Planting the Evidence

Data, data, data. Does all that data tell us more than sitting down and listening to a child read? Or more than grading weekly math quizzes? How many hours that might have gone to pedagogy have been taken away so that teachers can make more unnecessary spreadsheets, all in the name of “evidence”?

Evidence? Teachers today are told they must sacrifice hours and even days to prepare spreadsheets as evidence of the effectiveness of instruction. Evidence? The word is fraught with threatening connotations, going back through time. We watch To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, Judgement at Nuremburg, The Caine Mutiny, A Few Good Men and more. Trial movies all, evidence becomes the linchpin on which verdicts will be based.

Evidence requires endless tests and quizzes, it seems, boiled down into passing categories. Grades and projects are not enough. Even that one annual test is not enough. Nothing seems to be enough.

In my last year, I gave six benchmark tests, the then-two PARCC tests, regular, obligatory unit tests written by an outside consulting firm, quizzes designed to prepare students for unit tests (which hardly ever worked since the unit tests had zero to do with my students’ background knowledge), and extra tests and quizzes since my students’ grades were required to be based entirely on tests and quizzes. Other middle school teachers were giving identical tests at the same time. I had to insert extra tests and quizzes because my poor bilingual students could not even read the obligatory tests prepared by the outside consulting firm, much less do that seventh-grade Common Core math.

It’s surprising my students’ brains were not leaking out their ears.

In my area of Illinois, newspapers have been vigorously attacking student stress in recent articles, asking what schools can do to rein in the rising tension and anxiety besieging local students. I can think of one answer. We might stop trying to gather absurd quantities of dubious “evidence,” especially since all this testing is directly stealing from instruction. Why do we need all this evidence?

Are we under indictment? Today’s educational reformers certainly number their evidence, piece by piece. Any one who doubts this fact should spend an hour or two looking through the many boxes in the Charlotte Danielson rubric.

Are we getting ready to go to trial? If so, who will defend teachers when the “evidence” is weighted against them? Given the salaries many teachers make in poor districts, should teachers be asking for public defenders?  Especially those teachers in financially- and academically-challenged districts may end up fighting for jobs, based on skewed numbers, digits twisted to create evidence of faulty instruction. Too  often, educational reformers ignore the actual problems of poor reading skills, poverty, lack of English-language learning, hunger, unreliable family support, emotional and physical illness, etc. — all the many forces that complicate classroom progress.

“Evidence” has been used to push good teachers out, especially expensive, older teachers and teachers who don’t fit the latest principal’s vision of what a teacher should look or sound like. Older teachers cost more money, money they have earned through steadfast efforts put in over time. These teachers are much more likely to refuse to go along with a program when that program does not make sense to them. Given that a regrettable number of principals are all about image today, the image necessary to convince a board to renew their contract, uncompliant teachers will be eliminated if they seem “old-school” — despite the fact that the latest evidence suggests the old schools worked at least as well as the present one.

Eduhonesty: We began the major data push with No Child Left Behind in 2003 and even if NCLB has vanished, the data push remains. Yet where are the improvements our educational reformers desire? We hear all about the new reform plans such as the Common Core, PARCC and SBAC tests. We do not hear about the successes of those plans, the higher tests scores that would demonstrate increased learning. Where are the feel-good stories about widespread, increased learning in urban areas?

I guarantee readers that if those stories existed, they would be all over the internet, television and print media. Instead, our media silence should be considered deafening. Despite the data frenzy, where are the gains? Where is the improvement?

About “80 percent of freshman entering community college in the CUNY system require remediation in reading, writing, math, or some combination of those subjects,” according to the New York Times.* Recent reforms have apparently resulted in four out five community college freshman being unready to enter community college in New York.

Let’s mull that over.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again – test, data, spreadsheets, test, data, spreadsheets — while expecting a different result, I would say our continued pursuit of the same old reforms could best be called batshit crazy.

The scary question: Can we go back? There’s zero “evidence” that going forward on this data-driven train will benefit our students. Yet a paradigm shift will be required to go back. We might have to put teachers back in control of their own classrooms, for example. We might have to scrap the billion-some dollar Common Core experiment. We might have to scale back on tests and data, replacing these tests with instruction and this data with lesson-preparation time.

Can we do this?

I honestly don’t know.

*CUNY to Revamp Remedial Programs, Hoping to Lift Graduation Rates, Elizabeth A. Harris, March 19, 2017


Muddying the Data

Districts with scores at subterranean levels have been locked into required assemblies, forming multiple committees to solve the problem of resistant test scores. Especially in financially disadvantaged districts, resources commonly been end up being redeployed repeatedly, since money to add new resources can seldom be found. Instead of checking for lead in the water fountains, maybe the district buys Chromebooks instead. Some districts in America are starving for funds.

In exceptional and unpredictable cases, a district may receive a grant. For example, Neal Math Science Academy received a three-year federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) a few years back.  That grant does not seem to have radically improved performance. It’s intriguingly hard to tell, though.  The shift to the new PARCC test makes comparisons with the past tough. In cynical moments, I wonder if the push to go to the PARCC test was aided and abetted by this useful blurring of the past and present.

Is Neal improving? A few years ago, we could have compared Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) results over time to get a fairly clear picture. But comparing PARCC to the ISAT is like comparing apples to pomegranates. They are not at all the same test. These two measurement instruments do not necessarily even test the same attributes. That one shift from pencils to keyboards was enough to impact results, without even considering the effect of content changes and the introduction of multiple right answers.

Eduhonesty: Nice job of obscuring the data, guys, in the name of improved data. Was that intentional?

A Big Truth Buried in Higher High School Graduation Rates

Whatever the number of “functionally illiterate” adults in the United States, these adults are sometimes graduating from our high schools. At worst, America’s lowest readers cannot manage large chunks of everyday life. Five-year balloon mortgage payments wait to ambush them, as they make lower monthly payments they only partly understand, while they pay thousands extra for a $26,000 car financed at a high rate whose implications they can’t compute, even with a calculator.

According to officials from City University in New York, a full 10,700 students –  or 79.3 percent of applicants – failed a test to enter community college without remedial classes the previous year, and were therefore required to study basic skills they should have learned in high school.1 That’s more than three in four entering students! This increase occurred during the full force of NCLB, a sobering reminder that best intentions may not produce even mediocre results when clumsily executed. In the meantime, remedial courses continue to become a growing part of community college coursework at New York’s City University and other community colleges.

Almost all students arriving at community colleges take a skills assessment in math, reading, and writing. If they pass, students are categorized as college-ready and can freely pick classes, subject to other enrollment restrictions such as prerequisites. Other students are labeled “developmental” or “remedial,” and these students must take classes and tutoring specifically designed to get them ready to function in a regular college classroom. Students may have to work through multiple levels of remediation—up to five levels in some cases – quarter by quarter or semester by semester. 2,

We are not talking a remediation course or two, although stronger students will get by with that extra, remedial course or two: For some students, though, we are talking a full remediation curriculum. In the time that it takes for stronger students to get an associate degree, other students are getting ready to start that associate degree program.

Remedial requirements often surprise new community college students. After all, these students graduated from their high schools. Under bright lights, with pomp and ceremony, they walked across a stage and picked up their high school diplomas, shaking the Principal’s hand. When these same students discover that they are facing what may amount to a whole curriculum of remedial coursework, unexpected classes they must complete before they can even begin to accrue actual college credits, I am sure many feel betrayed.

New York City graduation rates have increased dramatically in the recent past – but graduation and learning can too easily be decoupled when the desire to increase graduation rates becomes strong enough.



2 Developmental Education in Community Colleges, Thomas Bailey and Sung-Woo Cho

Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Our students are not data. They are children. But educational reformers, state department of education employees, and school district leaders sometimes seem to have forgotten this truth. I spent over 20% of my last teaching year giving mandated tests and quizzes to my math classes, in many cases tests my students could not even read, written by an East Coast consulting firm based on Common Core standards that were four years above the test-documented academic levels of two of my classes. I also gave extra tests and quizzes because my school’s administration had decided grades were to be based entirely on tests and quizzes. The only way to save my students grades became extra tests and quizzes designed to raise their averages.

What did that year of fail, fail, fail, retake, retake, retake accomplish? Not nearly as much as rational expectations combined with desperately needed remediation might have accomplished. But when I stepped off the common lesson plan to remediate, I risked being threatened by my administration if caught. The threats went as high as termination. “Do it or else!” was the mantra of the new Principal (or hired gun) brought in from another state. The Assistant Principal punctuated that mantra with his own, “No excuses!”

My district had to show the State of Illinois that school data was improving. The consensus seemed to be that only by teaching 7th grade Common Core standards could we improve the data — except often those standards were unteachable. My two bilingual math classes both entered my class at an average 3rd-grade-level in mathematics according to their MAP™ benchmark test scores.* English language learning scores came in at comparable levels. No child can leap four years in a single bound.

I persevered. I wanted to keep my job. After awhile, I changed my mind. Nobody in their right mind would want that job, the one where a teacher keeps giving kids impossible work, while under regular threat, and then tries nonstop to repair all the damage she knows she is doing by following scary orders. I finished out the year for the kids, carrying an emergency resignation letter in my glovebox for most of the winter.

Eduhonesty: I’m retired. The damage has been done. I’d like to share a few questions that I think require answers, however:

In the name of data, how many impossible tests did we make “Isidro” take throughout that year? How many Isidros are taking similar tests this year? If Isidro bombs six math benchmark tests, as well as corporately-designed evaluative unit tests, and his big state test, will teachers conclude Isidro must be mathematically challenged? Will Isidro’s test results prejudice future teachers? Expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Most importantly, how will all those incomprehensible tests influence Isidro’s view of himself? Even if Isidro’s teachers manage to keep open minds, will Isidro?

*Nonteacher readers — Benchmark tests are given at designated times throughout a school year to measure students’ ongoing academic progress, especially in English and mathematics.


How Hard Is Too Hard?

“Try different, not harder,” ADHD coaches advise. As an ADHD adult, I respect this advice. I know “harder” seldom works. If I could always put my keys in the gray bowl in the laundry room, my keys would be in that gray bowl. I would not need the special white tile that dings at me when I use my cellphone to ping my keys, sometimes after a phone search that starts the key search. Small objects complicate ADHD life every day. I have created many strategies to manage daily life up to and including emergency back-up lesson plans prepared against the possibility that I might somehow lose the whole day’s lesson. Before I retired, my email was full of documents I sent myself so I would never find myself without materials.

A quick note for all my ADHD former students, friends and family members: You know who you are. You know who you are not. Cut yourself some slack. You burned the toast again? So what? Be as kind to yourself as you would be to any good friend.

For those not part of the club: Please don’t assume your friend or partner could keep track of those keys by trying harder. I promise Penelope does not want to spend her morning shaking out purses, bags and clothing before thoroughly cleaning the car and going through all the pockets in her house. She does not want to shake that laundry basket. You might consider giving a Tile to attach to that keychain as a Christmas or Hanukkah present, or any “finding” device that takes advantage of modern technology.

Back to education, the purported theme of this blog: “Try different, not harder” may be the best advice I’ve encountered for dealing with ADHD. When the first shelter will not do, build again. ADHD students must understand that they will probably need to build many different shelters to survive school.

ADHD kids are often locked in battle with life’s responsibilities, at least until exhaustion sets in. “Not sure if life’s telling me to give up or try harder,” many of our kids may be quietly thinking after the latest “and-I-even-had-it-in-my-locker” fail. Those fails happen too often. Exhortations to clean a locker or organize a folder won’t help, either. Students benefit from being taught to organize themselves — but some students may never be able to manage consistent organization. They will have the best of intentions. But then a firetruck will roll down the street at the end of class, and their papers will end up in the wrong folder, if those papers leave the classroom at all. An IPad will remain behind on a desk. Maybe the whole backpack will stay behind, a clumsy, twenty-pound, black lump somehow forgotten by a kid who may make it onto the bus and home before he stops to wonder why his load has suddenly become so light.

How can we teachers help our ADHD students?

Here are a few suggestions for middle school and high school students:

  1. Identify those students. Seat Jordan and Jasmine where you can see how they handle their materials.
  2. Specifically tell them what to do with those papers or their IPad, breaking the process down into steps if necessary. Yes, they should be old enough to manage without detailed instructions. And I should be able to find my keys without the Tile. Some kids can’t manage, at least not on a regular basis, without those instructions.
  3. Convince them to set a reminder or alarm with an attached packing list for the trip home. Include items like “Put IPad into backpack” etc.
  4. Convince them to set an alarm for starting their homework. The homework alarm should be set for a time early enough to deal with crises like missing assignments.
  5. Help Jordan or Jasmine to create a back-up plan for what happens when they get home and find they forgot their folder or IPad again, or can’t understand the day’s expectations for their IPad — a better back-up plan than “I will play videogames since I have nothing to do.” Who can they message from their class? Can they email you?  What else can they do to solve their problem?
  6. Consider creating back-up assignments that can be done as substitutes for some days’ assignments, at least for those kids who always seem to get lost in the forest of details of everyday school life.
  7. Teach all students to learn to prepare “Plan B” when the occasion requires. When you are making your own “Plan B” work because district internet cut out and you cannot access useful materials, share your thought processes as you adapt to the challenge.
  8. For especially vital projects or assignments, call home. Enlist parents in advance.

Eduhonesty: This post goes out with love to all those younger versions of myself.