Rand Corp. Report Says Grading Teachers by Student Scores Doesn’t Work; Ohio Law Will Diminish Use of Student Scores for Evaluating Teachers

In 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a huge project to demonstrate that evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores would improve education and especially the education of “low-income, minority” students. Now the Gates Foundation has paid for a huge Rand Corporation study that showed its original experiment didn’t work. Although the Gates Foundation can move on to testing another hypothesis, its prescription for grading teachers has done immeasurable damage by injecting econometric teacher evaluation into the laws of many states. It will take a long time for the 50 state legislatures to clean up laws based on a mistake.

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum describes the original plan: “Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address reflected the heady moment in education. ‘We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,’ he said. ‘A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.’ Bad teachers were the problem; good teachers were the solution. It was a simplified binary, but the idea and the research it drew on had spurred policy changes across the country, including a spate of laws establishing new evaluation systems designed to reward top teachers and help weed out low performers.  Behind that effort was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation… Now, new research commissioned by the Gates Foundation finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.  The 500-plus page report by the Rand Corporation… details the political and technical challenges of putting complex new systems in place…”

The Gates Foundation not only launched a giant experiment without an adequate research base, but it also leveraged the investment of public dollars and used its own lobbying might to influence public policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for Race to the Top grants on the use of students’ standardized test scores in teachers’ evaluations and later made the same requirement for states to qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss details the history: “Put this in the ‘they-were-warned-but-didn’t-listen’ category.”  She describes the project launched in Hillsborough County (Greater Tampa), Florida, Memphis, and Pittsburgh along with four charter management organizations: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pumped nearly $215 million into the project while the partnering school organizations supplied their own money, for a total cost of $575 million.”  Federal policy makers jumped into the mix: “The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top initiative, dangled federal funds in front of states that agreed to establish teacher evaluation systems using test scores to varying extents.  And Gates funded his ‘Empowering Effective Teachers’ project with the aim of finding proof that such systems could improve student achievement…  (M)ost states adopted test-based teacher evaluation systems.  In a desperate attempt to evaluate all teachers on tested subjects—reading and math—some of the systems would up evaluating teachers on subjects they didn’t teach or on students they didn’t have. Some major organizations questioned them, including the American Statistical Association…. And so did the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council.”

Strauss quotes the conclusion of the Rand Corporation’s huge new assessment of the experiment: “Overall, the initiative did not achieve its stated goals for students, particularly LIM (low-income minority) students. By the end of 2014-2015, student outcomes were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the IP (Intensive Partnerships) initiative. Furthermore, in the sites where these analyses could be conducted, we did not find improvement in the effectiveness of newly hired teachers relative to experienced teachers; we found very few instances of improvement in the effectiveness of the teaching force overall; we found no evidence that LIM students had greater access than non-LIM students to effective teaching; and we found no increase in the retention of effective teachers, although we did find declines in the retention of ineffective teachers in most sites.”

What the Rand Report fails to calculate is the collateral damage. It is well known that, in Hillsborough County, Florida, the Gates Foundation suspended its study before it had been completed—leaving the school district itself to cover a significant part of the cost. But beyond Hillsborough County, the consequences were long lasting as state legislatures, lured by Race to the Top funding and the need to qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers, passed laws basing teachers’ evaluations on students’ standardized test scores. When, in December of 2015, Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, it removed the requirement that states use  students’ test scores in teachers’ evaluations, but the laws the states had put in place to meet federal requirements remained.

For example, only last week did the Ohio Legislature act to reduce the role of students’ test scores in the state teacher evaluation system. Finally—before going on a 2018 summer recess, the Ohio lawmakers passed a new statute reducing the weight of students’ standardized tests in the formal evaluation of teachers. The law passed with bipartisan support, and it is hoped that Governor John Kasich will sign it.

Last Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reported that Ohio has been basing 50 percent of teachers’ ratings on students’ standardized  test scores .  Keep in mind that it is now 2018, and Ohio, like many other states, has still been using a plan that the Rand Corporation has now declared ineffective for measuring the quality of teachers.

Siegel quotes Jonathan Juravich, the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year, describing the new system: “No longer… (will) student growth measures be used as a disconnected evaluation factor linked to an arbitrary weighted percentage.”

Ohio is also finally doing away with “shared attribution,” according to Siegel: “Changes include doing away with shared attribution—growth measures attributed to a group of teachers that, critics say, does not accurately measure individual performance….”

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria is quoted describing the new law: “Most importantly, we want our teachers on a path of continuous improvement, and with these changes the system places a greater focus on improvement in teacher practices that lead to better outcomes for students.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Obama administration’s collaborative scheme to evaluate teachers econometricaly has undermined the morale of school teachers and contributed to a climate in which teachers have been blamed unfairly when test scores don’t rise. Contrast the Gates theory, now rejected by the Rand Corporation report, with the research of Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, who explains how the test scores—so central to the school accountability movement—don’t really measure the quality of the schools or specific teachers, but instead primarily reflect the aggregate economic level of a school’s families and neighborhood:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Ohio is now joining other states trying to undo the damage. Writing for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker, a columnist and attorney for the Education Law Center, explains: “Technology writer Eugene Morozov coined the term ‘solutionism’: a pathology that recognizes a problem based on one criterion only… solvable with a simple, preferably technological, solution. Solutionists operate with a myopic hubris, believing that if they get their simple fix right, as the chair of Google once claimed, ‘we can fix all the world’s problems.'”

The story of America’s nine year experiment with rating teachers by their students’ test scores ought to teach us to beware solutionists with gobs of money and the power to seduce policy makers.

(This blog has tracked education philanthropy from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation here.)

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Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.

Federally Mandated Test-and-Punish Didn’t Go Away with NCLB

As you very likely remember, No Child Left Behind, the much hated 2002 version of the federal education law—the one Jonathan Kozol once called “the federal testing law”— was reauthorized last December. Now instead we have the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There is widespread agreement that nearly fifteen years’ of test-based accountability has failed to raise overall student achievement; flat and declining scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress confirm that failure. Neither has the annual testing and disaggregation of scores resulted in the diminishing of achievement gaps. But the federal government doesn’t shift direction so easily.  Here is a quick update on what is happening as the rules that will implement the new law are being developed.

There is one bright spot: In the new law, Congress eliminated any federal mandate to tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores.  The U.S. Department of Education had made it a requirement that states applying for federal waivers from the worst punishments of NCLB could qualify for waivers only if they agreed to pass state laws to tie teacher evaluation to what have been called Value Added Measures—VAM algorithims that try to calculate the amount of learning each teacher “adds” to the overall education of each student.  The American Statistical Association, the American Educational Research Association and a number of academic researchers have demonstrated that VAM scores not only fail to measure many qualities of excellent teachers, but also are inaccurate and unstable from year to year.  It is possible that Congress listened to the experts—more likely that it listened on this one issue at least to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and many others who pointed to obviously flawed low VAM ratings for many award-winning teachers and to the collapse of morale among teachers across the United States.

While Congress eliminated the federal push to evaluate teachers by students’ scores, it could not undo the teacher-evaluation laws passed in recent years across the states to qualify for federal waivers. Hawaii, at least, has now begun to undo the damage, according to a mid-May report from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald: “Educators in Hawaii just became a little more powerful.  The State Board of Education unanimously approved recommendations Tuesday effectively removing standardized test scores as a requirement in the measurement of teacher performance…. The recommendations… will offer more flexibility to incorporate and weigh different components of teacher performance evaluation, although the option to use test scores in performance evaluations remains.”

Apart from teacher evaluation, however, not much about test-and-punish has really changed. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed rules for the implementation of ESSA and there has been considerable argument from Republican leaders in Congress who want to turn more authority over to states, while the Obama administration wants to keep the federal government strongly involved.

Here is the explanation of Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The law requires states to continue administering standardized math and reading tests to students in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.  But it also gave states a new opportunity to include other non-test measures, such as access to advanced coursework and rates of chronic absenteeism, in judging schools.  Under the regulations released Thursday, states would be required to wrap all of those various indicators into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to provide parents with clear, easy-to-understand information about school performance… The previous education law, No Child Left Behind, prescribed sanctions for schools that failed to meet test score targets.  The Every Student Succeeds Act takes a different approach, allowing states to decide how to intervene in struggling schools as long as those interventions are ‘evidence based.'”

One thing is clear from press reports: the conversation remains centered pretty much in the weeds of the details of outcomes-based accountability—measuring schools’ success in meeting demands for higher test scores.  Here is how Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes the proposed rules to implement ESSA: “The proposed regulations, among other things, would require states to ensure that school districts are implementing ‘accountability’ systems based on multiple measures.  The states have a lot of discretion on how those systems should be constructed but not total, with the federal government requiring that states ‘assign a comprehensive, summative rating for each school to provide a clear picture of its overall standing’….”

As the new law was debated in Congress last fall, the National Education Association lobbied hard for at least the inclusion of “input” measures as part of school evaluation to make it possible to consider each school’s real capacity to meet the demand for higher scores. This would have shifted the measure of accountability toward the consideration of a school’s resources.  The goal was to find a way to let districts expose inequity in things like class size, number of counselors and support staff, and financial resources available per-child from district to district.  States can still include such measures as part of their multiple-measure-accountability ratings, but it is unlikely to happen unless Congress pushes harder.  After all, that would shift the blame—and test-based accountability is a blame game—to the states that refuse to distribute funding equitably and persist in shorting the school districts that serve the poorest children.  And while states are now federally required to intervene in low-scoring schools, there is no evidence that the focus will shift from punitive interventions like closing or charterizing schools and firing educators, and no evidence that states will feel pressed to invest in the poorest schools.

One thing is clear.  In its proposed rules, the Obama Department of Education strongly discourages opt-outs by parents protesting the testing regime.  Strauss explains: “With a testing ‘opt out’ movement that has been growing in recent years, the department spells out a series of punitive options states should take in an attempt to get schools to ensure a 95 percent student participation rate on federally required state-selected standardized tests.” It remains unclear what the consequences would be for higher rates of opting out.  Strauss continues: “Under NCLB and now under ESSA, at least 95 percent of eligible students are required to take the state-chosen standardized test used to hold states and school districts ‘accountable.’  Last year, some states did drop below 95 percent, and in recent months the Education Department has been sending letters to states with ‘suggestions’ of how to handle schools that can’t drum up 95 percent support.  It also said federal funds could be withheld from states that did not deal effectively with opt outs.”  Although it is clear that the Department of Education discourages opting out, what the federal government will do about it remains unknown.

Public comment will be accepted on the draft rules until August 1, 2016.

Diane Ravitch Sums Up Botched Bush-Obama Education Record

I urge you to read Solving the Mystery of the Schools, Diane Ravitch’s fine article in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Ravitch reviews two important books, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize—the story of the plot hatched by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to charterize Newark’s schools—and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, but the most interesting part is Ravitch’s accurate, succinct, and devastating summary of public education policy in America during the Bush and Obama years.  This is Diane Ravitch the education historian summarizing the meaning of more than fifteen years of misguided policy.

Ravitch begins: “In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies.  Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.”

The Bush era, marked by the passage and implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is, of course, over. Here is Ravitch’s summary: “The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors.  In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school.  By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed.  In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.”

Ravitch also summarizes the major education initiatives of the Obama era, even though a few months are left before President Obama’s term ends.  She explains: “After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense.  Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms.  Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top…. In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies.  They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards).  They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to ‘turn around’ schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic.  The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever.”

In December, Congress rebuked Arne Duncan (who was by then leaving his position) by reauthorizing a version of the federal education law that significantly limits the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education.  But Ravitch is not optimistic there will be a change in the overall direction of federal education policy: “Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states.  ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education.  It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states.  What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.”

Both of the books Ravitch reviews are written by reporters who embedded themselves for four years in the places where they wanted to study education—Russakoff in Newark and Rizga at Mission High School in San Francisco. Both authors came to question the education orthodoxy of the Bush-Obama era.  Russakoff exposes the ideologically driven politics of the Christie-Booker effort to charterize Newark’s schools, and Rizga “realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools.  Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called ‘good’ schools.  Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who ware struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled ‘failing’ schools.”  San Francisco’s Mission High School serves 950 students from forty countries.

Ravitch concludes: “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent.  Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools… But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to ‘save’ all children from lives of poverty and violence.  As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty… every day of their lives.”

Teaching “Grit,” Blaming the Poor, and Undermining the Public Will to Address Poverty

Our preoccupation in American education with character formation defined as “grit” is integral to our culture’s rock-solid belief in the myth of the American Dream.  It doesn’t matter that economists today are documenting rigidifying inequality with the rise of incomes at the top, wage stagnation for families in the middle, and deepening poverty and segregation among those at the very bottom. It doesn’t matter that Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz explains: “There’s no use in pretending. In spite of the enduring belief that Americans enjoy greater social mobility than their European counterparts, America is no longer the land of opportunity.” (The Price of Inequality, p. 265)  And it doesn’t matter that last year Robert Putnam published a whole book about the increasing rigidity of social stratification in America: “Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around mid-century… In the early 1970s, however, that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse, slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness… (I)n the 1980s the top began to pull away from everyone else, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century the very top began to pull away even from the top.  Even within each major racial/ethnic group, income inequality rose at the same substantial rate between 1967 and 2011, as richer whites, blacks and Latinos pulled away ….”  (Our Kids, pp. 34-35)

Despite these economic realities, however, and even though most of us know that some people face overwhelming challenges, we sustain a contradiction by holding fast to our belief in the American Dream.  Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist, and her team of researchers interviewed hundreds of people about their understanding of the rags to riches story.  Here is a typical transcript of one of those interviews: “*Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  *Responder: ‘Yeah.’  *Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’ *Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  *Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  *Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’ *Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  *Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.’” (The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, pp. 146-147)

We pin our hopes on social mobility through hard work and desire. It is an especially appealing myth in an era when we know that addressing the problems of inequality, poverty, segregation, and massive inequity of school resources would be very difficult and very expensive. Yesterday for the NY Times, Kate Zernike reported on an effort in a handful of California school districts to teach “grit” and to make standardized tests evaluate whether students are learning and schools are teaching the character skills thought to contribute to success in life:  “As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.  And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness… ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.”

Paul Tough, in his 2012 book How Children Succeed, lauded the idea that schools should focus on strengthening character.  He profiled the work of Angela Duckworth and her scale of character traits that included: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. (p, 76)  Duckworth herself is reported in yesterday’s NY Times piece, however, to oppose the idea of testing character: “‘I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,’ said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning…. She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance.”

Proponents of character education are defending such testing based on an ironic perversion of a provision of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that adds one additional element in addition to standardized achievement test scores that states can choose themselves, but which they must submit to the U.S. Department of Education as part of their school evaluation plan. The outcomes-based No Child Left Behind never considered the vast disparities in opportunity created by inequitable school funding, for example, or inequitable access to guidance counselors or inequitable class size.  During the reauthorization process last year, the National Education Association lobbied hard for the addition of an Opportunity Dashboard as part of federally mandated school evaluation. The compromise with a conservative Congress, however, resulted in the addition of only one factor from the proposed dashboard that states could choose to add when they submitted their data to the U.S. Department of Education.  Here is how NEA describes what that extra factor is intended to be: “For the first time in ESEA’s long history, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that…. (t)o help ensure resource equity and opportunity for all students… state-designed accountability systems must include at least one ‘dashboard’ indicator of school success or student support—for example, access to advanced coursework, fine arts, and regular physical education; school climate and safety; discipline policies; bullying prevention; and the availability of counselors or nurses.”  California’s experiment with making that one extra factor a student’s score on a standardized character education test is a wacky and dangerous perversion of the law.

Of course, apart from the matter of whether character traits should be tested and schools judged by the results, there are the controversial strategies some schools are already using to “teach” character.  We have heard a lot this month about misguided practices being used to “build character” in no-excuses charter schools.  It has become known that in NYC, at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, staff are taught that when a student cries, it means the child is paying attention and is more likely to shape up. We watched a video in which a Success Academy teacher berated a first-grade child and ripped up the student’s paper—a disciplinary technique, we were to assume, would strengthen character.  And then we learned from the child’s mother about her horror as she watched the video in which the teacher insulted her child in front of the child’s peers and undermined her daughter’s confidence.  Also well known is the behavior code used to teach character in KIPP (Knowledge is Power) charter schools, where students are expected to SLANT: Sit up—Listen—Ask and Answer questions—Nod—Track the speaker.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s book and to what Rose surmised might be a dangerous educational strategy.  He warns: “When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion… (W)e have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.”

Rose continues: “We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else.  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)

Education Writer Alfie Kohn on Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind Behind

On several occasions over the holidays, I was reminded of something I already knew: most people don’t want to wade in the weedy marsh of education policy.  If the mainstream press says the new Every Student Succeeds Act is a big improvement over No Child Left Behind, lots of people say, “Wow!  We can cross that worry off our list!”

Unfortunately things are going to be a whole lot more complicated.

Much of the thoughtful analysis of the new federal education law has been written for the education wonks who will parse and compare NCLB and ESSA and argue about what the Department of Education will put into the administrative rules.  Here, however, is education writer Alfie Kohn’s short, incisive, and well written commentary for the non-expert about the meaning of the new ESSA.  Everybody ought to read it, because Kohn so intelligently summarizes the  issues.

Here’s what Kohn says about No Child Left Behind, in response to those who liked NCLB and now worry that the new law waters down the old law’s strong federal pressure for accountability: “While the inadequacy and inequity certainly were (and are) inexcusable, NCLB was never a reasonable response  Indeed, as many of us predicted at the start, it did far more harm than good; in general, and with respect to addressing disparities between black and white, rich and poor, in particular. Standardized testing was never necessary to tell us which schools were failing.  Heck, you could just drive by them and make a reasonable guess…  For years, I’ve been challenging NCLB defenders to name a single school anywhere in the country whose inadequacy was a secret until students were subjected to yet another wave of standardized tests.  But testing isn’t just superfluous; it was, and remains, immensely damaging, to low-income students most of all.”

So what about those who are celebrating the new law because, they imagine, it will reduce standardized testing?  “(T)he outrageous and incalculably damaging reality of testing students every single year—extraordinary from a worldwide perspective, in fact virtually unheard of for students below high school age—continues in ESSA…  Far from challenging this reality, the law that President Obama just signed cements it into place.  And beyond the issue of how often they’re administered, standardized tests—still yoked to overly prescriptive, top-down standards—remain the primary way by which kids, teachers, and schools are going to be assessed.”

The new law does turn over from the federal government to the states the responsibility for designing and implementing the corrections for schools whose test scores are low, but as Kohn notes, “If you’re a teacher, it may not make much difference if oppressive dictates originate in Washington, D.C., the state capital, or even the district office.  The point is still that your skills as a professional educator, and the unique interests and needs of a particular group of kids, don’t count for much.  ESSA remains the Eternal Standardization of Schooling Act.”

Kohn concludes: “The point is that, even with more authority and re-devolving to the states, the broader foundations of what has been the educational status quo in America for a generation are allowed to continue and in some cases are actively perpetuated: the creep toward privatization, the traditional approaches to pedagogy and curriculum, the bribe-and-threat manipulation of educators and children, and, above all, the reliance on standardized testing.”

We have a lot of work to do.  The Every Student Succeeds Act has one major plus: it unbuckles—as a federal mandate—students’ standardized test scores from the formal evaluation of their teachers, but states can still judge teachers by students’ test scores if they so choose.  Apart from that, test-and-punish remains the law of the land.  Reading Alfie Kohn’s pungent analysis is a good reminder that we are a long, long way from any kind of policy that supports the schools and the educators in our most vulnerable communities.

Extra: Valerie Strauss’s Clear, Sensible Description of Bush and Obama Education Policies

Now that Congress has passed and President Obama signed a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there have been many explanations of what has gone wrong since No Child Left Behind, the previous version, was signed into law in January of 2002.

This morning in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss summarizes much of that history in Don’t Blame George W. Bush for What President Obama Did to Public Schools.

Her piece is short and lucid.  I urge you to read it.