I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, April 13, 2012

No Child Let Ahead

Let's talk about smart kids for a bit.

The reformy plan for educators is to fire our way to a better teaching corps. The firings will be based on standardized tests scores run through some sort of statistical meat grinder. Here in Jersey, our DOE is partial to Student Growth Percentiles; elsewhere, they're using Value Added Models. It's all pretty much the same: if you're a teacher, your fate hinges on how your kids do on bubble tests.

(And let's not start with that "But it's only part of the evaluation!" nonsense. It may be only part of the evaluation, but it's all of the decision.)

Now, one of my biggest challenges as an elementary educator is to differentiate instruction. Because all of the kids are pretty much taught together. Sure, there's some pull-out time for either end of the bell curve: the high-achievers and the strugglers. But we do try to mainstream children as much as possible, as I believe we should.

This changes in middle school: we start tracking kids, and they spin off in different directions. In my own kids' district, math instruction splits to three separate paths in the Sixth Grade. Where I work, we do some differentiation in Fifth, and then split into tracks in Sixth. Language arts comes later, science next, and then, by high school, students are on completely different academic routes.

I don't honestly know if there is a research base for this or not; my curricular expertise is in the arts. I know other countries track much earlier than the US, but I'm not sure if this is for pedagogical or cultural reasons. If anyone has some insight, let me know.

The point is that at some age we acknowledge that certain students need an accelerated track to meet their full potentials. All well and good... except the high-stakes assessments we are now going to use to measure teacher quality do not split into different tracks.

Think about it: the kid who is taking algebra in Seventh Grade - and is on track to take calculus in her junior year - is taking the same standardized test as the kid taking pre-algebra. In fact, it's the same test the kid taking pre-pre-algebra is taking.

Now, math is certainly a scaffolded curriculum: you need to add before you multiply, and you need to multiply before you do exponents, and so on. But doing a lot of work with exponents is not necessarily the best preparation for a test of addition skills. If you want to really soar on an addition test, you'll drill on addition.

In the pre-reformy world, bubble tests were a nuisance for those teaching high-performing kids. You lost a week of teaching to the tests, but at least you knew all of your kids would pass. Maybe some of your students would come in as "proficient" instead of "advanced proficient," but who cared? As long as the school made Adequate Yearly Progress, you could just give the tests to your advanced kids, let them breeze through, and forget the entire thing.

But now the teachers are going to be judged on student growth on these tests. Pay, tenure, and employment will be based on the outcomes. The high flyers are expected to be able to ace content they supposedly have moved past. If they don't, the teacher's job is on the line.

Put yourself in an Eighth Grade geometry (a high level of mathematics for that age) teacher's shoes for a minute. Your kids will be taking a test that mostly covers content from last year. Your livelihood is on the line. Your ability to pay your mortgage is predicated not on your kids' abilities to pass a test in this year's content, but on last year's content.

What are you going to do? Push them ahead? Or make damn well sure they "grow" on a test based on what they did the previous year?

I'm hoping we have some serious discussion about this, and I'm hoping we have it soon. Maybe folks like Gary Rubinstein can weigh in. But I'm worried.

I'm worried the very kids who were supposed to lead this nation in the next generation - the kids who were going to grow up and make the wonder drugs and design the cars that run on water and pilot ships to Mars - will be forced to wallow in a dumbed-down curriculum. All because their teachers will be punished if these smart kids don't do well on exams that are not relevant to where they are at the moment.

The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering why we want to take a nation built on creativity and individuality and letting genius run free and make it "standardized." It's a very good question.

Did not make "Advanced Proficient" on NJASK-8.


Anonymous said...

That picture of Einstein about sums it up. This is utter nonsense!

Anonymous said...

The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering why we want to take a nation built on creativity and individuality ..

Wow. My heart almost stopped on this one. What in the government-run union model of lock step robot career prison step increments smacks of creativity and individuality?

Ever see The Wall?

You are the poster boy for faceless unionized drones without differnetiation on talent. If you unionized students, everyone would get a 2.5 every year.

Duke said...

I bought "The Wall" on 33 & 1/3 before you were born, kiddo. So don't even try to lecture me about what Waters was saying.

You are pushing for conformity of thought by filling in the correct bubble. You are making the bricks with your SGPs. You are the hammer with your tenure "reform."

You are the big floating pig above the factories.

You are all about the meat and the pudding. The Merit Pay Fairy lives on meat and pudding. The SGP stupidity you reformyists push is ALL meat and pudding.

Don't presume to come on to my blog with your intellectual pretensions and try to sell metaphors you don't understand.

Anonymous said...

"What in the government-run union model of lock step robot career prison step increments smacks of creativity and individuality?"

Want to see? Step into my classroom! I feel so lucky to work in a public school district that thrives on innovation, collaboration and just plain ole' fun in the classroom. But all that stops this month because teachers have to prep kids for the NJ ASK—you know, the week-long standardized test that's supposed to tell education 'reformers' such as yourself how good a job I'm doing the other 175 days of the school year. Talk about 'lock-step'robots. That's what our kids are becoming as 'reform' relies more and more on standardized tests. Remember, Cerf wants our kids tested three times a year. Tell me how teaching kids how to fill in little bubbles inspires creativity?

Anonymous said...

Great post!
Some extended thoughts...
If the "singular focus" of the NJDOE under Christie is to "close the achievement gap", as Cerf has published, you must work on both sides of the equation. If you raise the achievement equally, the gaps will be unaffected! (Howard Wainer...) The easiest way to equalize outcomes is by handicapping high achievers (who learn faster! see "Harrison Bergeron").
This explains why the reforms MUST be STATEWIDE! You can not elimiante the "shameful" gap by only lifting up from the bottom. Again, this is why the teacher fixing MUST BE EQUALLY applied to Ridgewood and Newark.
The "reformers" get a triple win by attacking the top:
1. They can close the gap by slowing down high achiving students and districts. 2. Parents will feel the test emphasis, sense the discomfort in the schools, and seek refuge FROM the reform.(calls for charters and a boom for private schools) 3. Because of 1. & 2. the reformers will declare victory, "See we are closing the gap, AND public schools are indeed awful!"

Sadly, the Sabotage at the Top (SatT), will work. The parents in the burbs are too busy to see this coming.

Walt S. said...

Public schools today are forced to spend more time testing than teaching!
High School Proficiency (HSPT)
The New Jersey Assessment of
Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK)
NJ ASK 3-8
Minimum Basic Skills testing program (MBS)
Early Warning Test (EWT)
Alternate Proficiency Assessment (APA)
Elementary School Proficiency Assessment (ESPA)
Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment (GEPA)
And I'm sure I missed some.

Follow the money!
Who's profiting from all this testing? ETS maybe?
And who's CEO makes over $1 million per year? ETS maybe?
Who's paying for all this testing?
I called the NJDOE (twice) but never got an answer.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and as Duke has pointed out, there are more tests on the way--next year, maybe (high school subject exams) Let's make no mistake: it is the teachers who are really going to be tested--and tested until the desired result is attained. More money for the education, eh, gov?---yes for testing and teacher devaluation. Does this sound alarmist, paranoid? Well, while the NJEA slept, Christie happened.

Anonymous said...

Actually the NJEA didn't sleep. I may be wrong but I think that the NJEA PAC spent about $550,000 trying to defeat Christie. That was Christie's putative excuse for going after the NJEA with hammer, thongs and small nuclear devices. The PAC money is not member dues, donating to the PAC is voluntary. The sad part is that Christie is very popular in NJ and could possibly win a second term.

rebel said...

Hi Jersey,
In answer to your question about tracking...it is not in students' best interest. No tracking in Finland until age 16. It closed Finland's gap. Lots of research I would be happy to share.
Reform via test scores is the problem. Not what Finland does....

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to bash the union--but I do not think they really knew who (what) they were dealing with--who did? (See the quote at the top of this site. Did we want to believe him?)

By the way I do think we should face things squarely, even though the troll is about.

Catherine Lugg said...


The US started tracking students in the late 19th century, supposedly to better select and sort students for their future professions. That tracking was tightly linked to race, class, ethnicity, gender, and even religion, didn’t initially trouble anyone. If your father was a plumber, you were probably headed for the vocational track, if your father was a doctor, you were headed for the college prep track.

According to Jeannie Oakes and host of other researchers, not much has changed in how kids are placed in tracks.

There’s even a federal court case from the 1960s (Hobson v. Hansen) that shows how tracking can be used to unconstitutionally segregate and discriminate against students. The majority noted that African American and poor whites were receiving a “blue collar special.”

Tracking appeals to some teachers because supposedly it makes their pedagogical tasks easier. But that’s more likely due to class sizes, which have shot up since 2008. It’s much harder to differentiate instruction with a class of 30 vs. 18.

BTW: De-tracking is a big win for most students, and it does NOT hurt the supposedly accelerated students. That said, the politics of de-tracking are pretty darned vicious. “I don’t want my kid sitting in class with THAT kid,” and so forth.

The insane testing regime in the US makes the political pressure to track all the more intense, even though the data clearly indicate that tracking is bad for MOST kids. We really are in an age of “testing uber allies.”

Anonymous said...

Many districts in the burbs are now in the "de-leveling" process. How/ why should we have Honors courses and AP classes? Isn't that elitist? Do these curve wrecking "student" bast#%ds think they are Smarter than average or something?
Equality for all, common standards, common assessments (determined by your age!, not your course selection!) and a "voluntary 1.0 Model Curriculum!" (which will be quite common)
Go Cerf Go......

Anonymous said...

There will soon be two tracks: charter and noncharter. Unless . . .

Lisa said...

Tracking may be bad for *most*, but not all; Duke was addressing the kids that fall between "most" and "all," and I agree with him on this.

Politically incorrect or not, it's counterintuitive (and I believe illogical) to assert, given the variance of human cognitive development, learning styles, learning needs, etc., that every student can reach his/her individual potential with the same material presented at the same pace. I think it's obvious that moving through material faster means more material will be covered in any given time period. In this case, an accelerated pace does equate to learning more. Differentiation of instruction addresses the depth of learning, not the pace.

We have a variety of class types, instructional methods, and even curricula for those who learn differently and/or more slowly than the typical classroom to help them reach their potential. We group to suit their needs. It's not tracking, but it uses homogeneous grouping. We no longer have the same opportunity for, and don't suit the needs of, those who learn faster, and since they pass the tests whether or not they are challenged, the money is spent on those who don't. The kids between "most" and "all" are being shortchanged of what they *could* do.

Any social institution or mechanism can be used for good or evil. When the goal (stated or subliminal) is segregation, society will find a way to segregate. The same mechanism can be used to the opposite effect. There are a variety of ways to group so that all can benefit that don't have the "bad" effect of tracking, and yes, it should be watched to ensure that it's used for good and not evil.

There was (appropriate) public outcry against limiting the educational opportunities and outcomes of disabled students, and in 1975 we got PL 94-142 Free Appropriate Public Education and later IDEA--and to great benefit. I would argue that slowing the pace of those who would learn faster, which limits *their* educational opportunities and outcomes, is not appropriate education for them, and is equally unacceptable. For these "not most" students, since heterogeneous classes result in slowing the pace at which they learn, they are, in fact, being hurt. They are learning less than they can. At the least they learn they can just surf by, or worse, we bore the love of learning right out of them. That's not being hurt?

We do not educate *most* children; we educate ALL, but they don't ALL achieve their best in the same way, at the same time, at the same pace. We need to find a way to appropriately educate all. We found ways for the disabled learner; we need to find ways for the very abled as well.

Duke, if we have to test, and it looks like we do for the time being at least, then one way to do it without holding back the accelerated kids and wasting time to retread old ground might be to test them when they've covered the material instead of in a specific grade. If they know what they need for the GEPA, or part of it in 7th grade, let them get assessed and move on.

As you can see, I hate the whole "all pegs in the same hole" educational model. Creativity and innovation be damned. It doesn't even work for "most", in my opinion. We'll all end up running off a cliff at the same time like the proverbial lemmings, chasing the test in heterogeneous groups.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

We have to distinguish between tracking and ability grouping. Tracking is an inflexible system that labels kids and locks them in. Ability grouping is flexible but acknowledges that, at any point in time, kids have different learning needs.

More to the point: When evaluating teachers based on student "growth" as measured by tests, will the teachers of high-ability groups suffer because the tests are geared below the level of their students? In other words, if most of your students generally top out on the test, then they will show no growth. And as to the tests themselves, what use is an evaluation instrument that isn't geared to the students being tested? If the test is to be of any use to the teacher, it should reveal what students have yet to learn, not just what they've already mastered. Oh, but I forgot: The purpose of these tests is to figure out which teachers to fire and which schools to close, not to help students learn. My bad.

Teacher Mom said...

Tamar is absolutely right. I can only speak to my personal experience because frankly it's Saturday and I'm not doing research today. I attended a k-8 building very much like the one where I work now. GRades 5&6 we were "ability grouped" by upper group and lower group. The ups kept going up and lows kept getting lower. As the research at the time was pushing for co-operative learning, and still does, they decided to mix us up for grades 7&8. Would you believe that EVERYBODY went up! Tamar is also right about kids topping the scale. There is plenty of debate about the teachers working with low level students like myself never seeing a merit pay raise because frankly our kids will never see those scores. We may see some improvement though. One can hope. THe teachers working with kids who do score above 95% say, will never see a pay raise because their kids have no room to grow. So basically with merit pay based on test scores NOBODY gets a raise. YAY! Isn't that what the pols really want anyway. Writing a blog now about the merit pay schemes in FL. SHould be up later today 4-28-12. I am very blessed because my elder son is gifted and goes to school in a nice mixed suburban district that respects that. He gets pull out twice a week for reading and math at HIS level, while still being in class with his peers. He also has had great teachers that differentiate for his ability level. I think this system serves him well. It's definitely better than where I work. We ability group in the third grade. Unfortunately it's completely meaningless because even those teachers aren't really allowed to deviate from the lock step prescribed curriculum either. However, they get to spend the same month or more prepping for NJ ASK. My son hasn't done ANY test prep. My old Superintendent asked us at a meeting once if we would have our own kids in our schools. I almost raised my hand to say no.