VIVA Teacher Leaders in Chicago Call for ISAT Boycott

By Adam Heenan

ice-the-isatEarlier this week, teachers at Saucedo Elementary, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago, unanimously voted not to administer the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT).  Parents at Saucedo submitted close to 500 opt-out letters, and now that number is rapidly growing across the city.  As of this morning, the Local School Council (school-based democratic decision-making body) at Murray Language Academy, in the upper middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park,  also recommended that they “Ice the ISAT” at their school.

My hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill., weighed in to register its support of the ISAT, and condemned the Chicago Teachers Union for seemingly taking sides with the protesting parents.  I responded to the editorial with a letter to the editor, and encourage teachers across the country to do the same.  As teachers well know, testing as it is today is not the tool it was meant to be. The more we communicate to people who don’t work in schools or currently have children in the system about what’s really happening, in our classrooms, the more likely we are to create allies for better American schools.  

Below is the text of my letter to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Please feel free to borrow from it to send letters to the editor of your local papers.

Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School (CPS) on the southwest side.  I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while tests are administered.

Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys), and you know what happened?  Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic workplace tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students. In fact, I know of at least one student who wrote about his opting-out experience as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.

In the way that it is being used today, there is very little that standardized testing can tell us.  I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago.  The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created,or scored by actual educators.

In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois.  That’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day.  As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year — 60 days — on testing.  Yes, Kindergarten.

In the Civil Rights era, standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools. That doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act, which labels schools that don’t make the grade as “failing,” and the follow-up Race to the Top, which “leases” those public schools — and all our tax dollars that go with it — to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws.  With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them.  However, we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts.  I should know, I taught at a charter school.

We know that, as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know. It’s more likely a predictor for what zip-code they live in and, at best, can tell us how well any given student may do in the first year of college.  The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC (and the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway) do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.

We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure and even willing to cut programming, especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses.  Perhaps Kankakee teachers (Yes, I used to be one of them) aren’t sending in Student of the Month photos for “top-speller” because Spelling Bees have been all but eliminated along with everything else we used to love about school.

The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in Illinois: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam.  Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose.   We need parents across Illinois to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.

You can learn more about the ISAT boycott at More than a Score and Common Dreams.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.

The Next Generation of Cheating: Improving Academic Integrity in the Age of the Common Core

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

Another day, another cheating scandal. Students at Stuyvesant and Harvard, teachers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, adults on K Street and Wall Street. Dishonesty is rampant in American society.  The ultimate consequences are significant: the IRS estimates the tax gap to be around $300 billion in any given year; the National Retail Federation reports their members lose approximately $30 billion to shoplifters each year.

An Unabated Concern for Schools

Cheating starts young, and academic dishonesty is pervasive.  A 2012 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics reported that about three-quarters of American high school students admitted to copying another student’s work and around one-half had cheated on a test in the past year. The picture does not improve much at the college level. Surveys of tens of thousands of university students elicited admission of cheating on tests, exams, and written assignments. Since the student respondents were self-reporting, the data around faculty perception of cheating versus students who actually admitted cheating are quite stark: Faculty reports of cheating behavior were generally 20-30 percent higher than student admission of the behavior.

Putting the prospect of graduating the next Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong aside, educational institutions need to address academic integrity directly for two reasons. First, cheating eats away at their central mission: student learning. Second, integrity itself is a learned behavior. It needs to be modeled, practiced, and discussed to become habitual. School is one important place for that learning to occur.

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

Since 1919, Wellesley College has asked students “to act with integrity, honesty, and respect” in their academic and personal conduct. David Haines, a Chemistry professor there, notes that Wellesley’s honor code allows him to assign open-ended, challenging work with the assumption that collaboration allows each student to develop her own best ideas. He says,“when the honor code is working, it’s because the community has bought into it,” but that can only happen when “the code is externally defined.” Research backs up his experience. Cheating is reduced significantly when a school has a clearly articulated and accepted academic integrity policy, when students perceive that infractions will be reported and penalized, and when students perceive their peers are honest. All schools will benefit from putting resources into cultivating their communities’ relationships with integrity.

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

David Haines also notes that underclasswomen at Wellesley often experience “a difficult transition [to the Honor Code environment], because high school is so focused on grades and credentials, rather than authentic learning.” His perception is borne out by numbers. Students who view their education as a “means to an end” are almost 40 percent more likely to be academically dishonest than those who view education as a path to “personal development.”

The Common Core places strong emphasis on performance-based assessment. In theory, this type of test should promote integrity. However, it can’t be fostered unless the new curricula and tests truly promote critical thinking and relevant application. This requires an iterative and time-consuming development process. Unfortunately, the rollout of Common Core has been rushed, resulting in myriad problems and complaints. The authentic problems in new math curricula are often just rebranded word problems, while complexity in ELA is mostly manifested in confusing wording. In the realm of testing, a recent Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education report asserts, “the progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purpose.”

States and districts need to invest in more thoughtful curriculum development and truly authentic assessment if we want the scores to reflect what was learned and not how much someone can cheat. As the Wellesley honor code points out: if you cannot trust someone, respect is even more difficult to give. Poorly designed curricula and weak assessments are already losing teachers’ trust. If teachers don’t trust the standards and curriculum, we can’t expect them to respect the test.

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch warns that Common Core represents the “Walmart-ization” of American education. Walmart is most certainly a means to an end, not a destination for personal development. If the ultimate goal of K-12 education is for Americans to be college, career, and citizenship ready, they need opportunities to learn and practice integrity every day of their K-12 experience.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

 

 

 

Driving Lessons: Putting the Data-Driven Map in Perspective

By Kathleen Sullivan

Data is defining the self worth of our children, the value of a dedicated, compassionate caring teacher, and the marketability of our homes. Data has proven to be invaluable as a tool to identify weak spots in curriculum and also as a way to identify students in need of academic intervention. But with the focus on data, something else happened. Education leaders, administrators, and teachers stopped talking about students as individuals; instead we began to hold data meetings and we started to refer to students simply as “above grade level”, “at grade level”, “progressing, but below grade level”, or “needs improvement”. At the same time, new students test scores began to be the first thing we checked to see how their scores would affect overall data for the upcoming testing season

Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, an aggressive education reform organization, appears to believe the only way to measure student and teacher success is through test scores. StudentsFirst recently released a report grading states on how they are working to elevate the teaching profession, empower parents, spend wisely, and govern well. Florida and Louisiana were at the top of the list. The problem is that the initiatives being promoted by StudentsFirst sounds great in theory but education reform goes well beyond test scores and data.

We need an education reality check. I recently “liked” a Facebook posting that read “I Care More About the Person My Students Become Than The Scores On The Tests They Take”. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about test scores and data. It does mean that society needs people who have integrity and character. Test scores are important as a way of measuring what students are learning. Does it measure smart? What does smart mean? Does it strictly mean a high test score? Personally, I think data and test scores are part of the puzzle. Students can explain a concept but often can’t write it. Students can demonstrate a concept by creating a project but they may not be able to read a word or understand a word on a standardized test and lose points.

We need to broaden the way we think about and use data so we can make sure we’re giving each student what they need to succeed. Some students need extra academic supports to increase their capacity to learn. Students with learning, physical, and emotional disorders also need special supports.

If we invest in supporting our children academically and emotionally, we will invest in children who can not only answer questions right but also can face challenges and seek solutions. Let’s figure out how to measure those skills too.

Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

More Money Matters

It is a blogger’s dream to write something that generates a lot of interest, even when the interest
isn’t positive. I got a lot of feedback from my last post about money and pay for teachers. Every bit of
reaction was virulently opposed to what I said in that post. It tells me I did not do a good job of making
my point.

A few points I’d like to clarify:

1. Teachers are working too hard for the level of recognition and respect they get. I am deeply troubled by the inclination to “blame the teacher” or worse. The bashing must stop.

2. I’m not an academic and I don’t even play one on TV. What intrigued me about this University of Chicago study was the nugget of information about human behavior: paying teachers a bonus up front seems to have resulted in high performance for their students over the course of that school year.

3. I was not suggesting that pay should be tied to standardized tests. I am vehemently opposed to high-stakes testing and I think there are and should be many ways to measure the performance of both teachers and students. Using one test to do that is not only wrong, it’s counter-productive.

4. I believe that all teachers should make more money; a teacher’s starting salary should be $100,000 or more.

Yes. This is a touchy topic and I stirred up some real resentment with my first foray into these roiling waters.

But the bottom line is: Pay matters. Money is the way our society recognizes and rewards excellence. We have to find a way to talk about it productively. I hope I got the conversation started. We invite you to send us your own opinions. This space should be a dialogue. You can leave a comment below or, better yet, write your own blog and send it to eevans@vivalistens.org.

Money Matters

We all want to make more money. Right? I know I do. And most likely you do too. So do teachers…at least until that new money gets labeled “merit pay.” Then teachers suddenly are offended because it says they teach for the money rather than for the love of their students.

Isn’t it time we stopped all of this nonsense and admitted that we all want more money? Once we do that, we also have to admit that, under our capitalist system, we can only get more money if we are worth more money. Among teachers, that means increased student learning.

So it was with great interest that I read the Chicago Sun-Times story from education reporter Rosalind Rossi called, “Cash upfront the way to get teachers to rack up better student test scores, study finds.” The article talks about a new study by behavioral economist John List of the University of chiago that shows “merit pay” does motivate teachers to improve their performance–provided the merit pay system is set up the correct way.

The researchers compared three sets of teachers in a south  suburban Chicago school district. One group got a $4,000 bonus at the start of the school year and were told that if they turned in higher student scores, the bonus would be doubled at the end of the year. If not, they would have to give the money back. A second group was promised $8,000 at the end of the school year if scores rose. A third group was promised nothing and received nothing.

The results were stunning  The group who got the up-front bonus worked hard to keep from losing the money. Their students’ math scores rose 2 ½ to 3 ½ times the gains reported for students being taught by those who were promised year-end bonuses.

The moral of this story? Money matters. Even to teachers. Teachers may have chosen their profession because they wanted to impact the lives of children, but they also want to pay the mortgage and live comfortably.

Isn’t it time we stopped taking offense at the very notion of rewarding excellence with money and started talking about how to use money in way that celebrates teachers’ passion for their job and those whose students soar?