Data Warehousing Will Destroy Your Soul
from Our Schools/Our Selves, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Vol. 19, Number 2 (#98), Winter 2010
The school website indicates that along with extensive building renovations, "a highly talented faculty and staff were hired." This means that when student Derrion Albert was killed, no one in this turnaround school had known the kids for more than three weeks. This is the concerted policy of the Secretary of Education.
Even when a teacher isn't in a turnaround school, she faces assault by NCLB rules which force teachers to be script readers. To receive NCLB money, school promise to use only certain approved programs and most of these programs are scripted--detailing what to say, and when.
To maintain NCLB purity, schools hire teaching "coaches" to patrol the hallways to make sure teachers are on the right page all through the day.
Of course this defies any kind of pedagogical justification but also consider the psychology of the matter. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert provides a clue as to why this is psychologically wrong: Ă˘€śToddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their foreheads. Why? Because they did it, thatĂ˘€™s why. The room is different because I was in it.
Because I was in it.
Surely, if we are to call ourselves teachers, our classrooms must reflect our presence. We must not camouflage our identity with a McGraw-Hill script.
Sitting at the table even if the food is rotten
Finding no help from unions that refuse to negotiate on curriculum or teacher autonomy, hundreds of thousands of teachers feel this is the only choice: Follow the script or get out.
When Educator Roundtable website launched a petition calling for the end of NCLB,(5) the NEA, the largest of the U.S. teacher unions, objected. They complained, "We have to keep a seat at the table." We argued abut the issue in Phi Delta Kappan. (6) Now, complaints to our professional organizations about their participation in the latest follow-up project, the Common Core Standards, are met with a similar, "We are fortunate to have a seat at the table."
In 2003, my website won the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. Now, NCTE won't even print a small news item that a member has started a website opposing those Common Core Standards: www.StopNationalStandards.org.
Even when the food is rotten, people don't want to walk away from that corporate-politico table. For some, there are money possibilities--grants and consulting. But for most, it's both the lure of sitting with power and the timidity of standing up to power and saying "No." It matters not to the teacher organization leaders that they sit at the table despite clear teacher opposition to NCLB.
I look for the day when teachers unions and professional organizations will promote transparency about the corporate connections underlying national education policy.
Data warehousing will destroy your soul
A contributor to Work America, a newsletter of the National Alliance of Business, expressed the prototypical desire of the corporate-politico:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has absorbed this mentality with gusto. At a May 29,2009 presentation at the National Press Club he declared, "We have to be transparent about data. We have to raise the bar so that every child knows on every step of their educational trajectory what they're going to do."
These folks haven't a clue. Not a clue. For starters, they haven't figured out that a teacher can teach and teach and teach. But it still doesn't mean the students will learn it--not on schedule, anyway.
In Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his team (7) hooked up 9th and 10th graders in advanced classes to beepers and beeped them during the school day, asking kids to answer questions in a provided booklet, questions which asked what they were thinking about at that time. As it happens, while a teacher lectured 27 students on Genghis Khan's invasion of China and the conquest of Bejing in 1215, only two students mentioned China: One was thinking about a meal he'd had the night before in a Chinese restaurant and the other wondered why the men used to wear pigtails. Nobody mentioned Genghis Khan.
No teacher is surprised to hear this.
Nonetheless, data-=driven decision-making means the computer tallies a kid's responses to shoddy standardized test questions and the teacher is supposed to make the results the basis of her teaching. Everything that happens in school is supposed to increase students' performance on those state tests.
One chapter in the 502-page tome Handbook of Data-Based Decision Making in Education (8) leads off with this exaltation of data offered by Education Week:
Yes,just imagine it. The authors view this positivist, technocratic view of teacher decision-making as something every teacher should strive for. Such "planning" assumes:
student scores on achievement tests reveal something important about what a student knows; and
Education Week also exults, "Aldine (Texas) is striking because the district leaves so little chance when it comes to student success. . . . It takes little time for a visitor to Aldine to see the heavy emphasis that is placed on preparation for state tests. Computer programs scroll through lists of practice questions. Printers spit out scores for teachers to review. Timed practice quizzes help students prepare for the real thing."
Keeping teachers-on-script paid off for Aldine. After four times placing as a runner-up, they are the 2009 winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Maybe we should organize a campaign to send the Broad Foundation a few million copies of the Chinese proverb: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
We should follow David Berliner's lead in challenging conceptions of data. On a C-Span TV interview, Berliner gave his definition: (9)
In the same vein, Dora Chaplin, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology, General Theological Seminary, New York City, observed, "Our Lord said, 'Feed my sheep'; he did not say, 'Count them.'"
Taking a look at test questions
Standardistos who decry educators who "make decisions based on intuition, gut instinct, or facs," (10) take the content of standardized tests as a given. For seven years, I've run a website documenting the outrages offered by standardized tests. I have documented in chilling detail how schools have become test prep boot camps for tests questions that are just plain loony.
Here's an item from a test given to every fourth grader in New York State--the test that determined whether a student advanced to 5th grade. After reading a passage about how pretzels are made, fourth-graders were asked:
If you think you know the answer to this question, try looking up "pretzel" in the Encyclopedia. Nothing. In an article about bagels from the Dec. 31, 32003, New York Times, I did find a pretzel mention: "It wouldn't be Philadelphia without soft pretzels." More searching produced one sentence that might qualify as "historical": Old-time pretzel makers dipped the pretzels into a lye solution. I found it in my kitchen in A World of Breads by Dolores Casella. (11)
Everything about this item is emblematic of the hubris embedded in standardized tests. Item writers with no connection to real children in real classrooms, or even, it seems, any connection to real pretzel history, invent inaccurate and devious and just plain stupid material.
No wonder they insist on keeping tests secret. The teacher who is informed by computer printout that Johnny missed this answer won't know a thing about his reading comprehension, but she's ordered to base her lessons on the data provided.
With a high school diploma at stake, Florida high schoolers were quizzed about a reflective meditation on moose tracks in Alaska. I wrote the author, sending him the goofy question. He was astounded.
Now you know why it's a felony for teachers in Florida and in many other states to look at the tests. Test makers and the state officials who buy their product don't want word to get out about the specific content of these tests. But how professional can it be to base your lesson plans on test items you can't examine?
In Aberdeen, Washington, a fourth grader was suspended from school because he refused to answer the writing prompt directing him to compose a story about what would happen next if he saw the principal flying past the window. Despite urging from his teacher, his principal, and his mother (who was summoned to school), he didn't pick up the pencil.
He was given a five-day suspension--with a letter stating, "The fact that Tyler chose to simply refuse to work on the WASL, after many reasonable requests, is none other than blatant defiance and insubordination." Tyler explained, "I couldn't think of what to write without making fun of the principal."
I have a massive collection of outrages from teachers and parents about children vomiting on tests, children curling up in a fetal position and sobbing for a parent, children in Sunday school forming a prayer circle and praying their teacher won't be fired because they didn't do well enough on the test.
In Tennessee, where teachers are forbidden to talk to students taking the test, a teacher received an official letter of reprimand for comforting a sobbing child by saying, "Do your best."
Do you want someone in charge of your children who doesn't stop for tears?
High stakes standardized tests should come with a warning letter for parents to sign:
WARNING: Experts on child development have determined:
Joel Klein, Chancellor for New York City, the largest public school system in the US, acknowledged that parents express concern "about the stress--they say there's too much high-stakes testing. But our kids are doing to grow up in a world with high-stakes testing at every level, high-stakes challenges in a very aggressive global economy." (11)
The Human Capitalists
"No excuses" is the mantra of the Human Capitalists. Place blame for lack of success on the teachers and the schools.
"No excuses" ignores poverty. They ignore the fact that half of American children receive food stamps. Adults who grew up in poverty are more likely to have impaired physical and mental growth, lower academic achievement, and to remain impoverished.
They ignore the Surgeon General's Report that says one third of all poor youngsters ages two to nine have untreated cavities. They pay no attention to the 12-year-old in Washington D. C. who died of an abscessed tooth, or that his 10-year-old brother had six abscessed teeth.
What human capitalist neoliberal reformers can't fathom is that good teaching is much more like a Chinese lyric painting than a bus schedule. You can't chart a kid's learning by taking his temperature or by getting a computer to track where he puts an apostrophe at 10 a.m. on Monday.
Data and knowledge are not the same thing. The late Gerald Bracey offered a neat recap: "There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." (12)
Teaching is the messiest occupation imaginable, and with all the current hoopla for data warehousing, someone needs to speak for the metaphysics of quality. We teachers need to offer our data, to tell our stories. That's why I offer Michael's asparagus letter (13) every chance I get.
When I announced to my 7th and 98th graders, who as a group, tested out below the 20th percentile in reading, that we were going to exchange notes every day, kids looked at me like I was nuts. And Michael was the loudest complainer.
But I was tough. . . and persistent. . . and the lure was when a kid wrote a note he got one back. Before long, Michael was hooked. During the winter, as I complained a lot about shoveling sidewalks, Michael's notes advised me to take the months as they come. As spring approached I began mentioning that for me the first sign of spring was the asparagus ads in the newspaper. Kids thought this was a hoot--such a typical teacher concern. But they also began tearing ads out of the daily newspapers we received and leaving them on my desk--who could find the best asparagus buy for Ms O.
Michael won. He wrote me a long note about going to Boston to see a dolphin show and insisting that his family take time out from their busy schedule to visit a market so he could check out the price of asparagus. He concluded, "$1 a pound. But Boston is a long way to go for asprgs."
Every time I talk to teachers I show them Michael's letter. I don't have to explain things or apologize for the spelling. Teachers instantly recognize it as testimony to what we're about. Not quantifiable value-adding, but heart, faith, and grit. And do I dare add love?
When Michael graduated from 8th grade, his mother wrote me a lovely letter, thanking me for all I'd done. She told me she was going to phone, but Michael urged her to write. He said, "When you care about somebody and when you're going to say something important, you write a letter."
This is what I mean when I say you can only teach who you are. And if you try to teach while submitting to a script dominatrix, then you lose not only your professionalism, but also your soul.
And there's more: Today, Michael is a chef in an upscale restaurant, making a whole lot of money. And I claim partial credit for his success because, after all, I introduced him to an interest in asparagus.
Today, Michael, who exhibited the classic signs of dyslexia, would not pass the New York Regents exam and would be denied a high school diploma, thus making him ineligible as a chef. Or automobile mechanic; baker; broadcast technician, or scores of other occupations.
To be a teacher these days, you have to decide who you're willing to obey.
1) In October 2007, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union asked me to go to Seoul and warn their political leaders about the dangers of NCLB.
2) Gerstner, L. (2008, December 1). Lessons from 40 years of education 'reform.' Wall Street Journal.
3) Bracey, G. (2009). Brace Report.
4) Lynch D. (2009, Oct. 2). "Safety at Fenger Yields to Reform" Chicago Sun-Times.
6) Ohanian, S. and Kovacs, P. (2007, Dec. 1) "Make Room at the Table for Teachers," Phi Delta Kappan
7) Csikszentmihalyi, M, Rathunde, K, and Whalen, S. (1993). Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge University Press.
8) Kowalski, T. J. and Lasley T. J., ed. (2009) Handbook of Data-Based Decision Making in Education. Routledge.
9)Berliner, David. (2007. April 28). C-Span.
10) Datnow, A. and Park, V. "School System Strategies for Supporting Data Use," in Kowalski and Lasled, ed.(2009) Handbook of Data-Based Decision Making in Education.
11)Casella, D. (1966). A World of Breads. David White, p. 277.
12) Mathews, J. (2006, Nov. 14). "Just whose idea was all this testing?" Washington Post.
13) Ohanian, S. (2001) Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum Heinemann.
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