Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Celebration of Teaching and Learning

Enter into the Hilton, New York and climb up the escalators. All around you are teachers with canvas bags rushing towards the doors of the Grand Ballroom.

They want to see Arne Duncan and Richard Riley talk about education today. The elder statesman, Riley, is wise and full of information. Mr. Duncan looks like an aging boy - athletic, vibrant, confident and full of innovative ideas.

As far as Arne Duncan's words - there was a lot I agreed with: the need for support for teacher leadership with the creation of different pathways for master teachers to share their knowledge and experience with new teachers and colleagues. I believe that we must help all children succeed - it's a national emergency when so many young people continue to slip through the cracks! I also was happy that Mr. Duncan reported that, unlike "No Child Left Behind," the newly revised Education and Secondary School Act (ESEA) offers a vision for the measurement of a student's growth, rather than evaluation through a single high stakes assessment that excludes many students.

Secretary Duncan talked about a student entering fifth grade, with a first grade reading level and reaching the third grade level by the end of the school year. "That's success," said the Secretary. We all enjoyed hearing that. Troubling, though, is how difficult it is to measure this type of growth.

Though it was exciting to see our Secretary of Education in person, I was left with the troubling feeling that we have much to resolve. Rhode Island, for example, is currently dealing with a school closure which is following the "turnaround strategies" that are being advocated. We have all heard of hard-working teachers in that school dealing with limited resources and a challenged student population. The result of their hard work is a slap in the face instead of much needed resources and help.

The next day, I saw Queen Latifa masterfully moderate a youth dialog with high school students. The students spoke on issues that were important to them - the impact of the community on their lives, aspects of a quality teacher, and what excites or bores them about learning.

The most compelling moment was at the end of the discussion when one student panelist, with his peppy little bow tie and serious glasses, was asked to give advice to the teachers in the audience.

"You should remember," he said, with the glittering eyes of an old soul, "that what you do with your students is literally a matter of life and death. I'm serious, life and death."

Perhaps before we close a school we might talk to some of the young people who attend these institutions, with their parents and with the teachers who work every day to try to lift their students out of disadvantaged situations. Perhaps we might try to innovate in place, to create energy in exhausted institutions by infusing them with people and programs - fresh legs to inspire and create movement around institutional and student growth. Maybe we should start to trust communities to recreate themselves, using the foundations of the old, to build upon.

Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet, talked about a dying Oak tree in his classic poem, "To an old Oak Tree." He talked about the fading Oak and its inner decay, the sad and softened bark falling to the earth. Machado ends his poem by saying, that despite the vision of destruction that the Oak has become, "a few green leaves were sprouting."

Maybe that would happen to our dying schools if we nourished them and gave them the support that they needed to succeed.


Nancy Flanagan said...

"Troubling, though, is the fact that these assessments are not available yet to measure this sort of 'growth.'"

Actually, the statistical models to measure growth are widely available, and have been for years. States that are set up to do value-added growth models have had to eliminate (often legislatively) firewalls, designed to keep states from tying test scores to teachers.

There are important reasons not to assume that all statewide assessments really measure "growth." Assessments that dig deep into complex measurement of student progress are often expensive and difficult to score--so bubble-in tests (that may or may not be tied to specific benchmarks) are used. In other words, we are using assessments designed to measure broad school/class growth to target individual student growth--the wrong tools for the job.

That first grader who moves up to third grade? Here's another example, that applies to Bergen County. Suppose your 8th grader is reading at 11th grade level, beginning of the year. At the end of one year, "growth" has only taken her to 11.5. She's still doing fine, but suddenly her growth--a half year--is labeling her teacher "substandard."

The USDOE has developed some really slick language: "a vision for the measurement of student growth" may sound good on the surface, but it needs careful deconstruction by those who would be teacher leaders and spokespersons.

This is not a rant against measurement. We need and will continue to use standardized testing--it gives us important information. But be wary of jumping on the "growth" bandwagon.

Congratulations on being named NJ-TOY, and starting a blog. You're in for a great year!

Nancy Flanagan, MI-TOY 1993

Maryann Woods-Murphy said...

Dear Nancy,

You make such important points. Thanks for weighing in and I hope to hear from you more!

You say, "Assessments that dig deep into complex measurement of student progress are often expensive and difficult to score." and also "be wary of jumping on the "growth" bandwagon."

These are perceptions I share. What I have seen, in terms of standardized assessments, do not measure either progress or "growth" in such a way that I would want this sort of student achievement tied to teacher compensation nor would it give me as full of a picture as I would need to measure my student's progress.

It sounds good to talk about "growth" and it felt like a relief when I hears Sect. Duncan say it, but all around us there is a lightning speed connection to use imperfect tools. You say that the cost of the good tools make them hard to use widely, which makes sense.

This leads me to think that we need to bring in more teacher leaders to the careful deconstruction you state needs to be done right now.

Great to "meet" you, Nancy and I look forward to your insightful and knowledgeable thoughts!


Nancy Flanagan said...

Hi Maryann.

If you'd like to read the best (IMHO) book ever on demystifying testing, check out "Measuring Up" by Daniel Koretz:

I wish that Secretary Duncan and other high-ranking USDOE official would read it-- it's not an anti-testing rant, in the least, but it explains why standardized tests often tell us less than we think, and should not be seen as ideal tools for measuring teacher effectiveness.

It's great to meet you, too. I've got you bookmarked and will follow your blog. I see that you posted a comment on my old blog--thanks, but I can't respond there, because my blog, "Teacher in a Strange Land," moved to Education Week's Teacher division in January:

I hope you will give it a look--and share it with other TOYs in the class of 2010. There are several TOYs blogging--I'll pull together a list for you.