Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Accountability and Testing: Systems of Educator Mistrust

Accountability systems whether in education, business, or government are based on mistrust; a mistrust that those who are its subjects are unable to or unwilling to carry out the jobs they have been assigned. Theodore Porter, author of the book, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, writes:

"Perhaps most crucially, reliance on numbers and quantitative manipulation minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust."

It stands to reason that when education systems, (or any governmental or business system) come to rely on accountability systems, trust is shifted from the “intimate knowledge" of individuals and their capabilities to systems of numbers and statistics that are declared by the hierarchy in the system as being both more trustworthy and representative of truth. In order words, when there’s an intense distrust that those who occupy production positions in the system, systems of accountability and audit are established in order to force the system to do what it’s designed to do. In education systems, “learning” is the object of production, so naturally accountability systems are designed to force the system, made up of administrators, teachers and students’ to “produce learning.” However, “learning” is an object of contention in the first place, with few people agreeing on what it is.

Even with the disagreement on what learning is and what learning is worthwhile, there is more contention with how to measure “learning" it in a way that accurately captures it. Accountability systems look to tests for this task. Tests are developed, one after another in a fruitless effort to measure this idea of “learning” which is actually an exercise in trying to grab water. Just when educational measurement thinks it has “grasped the learning” that it thinks is significant; it escapes through their fingers. That’s while since the dawn of the accountability era, there have been wave after wave of “new standards and new tests,” all in an effort to try to capture the elusive quarry, “learning.

But I have a novel idea, at least novel in the face of accountability and testing; if teachers are professionals, then what if we were to transform teaching back into a profession where practitioners exercise “professional judgment” to determine whether learning takes place and that the system “trust their judgment"? Teachers could once again be educated to teach and use their judgment to decide whether learning has happened, and be trusted, rather than subjected them and to the mistrust of an accountability and auditing system that fails to capture the nature of “learning” in the first place. This endless pursuit of new standards and new tests that have costs millions and billions of educational funding could be shifted to fostering more effective professional teachers and a teacher professionalization system, that avoids trying to mimic and ill-suited medico-professionalization system, to create its own, never-before-realized profession.

At its heart, we are deforming our education system with both accountability and auditing methods that inadequately define “learning” and by default, are incapable of capturing “effective teaching." The mistrust of the professional educator and “trust in numbers and quantitative manipulation” doesn’t fit the task of teaching. It’s perhaps time to stop trying to make education into the image of either business or medicine, and invent a whole new profession that remembers that teaching and learning are much too complex to reduce to numbers anyway.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Do PISA Scores Really Mean Anything? Not Much!

Do PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores really matter? One would think so, because every time the latest round of scores are revealed, there’s a barage of “Sputnik-like” declarations of educational doom and gloom within the United States, all reminscent of when the Soviets launched the first satelite into orbit. Just like it did then, each time these scores come out, the declarations of“educational third world country” status is declared anew. The United States’ future economically is seen a bleak, and tales of woe begin. But there are some really good questions to ask about PISA.
If the United States suddenly vaults into first place in the PISA rankings will our country suddenly experience full employment and economic prosperity for all?

Will American businesses suddenly find all those “mythical-but-can’t-find-qualified workers?

Do PISA rankings by country really mean anything?

I would say “No” to all these questions. The United States’ “weak” rankings in PISA scores tell us absolutely nothing helpful nor does it indicate all the gloom and doom that policymakers public policy wonks like Arne Duncan have claimed in recent years.

Having a number one ranking in PISA scores is not a ticket to the economic promise land. Nor does it mean that we should take up the short-sighted view that our education system’s purpose—from kindergarter to higher education— is to feed the “human capital” machine for corporations. Sure, we want out students to be employable, but making sure they score high on an international test won’t do that. That’s short-sighted thinking. Education should never be about preparing students for the factory sitting down the street; it should be about preparing students so that they can learn and adapt for jobs their entire lives. It is simply short-sighted to see education as worker-training program. We need to train our students to be able to learn for a lifetime, be creative, be critical thinkers, and adapt to whatever comes their way. The jobs down the street will probably move to another country in a few years any way.

Using PISA data, or any standardized test data such as SAT as a scare-tactic and propaganda tool is a moral problem. Those who do that, are like the barkers selling a special elixir guaranteed to fix what ails. They should have the same credibility as snake oil salesmen. It is simply policymakers pushing their own brand of reform with the cry of “wolf.” Sure, our schools can always improve. We can teach our students more effectively. But, this clarion call of doom and gloom every time a round of PISAscores or any standardized test scores needs to met with skepticism if not just ignored.

Friday, December 11, 2015

“After School:” Mobile SM App for High Schoolers Offers Potential Headaches for Educators

Yesterday, I stumbled across this post on the Washington Post web site: “Millions of Teens Are Using a New App to Post Anonymous Thoughts, and Most Parents Have No Idea.” It turns that our students now have access to a high school version of the app Yik Yak called “After School.” Yik Yak has been quite popular among college age users for some time. For those not familiar with Yik Yak, or the high schooler app After School, these apps allows users to post messages anonymously that only other users in the general vicinity of the message poster can see. Apps like Yik Yak have been implicated in posting anonymous threats and cyberbullying online. (For example, see “What Is Yik Yak, the App That Fielded Racist Threats at the University of Missouri.”) What’s more, this “After School” app is also at the heart of possible postings of cyberbullying and postings where users threaten to bring guns to school. (See “Why Parents and Administrators Are Freaking Outv About an App Called After School.”)

It is easy to sound the alarm when these kinds of social media platforms arise, but it turns out that this particular app has been around at least a year. It appeared in the App Store and the Google Play Store last fall according to web site Fusion (See here), but it was removed twice because it was used for cyberbulling and posting gun threats. It returned this past April, and its developers claim to have a whole bunch of new safety features, including algorithms that block certain words and it is also said to use human reviewers who examine each post.

Well, for those of us familiar with web filters in schools, we know all too well that the best of these kinds of safety measures are far from foolproof. Many students are masters at trying to get things through the filters, and we’ve given them years of practice. But my beef with After School actually goes beyond that and is captured best by a question: Why in the world would we give high school students an anonymous platform like this when we know from experience that many are not ready to handle the freedom of any posting much less “anonymous posting?” It seems to be the equivalent of giving students the keys to a sports car with a cooler full of beer in the front seat and simply telling them not to drink and drive. After School is simply a platform that has the potential to facilitate irresponsiblity and possibly dangerous cyber-behaviors because students often thrive on web anonymity.

What’s more, I take exception to After School’s FAQ page which seems to suggest by its language there that schools have somehow endorsed this product. (See the After School FAQ page here.) On that page it states at the very top, “Anonymous and Private Message Board for Your School.” Those words seem, at first glance, to make a link between the message board in After School and the school the student attends, but that is far from the case. The school and its administration have no connection, control, or power over this product. That’s why many school administrators are quite upset about this product.
I am not sure an all out panic about this product is warranted, but I do think we need to educate both our students, and especially our parents about the potentially dangerous uses of this app.

We also need to make clear that this app basically allows students to set up their own cyber community, totally disconnected from our schools, that is supposedly monitored by this company. We as parents and educators, by allowing our students and children to use this app, are placing a large amount of trust in algorithms and faceless individuals out there somewhere to monitor the safety. The truth is, we at the school and district level, with all our web filters and cyber-safety gadgets have an extremely difficult time with cyberbullying and web threats. What on earth would make us think that out there in cyberspace a company can do that better? While After School has been around and is not really new, it operates on assumptions that ultimately will probably cause its own demise. That is the idea that anonymous posting for high schoolers can be effectively monitored. Just looking at their disclaimers in the app store should be concern enough. Check it out:

That’s quite a laundry list of items of things parents would object to having their students exposed to.

I don’t usually rate apps with thumbs up or thumbs down, but this one gets double thumbs down because it is a potential cyberdisaster at every school.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Blogo: An Easy-to-Use Blogging App for the Mac

I have waited quite some time for a blogging app for my Mac. I’ve used several, but my personal favorite is Blogo. Blogo provides Mac users with a simple interface. (See below.) It also provides all the features one would expect from a blogging platform as well. It is extremely easy to use, Some of Blogo’s most useful features include:
  • Easy photo editing
  • Post previews while writing
  • Manage blog comments
  • Syncs with Evernote
  • Use with multiple blogs
  • Write blog posts while offline
  • Compatible with both Blogger, WordPress, and Medium
Blogo Interface

For more information about Blogo, the Blogging App for Mac, check out their web site here. By the way, I haven’t received any compensation for this post. This is truly my favorite Mac Blogging app.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Chief State School Officers Continue to Believe We Can Test Our Way to Equity

Somehow I am not surprised at all that the Council of Chief State School Officers still believe that we can “test our way to school equity.” They still believe if we “just get the tests right” and hold those teachers’ noses to the grindstones, then “Poof” all our students will receive an equal education. They met and pledged their allegiance to the “Accountability Doctrine” recently in a Council of Chief State School Officers policy forum in Charlotte, North Carolina. (See Ed Weeks Article “State Chiefs Pledge to Continue Focus on Accountability.”) What they don’t seem to get that we had at least 15 years of “Accountability and Testing” and schools are no more equitable, in fact, there’s evidence that they are more unequal than ever.

“Our members want to be held accountable,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO. That’s nice for him to say, coming from a man who has never spent a single day as a teacher in a public school classroom. If you check out this glowing biography from CCSSO, you can see he knows his policy though. Too bad he has no clue about the nuts and bolts of classroom teaching.

That’s the real problem here. It’s not that the accountability is always a bad thing; its that we have people pushing these damaging policy initiatives who are policy wonks, but know nothing about what No Child Left Behind and current Accountability fetishes have done to schools and ultimately to students. We are not going to make our schools equitable by the having the right tests and accountability systems. We are going to address equity by advocating for a society that does not favor those who have over those who do not have.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Accountability and Testing: Distorting Teaching, Learning, and Public Education

To continue my critique of the “accountability and testing regime,” I have been thinking about what the ultimate goals of those whose faith and belief in the promise of standardized testing, statistical technologies, and classroom surveillance are. They have captured the discourse in education and conveniently made unacceptable anything critical anyone else has to say about testing and its high stakes deployment. An educator who questions it is not taken seriously and is deemed out of bounds. Testing and accountability seeks, in a nutshell, to make teaching and learning “measurable, calculable, in order to be controllable."

What does it mean to make teaching and learning “measurable?” It means reducing teaching and learning to “indicators” or “standards” that can simply be determined to be not present or present. It means making teaching and learning into something that can be captured using the available technologies at our disposal, such as teacher observations and standardized testing. Teaching, then, is made measurable by teacher evaluations, and, more recently, using statistical measures such as value-added models, which both result in what is hopefully “objective” and widely accepted as being “true” measures of acceptable teaching and learning, because they happen to be numerical.

As an administrator, I have heard many of my colleagues make the statement, “If it isn’t measurable; it didn’t happen.” That statement captures beautifully the complete faith in testing and measurement that currently exists in education. But it is also a statement of ignorance. Even the best psychometricians will say that “NOT EVERYTHING IN TEACHING AND LEARNING THAT IS WORTHWHILE IS MEASURABLE.” But this faith in “educational measurement” is at the heart of current educational reform, and it is still believed by many educators, politicians, and policymakers to hold the “silver bullet” that will finally make all public education effective. “We just don’t measure enough and measure effectively” is the belief that keeps driving round after round of testing-and-accountability-based reforms” in education. Tests are cheap in comparison to really dealing with the equity issues of healthcare and poverty. With tests and statistical tools, the belief that one can erase these social justice problems, but sadly that is not the case.

For those of us in the schools, those of us in tune with the teachers and students there, we see the results of this: an education system that continues to be distorted and twisted, that ultimately meets the needs of a few, mainly those who can use these “measurable results” to determine their own effectiveness and the effectiveness of their own ideas. An education where test results are still valued over individuals, and any old methodology that results in higher test scores is acceptable. Testing takes precedence over everything else schools do: just look at a state’s testing regulations if you want to see this. In other words, no matter the rhetoric coming from testing and accountability addicts, testing is driving everything in schools, and that’s they way they want it. That keeps them in power and needed.

Making teaching and learning “calculable” is very much akin to making it “measurable.” Making what we do in schools “calculable” is seeking to reduce what we are supposed to be doing to numbers. Somehow, our current system views “numbers” as somehow more objective, therefore superior to other things like judgment or intuition. This desire to make everything “calculable” leads to bizarre decision-making, where outcomes are ridiculously reduced to numerical values, even if those values distort the process and result. Standardized tests do this very well. They can’t measure an “effective essay” for example. Determining whether an essay , or musical composition, or painting is “effective” is by nature a “judgment.” And, whether it is effective in all instances and in all ways is relative. It might be effective at one thing or in one instance, but not another. Rarely are major literary pieces simply “effective for all time” or “in all ways.” The same applies to music, art, and so many other human endeavors. So, in the name of “objectivity,” current testing manics send essays, compositions, and even paintings to “outside” observers to evaluate all in the quest for “objectivity.” But such actions might create a facade of objectivity based on faith, but it completely results in an unfair evaluation of student work. For, who knows better whether a student has progressed than that teacher who has been in the trenches with that student, day after day and seen their incremental growth first-hand. So, the pursuit of making teaching and learning “calculable” is to simply turn it into numerical values or make it have the facade of “objectivity” because the belief is that “numbers don’t lie.” Testing and accountability becomes more about distrust of teachers and their judgments, than really trying to provide an effective education for students. "We can't trust teachers' judgments about students, so must use tests and other outside evaluators," is the rationale.

It is this desire to make teaching and learning both measurable and calculable that leads me to the final goal of accountability and testing as I see it: to make teaching and learning controllable. Policymakers, education reformers, and even politicians all believe they hold the “ultimate vision” of what effective teaching and learning is. They believe, armed with their many contradictory studies on the subject, that they hold the answers. Answers in hand, they seek to control teaching and learning in order to mold it into their image of effectiveness. Through tactics of measurement and calculability based in standardized testing and measurement, they use high stakes decision-making to weed out the “deviant” practices that don’t meet “best practices standards.” The problem lies though with the truth that both teaching and learning is so complex that to reduce it to universal rules of effectiveness ends up distorting it and neutralizing it to simply a “technical knowledge” that anyone can understand, including administrators and policymakers and education reformers who have never spent a day engaging in teaching in classrooms and making decisions about student learning. Teachers, as a result, find themselves engaging in a strangely distorted form of teaching that must jump through the hoops of “best practices” in order to get the “results” desired by this twisted system of education. Teaching the test and test prep are two examples of this distortion. They have become assembly-line workers who “add” knowledge to students as they roll down the assembly-line, and testing with this value-added component is the “quality control mechanism” that drives teachers in the entire system to produce even more “globally competent graduates" that can produce ‘number one test scores’ on international tests such as PISA. Under the testing and accountability regime, teachers are reduced to technicians whose judgement does not count and means nothing. Test results and other “quantitative” measures are hierarchically superior.

In the end, if you wanted to design an education system that turns education into a factory-like system that produces standard results, you couldn’t have done better with that created by our current accountability and testing regime. If you wanted to create a system that transforms and de-professionalizes teaching as a profession, you can’t do much better. In the end, our public education system might ultimately match up to the vision of those who adhere avidly to accountability and testing practices, but I can’t help but wonder whether those teachers in this system find the same level of satisfaction and dedication to students when test results are valued so highly. I also have to wonder what kinds of students such a system of this really produces. Perhaps, that’s what’s desired by accountability and testing advocates: they want students who don’t question; who don’t criticize; who don’t engage in learning deemed irrelevant such as the arts, and learning seen as deviant. They want both students and teachers who “just do their jobs” and not engage in dreams of how things might be different or better.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pursuit of Better Classroom Data: Is It Improvement of Teaching or of Classroom Surveillance?

Perhaps there's a truth here about accountability and testing that we have ignored: the use of standardized testing, value-added models, and growth models in teacher evaluations is all about subjecting the classroom to techniques of surveillance. To put it bluntly, they are spy tactics. Their purpose is to peer into the classroom to see if teachers are teaching the "prescribed" curriculum, and to see if teachers are adhering to the "rules of best practice" as they teach. These surveillance techniques are based on a fundamental mistrust of teachers' professional judgment regarding how they should be teaching and how their students perform.

The current efforts to perfect the evaluation of teachers aren't really just about improving teacher effectiveness: they are about sharpening the gaze into the classroom. They are about making the classroom more visible to those higher up the administrative chain. They are about finding the means to "objectively" determine whether teachers are teaching in the manner prescribed by "best practices" and whether they are teaching only the content that can be subjected to testing.

What testing and accountability experts have discovered though, is that tests are imperfect. The image they project of the teachers' performance is at best blurred and opaque. Even with new-fangled "value-added models," seeing teachers' effectiveness is foggy and unreliable. Now, they are seeking other ways to increase classroom surveillance. They are seeking other "spies" which might provide them with a clearer gaze of what's happening in the classroom. What are those new techniques for gazing into classrooms? They are called "student surveys."

Interestingly, student surveys turn students into 25 or 30 pairs of eyes that can report back to administration regarding whether classrooms are conducted in the manner dictated by the laws of "best practices." The student survey becomes another instrument with which the administration and government can sharpen its gaze into the classroom to make sure teachers' conduct adheres to "best practices." Underlying the use of student surveys is the assumption as well that if teachers know that 25 or 30 pairs of eyes are watching that might potentially report deviance back to the administration, those teachers will engage in the expected teaching behaviors. Thus, the control of the classroom becomes more complete.

We need to perhaps realize that the push to ever better classroom data is maybe more about control and transformation of the teaching and the teaching profession into a non-profession where teachers are simply "technicians of learning" whose professional judgment means nothing. The next generation of teachers will not need to exercise professional judgment: they will only need to conduct their classes in the prescribed manner by the "sciences of teaching." The question then becomes, "Are we really producing the kinds of students that our world needs?" Students newly manufactured and stamped with the US Department of Education's approval as being "Globally competent."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What’s the One Thing That Will Fix Public Education? Here’s an Answer for You!

“What’s the one thing that we could so to fix public education?” Lily Eskelsen Garcia answers this question asked by a businessman so effectively. I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Value-Added Models Aren’t Settled Science No Matter What Ed Leaders Say

The American Education Research Association (AERA) has released a new statement about the use of value-added models (VAMs) in educator evaluations and to evaluate educator preparation programs. It is no secret that as an experienced educator of twenty-six years, I do not find VAMs very useful or fair indicators of teacher effectiveness. The results are often only available three or four months into the school year, so even if they were in a useful form that could inform specific classroom instruction, they arrive much too late, at least for first semester students to be of use.

But the AERA clearly points out that using VAMs as indicators of teacher effectiveness are still too deeply flawed to be used in that manner. (See the AERA statement for yourself here.) Many states, including North Carolina, have charged full speed ahead after being blackmailed by the Obama administration into adopting VAMs. This has occurred in spite of concerns over the limitations and flaws with their use.

There is certainly no disagreement from me that there is always room for improvement in teacher effectiveness, but I also think our false faith in the objectivity of value-added models sees these statistical models as some kind of “savior of public education” for which they are not, nor will ever be. Their limitations are too great to be useful for anything except as a small piece of data schools can consider about how their students are doing.

Here’s limitations outlined by the AERA statement:

  • Current state tests are too limited to measure teacher effectiveness, and most were not designed for that purpose anyway. They cover only a limited amount of content teachers teach and they are too imprecise to be used in determining teacher quality. They also only measure grade-level standards so they fail to measure the growth of students above or below those standards.
  • VAM estimates have not been shown to effectively isolate estimates of teacher effectiveness from other school fators or outside of school factors. To expect VAMs to do this entirely is unrealistic and foolhardy.

As usual, the adoption of VAMs illustrates one very bad flaw education leaders and education policy makers have: they adopt what they see as “common sense” measures without conducting critical and empirical explorations about whether the policies will work as they intend them. The history of public education is littered with these actions, and you would think a wise education leader would learn that what just seems “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” is perhaps nothing of the sort.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

What I’ve Been Up To & a Quick Reminder of Our Undying Standardized Testing Fetish in US

I feel a bit obligated to explain why there have been so few posts to The 21st Century Principal blog this year. I am continuing my doctoral work through Appalachian State University, so I’ve spent countless hours reading about the French philosopher Michel Foucault and value-added model research. Now I am sure someone might want to ask what could these two subjects possibly have in common?

Well, I am working on a poststructural analysis of current accountability practices. What I hope to be able to do expose even more of the bizarreness behind our continued fetish with using standardized tests to measure everything in education. Somehow, we in the United States just can’t let go of this “If-it-breathes-let’s-test-it approach to education. The faith that if we somehow are able to find “just the right standards” and the “right tests to measure them,” our students will excel in school in life remains strong, and the United States will be number one in international tests, and all our students will find companies just dying to give them high paying jobs because of their superb test performance. I hope you notice the sarcasm.

I just don’t have the time to write blog posts like I was, but I am still reading and writing and learning. And, I am still just as critical of our accountability and testing fetish as ever.

Friday, November 6, 2015

NC Senator Phil Berger Continues Anti-Public Education Campaign

NC State Senator once again proves he is the number one enemy of public education in North Carolina. In a speech made before Best NC, he had this to say(Check out this post.):

“Research shows that teacher assistants don’t have a meaninfgul impact on students’ academic outcomes…but here in North Carolina this year we will spend almost $400 million dollars on teacher assistants next year. I equate it to an office supply business that chooses to continue to invest in manual typewriters."

Berger clearly equates the main purpose of schools are to obtain high test scores, and anything that does not serve that purpose is useless. This comes from an individual who apparently has no clue how schools operate, and probably hasn’t set foot in a classroom since he walked through the doors of his one-room school-house sitting in the middle of the Sandhills of North Carolina.

But, why should we blame him entirely? Public education should blame itself. When “student outcomes” and “teaching inputs” become the language of instruction, then it is no wonder that policitians like Berger use our own research, and language, in his quest to end public education in North Carolina. When every decision in a school is made in the service of “getting those test scores up,” it’s not a big leap to using test scores to justify every single expenditure.

Educators are as guilty as Berger if we let his nonsensical blather about standardized testing continue unchallenged. Educators also need to challenge Senator Berger’s nonsense too rather than trying to be “politically correct” and connect with him.

If you want to hear more of Berger’s nonsensical rhetoric check out his speech before the educational “reform” organization BEST NC (Business for Educational Success and Transformation) here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Is It Time to Question the Place of Football in High Schools?

I realize I am treading on sacred ground here, but with the increase in the number of young people who are dying as a result of participating in high school football, is it not time to look critically at an extra-curricular activity that is asking young people to sacrifice their lives for a short term, spectacle event?

Football is based on violence no matter how you try to package it. Yet, as evidence mounts that those who participate experience dehilibitating brain injuries, we still insist on sending teenagers on the field each Friday night to participate in a sport that can potentially either end their lives or somehow negatively impact their lives much later.

Many of us, including myself, suffer from the foolish choice I made many years ago to participate in the sport. I suffer from constant knee pain and not being able to be as active as I would like because I chose to play football in high school almost 30 plus years ago. In my case, a mere 15 year old was asked to sacrifice his future well-being for the glory of high school sport.

American football has the potential of being hazardous to the health of our high school students no matter how much we wish to play up its potential to promote teamwork, or commitment, or any other valuable character trait we wish to attribute to this violent sport. I submit that there are less hazardous ways to teach our students these values.

It is time to evaluate the superficial sacrifices we ask our young people to make for the short term goal of high school state football championships. I would caution any parent whose child wants to participate in this sport to rethink the costs of benefits. Of course, please understand this is my opinion as a once high school football participant, a once-high school and middle school football coach. It is time to ask some tough questions about this practice.

It is time to have a conversation about a sport where students' lives are ended too early. Sure, there are other sports where young people are injured, sometimes in ways that are life-changing. But, when headlines constantly highlight instances where young lives end prematurely, or where our professional football icons end up with irreparable brain damage, it is time to ask the tough critical questions. Parents need to ask whether it is wise to allow their children to participate in a sport where there is growing evidence that they may suffer long-term brain damage.

We can't hold on to a "tradition" because it is treasured. Sometimes we have to question whether it is in the best interest of our children. If American football damages even one life, and from the growing evidence I suspect much, much more, we need to question its legitimate place in our high schools.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How Current Educational Leadership Makes Itself Powerless

Most current principals and school leaders are quite familiar with the discourse that calls for them to focus on their “circles of influence” and just ignore those things over which they have no control. Stephen R. Covey has become the gospel for educational leaders.

For example, if a school principal of a high-poverty school points out the abject poverty that her students live in from day-to-day is hampering their achievement, she is immediately reprimanded and corrected with, “Just focus on what you can control, not those things you can’t. Besides, that’s just an excuse.” The thinking behind these statements elevate the myth that poverty does not matter. All one needs to do is “Pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and they will succeed.”

The underlying belief of all this is, “Poverty is an acceptable part of life. People who live in poverty do so because of their own mistaken choices.” It is this belief that underpins so many school leadership trainings I’ve experienced. Focus on the management tools, and ignore the conditions kids live in outside the school.

The ordered silence (and it is ordered because those who speak are silenced and dismissed) about poverty is the same as saying those who push policies and practices that are pomoting income desparity and poverty are right and to question what they are doing is “political.” It is this thinking that has disemboweled educational leadership today. There’s no “guts” or courage for standing up to those societal and political practices that are hurting children. School leaders are made simply “managers” of a system as it is rather than advocating for a society and a system that gives everyone a fair chance.

When did educational leadership mean subscribing to a societal program that leaves more kids behind than ever?

When did being a school principal who is advocating for the dire needs of the kids in his school become labeled as excuses instead of calling attention to an American society that does not take care of its own?

When does it ever mean that a school leader can’t critique federal, state, and local educational policy, and question political decisions made by our government and state poltical and educational department leaders?

Have we so adopted the hierarchical, non-questioning business approach to just carrying out the latest federal or state mandate so that we can “keep our jobs?”

That is why America still leaves so many children behind! Educational leaders have been neutered and reduced to “business managers” whose job is to follow orders unquestionably. They are encouraged to have a vision “as long as it fits into the program, where the program is guided by federal and state poltiical mandates.

Until educational leaders, from the classroom to the state and federal levels shed the mind of educational managers of the latest mandates, and begin to question and advocate as well as call attention to society-wide policies that are hurting kids, public education will be just as powerless and inffective as its leaders.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

NC SAT Scores Drop Slightly: So What! It Means Nothing

News outlets are reporting everywhere that “SAT Scores Slip Slightly” and “NC’s SAT Scores Drop, Even as More Students Graduate” but does it really mean anything?

Before the state politicians and state educational system leades start to panic, let me make this as clear as I can: IT MEANS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. The SAT is a standardized test and comparing the scores from one year to the next is a meaningless and fruitless exercise. There is no meaning to be gained by even reporting this information. It is about as newsworthy as reporting that it was hot again today and it will be hot again tomorrow!

Educators need to stop responding with panic about the rise and fall of these tests from year to year. Instead, we need to remind everyone of the stupidity of making these comparisons each in the first place. We shouldn’t brag when the SAT scores go up, and we certainly should not accept responsibility when they go down. It is education malpractice to even acknowledge that there is any meaning in comparing national standardized tests from year to year. So what is my administrative and professional response to the SAT scores drop or any national standardized test results? You just read it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Schools Need Intellectual Leaders Too!

“The role of the intellectual is to expose new ways of thinking: to make people see the world around them in a different light, to disturb their mental habits and to invite them to demand and instigate change.” Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault
I want to propose a radical idea: School leaders need to be “intellectual leaders.” If you look at any one of the hundreds of books about educational leadership, you see the words, “instructional leader,” “micropolitical leader,” or “managerial leader,” but what’s missing is the idea of “intellectual leadership.” Educational leaders, as I see it, should also be “intellectual leaders."
If there ever was a time “intellectual leaders” are needed it is now. Intellectual leaders who “expose new and old ways of thinking about education and its practices” are needed in the face of an onslaught of privatization and corporatization. Educational leaders have often blindly accepted the “corporate agenda” for schools often without question. They have bought the idea that “If it works in business, then it will work in education” mantra. They have come to accept without question an audit culture that places results in the form of test scores above anything else. They have blindly followed politicians into this by accepting massive amounts of federal money with chains attached to drag public education in places of destruction. In a word, educational leaders are complicit in the destruction of public education and the destruction of the teaching profession with their unquestioning acceptance of the latest brand of educational reform to travel downward from on high.

What is needed to counter this downward spiral? Intellectual leaders willing to expose these mandates, these policies to the scrutiny of critical examination. Intellectual leaders who don’t just accept as gospel that tests are the equivalent of learning and that test scores are the only worthwhile measure of learning. It is intellectual leaders in the schools who would scrutinize and resist policies bad for kids, and bad for public education.

One other thing about intellectual leadership: it also involves “distubing the mental habits” of others within the school organization. These others also need to question the reasons "why we have always done things this way” or “why we are going to do them this way now.” With the questions, spaces for resistance open up for true leadership. Change begins with seeing outside the boundaries; not with accepting the boundaries as given.
"The intellectual is not the moral conscience of society, his or her role is not to pass political judgments, but to liberate us by making alternative ways of thinking possible."Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Education’s Sole Purpose to Prepare Students for the Jobs of the Future? I Say No!

Is education’s sole purpose to prepare students for the jobs of the future? I am positive that many educators who read my headline immediately ask, “What a dumb question! Sure, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.” But, is that really the case?

Educators have long accepted as a maxim that education should be about preparing students for the jobs of the future, jobs that don’t even exist yet. But is that possible? Can we actually, without a doubt, predict the kinds of jobs our students will have twenty or thirty years from now? If not, then are we not gambling with students’ lives by teaching skills to students declared by gurus and educational prophets funded by corporations to be necessary for our students’ survival?

We all know that the future can change suddenly and drastically. The fortunes of one industry can be sunk by a single invention. Examples? The record industry, video rental stores, etc. A whole family of industries can become obsolete with the changing times and literally, in the blink of the eye. Why then would we want to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, especially when there is not a single human that I know capable of seeing into the future enough to tell us what our students need?

Take my own hometown community. Fiber optic manufacturers sprang up all around, promising to make our area the “Silicon Valley of the East.” To foster the promise of a future boom, our local fiber optic industry spent a great deal of time speaking and working with our schools, talking about the kinds of skills they needed kids to have in order get good jobs with their industry. There were joint workshops with their educational experts, exchanges literature and teaching ideas, and even visits to our schools to speak to our kids about the importance of obtaining the skills that their businesses sorely needed them to have. These evangelists of prosperity were everywhere, preaching and teaching the kinds of skills they wanted kids to have so that they could work in their factories when they graduated. Six years later, the bottom fell out of the fiber option industry. Companies closed and consolodated. Thousands were laid off. Plants were closed. Many of those employes of those companies were left stranded, with a knowledge specific to the cabling industry, that was now useless because the only industry around was in a downward spiral, with little hope of things ever returning back to the earlier boom days.

I am certainly not suggesting that we should not prepare students for the future. I am suggesting that to prepare students according to current industrial and corporate specifications is shortsighted and morally wrong.

Our job as educators should be much broader. Instead of providing graduates with industry specific skills, we need to prepare students who can leave our education system and do anything. They should be be able to act intelligently, learn as demanded, and be active citizens of the community. We should not be job trainers for the local factories. Those factories do not have the interests of our students at heart, nor should they. Their interest is in short term profits. Educators have to be visionaries and interested in the long-term. This means thinking about the educational big picture. We can work with our local industries and businesses to provide them citizens who they can then train for their jobs. To allow ourselves as an educational institution to become solely job training institutions is shortsighted, malpractice, and a disservice to our students.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Beware of ‘Educational Snake-Oil Salespersons’: Ask Them to Provide Evidence

I was having a conversation the other day with a salesperson of an educational product, and he threw out the words, “My product is research-based” at least five times before I decided to call his bluff. I asked, “If your product is research-based, can you provide me with the studies that validate the effectiveness of your products?"

He stared at me a moment before muttering something like, “Well, the product’s methods are research-based, not exactly the product. There have been studies that point out that the method our product uses is research-based.” I could not let it go yet. I asked, “Well can you point me to the studies then that validate the method behind your product.” He said nothing at first and a glimmer of frustration appeared for a moment. Then, he said, “Well, I’ll be glad to find those studies for you and email them to you.” We shook hands and he walked away a lot quicker than he did when he arrived. Needless to say, I never received those studies outlining the research that supported the method behind his product.

I tell this story because way too often, we as educators allow those selling us products to get by with using the words “research-based” and even statements about how their product increases student achievement without asking for the evidence.

I think we should always ask for that information even if we are familiar with it. It will tell us a great deal about both the product and the people selling us the product.

As a lot, educators are a trusting bunch sometimes, but they shouldn’t be. When someone makes claims about their products, we should ask for the research they claim supports their product. We perhaps should even ask for it even if we know that research.

Our budgets are tight enough as it is, but more importantly, we need to always disturb these notions of research-based and claims of effectiveness. It is not impolite to be skeptical and demand people selling us products to back up their claims. There are way too many salesmen of “educational snake oil" out there. That’s how we end up with those curriculum closets full of instructional materials that no one uses.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

“In Pearson We Trust!” Trust Corporations Not Teachers

In this recent story from NPR entitled “How Standardized Tests Are Scored (Hint: Humans Are Involved),” it becomes clear how companies like Pearson have purposely created a “facade of objectivity” in order to make it appear that their scoring of tests has some kind of legitimacy. This kind of test wizardry has become more common as the quest for “objective measures” has heated up in recent years. The NPR story helps cast doubt on this so-called “objectivity-from-afar!”

Somehow our education policymakers from President Obama through Arne Duncan down to our state departments of education have decided we can’t trust classroom teachers to tell us how students are doing. Instead, the motto in public education has become “In Pearson We Trust!”

Check out the NPR story here.

Friday, July 3, 2015

July the Fourth: Celebration of Our Commonalities and Our Differences

As this July the Fourth approaches, we hear the usual calls for “patriotism” and “love for country.” American flags fly everywhere. Fireworks blast during the afternoons. Barbeques and cook-outs with families occur throughout our neighborhoods and cities. But due to recent events in the United States, our divisions have become more apparent, and this July holiday might be more of an opportunity to celebrate our commonalities as citizens of this country, and our differences as individuals with the recognition of our sameness as human beings.

All to often, it is frequently an American practice to turn this holiday into celebrations of pride. In that celebration, are the uses of phrases like “greatest country in the world.” No doubt, this country has done some amazing and great things, and it has done some things for which no one would be proud. That’s because countries don’t exist without people, and people make mistakes. But I do not think we should seek to just celebrate of national pride or a confess our national mistakes.

Instead, it is in times like these, where the world and our country seems most divided, I think it is more important to use this July the Fourth to remember our humanity, and that we all have a place in the world. We, no matter which country in which we live, are part of humanity as well. We can celebrate that too.

As we celebrate, let us remember these words from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama:

In a sense, all human beings belong to a single family. We need to embrace the oneness of humanity and show concern for everyone— not just my family or my country or my continent. We must show concern for every being, not just the few who resemble us. Differences of religion, ideology, race, economic system, social system, and government are all secondary.

The Dalai Lama His Holiness; Hopkins Ph.D., Jeffrey (2002-02-12). How To Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (p. 80). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bluetooth and Wifi Issues with MacBook Pros

Since I upgraded to OS X Yosemite, I, like many other Mac users have been issues with bluetooth and wifi interference. As updates have rolled through, my problems with using my Bluetooth Apple Magic Mouse and the wifi connections at work just haven’t been resolved. I searched the web and tried a whole list of things, but nothing worked. I narrowed the wifi connectivity issue down to an issue with using the Bluetooth Magic Mouse by simply turning off the wifi, which stopped the wifi connection dropping. While Bluetooth is turned off, I have no network and Internet connectivity issues.

After searching the forums, I discovered that the real issue causing the Bluetooth-wifi connectivity problem was FaceTime. This application when activated was causing issues with both my Magic Mouse and my wifi connection. The solution? Turn off FaceTime. It worked! While it seems like a great idea that I be able to text and answer calls on my MacBook, being able to have a solid connection to wifi and being able to use my Bluetooth mouse is much more important to me.
So, if you are like me and are having bluetooth and wifi issues, you may be able to resolve the problem by simply turning off FaceTime.

UPDATE: My fix above stopped working. Apparently, the wifi frequency and the bluetooth frequency still interfere. I gave up and purchased a regular USB wireless mouse. So for the "magic" in Apple's Magic Mouse.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

On Blogging and Where Have the Posts Been?

What many have probably noticed lately, there just hasn’t been as many posts to The 21st Century Principal blog as in years past. For some that may have been just fine. You may have tired of my blather any way. But for those wondering where I have been, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work on my doctoral degree at Appalachian State University, and work. Doctoral work, with its reading and more reading and more writing and more writing, just gobbles what ever time one has left over from work, which for administrators, that is not a whole lot of time any way. I just haven’t had a great deal of time. Now, the real work begins on this doctorate; I have finished classes and have begun work on the qualifying exam and dissertation.
Still, I have found the lack of time only part of the reason I’ve just not had much to say here. The truth is, my writing energy has been consumed as well with all the massive and demanding writing I have had to do the past two years in my classes. By the time I was able to write a paper, I just couldn’t find the energy to post on the blog.
In spite of this, The 21st Century Principal blog is still alive, just not as prolific as I would like it to be. I plan to continue writing about technology, teaching, leadership and public education policies that matter to me the most.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Office Lens: New Smartphone Scanner App That Works with MS Word and PowerPoint

Office Lens is a new scanner app for your iOS device or Android device that turns your smartphone into a pocket scanner. You can turn your pictures of notes on a whiteboard or handwritten notes on a piece of paper into notes that can be edited in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. You can also export into PDF or JPEG formats as well. This is an app that has excellent potential for students.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

NC Governor McCrory Dismisses & Ignores Most Teachers as Special Interests

According to a WRAL news story today, "NC Still Lags in Teacher Pay, Student Spending," the National Education Association released a report that ranks NC teacher pay 42nd nationally. 

As would be expected, North Carolina governor McCrory's education adviser, Eric Guckian, immediately dismissed the report. Whatever happened to the idea of arguing perhaps that the content of the report is incorrect and present the correct facts. Instead, our North Carolina's governor office labels the report as irrelevant.

In rather telling and interesting statement made by Eric Guckian, McCrory's "Education Adviser" the Governor reveals how he "really" feels about teachers.

"Governor McCrory is leading change that makes targeted investments in education spending that has students, not special interests, at the center of the equation."

Is he labeling every teacher in the state of North Carolina a "special interest" as if their needs somehow don't matter? Sure looks like it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why the Continued Obsession with High Stakes Accountability and Testing?

"The test obsession is making public schools, where nine out of ten American children are enrolled, into unhappy places." Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing---But You Don't Have to Be
At the center, high stakes accountability and standardized testing policies are an attempt to justify public education. Politicians need quantification for the expenditure of tax dollars for education, no matter what the quality of the accountability system providing them with that justification. Various groups of people are happy with the massive increase in standardized test administration in spite of the fact that such testing has indeed began to suck the life out of our public schools.

Politicians want these accountability systems for a variety of reasons. Some are fine with public schools being unpleasant places because they do not want them to exist in the first place. They want evidence that public schools are performing poorly, and testing gives them the evidence. Other politicians blindly see these tests as the "objective" tools of salvation for public education. They have the faith that "objectivity" is possible, and that tests can fairly measure all that is worthwhile in schools. They are true believers in standardized testing.

Then there's the federal and state level policy makers who want all this standardized testing too. They see them as vital "measures" that tell them how schools, principals, teachers, and students are doing. Test scores give them purpose. "Let's get those test scores up!" becomes their focus, without which the existence of their job is questionable. They find the justification in what they're doing rooted in standardized testing.

Finally, there are administrators, from the national to the school level, who want these massive testing systems too. It gives them an "easy and simple" way to measure how their teachers are doing their jobs and how students are performing. No judgments are required: if a school, teacher, or student doesn't get the score, "dump'em." That makes leadership all tidy and neat, because there's no need for thinking, and there's no need for courage either. Test scores are used by school leaders as evidence of their own leadership as well; when scores go up, they feel validated. If scores drop, they can blame the teachers under their charge, the students, or lack of support from elsewhere. In addition, focusing on test scores is an excuse by many to ignore advocating for social justice and true actions taken to deal with poverty.

It's simply true, a lot of educators and politicians need test scores, otherwise, they don't have justification for their existence or evidence of their success. If there's nothing to count, then they can't show anyone "numbers" which, in their eyes, is the only convincing evidence of success in this thinking. But what if there are other ways to show success?

Maybe, it's time to rethink the high stakes accountability and testing paradigm. Maybe, if accountability is ultimate goal, there is a way to get that without this continued chasing of shadows. Perhaps, it we really put our heads together we could find a way to really improve schools and know it, rather than this multi-decade search for the measure and punish tactic that will work.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Listening with Real Compassion: A True Leadership Trait

"Having the space to listen with compassion is essential to being a true friend, a true colleague, a true parent, a true partner." Thich Nhat Hanh, from Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise
How many of you find that you don’t listen well in your role as leaders? I find that out every single day of my life. In the job of being a school leader, my mind races through the day. Even when I am sitting still, my mind is elsewhere. It’s chasing those classroom observations I have yet to do. It is preoccupied with a specific issue involving a teacher, parent, and student. It is racing about so much, there are times I just don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. It’s not that I am stubborn; its that my mind is tuned in to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls  Radio Station NST, and the NST stands for “Non-Stop-Thinking."

How effective as compassionate leaders can we really be with our minds so distracted? I suspect not very much. So, what’s the answer? I think Hanh offers a pretty solid answer: we have to begin with ourselves.

“If we want to help others, we need to have peace inside,” Hanh writes and teaches. We have to focus on creating this peace within ourselves or else, we’re wasting everybody’s time, including our own.

We need to take time today and listen inwardly. Have compassion on yourself first and listen; then you can have genuine compassion for others.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Art of Welcoming Silence to Become Authentic Leaders

How many times do you find yourself chasing away the silence? In the role of leadership, sometimes “the silence” becomes a reminder of just how lonely the job of being a leader can be. As Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"We can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside us . We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away. Technology supplies us with many devices that allow us to “stay connected.” These days, we are always “connected,” but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another . We want to share; we want to receive. We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect."

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we actively avoid silence by filling our lives with as many things as possible. Those things can be electronic devices as Hanh describes, or they can be check-points on a massive to-do list that just keep us busy to avoid the silence of loneliness. Truth is, we can avoid the loneliness that the job of leadership brings with it by filling the vacuum of silence. Instead, we need to welcome the silence.

But as Thich Nhat reminds us, “Silence is essential.” It is the silence that gives us time for us. It is here in the silence that we can begin to look deeply and find out who we are. Is that not ultimately what we want as leaders? To become authentic, we need to shut down the noise around us long enough to connect with who we are instead of Facebook or Twitter.

Hanh, Thich Nhat (2015-01-27). Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise (p. 24). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Evernote's Scannable: A Powerful But Simple-to-Use Scanning App for Your iPhone or iPad

Evernote just got even more useful for me with its new iOS app Scannable. In many of my past posts regarding Evernote, I have made it clear that the Evernote note taking application is my everyday "go-to" app in both my professional and personal life. With all the smartphone apps, desktops apps, and browser extensions, Evernote makes note taking and web curation simple and easy.

Now, they've added an iOS app called Scannable. With this app, you can scan any document with your iPad or iPhone. You can then send it to someone by email, upload it to an Evernote notebook, place it in your photos, send it through the messaging app, or export it any number of your iCloud apps. It's rather simple interface is an added benefit.

Evernote's Scannable is definitely another one of those apps you'll want to download and use with your iOS devices.

Scannable Document in Evernote Desktop App

Scannable Interface in iOS

Scannable is excellent choice for quickly capturing any document, whether it be a handwritten note, receipt, memo, or sticky note. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

NC's New A-F School Grading System: Perfect Measure of Poverty in Schools

Today, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released the school report cards mandated by North Carolina’s legislature. (See those here.) These report cards graded each school with a letter grade A-F. Once again, our state has taken a step backward into absurdity with this action. Grading all the things our schools do with a single letter grade reduces, once again, what matters in North Carolina schools the most, to test scores. Once again, our state has elevated state testing to even higher stakes. Schools will now work in earnest prepping students for tests and getting those numbers up.

But elevating test scores is not only what this exercise in madness does; it also clearly demonstrates what’s wrong with education, and society, in North Carolina. In its article entitled “NC Public School Letter Grades Released, Reflecting Student Family Incomes,” The News and Observer sums up the real truth we learn from these report cards.

We don’t really learn which schools are failing and which are succeeding because the data used for this is narrowly focused on test score data and a few other indicators. What we learn of real importance is stated so aptly in this article:

“Among the schools where 80 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 81 percent received a D or F. Only one of those schools got an A. At the other end of the spectrum, more than 90 percent of schools where fewer than 20 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch received an A or B. Only one of those schools received an F."

In other words, our legislature and North Carolina Department of Public Instruction hasn’t come up with a test at all on how our schools or do; they’ve developed the perfect test for poverty. In fact, it really shows that North Carolina’s barrage of tests are great for indentifying students who live in poverty! Probably much better than actually measuring student achievement.

Sadly though, I suspect the motivation behind this A-F grading system isn’t really about improving public education at all. After all, our North Carolina State Legislature proved during its last session it is no friend to public education, why would we expect different.? No, this grading system is simply another attempt by our political leaders to drum up or even manufacture false charges of failure so that they can continue to push their pet project of school vouchers and their blind obedience to free markets.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thoughts on School Choice and the Fight to Preserve Public Schools

Is it time for school choice? Before those against vouchers and charters start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As most who've read this blog know, I am and have always been a staunch public school advocate. I do not believe that anything miraculous will happen if suddenly vouchers were available for every student, nor do I think that an increase of a thousandfold of the number of charter schools is suddenly going put us at the forefront in international PISA scores. Often those who push these choices do so for ideological reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the best interest of kids. So I am certainly not siding with free market fundamentalists who believe that market forces will suddenly catapult student achievement to first in the world. I simply don't see that happening. I also certainly do not side with those who think public education should be abolished and that the government has no business in it. Public education in this country has done wonders in providing opportunities and futures for kids. Still, what makes me ask the question, "Is it time for school choice?" has more to do with a public education system more interested in preserving itself than being introspective and asking why parents and their students want options in the first place.

Immediately, when public education begins to argue against charters or school choice, they begin crying about the loss of funding. From my perspective, this is entirely the wrong argument to make. It betrays a perspective that sees each student as an additional dollar sign to be added to a total, instead of a individual student to be taught and provided with educational opportunity. When districts begin using dollar amounts lost to defend against school vouchers or charter schools, they are demonstrating the wrong attitude. Instead, they should be asking why parents and students want to attend charter schools or want vouchers in the first place. Instead, they fight battles with the wrong ammunition, when they would be much better off being introspective and asking the tough questions about why their students are leaving or leave in the first place.

I suspect most parents just want the best schools they can get for their kids. They really don't care whether they are a charter school, private school or traditional public school; they want school to be a positive asset in their child's life. Public school districts, school leaders, and educators can work to provide those schools for parents, or they will continue to pressure politicians to give them options. I haven't the data, nor do I know even if it exists (maybe a reader out there can provide it), but I can't but wonder if there's a correlation between the proliferation of charter schools and school vouchers in places where public schools focus more intently on self-preservation rather than focusing on making themselves better. I realize many schools fight budget constraints, and poorly funded schools who are struggling can't compete. Still, when public schools lose their focus and spend more time on self-preservation than taking an honest look at themselves, schools couldn't possibly be focused on the primary mission of educating young minds.

What I have learned these past few years as a principal of a public school of choice, not charter, is this: many parents are seeking options, especially at the high school level. They want alternatives to the large, often impersonal, traditional high schools that most districts still operate. They are least interested in arguments about why charter schools are a bad idea because big schools will lose funding. They don't care about how efficient these large schools operate, and you can honestly throw all the test data you want to try to convince them of the effectiveness of that school. In the end, they want their child to be in a school that cares about them, that knows their child as individuals and not as test scores or a number. Finally, they want their child in a school where that child wants to be.

So, is it time for school choice? I think that question has been answered, at least here in North Carolina. Public schools districts had better stop fighting the battle of self-preservation, and start looking to see how they can re-form their schools into places that meet the needs of kids.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

No Such Thing as an 'Objective Test'

“Every act of measurement loses more information than it gains, closing the box irretrievable and forever on other potentials.” Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

The problem with accountability and testing lies within a single assumption: “that which is the most important content to be learned can be reduced to a single test or be captured in a test question.” If life were a dance between a, b, c, or d, then standardized tests could capture the essence of learning, and we could be satisfied that a correct or incorrect answer on multiple-choice questions actually tell us whether substantial and important learning has taken place. Sadly though, nothing worth while or lasting can be reduced to that level of simplicity.

As Wheatley points out, when observations, in this case tests, are created, choices are made as to what is to be tested and what is to be ignored. That ‘subjective choice’ reflects all manner of value judgments and decisions regarding importance. Hence, the very ‘subjective nature’ of tests like those being administered is questionable. The observation choices made by those who write the very questions on tests reflect their own subjective choices regarding importance. That’s why no standardized tests are ultimately entirely objective. As Wheatley points out, “Every observation is preceded by a choice about what to observe.” The person who makes those choices are exercising their subjective opinion regarding that is worthwhile to learning and what is most important.

To claim that state standardized tests or any standardized tests are “subjective” masks this fact: these tests reflect the subjective judgment of those whose wrote and designed them. It is simply their opinion regarding what is valuable enough to be tested. Next time someone throws the term “objective measures” or “objective testing” at you, remember this. The quest for ultimate objectivity in testing is a fool’s errand.