High Stakes and Performance Anxiety for One Little Boy

Javier Hernandez’s in-depth piece in Sunday’s NY Times, Common Core, in  9-Year-Old Eyes, explores the way the learning theory we believe in these days intersects with real life.  I haven’t taken a class in learning theory for many years, but what I remember has little to do with what we have come to believe today in America.  These days we evaluate teachers with “value-added” formulas and try to quantify the effect of the teacher “standing in the front of the classroom.”  We believe in filling the measuring cup with curriculum up to the appropriate standard line, and then we think we can evaluate how well the teacher pours the contents into the head of the child.

In Hernandez’s article, instead, we see how such a theory contrasts with the experience of school and learning for one little boy in New York City—an immigrant from Haiti and one of triplets—two boys and one girl.  Here are just a few of the things we can learn from this story.

The teacher is dedicated and knows her stuff.  She is teaching to the standards she has been assigned and she believes in the worth of the new Common Core curriculum.  No waivering; no ambivalence.

The mother cares about education; she emigrated to NYC to give her kids a better chance.  Even though she works long hours, she pays attention to what is happening with her three children, takes away video games entirely when she learns her sons are falling behind, and even assigns her daughter to tutor her own brothers with, incidentally, what appear to be positive results.  The daughter, as often happens, was likely more mature and developmentally more ready for school than her brothers.  She is goal-oriented and competent; she has become an excellent reader by doing lots of reading.  She is often recognized with awards at school and at home affirmed for her academic prowess.

The little boy who is the subject of the piece is a sharp fourth-grader.  He wants desperately to succeed at school.  Improving at school is so important to him that the high stakes tests he faces seem to be creating performance anxiety that interferes with his enjoyment of school and his ability to move to the conceptual level required in the new math.  He was a star at the old math and this new failure alarms him. He has become more emotionally fragile.  Fantasy video games are his favorite and very distracting interest.  It appears he is behind in reading, with vocabulary gaps that make math harder for him when he is required to “draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem, write a division equation for the problem, or write a multiplication equation for the problem.”  While he is much more than a beginning reader, his reading skills do not provide the flexibility for him to respond adequately to the math problems now required on the test he will be taking.  And to make matters worse, he worries about having to go to summer school, he is alarmed that he might be held back, and he worries about falling behind his brother and sister—as a matter of sibling pride.  He has become an anxious child.  He has also been working hard at school under all this pressure and his test scores in reading and math appear to be rising.  What a relief for him at the moment and for his mother and his teacher.  Intense academic pressure is making him try hard and at the same time worry more.

There has been some controversy about whether it is good for this child that the NY Times named him as the article explores the very sensitive issues of his development as a student. Shouldn’t the newspaper have disguised his identity?  Like many others, I worry for the child.

But now that the newspaper has published this in-depth piece, I urge you to read it. Read it in the context of last week’s California court decision in the teacher-tenure case of Vergara, in which the judge quoted an economist who confidently declared that research proves a single year in a classroom with an ineffective teacher costs a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.  The article lifts up the complexity of teaching and learning—the number of issues that affect not only the teacher but every one of the children in such a classroom.  Real life child development for a whole classroom of students is so wonderfully complicated that it cannot so easily be thought about as an econometric problem.

Hernandez’s story of a child in the fourth grade at Public School 397 in Brooklyn, New York describes the kind of hard work going on in classrooms across the country. Teaching and learning are relational; something connects between teacher and child or among children. Or sometimes it does not connect and the teacher must find another way to try again and again.   The metaphor of pouring knowledge from a measuring cup into the brains of children does not describe what happens in a classroom.  Nor does it describe the experience for the child.  This story captures how learning is experienced by one little boy.

Read this blog’s comments on the Vergara teacher tenure court decision here and here.

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David Berliner—Witness in Vergara Courtroom—Denies He Called Any Teachers “Grossly Ineffective”

Last week I blogged on the California teacher tenure decision in Vergara v. California. I concluded overall that, “The Vergara attorneys sought to portray the needs of children as separate and very different from the needs of their teachers.  In fact, teachers and children in our poorest communities share the need for society to invest in improving their public schools.”

But what had struck me as I read the decision was the supposed statistical evidence incorporated right into the decision itself by Judge Rolf Treu to prove that tenure among teachers violates the civil rights of California’s poorest children of color.  I was particularly struck by the judge’s interpretation of evidence from respected education researcher David Berliner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and a long supporter of teachers and their need for unions.  I wrote about my puzzlement: “In one case the judge seems to have extrapolated from what he heard—from expert David Berliner, who is described to have “testified that 1–3 % of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.”  Treu continues, “Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”

I thank Diane Ravitch who posted The Statistical Error at the Heart of the Vergara Decision, for bringing to my attention an important piece published on June 12 by Jordan Weissmann, the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate.  Weissmann interviewed David Berliner by telephone about his testimony that between one and three percent of California’s teachers are grossly ineffective:  “But where did this number come from?  Nowhere, it turns out.  It’s made up.  Or a ‘guesstimate,’ as David Berliner, the expert witness Treu quoted, explained to me when I called him on Wednesday.  It’s not based on any specific data, or any rigorous research about California schools in particular.  ‘I pulled that out of the air,’ says Berliner…. ‘There’s no data on that.  That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.'”

Neither does Berliner claim the descriptor, “grossly ineffective,” used by True in his decision.  Weissmann writes that Berliner denies use of “grossly ineffective” in his court testimony.  Berliner e-mailed Weissmann part of the court’s transcript (which you can read in Weissman’s piece) to prove that he never described California’s teachers as “grossly ineffective.”

In Weissmann’s interview with David Berliner, Berliner explains: “In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher.  I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”  Berliner told Weissman he believes test scores are not a good way to evaluate teachers.  Teachers “might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.”

Weissmann also interviews Stuart Biegel, a UCLA law professor and education expert who testified in the trial.  Weissmann asked Biegel whether he thought the judge’s questionable extrapolation, right in the court decision, of Berliner’s speculation about 1-3 percent ineffective teachers would affect the appeal of the case.  Biegel responded that he believes there are even bigger problems in the logic of Treu’s decision:

“If 97 to 99 percent of California teachers are effective, you don’t take away basic hard-won rights from everybody.  You focus on strengthening the process for addressing the teachers who are not effective, through strong professional development programs, and, if necessary, a procedure that makes it easier to let go of ineffective teachers.”