Posts Tagged 'The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test'

OLA Workshop at BAA’s Center for Arts in Education

Last week, BAA’s Center for Arts in Education hosted Darcy Rogers for a full-day workshop on her Organic Language Acquisition (OLA) technique. I first met Darcy at her school, Crater Renaissance Academy in Oregon, and then I ran into her again at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum, where she presented her workshop on OLA- a kinesthetic approach to learning a language. I knew we had to get her in to BAA, so when I learned she was coming to the Parker School in Western Mass, I jumped at the chance!

We had about 15 educators from Boston and the surrounding areas as well as Boston Public Schools central office folks (including Yu-Lan Lin, the World Languages Program Director for BPS) attend the full-day workshop, which included BAA students actually learning the technique alongside the adults!

I see Darcy’s work as one of the many valuable techniques that innovative teachers develop to counter the increasingly high-stakes-testing-obsessed culture we live with in our schools. In my new role next year as Executive Director of BAA’s Center for Arts in Education, I am excited to sponsor more workshops and institutes featuring work like Darcy’s… We were so glad she could join us at BAA for this high-energy workshop!

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Occupy the DOE

I have just returned from Washington, DC, and the Occupy the DOE rally.  Cassie Wallace, our second-year math teacher, was my impetus to go. She posted on our Teaching/Learning email conference back in February:

In case anyone is interested in protesting in DC with me at the end of March… Occupy the DOE in protest of high-stakes testing! Love, Cassie

Tess Mandell (also in her second year of teaching math) joined Cassie for the eight-hour drive from Boston to DC. How could I not join these young teachers, who were taking it upon themselves to make such an extraordinary effort to go? (Particularly given their workload and the stress of the first few years of teaching.) So, I signed up and found myself as part of the teach-in. I was happy to make some remarks (included in this post, below.)

This rally was different than anti-war rallies from the ’60s and ’70s – even though the Socialist Worker’s Party was still in attendance. This Occupy rally was as much for social media as it was for the people who attended. Everyone spoke to the camera! (Click here for live streaming of Occupy!) We were about 50 people strong and from all parts of the country: parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, health professionals, concerned citizens- all protesting the suffocating and all-consuming role that high stakes testing is playing in our culture.

End High Stakes Testing

As various participants did “mic check”, which is the Occupy way of allowing anyone to speak, I noticed one woman with very curious hair and clothing. I was impressed with how articulately she spoke about the damaging effects of high-stakes testing in her classroom and I approached her. I asked where she was from and she said she couldn’t tell me for fear of losing her job. “That’s why I’m in a wig and a costume so no one can recognize me.” Have we truly come to this?

Bubble test

Student wrapped in bubble wrap, protesting the bubble tests!

Another woman from Miami spoke about the role that parents in that district are taking to opt out of testing that they deem harmful to their children.

RIP Education

Speaker after speaker shared how parents and students were organizing to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing. While I know the numbers were small in DC this weekend, I do believe these voices will gain power and force throughout the country.

Math teachers

Tess, Cassie, and Sharon Hessney (another extraordinary math teacher!)

So many of us feel disempowered to change the status quo. We watch numbly as education reform becomes synonymous with huge corporations like Pierson making more and more money from test prep materials and tests. However, I feel more empowered by this weekend of Occupy the DOE, and mostly because of young teachers like Tess and Cassie. They are asking the right questions about how the union can become more involved and active in these discussions, and how we can figure out better ways to work together towards solutions.

Also check out previous for the documentary: “Teach: Teachers Are Talking. Is the Nation Listening?”

MY REMARKS FROM THE TEACH-IN:

My opposition to high stakes testing goes back a long time – to 1998 when MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) was first  introduced. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to tests. And of course, I’m an advocate of high standards. What educator isn’t? We don’t go into teaching to ensure students reach low standards. That’s absurd! So I object to how discussions of high-stakes tests get juxtaposed to opposition of high standards. I am FOR high standards and I’m AGAINST high stakes tests. And that makes good sense to me.

 I’m against high stakes testing as a sole determinant for graduation. My solution is quite simple: Have the tests be part of the picture for graduation along with portfolios and exhibitions of mastery, research papers, and other performances. Remember what the “S” in MCAS stands for—we were told by the state that we would get a SYSTEM for assessments, not just tests!

MCAS currently is not the most pernicious test in the country, but what schools have become as a result of MCAS is very troubling. Our engineering curriculum must align completely with the test. There is no longer room for deep exploration of projects or for allowing student interest to help determine the length of time spent on projects. We now teach a semester-long course (we are semesterized) that ONLY includes that which is tested. There isn’t time for more. Too many schools now offer double English/double math and little social studies, art or other subjects NOT tested. Teachers push their students through curriculum that they know will be on the test. All of the research on student motivation and engagement is ignored. If students are not included as co-constructors of knowledge why should they feel as though school has real intrinsic value to them?  Curriculum has become synonymous with passing tests. This is a very limited view of what school can and should be. The social costs are high: higher drop-out rates, more violence in our communities, fewer students prepared for life after high school, whether college or career.

But how can I encourage my students to opt out when a high score of 4 (on a 1-4 rubric) is tied to free tuition at our state colleges and university (John and Abigail Adams Scholarship)? In my darkest moments I say, if we just eliminated the arts all of our students could score a 4 on these tests. But then we’d have no students at Julliard or Purchase or CalArts and no students dancing with Alvin Ailey (we have three) or acting in local theatres or playing in ensembles or orchestras or designing shoes or working in galleries. But this has been the solution for many low income schools: Eliminate arts.

Our solution has been to focus less on getting everyone to 4 and to just get our students to pass. With the new methods for calculating school success with student growth percentiles, we will soon be deemed a failing school because our students’ scores don’t increase enough. We have created a system where success is determined by only one score card and by passing through the smallest eye of the needle. Divergent thinking, multiple ways of determining and measuring success are slowly being obliterated. This is a world that scares me.

I don’t want students or teachers or parents to confuse tests with success. And I don’t want us to settle for schools devoid of music, art, dance/movement and theatre. Good schools have well-stocked libraries and trained librarians where regular discussions about books and literature (not excerpts) occur on a regular basis. Good schools are messy places where students are deeply engaged in topics of interest to them and where they demonstrate mastery in different ways. I just watched my students create movies of polynomial functions found in nature.

I understand the need for measurement and comparison, for knowing whether students in Mississippi and Massachusetts are learning as much as students in Montana or Maine. But must the only point of comparison be a test score?

We have now built up a multi-billion-dollar testing industry complete with its own set of police. When stakes are so high, cheating becomes rampant and thus the security forces are discharged to be sure that no teacher (now renamed “proctors”) read the test directions with inflections different from one another. The testing police now enter the school (renamed the testing site) to check that backpacks are correctly placed on the floor in front of the room. Any deviance could be a sign of testing mismanagement or cheating. In addition, the testing police check to see that no non-certified personnel walk into testing rooms, and that no teacher looks at the exams before the appointed time (or looks at the exams after the test). This of course means that the teacher is never able to work with the student she taught who took the test and may have misunderstood a problem. There is no value added from this type of testing situation to improve teaching or learning.

My MCAS police this year was an attractive woman from my district office, but I had misunderstood the directive. I had thought she was there to help me calm down my jittery students, to escort students to the bathroom, or even to distribute pencils. But, no, she was there for none of these helpful purposes. She had been given a long checklist for which she had to ensure compliance. The checklist items ranged from reviewing the proctor schedule (something I could have emailed the district office ahead of time) to ensuring that there were appropriate signs saying “Do not disturb: testing area” in the appropriate locations. Her mandate was a “gotcha” directive, not one to be helpful. When I protested to my district officials, I was sent a long directive from the state about the need for ensuring testing compliance and quality. Evidently  too many tests were invalidated the year before because of lack of compliance. How could I possibly want to endanger my students’ results? So, you see how it all gets turned around? You are bad or anti-student if you protest. High stakes tests become the norm and we all will rally around this way of educating our students.

I, for one, protest and I am grateful for all of you at Occupy the DOE who do the same.

Instructional Rounds

Last Thursday we hosted Instructional Rounds (IR) at BAA. Instructional rounds are the new buzzword in education, largely defined by Lee Teitel and Richard Elmore at Harvard. The purpose of the rounds is to analyze and improve teaching and learning practices at the classroom level. Although I’m not completely convinced yet how helpful the results of the observations are, what IS powerful is getting teachers, students, parents, and administrators out of their routines and looking deeply at the practices of teaching and learning in a different context and through a different lens than they experience during the day-to-day.

I am proud that BAA was the first Boston Public School to have students and parents participate in the rounds. They were absolutely phenomenal. The parents were honored to be a part of the process and found it extremely helpful to think about the school as a whole rather than just the needs of their own student.  The 5 students who participated spoke eloquently and passionately about the positive aspects of BAA, as well as pointed out the real challenges for including all learners.

One of my favorite comments came from a BAA music student who pointed out the differences between the theatre student warm-ups she observed and the music vocal warm-ups she experiences in her own classes. She enjoyed how theatre students both warmed up their bodies and built community at the same time, and she was excited to bring that practice back to her music classes. I loved watching this mini “teaching moment” happening for a student!

Later that evening at my HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education) class, three seniors from a new turnaround high school came and spoke. They were all transferred to this new school after their high schools were closed for underperformance. Despite the fact that they had experienced their previous schools firsthand and hold a wealth of information about what worked and didn’t work for them, they told my class that they had no input on structures or practices at their new school. Their disempowerment and lack of engagement in the process of constructing their own educations was jarring, especially after watching parents and students blossom during the IR at BAA earlier that morning.

The takeaway from last Thursday for me was this: when we’re thinking about school reform, I am reminded again that we need to put the voices of students and parents at the forefront of the discussion. How do we incorporate these voices so that they are not an afterthought, but a forethought? After all, who is school reform really for?

Stonehill College

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to a group of emerging young educators at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Stonehill Professor Karen Anderson (the wife of a Boston Public Schools science educator- small world!) assigns “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test” to her students in the course “Learning to Teach III” and the book inspired a student in the Stonehill Education Society to reach out and invite me to speak on campus. I so enjoyed engaging with this group of students and answering their insightful questions about urban education! Many thanks to them for hosting me!

Occupy the Department of Education!

I had to blog about Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher from this past Sunday’s New York Times… everyone needs to read this article so we can stop and think about how our federal and state policies are affecting teachers and kids in our classrooms.
I will be joining BAA teachers and many others in Washington, DC at Occupy the DOE (Department of Education) at the end of March for a teach-in to underscore how limiting and short-sighted so many of our current policies are. They are based on an “I gotcha” mentality- on how we can “improve” education by punishing teachers and kids.
I know it’s complicated to create a system of accountability that actually trusts teachers, but we must try. As Johnson points out in this NYT article, the messages we are sending teachers are confusing and contradictory, and the ways we are assessing kids and teachers are ludicrous.
We cannot hope to have engaged students and young people who want to participate in our fragile democracy with such backwards policies. We must be the change we want to see. Let’s organize and go to DC!

Reflections from Haiti

I recently traveled to Haiti with other Barr Foundation Fellows. I hope you will read my reflections on this amazing experience (though I do admit- they are long!) I look forward to hearing any comments or questions!

Reflections from San Diego and Los Angeles

In mid-December, I spent some time in San Diego and LA, visiting schools and speaking with educators. One of the most gratifying parts of this trip was reconnecting with a former graduate student of mine from the first year I ever taught my class, “Building A Democratic School” at Harvard. Agustin Vecino now works for the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) in Los Angeles as a coach for the pilot schools. He and Rachel Bonkovsky (a former Boston principal), along with George Simpson and Assistant Principal Cara Livermore (formerly of BAA and now of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)) arranged all of my stops on the trip.

San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA)

Principal Mitzi Lizarraga showed me around her school (http://www.sandi.net/scpa) of 1400 students in grades 6-12. Entrance to the middle school is lottery based, and high school admission is through audition. The motto of the school is, “Where arts and academics share center stage.” Mitzi shared that her charge is to intensify the arts experiences and exposure of her students; she also must raise funds for much needed arts residencies and adjunct teachers. [Note: SDSCPA vocal arts major Victoria Matthews recently received a 2012 YoungArts Merit Award in Voice- congratulations to Victoria and to SDSCPA!]

Like many schools in San Diego, the campus seemed quite sprawling to my urban Northeastern eyes!

On this lucky day for me, choreographer and dance professor Donald McKayle was in residence to audition students for his piece “House of Tears,” based on the “desaparecidos” from Argentina. The high school dancers crowded onto the dance studio floor and listened with rapt attention to McKayle. He spoke about his experiences in Buenos Aires watching the “madres de los desaparecidos” march around the Plaza Mayor with photographs of their disappeared children, who had been murdered or stolen by the junta.

SDSCPA dancers

Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)

From San Diego, I headed for Los Angeles and LACHSA, where George Simpson is principal. (George was formerly the director of music at BAA!)  The same excitement I felt at San Diego’s school was evident here. Students were hanging a juried show about Arts and Engagement in the visual arts wing. Music students had just finished their jazz series. Theatre students had just done “Preview Night,” which is like our informal showing at BAA. Dancers were gearing up for their winter performances. Exhaustion and elation were on everyone’s faces. “Passion with balance” seemed in short supply.

LACHSA is located on the CalState LA campus. Also on the campus are the LA Principal Residency Network and the LA Urban Teacher Residency program. (These are both programs of the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), an organization that I co-founded with Larry Myatt in Boston over fifteen years ago.) George had organized an event for me at CalState called “Transformative Leadership,” where I talked with members of both networks as well as other educators from surrounding schools and not-for-profits. We shared ideas about our perspective realities and reacquainted ourselves with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) 10 common principles, considering where we did/didn’t see these principles in our work.

George Simpson, Agustin Vecino, Carolyn McNight, Debbie Thompson

East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy

The next day, I visited the East LA Performing Acts Academy, headed by Principal Carolyn McKnight. The faculty of this pilot school was joined by the Humanitas Academy of Arts and Technology faculty and principal Debbie Thompson, as well as district folks and a superintendent. Both of these schools have converted to pilot status in the past two years. Later I met with the faculty and principal Rosie Martinez from the Academic Leadership Community (ALC), another pilot school in the throes of trying to attain the autonomies that are promised to Pilot Schools (much like those of charter schools), which include: budget, governance, curriculum and assessment, hiring and scheduling, and calendar.

The theme for all three pilot schools was the autonomies and how to ensure they were being met. These are familiar themes for us in Boston. While districts, especially urban districts, are often initially open to pilot schools, the intricacies of actually devolving power and control away from central office and central mandates and into the hands of principals and teachers is always more challenging. If LA and Boston could do more collaborative work, we might strengthen all of our schools and create a system of trust around pilot schools.

UCLA

From ALC I traveled to UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies to give a talk to their Teacher Education Program and Principal Leadership Institute. A lively group of about 30 of us talked about what makes good schools, how the CES principles can help guide schools, and the struggles of each of us in sustaining good schools.

In this whirlwind tour of schools, talks, and intense conversations with committed educators, I came away grateful for the opportunity to learn from educators on the other side of the country. I reconnected with friends and re-charged myself to return to the work we are doing in Boston and beyond.


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