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Writer’s Block Unblocked

July 23, 2012
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Summertime makes writing routines a bit more challenging to maintain (photo by the author)

Hello everyone – I’m back.  Writer’s block got me good the past few weeks.  Part of the issue was a general slowing down after the school year ends.  My rhythms and schedules have been further disrupted by travel, my children’s summer schedules, and moving out of my house temporarily during some remodeling.

So, I’m going to try to close that chapter of my writing life this summer by offering some quick thoughts on a few topics I would have typically blogged about in greater detail.  Maybe then I can return to my more typical blogging.

Test item leaks in California – Our annual release of test scores for ranking and punishing schools will be delayed for a while because the state officials are dealing with test items that students have photographed and posted on Facebook.  Here’s a summary from “The California Report” radio program (audio).

The L.A. Times also covered the story, with a focus on schools in their area that might be affected.  Amazingly, the entire schools may be facing significant penalties over this student misconduct.  The state may argue that there’s also teacher misconduct involved, as these students should have been more carefully monitored to prevent the photos from being taken at all.  I haven’t seen the actual photos, but I can tell you from years of proctoring these exams that it would not be too difficult for a careful high school student with a smart phone to snap a few pictures.  I think I’m an attentive proctor, but you’d have to attentive to the point of being intrusive to guarantee the security of the test items.

Why all the uproar?  I can’t believe it’s because of concerns about the actual results.  By the time the kids share the pictures, there’s not much that can be done with them, and students wouldn’t be motivated to do much anyways.  As a high school principal told the L.A. Times, a key problem is that

“The teenagers aren’t held accountable in any way, shape or form for the test. Of course they’re going to take a picture with a cellphone. They also write the names of their boyfriend or girlfriend in the bubbles on the answer sheet.”

I think his comment gets to the heart of the matter: students are probably taking the pictures simply because they can, because they’re bored, or because they are complaining in their own way about the testing itself.  Still, the state has to come down hard on the schools in order to remind everyone who’s in charge and how important testing is.  Never mind that the test itself is about to be replaced by Common Core assessments, and never mind that the state accountability system (Academic Performance Index, or API) is also likely to be overhauled in the near future.

Tennessee teacher evaluation – What’s up with the folks in the Volunteer State?  They’ve invested so much time, energy, and money into improving teacher evaluation, and they keep getting important things wrong.  Value-added measures don’t improve evaluations.  Performance pay doesn’t improve performance.  Giving principals much more work to do with no additional resources doesn’t improve their work either (“I’ve never seen such nonsense” said principal Will Shelton).  And when the new system provides some apparent contradictions when the results come back, they assume their tests and data are infallible and that any problems in their system must originate with the people in the system.  What a terrible message to send to the professionals in the schools.  Larry Ferlazzo called it “Test Result Idolatry in Tennessee” – and it’s hard to accuse him of exaggeration with that term.

“Living in Dialogue” with the Gates Foundation – one of the more interesting items in the blogosphere for the near future might just be Anthony Cody’s attempt to engage with the Gates Foundation in some real dialogue about education reform.  The Foundation itself, and Bill Gates individually, have faced considerable criticism for both the substance and style of their involvement in education.  The facts that this dialogue began with Cody visiting the Gates Foundation in person, and that the five-part series will appear on both Cody’s blog and the Gates Foundation blog, suggests to me that there are people actually listening to the criticisms and willing to have discussions about the issues.  (Disclaimer: Anthony Cody is a friend, and co-founder of Accomplished California Teachers).

EdSource Today – Anyone closely following education news and policy in California should probably have noticed by now, but just in case you missed it, there’s been a mega-merger!  Thoughts on Public Education has closed down, and John Fensterwald and Kathy Baron have moved over to EdSource and are contributing to EdSource Today, which debuted earlier this month.   Having had a good opinion of all the parties ahead of time, and having spent an hour or so reading from the new site, I think EdSource Today is going to be an excellent resource and encourage readers to check it out.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2012 8:59 am

    Funny thing that this story comes out and the possibility of the schools being stripped of their overall scores on the same day the NCAA imposed penalties on Penn State. So it seems that there two major issues here.One is the harsh penalties imposed on a school for actions of a few students. There seems to be no ramifications for the individual students but their actions will if punished have an effect on the sites entire student population. Issue two is that many students are on test overload and by the time they take the CST they are finished mentally. By the time students take the CST at the site I teach, they have taken close to 80 Common Assessments and benchmarks during the year. The usual message that they must do well is conveyed, but many students ask what is the purpose of the test if there is no feedback from the test and since they are 8th graders it has little bearing on their educational future. If students are asking that, it is clear that they are questioning the validity of the test in their own way. As many of us would agree it is time to review this process. Unfortunately with the implementation of the Common Core, it would appear that the testing craze will continue. I worry about the overall effect of this testing as many students will be lacking those higher order skills that allow them to be independent critical thinkers. In the same vein many of our younger teachers only know “teach to the test mantra” and how does this effect them? They have not experienced the freedom to teach without the constrictions of testing. Time will only tell, but I am ready for a change.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 31, 2012 2:26 pm

      Chris, the testing craze may be poised to continue, but I think – I hope – teachers and parents are increasingly aware of the pitfalls of that approach. It’s up to us to know the standards, know our state laws and policies, and advocate for our schools, our students, and our profession. I’m glad there are teachers like you paying attention and leading at the local level, and I hope we can team up to address matters beyond the local level.

  2. July 29, 2012 9:37 pm

    Tennessee bogles my mind. I earned my degrees and teaching license from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and I know a number of people teaching in the area. While teacher across the country feel let down by federal and state policies regarding teacher evaluations, none of my colleagues relate to me such negative feelings as those in Tennessee. I can think of one teacher in particular who was awarded teacher of the year at her school three years in a row who is on the verge of quitting because of how much she now despises the profession. Five years ago, she would never have thought she could ever do anything else.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 31, 2012 2:30 pm

      James, sorry your comment sat in limbo for almost two days. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m sorry, but not at all surprised, to hear about this teacher who’s on the verge of leaving the profession. Bill Ferriter has argued that bad policy and excessive testing drive out the strongest teachers, those with the strongest professional identity and ambition to excel for their students and schools. It’s a shame we have to fight for the opportunity to teach the best ways we know how to engage our students and deepen their learning.

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