"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Fight Against School Reform Is a Fight for Children

Why did commenters say that Diane Ravitch's, "What Happens to Kids Who Don't Graduate?" is her best post ever? Ravitch reviews the dramatic drop in Kentucky and New York pass rates after instituting Common Core assessments:

In New York, the “passing” rate on the Common Core tests was 30% statewide. Only 3% of English learners passed, and only 5% of students with disabilities. The pass rate for African American and Hispanic students was 15-18%.

If reformers "continue to insist upon a wildly unrealistic passing mark," Ravitch reminds, "the percentage of students who do not graduate will soar."

Ravitch's post moves teachers because she is not writing about our welfare, but that of our students. Until recently, besieged educators and local and state policy-makers - had no choice but to obey the airline instructions - in case of danger, put on your own oxygen masks before assisting children with theirs'. As we faced a deluge of dangerous reforms, educators and stakeholders have had no choice but to look at the big picture and oppose the ratcheting up of test-driven accountability. Nobody intended a discussion where students were listed as one set of the many potential victims of Common Core testing. Implicit in our resistance was that we were fighting for the teaching profession but, above all, to protect our students.

Moreover, most inner city teachers, trying to avoid a catastrophe for their below-grade level students, have their hands full trying to get their students over the rapidly arriving hurdle. Many just have three months left to prepare students for some Common Core-type high-stakes test and in Oklahoma they don't know what the test will be like. Most don't want to divert their time and energy from preparing the kids for the test, and put political activity to protect their students on the backburner.

In recent weeks, I have participated in numerous education policy discussions and attended two interim legislative sessions. Being an inner city teacher, I mistakenly assumed that we would first tackle the issue of teenagers who have already been denied high school diplomas as minimum competency tests were replaced by testing for college readiness. This spring, the numbers of students denied a high school degree will soar. These teenagers will have done what they were told to do, study for primitive bubble-in testing, but be punished for failing to master a college-ready curriculum which they were never taught.

Slowly, I understood two reasons why the plight of students has not been at the top of the agenda. Many policy makers and educators think that Common Core is limited to English and Math, and primarily applies to the grades tested by NCLB. If you believe the Common Core spin, it is easy to assume that we have a few years of grace time before we seriously punish students for failing to pass Common Core tests.

Secondly, in Oklahoma at least, the only students who are already on the street without a high school degree for not meeting Common Core-type standards are last year's seniors who failed a freshman End of Instruction test and had to retake it as a senior. In a few months, an unknown but large number of seniors will face "Common Core-type" high-stakes tests that assess skills and subject matter that they have not been exposed to. They failed the much easier EOIs from their freshman and sophomore years, and now they must demonstrate college readiness to graduate from high school. In most schools, students in that situation are the exception. In the inner city, they are the rule.

As Ravitch notes, reformers sound as if they believe that a disaster can be avoided by setting cut scores a fair manner. This is absurd for two reasons. Firstly, any cut score that is low enough to prevent a surge in dropouts would be a political nonstarter. For instance, ACT can predict the failure rate based on the cut score. It is hard to conceive of a Common Core or Common Core-type test cut score that is less rigorous than a "16," which was average for my old school (the lowest-ranked high school in Oklahoma.) If a passing grade correlates with that impossibly low score, 28% of the state's students will fail it.

If a politically feasible cut score of "19" is set, the failure rate jumps to 44%. In a few years, when kids in the most challenging schools must pass four such tests, we face the deluge. Then, only the most zealous reformers will be able to deny what they have done.

Reformers are even more clueless about the second reason why Common Core or Common Core-type testing will wreck inner city schools. Before NCLB, we had too much worksheet-driven instruction, but bubble-in accountability put that awful pedagogy on steroids. In the inner city, many teens have experienced nothing but primitive teach-to-the-test instruction. They must first unlearn the bad habits that schools have been forced to inculcate. Only then can students learn the new Common Core skills.

The disgusting old minimum competency curriculum and tests primarily require students to read direct sentences, with a straight-forward subject followed predictably with a verb, pointing toward the single right answer. Now, students who have been taught to decode, but who struggle with reading comprehension, will be faced with complex paragraphs, comprised by convoluted sentences with multiple dependent clauses. Some questions will intentionally mislead, forcing students to figure out the best answer.

Is it wrong that NCLB condemned many students, especially low-income children of color, to a decade of test prep malpractice?

Of course.

With proper instruction, can struggling students master high-quality, college-readiness standards?

Of course.

Can students who read four, five, or six years behind grade level quickly tackle Common Core and improve at the same rate as their more fortunate peers?

Of course not!

Although these realities are obvious to those with classroom experience, it has been shockingly difficult to explain them to true believers in value-added evaluations. Even now, policy wonks funded by the Billionaires Boys Club don't seem to fully understand why their evaluations are inherently biased against educators in high-poverty schools. But, the impossibility of transitioning to value-added evaluations, as we also implement Common Core testing, seems to be finally sinking in. However, reformers still seem unable to look at Common Core through the eyes of students.

And, that is why teachers love Ravitch's post. The 70 commenters discussed the harm they've seen by holding students back. Teachers witness the humiliation that corporate reform has inflicted on children. So, several cited their states' method of transitioning to Common Core. The commenters condemned the creation of two-tiered high school diplomas. The teenagers who end up with a second-rate degree will know that they are seen as less worthy.

Moreover, we can't discount the worst case scenario. What if reformers don't recognize the folly of imposing college-readiness tests as graduation examinations. If unconscionable numbers of kids are pushed out of school, will corporate reform even be conscious of the tragedy?

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