Friday, January 30, 2015

In response to a reporter about stagnant test scores in Texas...

The big questions to me are at the systems level. We intended to build a system that would foment excellence and now everyone is scratching their heads and wondering why we don't seem to be getting there. Implicit in that is the notion that our tests and our standards are themselves systems capable of fomenting excellence and so the problem must be elsewhere. Perhaps instruction? Teacher quality? etc. I noticed that the commissioner blames teaching in one of your articles, but I don't buy that.

What is missing is an honest conversation about what the tools we call tests and standards were actually designed to do. Were they designed to foment excellence or were they designed for some other purpose? And if they were designed for some other purpose and we adopt them and don't see the excellence we want, wouldn't it behoove us to lift the hood and see if somehow we have a mismatch?

What you've identified in your work is evidence of the mismatch. Our standards consist of hundreds of behavioral statements whose design is to control and constrain, and our tests are designed to give us an empirical reflection of the status quo so we can see where we fit. Slavish adherence to those two things risks constraining the system of education and repeating the status quo from one year to the next, rather than moving ahead of it. What your analysis suggests is that the system as it is constituted is performing perfectly against its design. That's why the gaps continue and why so little seems to change from one year to the next.

I don't want to stick my neck out too far on suggesting why the whole system seems so stagnant compared to previous iterations of the standards and exams, but one major policy change is likely contributing: the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations. Teachers who are told that the test is the basis for their evaluation are much more likely to limit their teaching to the test, making it much more likely that they will merely repeat the status quo from one year to the next. I'd be interested to see the correlation between tying test scores to teacher evaluation to see if that hypothesis holds, but I'll bet it does.

Bottom line is that if excellence is the goal we need a profoundly different system than the one in which we work. My work shows that excellence was never even included in the present system and yet our policies insist that teachers adhere slavishly to the present system. The contradictions in that are huge: teachers are told to foment excellence and adhere to the system, but you can't do both.

Here's where that leaves us: the more we hold teacher's feet to the fire for test scores, the more likely we are to see the stagnation continue, and the more likely we are to blame teachers for the problem. The hope I see in that is that we gave teachers a lousy definition of success and insisted at the expense of their livlihood they get there and to a large degree they've done it. What teachers are hungry for is a proper definition of success, one worthy of actually standing as a goal. Where I'm hopeful is that I truly believe teachers are capable of meeting whatever definition of success we place in front of them, and now its up to us to offer them a new and improved definition, one actually in line with the goals of education.

If building codes were built by the same people who make educational policy...

I find it unremarkable and simply a given that when establishing policy in virtually every professional field: medicine, engineering, construction, etc., policy makers and regulators turn to experts who understand the field. This helps ensure that the technical components are properly addressed and in turn helps ensure that the policies will have the desired effects.

I wish policy makers would offer the same courtesy to the field of education.

The lone qualification for someone to make education policy in this country is the completion of a high school education, as if having been in a school imparts expertise. I walk through buildings every day and yet that in no way qualifies me to build them. I go to my doctor when I'm sick but that doesn't qualify me to practice medicine. I use a computer but that doesn't qualify me to write code.

But education seems to be different, treated as something any idiot can understand, and so no expertise is required to write the laws that will govern one of the most critical components of our society.

The analogy I want to make is this: if our building codes were given the same professional courtesy as our education policy we'd be lucky when a building doesn't fall down. That is worth thinking about.