Are Children Learning

Gates Foundation exec: Give students, teachers time on tests

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s argument that it is unfair to connect teacher evaluation to student test results during a transition to new state standards and tests is getting a boost from an unlikely source: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A senior executive of the foundation dialed back its position on how standardized testing should be used in high stakes decisions for teachers and students on Tuesday. She was not speaking specifically about Indiana but the case she made mirrored some of what Ritz has said about ISTEP.

“The Gates Foundation agrees with those who’ve decided that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years,” Vicki Phillips wrote in a letter posted on the foundation’s website.

In the letter titled “Let’s Give Students and Teachers Time,” Phillips wrote, “A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.”

Phillips is director of College Ready, a foundation initiative that seeks to increase the number of U.S. students ready for college or work by the time they leave high school.

The Gates Foundation has been at the epicenter of the debate over the Common Core Standards and over coming multistate tests. (For exhaustive details on that, see this recent Washington Post story, “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution.”)

The letter hasn’t seemed to have drawn much attention yet, although American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten put out a news release applauding Phillips’ comments, repeating the view that “we have to de-link the high-stakes consequences of the tests from the standards’ implementation for now.”

Last week, Ritz proposed that the Indiana State Board of Education consider delaying accountability sanctions based on state test results for a year. She followed with a newspaper op-ed in which she said penalizing schools and teachers based on new tests and unfamiliar standards, and knowing the first year test scores under the new standards will likely go down from prior years, was unfair.

“I always have been a proponent for strong teacher and school accountability,” she wrote. “However, as we have seen historically in Indiana and across the nation, it is typical for student scores on standardized tests to dip as a result of new and more rigorous expectations, giving the appearance of a decline in achievement. In order for an accountability system to be strong and meaningful to parents and educators, it must also be fair and equitable. That is why we need to look at ways we can minimize the effect of a likely expected drop in performance.”
Ritz said her department is research how Indiana could delay accountability sanctions for a year and still comply with state law. At the same time she must convince officials of the U.S. Department of Education, who are pushing Indiana to move faster to implement the new standards and tests.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.