Testing assumptions

These posts continued the exchange on Bridging Differences:
Dear Mike,

When I ask myself how I might be wrong, I try to examine my assumptions. These seem to be some of yours. Am I wrong?

You seem to want to put schools on a Bell curve and then assume that most schools that serve children in poverty are, and (because of “the system”) will remain, mediocre. Further, you assume that “those” children learn differently and need direct instruction. Are you really prepared to abandon a goal of working toward creating the sorts of learning communities you’d want for your own children, ignore learning for life, and just focus on increasing test scores? “Sorry kids, you chose the wrong parents so you’ll just have to put up with drudgery.”

You assume that testing tied to standards, including CCSS, is part of the solution because there’s a correlation between increased scores and higher-paid jobs. But correlations are not predictors. Fewer people are killed wearing brown shoes – but changing shoe colors doesn’t make driving safer! Further, high-stakes norm-referenced standardized summative testing is not the same as assessment of significant learning. Tests only measure how well kids did on the tests. And commercially created packaged tests are both artificially cut off from actual learning contexts and tend to value low-level individualistic thinking. Worse, most reading and math tests test for how well the students (and teachers) are following a scripted mandated reading or math program. Don’t you want young people to learn literacy and numeracy in context to get things done in the real world? Meaningful assessment can help but most testing actually gets in the way of real learning.

You also seem to assume that testing improves teaching. But summative tests don’t improve teaching – it’s authentic formative assessments tied to learning that make a difference. Gardeners don’t keep digging up plants to see how well their roots are growing or wait until the end of summer to see if they flower – they watch how well they are growing and tend plants accordingly to their individual needs.

Finally, and most disturbingly, you seem to acknowledge the negative effects of testing on the culture of a school and students’ relationships with teachers but assume that is no big deal. That’s like saying learning in prison is no different from learning in a caring family or in schools of the quality of the Mission School.

Dear Sherrie

You’re right. I didn’t address the issues you raise in your response but that’s not because I don’t agree with your core point about unfairness. I was focused on responding to the premises in Mike’s argument about testing.

I agree with you that all children deserve high-quality teaching in enriching learning environments and in schools ten minutes from where I live I could show you the same shameful inequities that you note. My point is that it is morally wrong to deny poor children in some schools the opportunities afforded to children in others based on a self-fulfilling statistical argument that some schools will always have lower expectations.

Deborah Meier has spent her professional life showing that it is not true. Just as I know too many examples of the inequities you are rightly angry about, I could also take you into classrooms and schools where poverty is not the deciding factor. Your sentence that begins “Schools with lots of poor children …” does not need to continue in the way it does. You are not describing how schools serving poor children all are or could be. Classrooms, schools, and districts can change and provide the sort of education your children, and those young people in the schools you allude to, deserve.

No one who’s experienced changing the teaching and learning culture of schooling would say it is easy, especially when you inherit young people (and teachers) who have been treated so badly by their school districts and politicians. But that doesn’t mean the goal should be abandoned. Nor that the resources and professional development that could move a district in a direction toward more fairness should be spent on testing aligned with scripted curricula.

I too want high quality teaching including everything you list. And yes, the teaching in some schools is better since NCLB. But that does not mean that the testing required under NCLB caused that.

The nub of the argument is whether or not high-stakes standardized testing is going to get you better schools. If you have time to read more of the literature referenced in some of the posts in this blog you’ll find a more critical analysis than I suspect you’ve been previously been introduced to.

Yes, good teaching can include testing as part of authentic formative assessment of learning. However, what’s at stake is whether you and I will support or question increased testing (justified by standards) knowing that testing narrows the curriculum and steals valuable resources and time to crowd out the very things you and I want all young people to learn in school. Worse, the plan in states including mine (supported by Race to the Top funding) is to sort children, schools, and teachers along that Bell curve into “good” and “bad” and “passing” and “failing” based on the results of the tests. I’d value dialogue about what we look for in good teaching. However, I am clear that teachers are not “good” merely because they are good at test preparation or compliant in the face of inequity.

Obsession with development, learning, and teaching

I posted this on Education Week Bridging Differences Blog where Deborah Meier is in dialogue with Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Foundation:

Mike Petrilli makes a provocative summarizing comment in his blog post that I’ve been mulling over: “Rich parents are obsessed with their children’s social and intellectual development.” I wonder if he would agree that we need schools where teachers are expected (and supported) to be similarly obsessed.

A concern with development should always trump a focus on learning. Adults need to take a more developmental long-view – asking where are we going and how might we get there? – rather than have only a short-term concern with what’s being learned in the moment. And as a Vygotskian perspective stresses, adults always need to be looking for what particular children and groups are capable of, not just what individuals have already shown they can do. Testing, especially high-stakes summative testing aligned with predetermined bite-sided curriculum, is so insidious because its dehumanizing mechanistic demands is continually undermining those teachers who are committed to children’s social and academic achievements in ways that will support their development into better people and smarter learners.

No one can develop socially unless they are able to interact socially. Ask any parent of a toddler! And families – or classrooms – don’t magically become socially supportive learning communities. They require adults who care enough about children to engage with them in genuine dialogue (not evaluative quizzing) about life, literature, and content (not textbooks masquerading as such). What sort of a country are we hoping to create if we don’t practice social democracy in the very places where children – and adults – can learn to become better citizens? Schools like Mission Hill are beacons for developing democracy where people together embrace the struggle to learn to be more democratic. Members of Congress could learn a lot from a field trip there.

Which brings me to standards. The founding fathers would agree that even the best pre-determined “standards” – the Constitution and its amendments – can never guarantee outcomes. Common Core State Standards are no different. We may critique standards for what’s good – and not so good – about them. We could start with the fact that democratic standards aren’t included in the Common Core. However, just as we can’t teach children to develop socially by telling them what to do, we can’t teach them to grow intellectually by imposing academic standards on them – and believing that repeated testing will somehow make development happen.

People’s intellectual development only really takes off when they become obsessed with what they are learning. It’s sad to have to note that that is as true for children as it is for adults. Effective parents – rich, poor, or middle-class – like effective teachers, know that teaching, trips, or tutoring makes little difference until children take charge of their own learning. And that can happen with preschoolers and dinosaurs as much as with teachers – or Think Tank executives – and education. How many parents or executives would be obsessed with becoming better at their challenging jobs if they had to live under the shadow of testing surveillance tied to imposed standards?
If teachers, principals, and school districts were rewarded for creating learning environments where children can develop socially and intellectually then all that money wasted on testing could be spent on professional development by, with, and for teachers obsessed with education and democratic outcomes.

Social Context and Using/Learning Academic Language

Posted to Guardian Teacher Network, May 7, 2013

Recently, working with a group of thirteen year olds with ‘special needs’ we planned how we might rescue hostages in Libya. As we imagined we were in 1804 in the days of the Barbary pirates, one boy asked, ‘What would we tell President Jefferson if we failed?’. We were thinking, talking, reading texts extracts, and acting, like historians. The boy was aware that history was his-story.

The learning in Lee Donaghy’s classroom is so powerful not just because one group is convincing the other. Significantly, the context of their talk – and of their writing – is more than ‘the classroom’. People (young and old) are engaged in the sorts of tasks that engage real historians. And that includes paying attention to the vocabulary they use to make meaning within an historical framework. This is not superficial ‘role play’. As in my example, students are becoming more aware of the language they are using – and learning – to explain and critique historical events.

At the heart of Michael Halliday’s theory is the idea that people use words, and learn how to use language, in order to create meaning in context. Social context is key. Why do teachers talk differently at home, in the staffroom, or at a professional conference? Because the social context – and thus the language expected to be used to make meaning – is different. The problem with most of the language used in classrooms is that the context is ‘schooling’ and the dominant genre for language use is as old as that used by The Bash Street Kids! When teachers are the ones asking questions that the pupils are supposed to answer ‘correctly’ then the relationship between teacher and young people tends to close down meaning-making. Using Halliday’s term, the ‘tenor’ of exchanges is hierarchical. When the meaning has been predetermined by a teacher – or by a test – then pupils don’t have to learn how to use language. Worse, they don’t have to learn – or think.

Behavior Management or Ethical Leadership?

Posted on Guardian Teacher Network May 5, 2013

Though the term is used widely I find the words ‘behaviour mangagement’ highly problematic. What youngsters need is our leadership rather than just being managed and our concern for everyone’s intended actions rather than just a focus on the behaviour of particular children.

Leaders do more than manage. Leaders provide people with direction – moral as well as academic. As leaders we model how to act but even harder, we can show others how they might react (and not react) in difficult times. Alan, Tim, and gulliblemartyr, each fine classroom teachers I’m sure, show a quality of leadership that I believe children need to see more often – they’re all prepared to acknowledge when they’ve made mistakes or acted in a way they are not proud of. They know that leading doesn’t mean being right but being prepared to struggle when necessary to take people in a direction we believe in. I’m human – I’ve been angry, I’ve shouted, I’ve being intimidating but I’m not proud of those moments. And I believe my colleagues, and at the right time, children need to know that. Thanks, Alan, for leading us in that direction. I’ve also been kind, caring, and understanding in building relationships with young people. Those are the sorts of actions I want to promote in the classroom with and among children.

When we are only concerned with behaviour we can all too easily fall into the trap of believing that compliance is enough – that what looks right according to me is what’s important. But do we really want schools where all pupils behave like the ‘nice’ quiet girls? I want a classroom where everyone takes responsibility for their actions. That includes me. I want the energy of those ‘naughty’ boys directed into acts that benefit everyone in the community. I’ll never achieve that through actions that others experience as intimidation or bullying even when in the heat of the moment (or even worse in quiet reflection) I may feel that my behaviour was justified.

How do we shift the focus from behaving to intending action? We have to start talking about what sort of community we want to live in. We have to engage pupils in shared tasks that they care about and want to be a part of and then we have to reflect with them on how we can all act to do more of that. Such a conversation cannot only take place in staffrooms, in hallways with sobbing children, or even on blogs like this. It has to begin with the children. It has to begin with me knowing what I believe in and acting on those beliefs.

Reynoldsburg Shakespeare Festival 2013

The second annual Reynoldsburg Shakespeare Festival was held May 4, 2013.  There must have been over 100 students involved grades 2-12 performing extracts from 8 plays to a packed auditorium at the Summit Road Campus.  What a joy it was to see the young people so enjoying Shakespeare and their parents so enthusiastic about the work.  Congratulations to Amy McKibben for spearheading the Festival and to other teacher-directors: Janet Benedict, Aubrey Gibson, Lorraine Gaugenbaugh, Sandy Guinto, Tonya Peacock, Anna Meyer, and Jessica Sharp, all alumni teachers from the OSU/RSC Professional Development Program.  Everyone is looking forward to next year!

Macbeth (Amy McKibben, director)









As You Like It (Janet Benedict and Aubrey Gibson, directors)









A Midsummer Nights Dream (Lorraine Gaugenbaugh, director)









Romeo & Juliet (Sandy Guinto and Tonya Peacock, directors)









(Anna Meyer, director)









All’s Well That Ends Well (Jessica Sharp, director)


The Tempest (Janet Benedict and Aubrey Gibson, directors)


I, Cinna (the poet) and Julius Caesar: the RSC productions

On Friday May 3 I joined Jessica Sharp, Amy McKibben (teacher-leaders from the OSU/RSC PD Program) and their middle and high school students at the Southern Theatre for a performance of Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna (the Poet).  It was performed on the set of the compelling RSC’s production of Julius Caesar (directed by the new RSC artistic director Greg Doran) which I’d seen two days previously.  Placing the events of the play in a modern-day African setting had evoked in me knowledge and memories of contemporary dictatorships and civil wars in post-colonial Africa.

You can watch a video recording of I, Cinna (the poet) on the RSC website but as always, being in the theatre was so much more engaging and compelling.  We were framed as if we were in the imagination of Cinna, the poet, (masterfully portrayed by Jude Owusu who also played the character in Julius Caesar).  As the events of Shakespeare’s play unfolded off-stage (as if in contemporary setting like London) we became implicated as Cinna led us each in writing down words that gradually create a poem.  What would you die for?  What would you kill for?  We gradually wrote one of Shakespeare’s lines  – It must be by his death – as we realized we were seeing Cinna predicting and then accepting his death.  Cinna raises questions for us about the value of poetry: Mark Antony changed the course of the play (and of history) by his words.  We are left wondering about the effect of Cinna’s words and of ours when he asks us to write to explain his death.  Like the several hundred young people, over 5 minutes I wrote:

Butchered like a chicken

By heartless men

Following the rightness of the mob

Following the wrongness of the inauspicious day

Who let slip the dogs of war?