Friday, September 20, 2013

Teach to the Student, Not to the Test 

Individualized schools are the only way to save education. There is a misconception by many that individualized schools must have students staring at a computer screen all day.  Although these schools may exist they would certainly miss areas essential to a complete education.  Because they are limited to technology, they are not individualized in the way children learn. Technology is, of course a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle.

Certainly all students learn at different rates, but as significant is that they learn in different ways.  Children learn more and learn faster when they are empowered to explore and discover their own answers rather than simply regurgitating someone else’s information, quickly memorized and soon forgotten.  As the Paul Simon song says, “I look back at all the crap I learn in high school.  It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

Some states have their Board of Education frantically spending hours trying to determine which historical hero’s would be allowed to grace the pages of their text books for their children to idolize.  A simple solution would be to empower students to discover and justify their own hero’s.  In years gone by, this would take weeks in a library.  Today the information is at their fingertips.  No longer must students drudge through multiple choice tests spewing out memorized data that they can get with a search engine in five minutes.

Teaching to the student’s background knowledge is the first step to real learning, and it is personal, not standardized.  The more a teacher can touch the personal genius inside a student’s mind, the more successful that student will have following their personal pathway to success.

To develop a truly individualized school, we must take a long hard look at some of the systemic flaws that force the standardization of children.  Of course the testing fiasco drives the problem.  You simply can’t standardize kids and individualize them at the same time. Since outcomes that are used to judge schools, drive all that is done in schools, all the talk about authentic education in schools is negated by these standardized outcomes.

Another driving force standardizing children is the artificial letter grades.  I congratulate Milwaukee Wisconsin Public schools for eliminating all letter grades in elementary and middle schools.  These grades simply rank and sort children in the classroom and are often based on small tests, similar to the state tests and lead to a similar result.  The letter grades say nothing about what a child has learned.  They simply artificially infer that your child is “smart” or “stupid” and are usually a lie.  If they are “stupid” too many times they end up in the streets or jail where they become invisible.

The “smart or stupid” mentality steers students off their pathway to success, on to a standardized race to nowhere, and nowhere is often the end result.  There is much talk about an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for everyone.  In our book we call it the MAP (My Action Plan”) that leads students to their hopes and dreams.  There is no common core when students are so diverse.  Although standards would still exist under this plan, they would be guidelines for success rather than the current deadlines for failure.  And success would be demonstrated to make it real for individual students rather than tested to make it artificial in the way “book learned” students do best.  Demonstrations of learning show what a student can do, what they can discover and how they think, not just what they can remember.

To guide students on their pathway to success there must be ongoing, real life, assessment of proficiencies that allows students to move up the ladder of success with strong support as well as accountability.  Built into these assessments, integral to an individualized school, is a dramatic change in the concept of failure.  Just as all the failures we have in life have allowed us to learn and grow as a positive experience, failure in school must do the same. Failure must be a positive experience where students step back, analyze and learn.  Then they can revisit the proficiency assessment when they are ready, be it one day or one month later.  Never, however, would they be re assessed one year later as in the current system.  In the current system they can fail a chapter test and then move on to the next chapter, never again to learn the material presented, failed into oblivion at the end of the year.


As student’s progress at different rates and in different ways, one might, for example, be good at math but slow in reading.  This is currently the case as students are all over the board when observed as individuals.  As grade levels are already moot, grade levels would not be an indicator of academic success in an individualized school.

Implementation in the classroom will take a great deal of planning and creativity on the part of the teacher.  But this is what good teachers are made of.  Not the ability to teach to the test.  And class sizes, although in some instances could be large, in most must be small.  Students can’t really learn well in a mob. Differentiated classrooms would be everyday business as would project based learning, learning in the community, and performance based learning as well as every other innovative way of teaching to the student. The only rule guiding community experiences, projects and performances would that they fit into the students MAP.

A new and stronger role for parents is essential to the students MAP.  They know their child better than anyone.  No longer relegated to committees organizing fund raisers or serving as rubber stamps to administrators, parent committees would be charged with gathering information from all parents for their input on important issues.  Parents and students would also be integrally involved in the development of the students MAP, their pathway to success.  How else could a school truly teach to the needs of the student?

Once the dominoes start to fall in an individualized school, there will be many adjustments to be made.  Planning time for teachers to work in teams must increase.  No longer would they be teaching to the test or simply following a text book.  This would be high intensive planning to make learning real and guaranty success for all.  In addition class sizes must be reduced.  Although there are many creative ways to create smaller class sizes, every effort must be made to assure students don’t have to try to learn in a mob.  Isn’t quality education worth it?

Students with special needs would also have their MAP / IEP that guides needed services.  As all children are different, they would simply enter school as children and their teacher’s would simply be teachers in the eyes of the students in the school.  There would be no special education classrooms, and certainly no special education wing in a school.  There would be no label branded on their foreheads for all to see.  And inclusion would no longer include the dumping of students into general education classes to sink or swim in a setting that doesn’t even succeed with the students without labels. 

And finally how old is old when it comes to education.  Partnerships with universities as well as satellite agencies and school extensions would help service students at their levels.  Those moving through the system at faster levels would enter universities for the appropriate classes.  No longer would they be relegated to classes boring them simply to maintain their artificial straight “A’s”.  Anyone who is receiving straight “A’s” in the current system has not been challenged.

Those moving through the system on a slower track would go to satellite centers, not for the artificial GED, but to continue advancement on the MAP that would follow them everywhere.  As with the university concept students could continue their education anytime and anyplace.  All they need is their MAP. The issues currently used to force students away from graduation, would change dramatically.  The issue no longer is when they will graduate, it becomes THAT they graduate as, for the first time in the history of this country we never give up on our children even when they become adults. And the goal of every school would be to keep students on their pathway to success.

To accomplish this, the powers to be must allow it to happen with the appropriate accountability out comes.  This doesn’t mean eliminate accountability.  It means strong accountability to assure our children receive the best services.  However, the accountability must not standardize children.  Allow them to be individuals with accountability based on individual gains guided by successful progress on their MAP. 

All we ask is this be allowed to happen, no more, no less.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Are They Afraid Of?

The high powers in education have supported charter, voucher and other entities for the purpose of increasing competition among schools.  However, as they all have the same artificial standardized outcomes, they are all the same. What would be the result if schools were individualized instead of standardized and why are they afraid to allow it? 
Schools labeled as failed are based on unconfirmed generalities primarily using a singular test that not only changes with frequency but leads to inconsistency based on the students ability to take a test. Adding the fact that performance is compared to other students who appear to function at the same level rather than their actual improvement based on their past performance, leaves reason for concern.
With this in mind, the current system lacks validity and significantly discriminates not only against the schools that serve the students who needs us the most but those with the least resources.
Schools throughout the nation have been labeled as failed schools and closed under the premise that their students are ill-served and would do better served in a more successful school that has better teachers and a stronger curriculum.  Going un noticed is that all schools, voucher, charter and traditional public are under the same archaic system thus having the same failed results as teachers are forced to abandon their profession and teach to the test. 
The fundamental question becomes, do we really know which schools are successful and which teachers are successful?
We begin by taking a close look at which kids need us the most.  Clearly when we look at a range of students from those with the severest of cognitive disabilities to, what we used to call, gray area kids, all the way across the spectrum to those “book learned” kids that are proficient at taking a test, it is easy to understand the reality that kids blossom beautifully at different rates.  Adding to the normal range of skills we add real obstacles that slow learning.  According to Paul Tough, childhood stress literally slows the brain.  Together with malnutrition, chronic illness and a wide range of obstacles, some kids (we don’t know which ones) no matter how intelligent will be slow to achieve.  And then we add too low expectations that also slow the learning process and too high expectation that push kids out of school, the reality is that with one single standard the two problems mentioned will exist forever.  Expectations must be individual.  Consider this; under the current process, the teacher in the classroom has choices when faced with a student lagging behind.  Either fail them into oblivion or let them slide by without learning.  Neither of these choices is acceptable.  Of course they could bring everyone up to the same level but with such a wide range of students, that is highly unlikely.  When that happens please have your great grandchildren put flowers on my grave. Not only won’t it happen, why would anyone want it to happen?  I understand the desire among some for the perfect, “Stepford Kids” but I would never want to live in that kind of country.  Remember, this is not about who CAN learn at a singular rate, it’s about WHO is learning at a singular rate. 
Expectations are individual and can never be standardized without doing significant damage many students.  This does not mean we can’t have standards as guidelines for success, it means they can no longer be deadlines for failure.  We must stop the pattern of telling kids if they aren’t proficient, they are stupid.  That is clearly the signal sent.
Remember some of the obstacles that get in the way of learning?  There are two that simply do not get in the way of learning.  One, of course, is race.  A brain is just a brain and has no relevance to race.  Secondly, income or poverty by itself does not cause learning to slow.  Of course many kids in poverty are also afflicted by the afore mentioned obstacles.  However, poverty families without those obstacles are fully able to function well.  Thus when someone says “my students are all poverty stricken children of color and they all go to college, the question must arise, which poor children of color you are serving?  We must abandon the racist belief that all poor children of color are the same, blossom at the same time in the same way and it is the school that saves them.  It lacks ethics for the school to take full credit for what the parents do.  Often said is “my students all come from single parent families and they are doing well”.  There are many great single parents and they should not be disrespected.
As we recognize that kids don’t all blossom at the same time, how do we determine actual progress?  Do we compare them to other similar students that our irrational minds say are the same?
Has the current process of assessment consistently closed schools that are seeing real progress with a high percentage of schools?  And what is real progress.  With the guidelines to success skewed by comparing to other students, rather than their own progress toward their ultimate goal, how valid is this artificial accountability?
Of course, an underlying result that clearly muddies the water is the tactics schools use to appear successful.  Of course we are familiar with the cheating that has been going on.  Erasing wrong answers and replacing them with the correct ones.  But the scam that has been going on for years is subtly pushing out kids who are low scoring and highly recruiting the higher scoring ones.  Most notable in years gone by were the magnate schools.  This wasn’t a horrible idea at the time but we must remember that simply because they had the highest scoring students, did not mean they were the best school.  In fact, the best schools were often the ones that served the most difficult kids.  They arose to bigger challenges.
And thus the divide began.  In the late 1990’s the Birmingham Alabama schools pushed out 541 students just before the test was given.  The late Steve Orel started the World of Opportunity School to try to save many of those students.  He didn’t care what anyone said about his school.  He was simply for all kids. 
And what about schools that suspend low scoring students on the day of the test.  Or those that keep the suspensions off the record by giving them the infamous “time out at home”.  The game is played at full tilt simply because those in power have no idea how to assess schools based on real achievement.  They treat education like a game with winners and losers with absolutely no regard to what happens to the losers.  When kids lose a sporting event, that is all they lose.  When they lose at education, they lose the rest of their lives.  This is no game and the cycle of failure pushes kids into the subclass where they won’t count against the proficiency success list.  When in jail or in the streets, they become invisible.
We now fast forward to recent times when the expectations were to have 100% proficiency by the year 2014.  Imagine the tens of millions of kids, many with obstacles, all being at the same place on the exact same day that the test is given.  Would anyone even want the Stepford kids?  This article focuses on reading but when we look at other subject areas we seem to forget Howard Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences.  Kids are different!
The game of subtly keeping low scoring kids out of school is tough to find.  A simple trick is having a lottery where only those kids with readily available support systems apply.  Those in crises or devastated by the economic caste system, or whose parents work 2 or 3 jobs would miss the boat.  And the school that wins can give a sigh of relief as they don’t have to serve those kids.
Now let’s take a look at the reality of whether a school is doing a good job.  A significant concern is the value of the test as an assessment tool.  When observing the current state standardized tests, many schools, although giving the test did not necessarily use it as a primary source of information pertaining to the education of the student.  First the test is not pre post thus making it difficult to judge real progress.  Secondly, the results are clearly not confirmed by the teachers in the classroom.  Consider this; a test given in a hall, kids herded in like cattle responding to a proctor who tells them when to start and stop is not conducive to great results.  Even if done in a small setting, the results are based on how students function, not showing what they can do, but responding to a question, sweat dripping from their brow based on the preliminary hype, afraid to fail.  It is all on the line in one day, and that day is now.  This test “sees” a student for a couple of hours on a single day where the teachers see the student every day of the school year.  Which do you think better understands the child?
It is extremely important to confirm test results with the teacher because students respond differently to the test.  Mentoring a teacher, we were determined to find the jumping off spot of a student.  This student scored on the pre-primer level on the state test, two years behind on the MAP, an online test, and on level with the QRI (Qualitative Reading Inventory) The QRI was given one on one to assure that the student’s ability to read was assessed rather than the ability to jump through hoops or performing a group situation.  The issue was simply how well the student could read!
It is important to understand that the test is a snap shot in time designed to support the teacher in educating the child.  Often kids score differently on tests like the state standardized test.  Standardized tests take a completely different mindset than does authentic assessment or demonstrated learning.  The test shows if you can remember what to do, real learning shows if you can do it.
As an example, I took a popular Spanish learning program that is designed similar to many standardized as well as classroom tests.  I used the first three levels of the five level program.  It was necessary to score 90% or more to succeed.  I passed level one, level two and even level three with greater than 90%.  I clearly was an A student.  To assure that I learned, I repeated the three levels.  However, there was only one tiny problem; I couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish.  Why, because my brain knew how to win.  I used deduction, trial and error, took cues in order to get the right answer.  In the end, the only thing I did was win.  Are we creating “book learned” students that don’t have a lick of common sense?
Those thoughts were reinforced when I asked several successful students at the local school for the college bound how they studied for the test.  To a person, they told me if they had a test fourth period, they would ignore their third period class and study there.  This allowed their short term memory to store enough information to pass the test and of course forget everything afterwards.  This enforces the reality that the tests given in the classroom do as much damage as does that state standardized tests.  Remember, students are failed in the classroom, not necessarily by the state test.  Kids are ranked and sorted in the classroom and are pushed out of school based on their performance in the classroom.  When teachers teach to the test, they clearly provide a foundation for failure.  It is not only those who create the testing fiasco that are destroying kids; it’s also those who carry out the orders.
A blend of a simple test with classroom assessments can be valuable to a student.  It can drive their learning experience if done right.  However assessment is only as good as the information gathered and its application to the education of the child.  The current state tests fail in this regard.  Data from current state tests simply do not return to the school in a timely manner rendering them useless.  Several months lapse time has students moving to a different level before the information is gathered.
A final concern, if this is not enough, is that state tests are inconsistent and some believe to be manipulated to assure a lack of success for some students.  How is this done?  Although “raising the bar” is good rhetoric, have you ever considered the effect on students scrapping, working hard to meet proficiency only to see the bar raised and their hopes quashed?  In a June 7 2011 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article entitled “More MPS Schools Failing” the then Director of District and School  for Milwaukee Public Schools stated in response to failing schools Improvement “…the proficiency bar was raised this year  and their wasn’t enough time for the new literacy plans impact to be seen in the test results”.  That was great tabloid headlines but not based on a real assessment of the Milwaukee school system.  Even today the Common Core advocates say it raises the bar.  Whenever there is an artificial test, it can be manipulated to keep a people down.  Is this consistent pattern not designed to maintain the subclass?  Whatever the intent, the results are clearly discriminatory to those kids struggling to survive.  This system is maintained by those who are comfortable with the current people continuously pushed into the subclass.  It is not simply unethical, it is immoral.
Enough said about the testing fiasco and its damage to kids.  Looking forward, there must be a way to determine what can be done to rectify the situation.  To ensure kids really learn on an even playing field and schools and teachers are held accountable.
Years back, an innovative school in Milwaukee Wisconsin was in its second year when a student we will call Johnny, entered as a seventh grader.  He was placed in our reading clubs and given a one on one simple test to determine a jumping off point.  He scored on the pre primer level.  This was confirmed by his class room teacher and we moved forward.  Our reading clubs were designed to bring out the joy of reading.  We don’t brow beat kids, we didn’t tell them they were stupid with a letter grade and most of all, we didn’t have them compete in any way because we knew that the joy of learning would be knocked out of him. Students were in groups reading high interest articles but with words they could read.  We had no interest in giving them a seventh grade text if they read at a third grade level.  We had no interest in shaming them into learning. We were told that students would be embarrassed and would act out if they were in low skill groups.  But that didn’t happen. 
During the reading club (classes) you could hear a pin drop in the school.  Why, because they could actually read the articles given.  Secondly, class sizes were determined by reading levels.  Low skill students had very small class sizes and as we got to those on level, the sizes increased somewhat.  Those beyond their level had even larger sizes.  You will simply never get low scoring children to read in a mob.  Class size is essential.  And finally, there was no competition.  Competition bleeds the soul out of those who lose.
Now did Johnny miraculously jump up seven grade levels and read into the twilight?  No, in fact for the first three months he wouldn’t even look at a book.  Until one day, due to the individual attention and patience of his teacher, the light bulb went off.  Hearing him in the hall constantly harassing his teacher as to when the next reading club would be was music to my ears.  And the end result was that he gained four grade levels during the remainder of the school year.  Remember, this is a young man who gained nothing in the previous six years.  In this school there were no artificial letter grades, no brow beating, no continuous reminding him that he was stupid if he didn’t progress toward proficiency fast enough, and most important, no competition forcing him to compare himself to other students.
This is an individual example of how many kids develop reading skills.  Now let’s explore how to transform the current shattered system of education into one that serves all children well.
Start with the pre and post-tests given one on one.  Short and simple tests are needed as we are simply looking for a snap shot in time.  A test serves no purpose if it doesn’t reach kids in the way they best respond and certainly if it doesn’t give information to the classroom teachers in a timely manner.  To assure an even playing field, the data gathered for school assessment purposes must be only from students who took the pre-test at the beginning of the year and the post-test at the end of the year.  Now, of course, subtract the pre-test scores from the post-test scores to determine yearly gains.  However, it is extremely important not to compare student scores with other students no matter how similar or dissimilar.  This isn’t a sporting event where all a child has to lose is a game.  This is education where what a child has to lose is the rest of his life.  Using the seventh grade as an example, first it must be determined whether or not accurate tests were given in the past.  If not, take the pretest information and divide by six to determine the average gains in those past years.  This will then give you a real idea about the student’s progress. 
If, you have a record of individual tests confirmed by teachers, you can chart actual progress and also determine if the student had ever reached the levels that your school is now seeing.  For example, if your school observes a child gain one grade level that had never been seen before, don’t let anyone tell you that your school is a failure.
Here is an example of how the school assessment might read: 
75% of students gained one year or more in reading.
15% of students gained two years or more in reading.
Of the 75% who gained the full year in reading, 50% were lagging two or three years behind on the pre-test.
Of the 75% who gained a full year in reading, 20% were lagging four or more years behind on the pre-test.
17% of all students gained less than one year in reading.
Of the 17%, 100% were lagging more than four years on the pre-test with 80% being chronic truants.
Clearly understand that tests are only a snap shot in time.  Therefore the teachers must confirm the scores from their wide range of classroom assessments.  If there is a contradiction, consultations must determine the actual grade level of the student.  This might include the use of a variety of assessment tools.  (Just a side note for those who are obsessed by the possibility of cheating, if the post-test scores were inflated, the next years teachers would raise holy hell when compared to the new pre-test.)
Some might have a concern about one full year gain doesn’t allow students to “catch up” to their peers.  Consider this, first kids blossom in different ways and at different rates. (Given, of course that they are human) Crediting author Susan Ohanian for recognizing kids learn one like sap from a maple tree, one drip at a time.  Secondly, in the wealthier suburbs, where most students are on level, a “successful” school is expected to see increases of one year in reading, why would it be different in urban schools.  Of course we want students who are behind to gain more, that’s what Johnny did when we traded winning for learning.  However, if schools bring a high percentage of students up by one level and in previous years those same students averaged .33 of a grade level gain, it is highly probable that the light went off and the student’s level would continue to grow.
Greater gains will happen, not necessarily in the next year but maybe the following year.  If we stay with kids they will succeed.  Today the pattern is to push them out of school before they have a chance to blossom.  Pressure them into their own “suicide by street” and watch the cycle of poverty play out as the system continues to do what teacher, author Mary Gale Budzisz describes as it’s purpose of maintaining the subclass.
The reality is that through the system described in this article, individual expectations are high and standards become guidelines for success rather than deadlines for failure.  This of course would lead to individualized schools which are necessary for success.  The main difference between this new system and the current one is that this one never gives up on kids.  An individualized school with no false letter grades, no artificial grade levels, and a failure system that is part of the learning process will serve all kids well. 
As this article focuses on reading, it is important to recognize that this isn’t the only indicator of school success.  The other aspects are also significantly messed up.  However, this portion of school and student assessment is significant.  Although there must be an even playing field, there must also be accountability.  Recognizing that kid’s blossom at different times and in different ways, schools must be free to have their teachers teach to the child, using the child’s background knowledge as a jumping off point and placing emphasis on authentic assessment and demonstrated learning.  The test is only a snap shot in time.  When the test is taken out of the realm of politics and used to educate the student, then, and only then, will they have value.
The question of accountability is extremely important.  No one wants an educator in their school who is doing damage to kids.  And, yes, we can use a simple test score as an indicator.  However, by itself, the test does not show the value of a teacher or a school.  There are way too many variables such as previous teachers, environmental causes, physical health, mental health as well as natural differences in all human beings.  However, if you couple slow progress by many students in a class, with the test, there would be reason to be concerned. This concern would lead to a full assessment to determine if the teacher is using the correct methods as well as creating the right atmosphere for learning.  To get rid of teachers or close schools utilizing artificial means is just a power game with a political agenda.  Simply changing the type of school from public to charter, choice or private accomplishes nothing.  But to make changes based on an even playing field and valid facts is essential.
To take politics out of the teacher and school assessment we must also take politics out of teacher observations.  School administrators have their hands full managing a school and lack sufficient time to fully assess a teacher.  Consider using retired teachers working for a 501c3 or university to be assigned to these duties.
Rarely is it that a retired teacher would tolerate an unsatisfactory teacher in the classroom.  The costs would be significantly less than hiring more administrators and they would have more time in the classrooms.  In addition they would be more suited to understanding the needs of the teacher and available to help.  And they certainly have no hesitation to recommend that administers “pull the plug” if the teacher was unsuccessful. 
But what about the current state tests, wouldn’t it be too costly to pay for those also?  Of course it would but most schools give pre and post-test already and the state tests are pretty worthless to kids.  Although they gather much information, this information is also available throughout the school year, right in the classroom.  Take the billions saved from abandoning those tests and lower class sizes as well as purchase simple pre and post-tests.  Let teachers do what they are educated to do.  Seek out information with quality assessment in the classroom, in everyday lessons not on one single day of high pressure tests.
A child is more than a test score.  Currently we push kids out of school for blossoming different than the norm.  In the process we lose so many brilliant students.  How do we know who will become the next Dr. Temple Grandon, or Dr. Ben Carson or the next Albert Einstein, all who experienced difficulty with the current school process?  How do we know when genius will unfold if we lose kids to the street before they blossom?
As schools are defined by their required outcomes, we must come to the realization that we cannot standardize kids and individualize them at the same time.  Isn’t it time to at the very least allow individualized schools?  Are we afraid that the last might very well become first when we allow real learning to drive a school?  This is pretty scary to those who want to maintain the subclass.
Eldon “Cap” Lee