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Friday, July 30, 2010

Obama's Speech Riles Educators

I read and listened to President Obama's speech to the Urban League defending RTTT. As "Master Educator" observed in the ensuing comments to an EdWeek blog post, “It is painstakingly clear that extraordinary measures need to be put in place to greatly improve classroom learning, strengthen school infrastructures and increase student achievement.”

The first part of the speech to rile some people is this:

“Part of (RTTT opposition), I believe, reflects a general resistance to change.  We get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo isn’t good.  We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are.  And when you try to shake things up, some people aren’t happy.”

I have some grave misgivings about RTTT. That being said, when President Obama talks about a general resistance to change and being comfortable with the status quo, he is practically quoting from any Psychology 101 textbook. People do resist change and cling to the status quo, and surely some of those people are teachers. By no means is he indicting all teachers who oppose RTTT. There are legitimate criticisms. What concerns me is that Mr. Duncan, and by extension, the administration, seems to give lip service to listening to teachers, but teachers report that they do not feel heard, never mind agreed with.

After spending several paragraphs on the importance of teachers and the need for societal support and esteem of teachers, Obama said,
So I am 110 percent behind our teachers. But all I’m asking in return -- as a President, as a parent, and as a citizen -- is some measure of accountability. So even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure we’re seeing results in the classroom.  If we’re not seeing results in the classroom, then let’s work with teachers to help them become more effective.  If that doesn’t work, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.”

Accountability is always a reliable hot button. But as long as accountability is based on student test scores, there will be legitimate opposition, as expressed in the following EdWeek comments:

from Curiousidle:
1) Teachers have no voice in the system as it pertains to curriculum, materials, scheduling, educational philosophy, class size, etc. So, while we might have some "expertise" to bring to the mix, our input is not asked for or required by local, state or federal administrations. It's the ultimate catch22: literally no say in how schools function combined with all political responsibility for the effects of poverty on educational success.

2) The two goals of the education system: education and social engineering can and do conflict with one another at times... that is to say, not every policy decision feeds both priorities equally well. The public system tend to err on the side of social engineering... examples include requiring everyone to meet the same bar and dumbing down the curriculum so it can happen, removing important subject area skills that are necessary building blocks for later instruction so that students that don't have those blocks in place are able to remain at grade level, grade inflation, credit recovery, social promotion and other disreputable practices, heterogeneous grouping during the day for social development remediated by funded homogeneous grouping after school.

3) What happens OUTSIDE of school has a far more pervasive influence on preparation, willingness and academic success than what happens INSIDE the classroom. IF we don't address failure at the root, we're just playing politics and avoiding the really hard conversations.

From DDKona: We just don't agree with his administration's definitions of these ideas. Hold me accountable for planning and implementing lessons that engage students at their different levels. Hold me accountable for what I do as a professional. But the minute you define accountability as how my students do on a standardized test, that is the minute you ignite my opposition.

From MarkAHarris: What I find comical is that people love using the word "accountability" with teaching. Yet, no one uses it the way it should be: you hold teachers responsible for what they do. Testing does not do this.

From CEB: (Obama) dismisses legitimate concerns about his administration’s agenda as resistance to change or defense of the status quo. He is so insultingly wrong. Critics of RttT want to improve education just as much or more as he and the tycoons who pull Duncan’s strings.

Mr. Obama attempts to address testing:

When we talk about testing, parents worry that it means more teaching to the test.  Some worry that tests are culturally biased. Teachers worry that they’ll be evaluated solely on the basis of a single standardized test.  Everybody thinks that’s unfair.  It is unfair.
But that’s not what Race to the Top is about.  What Race to the Top says is, there’s nothing wrong with testing -– we just need better tests applied in a way that helps teachers and students, instead of stifling what teachers and students do in the classroom.  Tests that don’t dictate what’s taught, but tell us what has been learned.  Tests that measure how well our children are mastering essential skills and answering complex questions.  And tests that track how well our students are growing academically, so we can catch when they’re falling behind and help them before they just get passed along. 

I am pretty sure that if testing showed that American students were actually outperforming the world, no one would object to testing. A major impetus to RTTT is the poor comparative performance of American students. If students master what I teach as demonstrated by, AMONG OTHER MEASURES, the test scores on tests I write, then I am teaching successfully even in the face of outside influences I do not control. Of course, that assumes I am not gaming my tests as some teachers have done by handing out "study guides" that are nothing more than the test itself.

There is quite a small range of quality in the standards of different states. Furthermore, regardless of what individual state standards say, most teachers teach the curriculum as expressed by the textbook, not the state standards. Teachers tend to write their lesson plans based on the textbook, and then code those plans to the state standards. Very few teachers start their planning with the state standards, and very few teachers use the textbook as just one resource among many. My high quality lessons have sometimes been criticized as too textbook-independent. Students, parents and administrators do not believe that teachers have their own knowledge apart from the textbook.

In Japan, because the national standards drive the curriculum and the textbook material, Japanese teachers do not explicitly teach to the test. Testing and curriculum are automatically aligned. In fact, students' classroom tests are often written by someone other than their teacher. It works like this: There are six tests per subject in a Japanese academic year. The teachers take turns writing the tests. For example, there are three grades in junior high, so eighteen math tests will be written in an academic year. If there are ten teachers in a junior high math department, during the year each teacher will write one test for all math sections of a particular grade and most will write two.

The real problem, the one that goes unnamed, is anxiety. The number one reason teachers, many of them good teachers, leave teaching is lack of administrative support. There is simply no relational trust between teachers and administration that would reassure teachers of fair application of policy. Teachers have no reason to believe that

(RTTT's goal) isn’t to fire or admonish teachers; our goal is accountability.  It’s to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be, and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike.

I once taught in a private school that was forced to shake things up. In its twenty-five year history, it had never sought accreditation. The headmaster decided to pursue WASC accreditation, but it was up to the teachers to do the boatload of extra work. They groused---loudly. It turned out I was the only one among them who had actually ever been through the WASC process, so I became the de facto leader. The very process of completing the self study forced the teachers to deeply examine themselves and their methods for the first time. Without spending an extra dime (although I think some overpay would have been in order), in less than one year, the teachers transformed the school from the lowest achieving school in the area to one on par with the best schools.

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