‘Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse” Exam

If you are in to pop culture, you know that the apocalypse is imminent. The only controversy is how to defend yourself against (kill) the undead. Does it take a headshot a la The Walking Dead or the Double Tap via Zombieland. Whatever it is, make sure you know the rules.

Ok, so maybe there’s not going to be a zombie apocalypse. But one thing is sure: The theories behind surviving the Cataclysm of the Undead have some things in common; The competence to think creatively, the ability to think on your feet, an expertise in collaboration and the desire to survive.

My college aged daughter is a The Walking Dead fan but definitely not a survivor. She never learned good communication or creative thinking skills. I chalk this up to poor parenting and a school system that admires skill in Math and Reading above all else.

The point of this post is that the skills needed to survive the Return of the Zombies are very similar to the 4c’s of 21st Century learning: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking. I know, there’s no ‘Communication’ in the Zombie Survival Guide but there’s also know ‘desire to survive’ in the 4 c’s. We’ll just call that a fair trade but 75% of what 21st Century learner’s need to be adept at will help them survive the Zombie Apocalypse.

Being a little older than the Walking Dead crowd, I am more in tune with the Zombieland rules. Although they aren’t all mentioned in the movie, tell me that these rules aren’t relative to 21st Century learning:

Well, maybe that’s a stretch but I hope you see my point, The skills that we need to survive the rebirth of the undead are the skills (or at least related to the skills) that we need to be teaching our students. We are a decade and a half in and we probably shouldn’t be talking about the need to teach these skills. We should be talking about how successful we are being at ingraining this knowledge base in our students. We should be talking about how we are assessing student abilities in the 4 c’s or the Zombie Survival Skills.

Since I’ve broached the idea of assessment, can anyone imagine testing these skills. Quality based assessments that would tell educators where students need to improve to be successful IN THE WORLD. Yes, I yelled that! I’ve mentioned this before and I will debate this forever: The only reason we test what we do (Math and ELA) is because it is easily quantifiable. Unfortunately the skills that students need to be successful are not always quantifiable.

Woody Harrelson would have been terrible at the PSSAs but I would definitely want him as my zombie killing partner. Think about what kind of student you want next to you when the living dead visits your neighborhood. Do you want the kid who knows all the answers on the test or the one who can fold up the test and make a weapon out of it? I know which one I will pick.

In the meantime, remember the first rule of Zombieland: Cardio – the faster you run, the further you are away from a Zombie. Wait, should that be the first rule of the PSSA?

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Rich School , Poor School

Is there any question that every child has the right to the same education? I would say that education is a human right. When we talk about human rights we talk in terms of every child having equal access to a quality education. People from all sides of the argument can rally around that last statement. One side of the debate can argue that charter schools are the answer. When families have choices and competition exists, public schools will rise to the occasion. Another side will say that teacher quality is at an all time low and that is especially  relevant in low achieving schools. Obviously there are more than three sides but another legion will claim that a consistent, rigorous set of standards such as CCSS will equalize the education that every student receives.

Just so we’re clear, the people above fall into two categories: either they have have no concept of what education is like for some of our poorer citizens or they are outright liars with some kind of profiteering agenda.

According to Do Something, students who live below the poverty line have higher absentee rates, higher dropout rates and lower rates of post secondary education. In a post I wrote several months ago I compared PSSA scores to school district aid ratios. That research showed that the richer the school district is, the better chance that students will reach proficiency. That doesn’t really sound equal.

I can’t speak of all states but in Pennsylvania the funding inequities are tremendous. I know that I’ll hear that poor schools receive way more state funds than rich schools.No kidding. Spend more than a millisecond trying to figure out why that is. Poor schools, especially poor rural schools, have a very limited tax base. A limited tax base means poor local funding and I can assure you that the state does not make up that difference. That of course leads to districts surviving on a shoestring. Cutting positions that lead to larger class sizes. Cutting positions that make a difference to student achievement: literacy coaches, math coaches, reading specialists, counselors and paraprofessionals. According to a study by the Pennsylvania Education Law Center, the highest poverty school districts spend $75,000 less per classroom than the wealthiest schools. As in many other areas of our country, the privileged rich continue to flourish as the poor continue to languish.

As a human right, education should be of the same quality no matter your demographics. Students should have access to the same resources no matter their economic status. Education should aim to raise the achievement of every child not just the rich, powerful and politically connected.

What we have in Pennsylvania and across the nation is not an achievement gap, what we have is a funding gap. Rather than billionaires spending there money on influencing education policy, what if they used some of that money to equalize the funding in our impoverished urban and rural school districts.

I Was a PSSA Apologist

Back when I first got into administration in 2005, the PSSA debate was beginning to rage. The tests had recently been added to grades 4, 6 and 7 and middle school and intermediate elementary teachers were beginning to lose their autonomy. Since I had recently graduated from graduate school, I believed that the tests were necessary. I would defend the tests by saying that the state just wanted to assure that teachers were teaching what was necessary for students to be successful. They had in effect given us a blueprint of what students should learn and we just needed to follow it. I remember a parent that was making her child cram to do well on the PSSA. The idea made me laugh because I knew that the test was meant to test schools and teachers not students. Even though now that seems very much like using student as pawns, it didn’t occur to me then.

Like the most faithful of religious zealots I drank of the proverbial Kool-Aid.

After eight years of thinking more critically I realize that the PSSA is punishing students in order to determine that public schools are bad. There is way too much more going on here. Companies are getting rich by designing tests and then designing the study guides to help students achieve proficiency. That is not improving education; that is narrowing the curriculum. People with no background in education are influencing not only what students learn but how they are assessed.

I can’t help but believe that the whole convoluted mess is intentionally driving out public education in favor of for profit schools. When you see governments conspiring with lobbyists and billionaires to determine the standards for learning you have to wonder if the standards are set so that students fail. When students fail, schools fail and when public schools fail, charter and for profits are able to flourish.

There is plenty of evidence today that the America that we knew 20 years ago is gone. Everything deemed valuable must be made better through competition and profiteering. The rich will continue to get rich on the backs of the poor. In the case of standardized testing maybe the rich realize the poor have nothing more to give so they are going after their state subsidies. Assure that the poor schools fail – pretty easy because economic background seems to be the most significant indicator of test performance – and then take the money that the state would give to some run down city school and bring the poor kid to a charter.

PSSA is our example here in Pennsylvania but every state has one. Some of them more draconian than others. From the beginning, every state knew that it would not be possible to have 100% of the students be proficient by 2014. Now 2014 is right around the corner and panic has set in. PDE has withdrawn the modified test for special education students assuring that the percentage of students making AYP will decrease. Don’t worry, the charters will take your special education students at a 100% mark up.

I apologize for being a defender of the PSSA. Now people must act.

Trust Me ;)

“Integrity has no need for rules.” -Albert Camus

This week the graduate program led us to the topic of trust in the workplace. In my estimation there probably couldn’t be a timelier subject for educators. Not sure that it is the same everywhere but trust is no where to be found in the Pennsylvania Department of Education. I had an unfortunate conversation last week with a teacher in our building. Noticing that the implementation of the PA Common Core Standards had been pushed back a year, he wondered if it was due to the new teacher evaluation and PDE thinking it may not be fair to evaluate teachers on an assessment that contained new content. I laughed out loud. I wish I would have held on to some of that naivete that allowed me to think that PDE had the best interest of teachers and schools at heart. I say it was unfortunate because I probably should have held back but I didn’t. I assured him that if PCC was pushed back it had nothing to do with teachers, it probably had to do with money. I had lost my trust in my “employer.” Not that I work directly for the PDE but don’t all of us answer to their mandates?

I don’t believe my distrust is misplaced. Recently the Bureau of Assessment  the long arm of the PSSA, determined that beginning this year, all teachers who administer or proctor the standardized assessment will be trained by a computer module that will be completed online. This job was previously completed by the building principal or school assessment coordinator. Apparently there is no trust in the way that was being completed. (Read: we are all cheaters or at best half-assed at our jobs). In addition we received a communique from PDE telling us exactly how we must discipline our students if they are caught with cell phones during the PSSA or the Keystone Exams. You know, because if they don’t tell us, we don’t have the capacity to use our common sense. They don’t trust the administrators who are responsible for the results.

One more, just for good measure. Currently in New York and California administrators must undergo “calibration” training sessions in order to assure that there is interrater reliability when using the Framework for Teachers. Oh, how I wish I was kidding. It’s coming to Pennsylvania too if it is not already here. You should read the article in the link. I don’t think I can explain it any better.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s so bad about making sure that everyone is seeing the same thing?” Well, the problem is that we do this everyday. We have a vision for our school and believe it or not we work hard to make sure that we have the best schools that we can have. We definitely don’t need a non educator telling us how it should be. Bill Gates is an extremely intelligent guy but he never spent a day with 30 teacher and 500 kids. He is the hero of calibration. And we feel like the trust is gone. 

I could go on. Tom Corbett’s assault on PSERS not to mention education funding in general. Michelle Rhee’s, another non educator, report card for public schools. Jeb Bush’s Cheifs for Change, Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and his RESPECT Project. Corbett is the only teacher in the group and the knew pretty early that he couldn’t do the job. There’s not even any indication on the PDE website indicating that Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis ever taught. But why does that matter, Arne Duncan never taught.

Trust? Trust who? It does make sense to rebuild education from the outside. I would want a lawyer telling my doctor how to improve my health and the doctor would be a great help in expanding the mechanical capacity of my mechanic. I think the dentist should critique the local cop during a ride along or may he can go with the fire company. 

Like my grandfather used to say, “You can trust a dog to watch your house but you can’t trust him to watch your sandwich.”

Prisoners of Bureaucracy

I started graduate school this week so the posts may get thin over the next several weeks. The advantage is that I’ve found a lot of inspiration from my reading so I’ll have ideas built up when I have time to write.

This week I ran across a quote about being an educational leader today is akin to waking up in a maximum security prison and saying, “What am I going to do today?” The comparison is simple, if you are a prisoner you have two choices: follow the rules or be punished. Similarly it seems that school leaders – teachers, principals, superintendents – have them same choices: follow the mandates or be punished. On a larger scale, schools and entire districts are also prisoners of the test-well system.

I’ve written about it before and I will probably write about it again. In a system where the only thing that matters is how you score on one standardized test is the standard that determines excellence, educators must decide whether they will teach to the test or whether they will choose to expand the knowledge of their students by instilling the desire to learn. These are not the same thing. I’ve told teachers for several years that I could guarantee we could be 100% proficient in two years. I know how to do that. We have all the tools: great teachers, great kids, supportive parents, better than average socioeconomic standing, etc. The trade off that we would have to make is whether we want to solely “teach to the test” or do we want to continue to do the things that have brought us to the level of success that we have already achieved? Our school believes it has the ability to transform from a good school to a great school but we also believe that the measuring stick of greatness is not a percentage of proficiency determined by someone other that us.

One of my large projects for my graduate class is to come up with a plan to address improving student achievement using the Getting Results Template. The Getting Results Template is what schools in school improvement are required to complete as part of their school improvement plan. I think I may blow someone away. I can right an excellent plan for improving but I think at the end I will tell them how I really feel. Like a prisoner of bureaucracy.

Pork Chops, Electric Shock and PSSA

Let’s just say that I am developing a simple experiment. I want to find out which one of my kids that my dog likes best. Here’s the experiment: both of my girls stand 20 feet away from the Fletcher, the dog. They aren’t aloud to call him, they are just aloud to stand there and see which one he comes first. Pretty simple and probably unscientific but it will work to prove my point. Would anyone out there say that my experiment was flawed if I put a pork chop in one of the girl’s pocket? Adding an unrelated incentive would make my entire experiment invalid. Is that what your saying?

OK, then, let me change my experiment. This time, both girls standing 20 feet away only in front of one of the girls is standing outside of my invisible fence – you know, the kind that shocks the dog when he tries to run through it. What? You don’t think I’m validly determining which girl the dog likes best. I can’t believe that!

They do it on the PSSA! Rewarding schools for improving performance as well as punishing school districts who aren’t successful is the same experiment. If the test is to determine what students know and are able to do, don’t positive and negative incentives based on scores invalidate the results? If I’m handing out five dollar bills to every student who scores proficient or if I ‘m closing schools that don’t meet minimum standards am I not putting pork chops in some pockets and using electric shock on the others?

What happens is that the most important thing becomes the test. It doesn’t matter how we got there as long as the scores are there. All actions then are determined and justified by the test. The ends justify the means. And the means usually include cutting time on other academic subjects and can extend all the way to removing administrators.

Not much of a valid test environment.

Keep Your Art Out of My Science

A couple of decades ago while earning my bachelor’s degree in education I recall a professor asking whether we thought that teaching was an art or a science. At that time it was a pretty good debate for a bunch of 19 and 20 year-olds.

Whether we like it or not, there really no longer is a debate about how teachers are expected to teach. Art is no longer appreciated or rewarded. Science – data, pre-made assessments, canned lessons and are I say teaching to the test – is the expectation. There really is no time or necessity to be creative when there a finite number of objectives to accomplish. Sure, you can feel free to address those standards in any way you like! Or can you?The list of expectations for teaching behavior from lesson planning to classroom management to instructional delivery to professional behavior have been spelled out in detail. This is what great teaching looks like!

You understand in order to make the expense of public education justifiable, it has to be boiled down to a number. A number that Joe Average Citizen can comprehend. In order to get to a number you have to have a measurable product. In order to have a measurable product you have to have a concrete tool with which to measure. You can;t have a lot of loose ends that aren’t part of the accepted equation. Too messy.

Teachers in turn feel the pressure to reach some agreed upon number from the ivory tower and do exactly that. Believe me, it is hard to distinguish the standardized testing scores of students taught by teachers who teach straight out of the book and teachers who spend hundreds of hours planning and tweaking lessons. It’s crap.

It’s crap because the test doesn’t measure heart, caring, passion. It doesn’t measure wiped noses and concerned phone calls. There isn’t a tool that can tell Joe Average how many tears are shed over the frustration of language poor and money poor families or the miles of exercise that it takes to relieve the stress of unsupportive parents and less supportive agencies.

That my friends is science. Specific, Measurable, Trackable. Rows of students who might as well be bolting together widgets and sending them down the line.

The problem is that because we don’t reward artistry in our education system, our teachers don’t know how to encourage artistry in their classrooms. When we tell teachers that their jobs depend on making the score, the consciously or subconsciously project those fears onto their students. “No, I can;t let you explore how we came to use standard units instead of metric units, that will take too much time and we have to get to fractions before the PSSA. You just need to know that they are different.”

This is in my estimation the core of the problem in education. The rule followers prevail and the rule challengers fail. From kindergarten through to college, the students who can regurgitate some information in paper and pencil are bound for greatness. The artists will struggle because we can;t quantify what they are capable of. There are many examples of creators who were “poor” students in the eyes of their teachers but went on to do great things. These are the resilient artists. Those that rose above the square peg problem to find a square hole.

Our concern needs to be with the artists who aren’t resilient. The square pegs who, if they are lucky enough, will be able to balance themselves on top of the round hole – stuck in far enough to stay – and hide their artiness in the name of societal norms. And for those who aren’t crafty enough to fake it or resilient enough to overcome, what will become of them?