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Reform: Purpose and Direction – guest commentary

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, November 28th, 2011 at 6:25 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

In school districts throughout the country, administrators are implementing “reform” measures, often with the encouragement of federal funding, which requires testing as a measure of performance and accountability.

The Mt. Diablo school district has also turned to testing as a way to assess students. Through test data analysis, teachers tailor their instruction to focus on what students get wrong on the tests. As a result, test scores at many district schools have gone up.

But Mike Langley, president of the Mt. Diablo Education Association (who has taught history for many years), argues in this guest commentary that testing is not the panacea that some might believe it to be.

He wrote the commentary for the union’s “Catalyst” newsletter and has given me permission to reprint it below.

“Reform is often considered a process of modification to an existing institution. The modification is designed to improve the institution without destruction of its basic structure. Revolution is a more radical change, overthrowing the existing institution and theoretically building a superior, often entirely different, institutional structure. The key to both reform and revolution is that the end product should be better than what was in place. Often, we find that unintended consequences result from variables not considered or not within the control of the reformer or revolutionary. The more complex the institution, the more likely a change action will have an effect on areas not originally targeted. Additionally, the farther one moves along the continuum from reform toward revolution, the greater the change applied, the greater the effect on the institution, intended or not.

We seem to be in a whirlwind of education reform, or even an education revolution that has increased in velocity over time. Much of the pre-college education before the Twentieth Century was designed to teach basic literacy. Even in the schools designed to lead the students to higher education demanded a rote method for gaining knowledge of the classics. John Dewey fought against the static approach to education and set forth ideas of reform that required the students learn by a mix of participation and exposure to classical education. He posed the theory that children were naturally active and educators needed to use their students’ inquisitive minds and perpetual restlessness as an asset in learning rather than classifying them as distractions to the ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ educational approach. However, perceived consequences of his reforms included the disparity of educational quality and rigor from one school to another. This also highlights a danger in the movement for change. There often is the desire to target a single cause for a problem, which results in oversimplified solutions. The social, economic and political influences on our nation and the multi tiered treatment of our citizens for reasons of ethnicity, religion and gender were too complex and too ingrained in the power structure to allow reform or revolution to take place. Instead, post World War Two America used an industrial model of standardization to reduce local control and increase State and Federal influence on our schools. What was termed Administrative Progressivism had the goal of creating massive high school factories moving identically educated students along three parallel assembly lines: College Preparation, General High School Education, and Technical Training. This model was preeminent until the mid 1970’s.

The social upheavals of the late 1950’s in civil rights, and the resulting brief uptick in activism during the 1960’s regarding other social movements including the examination of institutional bias led to a reexamination of the educational model. The assembly lines were called tracking and the segregation by race and gender in assigning students to a particular finished product (skilled technical laborer, high school graduate or university student) were noted. The solution was to break down the administrative movement and blend fact based classical education with inquiry. It became important to take the facts, classify them to allow greater examination and question “Why?” in every field of endeavor. But did we need to dismantle the paths or did we really need a little more flexibility? Consider the counselors who were the quality control guides of the education factories. Was the flawed assignment of individuals due to the mere existence or the multi faceted education path system or was it the result of the gatekeepers simply reflecting the biases of the society in which they were immersed? The short lived movement that broke with standardization created the dilemma of how to maintain a curriculum required for an educated society when goals became hazy and students were encouraged to study whatever was of interest to individuals.

The report ‘A Nation at Risk’ moved education reform back to a concept of cultural literacy. The report attempted to define what Americans should know based on an idealized past and the mistaken assumption that at one time all Americans held this basket of knowledge. This was an extremely complex undertaking and also partially a reaction rather than a reform. In the decade preceding the report, America had been shaken by military defeat, economic upheaval and demographic changes that threatened to redefine the very nature of our society. The return to a classical education which imprinted a common cultural history gave comfort to a population that was witness to the rapid changes in this nation. The solution of tasking the schools to be the responsible agents for this indoctrination was obvious and the method was almost inevitable. Instead of improving the rigor of all subjects and increasing the skills of the teachers in the depth and delivery models of effective curriculum, the solution was to return the focus to memorization of key facts. Instead of considering child development, individual learning strengths, or the effects of abandoning the broad spectrum of knowledge required so to be truly educated, the solution was to narrow, simplify and repeat. The term for this solution is ‘Drill and Kill.’

This generated the next set of reforms. We had to measure the effectiveness of our efforts to be sure that every student benefited from this foundational requirement. There was a brief dalliance with Outcome Based Education (OBE) in the 1990’s. A simple concept, it demanded a quantitative assessment that proved students could demonstrate knowledge or accomplish a task. The U.S. Army had actually tried this a decade before. A skills qualification test was devised. For example, instead of only taking a multiple choice test on how to treat a sucking chest wound, the solider had to physically demonstrate the technique. For many of the Military Occupational Specialties, this was expensive and time consuming. Also, there was a very high failure rate. The logical result should have been to change the training to a performance based model. The expedient result was abandonment of the skills based hands on assessment and a return to rote memorization and response. This worked well until we actually had to deploy troops in large quantities to the Mideast conflict ten years later.

OBE was not popular with education policymakers. Pining for the standardization of the past, quixotically referred to as the golden years of American education, the definition of education was narrowed to the point of simple standards easily measured by a two dimensional assessment tool. The abandonment of music, art, science, social studies, critical thinking became in our elementary schools and the increasing reliance on test scores as the definition of education began before No Child Left Behind. The industries of consultants and creators of assessments have determined that education is the examination of discrete parts not related to the makeup of the whole. Teaching is now a field for technicians, supervised by technocrats, striving for higher numbers without an understanding of the purpose of education. One may be reminded of the Bolshevik Revolution, where the party leaders idealized the concept of the worker, but had no respect for the humans that worked. The flesh and blood worker was just a cog in the production machine, a replaceable part. If the reality of production did not coincide with the theoretical dogma, changing the reality was easier than abandoning the theory.

Our educational leaders are not trying to destroy education, but they are zealots who will not abandon their failing theories. And as the data driven revolution has slowly eroded the quality of a comprehensive education, it attracts those to leadership who find more comfort in numbers than relationships. They are supported by cadres of well intentioned idealists, who want to make things better, but have either lost or never possessed the roadmap that leads us back to reform, and away from the box canyon of testing for the sake of testing.

I have been told that I was on an island and nobody was listening to me. It was better for me to join the mainland of educational revolution that would make the American public school a thing of the past. However, there is still a chance for reform. It won’t come from the Federal or State Departments of Education. It won’t come from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the California Teachers Association, or the Mount Diablo Education Association. It most definitely will not come from Dent Center, nor will it come from the Mt. Diablo Unified School District Governing Board. This reform must come from you. Each individual teacher must refocus on the purpose of education. The false promise of a utopian educational system based on standardization must be shunned. The efforts each of you are expending on dictated pacing, test preparation and data analysis must be redirected to a deep curriculum with detailed, prepared lessons that meet the needs and spark the interests of your students. The time wasted on bubbling must be used in conversation as you build relationships. The boundaries set in your classrooms must be there because of the respect for students, not simply to control them. Teaching is hard work, and you must focus on that work. It is also an art. Take ideas from your peers, but do not try to be clones. There is no blueprint for a model school that can be replicated from Bangor, Maine to Bay Point. Grow each day in your craft. If something doesn’t work, ask yourself “Why?” What can you do to make it successful? Does your classroom need reform or revolution? Regardless, it must be your reform or your revolution.

In the end, if you teach the young beings in your classroom, almost all of them will succeed. That will be your measure of teacher quality, scored not in AYP, but in lives that may blossom long after they leave your care, a part of you all the same.”

Do you believe the district’s focus on testing is making a positive difference in students’ lives?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    First, let’s remember that annual standardized testing of student achievement is not a new phenomenon. The widely-used Iowa Test of Basic Skills dates to at least the mid-1930s, and conscientiously run districts have long tested students to see what they have learned. What seems to have introduced so much ire was the promotion of standardized achievement testing by the feds, in No Child Left Behind, and then by many states — all as a condition for districts to receive federal and state funds. Actually collecting, tabulating, and publishing the data is what led to trouble, because the data showed that many groups of students, particularly disadvantaged students, were not learning enough at school. Most educators already knew that students in these groups often weren’t doing very well, but they didn’t appreciate having the public see how disparate the results were.

    The tests are attacked because they take too much time (one hears possibly apocryphal stories about teachers “coaching” their students on filling in bubbles) and because they don’t cover such important areas as “critical thinking skills”. In fact, the tests do a pretty good job of measuring basic literacy and math skills — areas where “teaching to the test” may be just fine, and where students need proficiency before they can ever hope to develop useful levels of “critical thinking”. Where the tests are less helpful is in measuring higher-level achievement in subjects like art, music, literature, history, and social studies, or in trying to make “quality” distinctions among schools based on minor differences in AYP results. The tests can, however, reveal gaps in basic skills among specific student populations that can help educators focus instruction. I have seen educators use this data to address gaps and drive significant improvements in student understanding. (Of course, to use the data productively, it helps to first stop hating the tests…)

    Every major industrialized country uses standardized tests to measure student achievement, if not annually, then periodically in tests with even “higher stakes” than ours. They do it to find out what students are learning, and to sort them into different instructional levels. In the U.S., we use annual achievement tests to try to force accountability into public school district monopolies that have shown themselves to be highly resistant to other forms of accountability, such as allowing more parent school choice. And of course, we use the tests to micromanage the delivery of instruction in schools with low scores.

    We could introduce other forms of accountability that rely on choices made by families, as we do for most other important goods and services in our society. That could allow test scores to be just one factor among many that people consider. But so long as progress on that front continues to move as slowly as it has, we can expect continued top-down pressure, using tests as a club, to get our monopoly schools to improve their performance.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s a report about data-driven instruction from American Institutes for Research: http://www.cacompcenter.org/pdf/cacc_dddm.pdf

  • MDUSDude

    Brilliant. Seriously, this was breathtaking.

  • Doctor J

    @Mike Langley, I find it ironic that you criticize the District SIG plans because the district represented to the State and to the Feds in the SIG grant applications that you signed off on these plans. Did you or didn’t you ?

    You might find it interesting that while the District only had an API gain of 2 points, 3 of 4 of the SIG Grant schools had positive increases, and one, Rio Vista, had a marvelous gain of 66 points. Glenwood had a decrease of 18 points. What I think you should study though is the SIG spending reports, especially the final one filed October 12, of how the SIG money was spent. It is so significant that not only did Rio Vista have a spectacular gain of 66 points, but it also had the least spending per student, and the least budgeted per student, but they spent 98% of their budget SIG money — that boils down simply that they had great leadership, had a fantastic plan and implemented it to the fullest. Compare that with Bel Air and Shore Acres. Bel Air had an API gain of 25 — very decent for them, but still a long way to go. They only spent 60% of their SIG budget money, having budgeted $3225 per student, but only spending $1953 per student. Shore Acres had an API gain of 13 — satisfactory, but still needs major improvement. They spent 68% of their $1.25 million SIG Budget. Budget per student was $2417 and actual spent per student was $1655. Both Bel Air and Shore Acres share these common denominators: overly idealistic plans, not well thought through, Not great leadership and lack of full implementation. No wonder that Richards and SASS has been stalling the release of the SIG spending reports.
    Taxpayers have to ask themselves and their elected officials: why is it that the most cost effective program yielded positive results head and shoulders above the rest ? Now, we haven’t even talked about who were the SASS coaches of these schools, have we ? Did they make a difference ?

    Another factor is comparing the SIG grant applications to what really happened at the school. Were the SIG grant application just platitudes designed to be awarded money, or actual plans to improving education ?

    MDUSD has coddled administrators for years — refusing to replace “friends” who are ineffective. Its about time that the Board and the Supt use DATA to judge the principals and administrators, and conduct the business of educating our youth based on facts, not on friendships.

  • http://www.ourmdea.org Mike Langley

    Dr. J, MDEA did not sign the plans. We signed an MOU that allowed specific changes to the contract limited to those schools for the duration of the grant. It allowed an extra hour of site time at per diem pay, limited meetings after site time and made sure student performance was measured by portfolio rather than simply standardized test scores when considering teacher evaluation.
    We did the same for SIG II only after polling our members at the two sites to see if they supported the grant. If members had opposed the grants, we would have not negotiated changes.
    My personal views on test scores, increasing or decreasing, are clear. Concerning “cost effective” as a measurement of education, I maintain using dollars vs. API is an invalid premise.
    As I have said in the past, anyone who wishes to discuss MDEA’s role in this district, or my leadership in this organization, can join me at the end of any of the evening meetings I attend. Better yet, contact me in December and help me set up meetings in the various feeder patterns so that the public can join our dialogue.

  • Doctor J

    Mike, here are the multiple references that suggest that MDEA agreed to the SIG applications: taken directly from the filed SIG applications from CDE on their website. I believe you that you did not agree to them, but they “suggest” to the State and Feds that you did. By your failure to object and silence, and to agree to an MOU that was NOT APPROVED by the Board, it appears that you did. I believe you need to write to the State and to the Feds and set the record straight. There is a reason the ACTUAL applications were never presented to the Board and discussed publicly — because they fudged the truth.

    Page 48: A wide range of stakeholders were involved in the needs analysis process to ensure all areas of the school and community were represented, services and needs were aligned and OWENERSHIP WAS ACHIEVED. MDUSD believes that empowering and engaging all stakeholders from the beginning helps to ensure successful implementation of services and strengthens the sustainability and capacity of the system. Individuals involved include administrators, teacher leaders, UNION LEADERSHIP, community members, parents, students and External Entities. [Emphasis added]

    Page 49:

    Numerous meetings and conversations at the school level included School Site Council meetings, Alternative Governance Team meetings (AGT), staff meetings, parent
    meetings (Parent Teacher Association), and English Language Advisory Committee (ELAC) meetings, and discussions with the TEACHER’S UNION and with community members in order to ensure local input was solicited and heard. [Emphasis added]

    Page 49

    At the district level, discussions at Educational Services (March-June 2010), Extended Educational Services (April 2010), Curriculum and Instruction Department meetings(April-June 2010), Feeder Pattern meetings (May 2010), K-Adult Articulation meetings (May 2010), the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC-April 2010) and WITH THE TEACHER’S UNION, community members, site staff, district level leadership groups and public input helped to inform the system, gather ideas and determine needs and actions. [Emphasis added]

    Page 54:

    District

    MDUSD leadership strongly supports each school’s restructuring (school improvement)plan and commits to continuing to work regularly with its UNION LEADERSHIP to identify best practices for students and teachers. MDUSD is confident that the district will be able to negotiate the necessary contract changes to support the grant requirements. [Emphasis added]

    MDUSD is currently at the negotiation table with the Mt. Diablo Education Association (MDEA) teacher’s union. MDEA’s current teacher contract will end June 30, 2010. Now is the perfect time to begin these conversations.

    Page 71

    Review the district’s recruitment and hiring practices to explore how only highly qualified teachers would be assigned to low performing schools. MDUSD will WORK WITH THE UNION to give low performing schools advantages in hiring teachers first. [Emphasis added]

    Page 71

    categorical funds such as professional development opportunities or materials to support instruction. Additional financial incentives would need to be discussed
    with the teachers union.

  • Doctor J

    Mike, the District submitted the following statement to the CDE and Feds. Please pay particular attention to the teacher evaluation statement — is this true ? ” the District worked collaboratively with the Mt. Diablo Education Association (MDEA) to develop a memorandum of understanding that outlines the details of the increased learning time (c(1)) , the rigorous evaluation process that will be used to determine teacher effectiveness that includes student growth as a factor (a(2)) and the compensation that is being awarded to staff that are committed to increasing the learning of the students at Bel Air Elementary School (a(5)).”

  • Doctor J

    Mike, I also found this in the CAP. Is this what you were referring to ?
    “Teacher Evaluation: All teachers at SIG sites will be evaluated annually.
    Teacher performance evaluation at SIG sites will include a formula which considers student progress as a significant element (40%) in the existing evaluation tool.
    The District will utilize the Formative Assessment for California Teachers (FACT model) as a formative assessment tool. FACT focuses the demonstration of teacher practice, reflective assessment, and support to assist teachers in developing as a practitioner and assuring maximum learning for students.
    The SIG will provide each site with a trained (in FACT) Instructional Coach (TSA) during the first year of implementation to guide teachers through the inquiry process. The Instructional Coach will provide ongoing support and coaching but will not participate in the evaluation process.
    Teachers will complete the assessment module of FACT collecting multiple measures of data including, but not limited to, district identified benchmark assessments. ”

    Has this process started yet ?

  • g

    Dr J: I expect this is just another case of “accurate” versus “honest”. Lawrence, team and board majority have this concept down pat!

  • Doctor J

    @G Take a look at the timelines promised by Lawrence, SASS, and Julie Braun Martin in the CAP. Trained FACT instructional coach in place at each SIG site by Sept 2011. Teachers complete the assessment module of FACT by Sept 2011. MDUSD is quick to promise to get money, and slow to implement the reforms. 3 months behind already and school year nearly half gone. See Theresa’s link to the CAPs: http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment/2011/10/28/mdusd-still-waiting-to-hear-if-it-will-get-school-improvement-grants/

  • g

    I seem to remember that there was one board meeting scheduled in Dec. No?

  • Doctor J

    There is one listed on the front page of the district website for Dec 13. Seems like the grid under the Board’s page is full and the surprise meeting at the end of November took the last slot.

  • g

    The “board” is still searching for applications for BOC members to complete the NEW 2002 Measure-C committee. Can someone please explain to me why
    Peder Pedersen,
    a “private citizen”
    who, now retired from the District,
    and who was contracted ONLY for the “2010″ M-C Construction/Project Manager position
    is the “Go-To” person for the 2002 committee???
    http://www.mdusd.org/Community/Documents/measccomapp.pdf

  • Doctor J

    Check his Board approved job description.
    Would it logically be Jeff McDaniel or Greg Rolen who is over construction ?
    BTW, what is a “senior citizen” ? AARP thinks its 50 plus.

  • Theresa Harrington

    It also looks like the Budget Advisory Committee will meet Dec. 8: http://www.mdusd.org/Pages/default.aspx
    I wonder if anyone from that group attended the Nov. 21 charter budget meeting.
    The district has postponed the PAC meeting from Dec. 7 to Dec. 14, even though that isn’t showing up on the district’s website yet. No reason was given, but it could be because the Dec. 7 meeting would have been the same night at the COE CVHS charter public hearing.