt that the students were set up to fail.

If setting schools up to fail is a design to make traditional schools look bad so parents are more apt to choose an alternative, such as charters, the new tests didn’t do that. Vaunted charter programs such as KIPP and Democracy Prep did particularly badly, as a report by Politico’s Stephanie Simon pointed out.

In a deep dive into the data, edu-blogger Gary Rubenstein looked at the poor performance of most charter schools – far worse in fact that most traditional public schools – and wondered, “Maybe the hundreds of millions of dollars given to charters, both from the government and from private benefactors could be spent elsewhere in education more effectively.”

If the purpose of the tests is to point out how poorly public schools are serving children raised in poverty, then certainly one could say the tests “worked.” In New York City, for instance, districts with the most high-needs students did the worst, widening the achievement gap significantly.

Across the state, as the above-cited editorial in The New York Times spotlights, the yawning achievement gap that exists between poor, minority students and their better-off peers was made more evident by the new tests. “In language arts, for example, 50.4 percent of Asians, 39.9 percent of whites and 16.1 percent of African-Americans were performing at or above the proficiency level,” the newspaper’s editors noted.

But even without rolling out new tests, didn’t we already know that poor, minority students are underserved?

Failure A Good Place To Start?

Secretary Duncan and others have assured us that high failure rates are useful as a “benchmark” for judging future progress. Indeed with test scores this low, how can they not go up? Then politicians in charge can claim “success” for just about anything they roll out.

That logic was not lost on at least one New York superintendent who Diane Ravitch came across. The superintendent, Teresa Thayer Snyder, wrote, “If you establish a baseline this low, the subsequent growth over the next few years will indicate that your plans for elevating the outcomes were necessary … I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will ‘improve’ – not necessarily student learning, but scores.”

Concluding pretty much the same thing, Kevin Drum wrote on his blog at Mother Jones, “You can pass or fail as many kids as you want by fiddling with a test. Make it hard enough, and even a national merit scholar will fail. Make it easy enough, and even a moron will pass. You can set the bar anywhere you like. Is the new test a ‘better’ measure of how much students know? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s different, which means it tells you exactly nothing.”

Failure Is A Choice

No doubt, there are many hundreds of thousands of dedicated educators toiling away at preparing their schools to teach to the new standards and to improve results on the tests that accompany them. And Secretary Duncan’s own department has allocated many millions of dollars in support of those efforts.

But all this toil and treasure pale in comparison to the cuts in support that continue to damage public education and school’s ability to adopt and implement new standards.

Most school systems have been on starvation diets since 2008. State budgets continue to slash education. Many states have not come close to restoring school funds that were cut due to the recession.

As the new school year rapidly approaches, in some of our largest cities, the issue is whether there is enough money to open the doors, much less adopt a whole new curriculum and testing regime.

As new Common Core-based tests roll out in state after state, there’s ample evidence that failure will be the norm, but few states will use failure to spur action. In fact, despite the fallout from the failing test scores in New York, teachers in New York City still don’t have the materials they need to teach the new curriculum. One principal quoted in The Daily News claimed he had ordered materials in April and still hasn’t received them. “It’s a nightmare … we don’t have the resources they promised us.”

No doubt, holding up failure as an option for improving the nation’s schools will strike many as perverse and will add to the skepticism many parents already have about the nation’s education policies.

It also stokes people’s feelings of anger and defiance. Writing at Education Week, New York principal Peter DeWitt questioned, “If you were going to change the tests to make them more difficult, why do it the first year you tied them to teacher and administrator evaluation? … Please tell me that you are not so naïve to think that this won’t create more issues for schools?”

“I’m angry,” DeWitt continued. “I’m angry that I continue to have teachers step outside of the box … very brave teachers, and get pummeled because their children did not do well on state tests … that they were never supposed to do well on in the first place … I am tired of people who expose our students to accountability and mandates that they would never expose their own children to all because they are out to prove that somehow we are failing.”

So now we know our schools and our students are “failures.” It’s “proven.” But whether you buy the failure message or not, what’s certainly proven is that there’s no political will to take collective action to do something about it. And that’s the biggest nightmare of all.

  • David Dunn says:

    The article contains the statement that the tests “are likely to cover at least some material that has yet to make its way into the curriculum.”

    This was found to be the case in a Kentucky elementary school. The test asked questions that were not included in the teaching material.

    What kind of chicanery is being pulled here? And who is doing it and why?

    It’s bad enough that we have a Congress full of political pedophiles who signed on to sequestration that takes money away from public school education. In Kentucky that’s $32 million a year.

    This is also part of the GOP’s war on women as many of those teachers are women and have since been laid off. Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Ayn Rand Paul (R-KY) both voted for such sequestration.

    Further, why weren’t the scores reported in grade equivalency levels? It appears that school systems loathe to divulge information to parents in terms that can more easily be understood.

    What’s wrong with having a grade equivalency rate as the baseline? A failure baseline reveals nothing other than educators and test preparers know little about students, learning and teaching.

    August 13, 2013 at 3:27 pm
  • Antonio Bernal says:

    My experience might shed some light on an aspect of this phenomenon- jealousy by my peers, who were intent on protecting their turf. I am fluent in Spanish since childhood, have read many books in the language. I taught normal Spanish for years at a high school, then I had a chance to teach advanced Spanish literature, a thoroughly enjoyable prospect. My training was the following one teacher who taught AP waved her hand toward a cabinet and said “There are some materials on the subject”. A second gave me a guide book. The whole thing took 20 minutes. Since I am fond of Garcia Lorca and Garcia Marquez, I taught my students with a heavy emphasis on them. The exam didn’t mention them, but was based on Borges, whom I don’t like. Every one of my students failed. The other two teachers continued their AP classes, while I went back to ordinary grammar. It was not an accident.

    August 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm
  • Marty Hiller says:

    Me, I think it’s time for the schools to get organized and refuse to administer the tests. Or for the parents to get organized and keep their kids home during testing. Or both.

    August 13, 2013 at 6:17 pm
  • Charlotte Kasl says:

    I wonder what the tests were measuring. DId it have anything to do with creativity, critical thinking, expressing oneself. I have always had a hard time with multiple choice tests. It’s hard for me to understand the questions and double negatives make my hed swim. Yet, I always aced courses based on experiential learning and practical application. They waved my slightly low scores on the admission exams for the Ph.D. program becaused they were impressed by my autobiography. I got straigt A’s in every subject except the two that had multiple choice exams. I went on to eventually write nine books that have 51 translations in 21 different languages, one of which provided an empowerment alternative to the 12-step (Alcoholics Anonymous) approach, that many people have found helpful. My best teaching came from a family that encouraged me to observe, ask questions and feel safe to say what I thnk. I would have been one of the failing students on the current tests. Even though I got good grades in school, I always tested out a grade or two lower on the achievement tests because there is some crazy idea that you can measure intelligence with simple minded tests and a time clock.

    August 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm
  • Paul P. Nasuti says:

    As a retired educator who is therefore no longer connected to the hairball of conflict badly in need of resolution, I would like to share another perspective.

    The flaw in education we might all be focusing on has created the battle for limited funding the article above intends to illuminate. Human nature tends to find these opposing realities and the Victorian model, which continues to set the standards for how we think, leads us into the fray. Good, caring people find a sliver of value on one side or the other, that begins a process that seems always to reach a point of willful denial to the equally valid opinions coming from the other side. Capturing more votes for ones opinion becomes the life and death struggle more and more of us feel we are in. Round and around we go believing, as we are taught with current pedagogy, that competition will somehow define how to better the product of education that we all swear is what we want for our children.

    Yet man is not at the center of his universe. He is a relatively recent arrival to a planet that had achieved a high level of successful survival before his entrance. All life before him established intellectual skills, learning how to exist with a great assortment of diversity through an enormous catalog of symbiotic relationships. The answers that we are all seeking come from the central core, the full heritage, of who we are. The template for adjusting to a 21st Century education model is already in place patiently waiting for man’s intellectual wisdom to reach back and allow his thinking to evolve.

    An earth based education model, giving every child at every grade level a real world, hands-on, multi-sensory, inter-disciplinary experience in each community’s natural settings, led by educational specialists, will connect state learning objectives with environments where learning was first motivated. We will be supporting development for the whole child, the one that is integrally inter-connected with the air, water and soil products we ALL are made of. As educators, we will be recognizing and showing by example, a balanced appreciation for diversity and better preparing future generations to survive fruitfully on a planet becoming overwhelmed, lemming-like, with its own limited understanding of success.

    If there is one lesson we educators need be institutionally responsible for it is setting the example (since we all learn first from actions we observe) that we must learn from history, or be doomed to repeat its failures. Shifting pedagogy to an Earth based education model must happen now.

    August 14, 2013 at 10:56 am

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