Saturday, October 29, 2011

High Stakes Testing

This line in a recent EdWeek piece about grants caught my eye:

"...awarding bigger grants in return for greater evidence of program effectiveness..."

Every institutional arrangement (in this case, the program development that is stimulated by grant money availability) creates both opportunity and constraint, as well as both intended an unintended consequences.

It shouldn't take a PhD in organizational leadership to know that if we incentivize people with the promise of big grant money for big results, they will try to create programs that show big results.  And unless we are completely sure that the big results on the standardized test correlate well with what we really want to accomplish in the education process, some of those programs created in response to the grant money incentive will simply be for the sake of showing results in order to get the money.

Oh, I don't mean people will intentionally be quite so instrumental (though some will).  More, I mean that such an arrangement creates a culture and climate that subtly encourages people to focus on test scores so emphatically as to make them a kind of shibboleth.

After all, the stakes are quite high...for the adults.  It means jobs and prestige and so on.  For the students, though, the stakes are actually quite low.  In Washington state, at least, the state test really has very little impact on a child's educational route until the 10th grade round.  A student must pass the 10th grade test in order to graduate.  They can have several tries at it, and if they don't succeed, there's an alternate route to the same goal--at least there was, or has been, or is talked about it.  We've been changing our test every other week, it seems.

So, every institutional arrangement creates a set of expectations, guidelines and parameters that people have to work with and in.  Clearly, the direct intention of the high payoff for high performance is to stimulate achievement of students in school.  But every institutional arrangement generates more than we intend.  When those who are being so incentivized figure out just what measures of "high performance" are going to be rewarded, they will target their programs at that.  And in the nature of the case they will target other things less emphatically.

We are assuming, in other words, that the grant money for performance actually translates down to outcomes that we actually want students to have.  Since students are not a group of monoliths with monolithic goals, hopes, aspirations and needs, we should understand that no institutional arrangement will meet every goal we value.  That's been true since the first relationship was entered into.  Not so sure that throwing big money around helps this.

To be specific, see here and there and everywhere.

Oh, if we really want students to pass tests, why not transfer all this financial incentive to them?  You think students wouldn't have a little more enthusiasm for the test if there were a monetary payoff involved?  Just asking...

Oh, and don't get me started on how the article uses the word "innovation."  Talk about shibboleths!

Thursday, October 27, 2011


From the heart of computer land, a school without any computers at all.  I don't understand....They must not recognize all the benefits of the technology they produce and distribute.  They don't understand that computers are "where education is headed."  This article must have been in The Onion, not the New York Times.  That's what it was...I just know it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TNT Letter?

I submitted the following to The News Tribune on Sunday, but so far they have not posted it.

The Tacoma school district is in disarray--broken trust abroad in the community, a board that alternates between abdicating authority during the strike to brazen assertions of power to jerry-rig the Superintendent selection process, and more.  In this election we have a chance to say something about this, and the best mechanism for doing so is a vote for Scott Heinze.  
Mr. Heinze knows the issues, understands the policy process, works well with and in the community, and attends to financial realities.  More importantly, he listens--you can have a real conversation with him in which he’ll engage you and respond to what you say and think.  
As a school board candidate last summer, I heard all the candidates many times and in various settings.  Of the four remaining candidates, Mr. Heinze has consistently maintained a sharp focus on the important issues before the school district.   He is not flamboyant, but he is what we need--knowledgable, reliable and committed to the success of our schools.

PACs for Gordon and Vialle

I got a mailer from Stand for Children today.

In it they encourage us to "change the odds for Washington students" by voting for Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle.  The mailer assures us that Gordon is an "acclaimed policy expert."  They don't make clear who has proclaimed him so.  His web site professes that he's been "sought out by academic journals and The News Tribune" to write pieces on education.  At the bottom of his "Media" page on his web site, you can find a link to one TNT piece.  That's all I've ever found (by my own searches), and that's all I can find on his own web site.

Karen Vialle is portrayed as offering a fresh start for education in our city.  Big order, but at least we know how to evaluate her performance in 6 months or a year.

Stand for Children, of course, is a political action committee.   That means they take money from big donors then leverage it in political races in the fashion they see fit.  Perfectly fine thing to do.  Please understand, though, that SFC is financed primarily by people who have little involvement in Tacoma.  Their names are Amazon, Microsoft and Genie Industries.  (Top 4 donors--Bezos, Ballmer, Partovi and Bushnell.)

Communities in Schools (the organization Scott Heinze is connected to) actually serves students.  This web site is for the local branch, and they participate in the Find an Hour program that connects tutors to students in Tacoma.  By contrast, Stand does not participate in Find an Hour, and searching for Tacoma Stand for Children connects you to the state office.

Communities in Schools celebrated these accomplishments last year:

  • We served more than 800 kids in our after school programs
  • We helped 77 percent of the students served reach grade level in reading
  • Served more than 4,000 family members at our school sites
  • Provided backpacks to more than 3,000 kids in our community

Stand for Children, by contrast, invites you to Join (give them your e-mail in order to get their mailers), or make a donation.  Not quite the same thing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Slippery Campaign Tactics?

I just got a call to listen in and participate in a live forum hosted by Stand for Children.  The Tacoma branch is hosting Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle in a chat.  They didn't invite Scott Heinze or, I presume, Kim Washington.

I listened long enough to hear the same rhetoric I've been hearing for months.  The insidious part is that this looks and sounds like a forum for candidates.  You join the conversation after it has started, so you don't hear anything about rationale or ground rules.  So, I'm wondering the whole time, 'I bet Scott wasn't invited.  This is a campaign event dressed up as a public forum.'  So I checked with Scott...sure enough, he wasn't invited.

Nice work on Stand's part...for a political campaign.  Not so nice for rebuilding the trust the candidates so adamantly insist they'd rebuild (that was the question I listened to).

These are very politicized people.  Tacoma Stand has aligned itself with Vibrant Schools Tacoma--an organization that aggressively pushes an unproven agenda of school reform.  (You have to read all the way through this to see all the connections.)

Disappointing to see the process distorted in this way.  I want to stop short of saying that I'm not sure why I should trust these two candidates when they participate in this deceptive campaign activity....I'm working hard at it.

The whole thing kind of reminds me of when the TEA didn't even call me to participate in their endorsement interview process last summer.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Education for life?

Besides being an 8th grade English teacher, I'm an Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Troy University (the Joint Base Lewis-McChord branch).  I enjoy both jobs thoroughly, and the combination of the two even more than their sum total.  

I'm also struck by some frustrating similarities.  One thing that holding the two positions has revealed is just how consistent we are as human consistently irrational, short-sighted, selfish, etc.  What's clear is how well we develop the power to cover or hide this when we get older.

8th graders are guileless about acknowledging their likes and dislikes, and wildly transparent about their feints and deceptions.  I don't always know when something does happen, but I usually know that something has happened.  The stories of explanation are too one-sided, too implausible, and too urgent.

The bureaucratic life of 8th grade and university are both vexing, too.  In both, a lot of 'managers' spend time making the work of those below them more difficult, but without obvious rationale.  I have gotten several mandates from on high in both environments, and it's never been completely clear that the new procedures serve students better.  It is clear that money is part of the story, which makes sense, though the administrative drive to cut budgets or maximize revenues really can have a net negative impact on the   mission of the organization.

Not as far as the management types see it.  They've always got reasons for things, and those reasons make perfect sense to them.  So when the Troy administration in Colorado (our regional office) decides that all class structures will be Friday night and Saturday, instead of the weeknights that I had been doing, the need to make the live distance (teleconference class) elements smoother--for the management to operate, that is-- was the justification.  When I asked whether anybody had ever asked what the students preferred, the predictable answer was 'no.'  But without connecting the one or two students from the remote site to our local class of 7 or 8, that remote site would have to close down.  And the university will do everything possible to avoid that.  Apparently, Friday-Saturday packages are better for all this, though it's not clear to me why, and my informal poll of my current students showed a decided preference for weeknight classes over Friday-Saturday.

We undertake such rational decisions in our school district, too.  After 4 years of of time and energy invested in a web site service (for class web sites like this one) that teachers and parents have been enjoying, we're switching to a new company.  Vague promises of 'better' feel a bit dubious when I hear that the system isn't quite ready....We're going to be the beta-testers.  In the words of one junior management type who does some of our computer stuff, "It's going to be a nightmare." When I enquired about the rationale, I got that kind of strange assortment of this and that.  The kind of urgent and one-sided explanation that makes the whole thing seem implausible.  No individual element of the explanation makes sense on its own, but together they seem, at least to the explainer, like they must amount to something, probably a lot.

Schools, universities, armies, wherever.  Everything makes sense to those who are doing the explaining. Sounds a lot like working with 8th graders...they're certain they make sense, and I'm certain they'll eventually see the sense that I make.  8th grade's a lot like life, really.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Best Tacoma School Staff Member?

Tacoma Weekly put out its Best of Tacoma 2011 guide.  Readers cast votes for the various best categories, and on p. 5 they note that Karen Vialle is the best School District Staff Member.  This is both confusing and vexing.  Presumably, if Vialle wins the election (as she almost certainly will) in November, she will no longer be able to serve as a substitute teacher.  Full-time teachers and staff members cannot serve as staffers and board members, so I presume Vialle can't either.

More importantly, this rather fanciful (farcical?) 'best' selection is obviously a mere popularity contest. Does this reflect badly on her as a political candidate?  Is she winning so much voter approval more for her name recognition than for her qualifications?

Every time I've heard her speak, even in one-on-one conversation, she is primarily in 'transmit' mode, and rarely in 'receive.'  The last forum I saw, she seemed to simply repeat Dexter Gordon, who himself was rather uninspiring.  Not exactly what we need on the Board, in my estimation.

And, wouldn't it have been nice to recognize some full-time staff members who labor with much less recognition?  I know plenty of classified staff and certified teachers who devote extensive energy to their work, and deserve the recognition more than Vialle.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I'm liberated

Part of Puyallup school district's new commitment to standards-based grading includes this:

No more penalizing students with reduced marks for work that's turned in late.

I'm sure the Ed. School professors who dream up these things happily tell their deans and tenure committees that there really isn't or can't be a deadline for submitting tenure review materials.  Or how about grant applications and funding follow-up reports.  As long as the professors turn the material in at some point, the granting agency will be fine with that.

And I'm sure that the administrative types who sign on to such plans don't penalize their assorted staff members for any tardiness in their work--say, administering the MSP.?

As for my part, I'm going to tell OSPI that the work for my upgraded teacher certification requirements may come in a bit later than they expect.

And I've notified a few other folks about my new plan for liberation through tardiness.

To the IRS, don't get hung up on that whole April 15th thing.
To my mortgage company, the check's in the mail...soon.
My wife's birthday...well, let's not go too far.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hiring a new superintendent is NOT the most important thing

A lot of people--school board candidates not least among them--are anxious about the hiring of the new superintendent for Tacoma schools.  Just the other day I heard two candidates--Karen Vialle and Dexter Gordon--name that in their answer to a question about one policy they'd pursue if elected.

The answer was something of a non sequitur, as expressing the importance of hiring the superintendent isn't really a policy, but we can give some license there because the more relevant point is that hiring the new superintendent really isn't that least not in the way most people--Vialle and Gordon among them--think.

If we go out on a big national search (as I've heard Gordon say we must) we'll end up with some sort of education high-flyer.  Somebody who professes expertise and wisdom in the reform process.  They'll likely promise, at least implicitly, dramatic results and fast.  The new superintendent (or what I prefer to call ├╝berintendent) will arrive with a sense of purpose and mandate to show progress on all the indicators that are low in Tacoma.  This likely means a kind of administrative forcefulness and top-down orientation that will not endear the ├╝berintendent to the community and will not rebuild the deeply frayed trust.  (I've written of this before.)

What I think we really want is someone who has the patience to discern what already works in Tacoma and the relational capacity to rebuild trust by building on what is working.  This person may be an education reform stalwart, but doesn't necessarily have to be.  None of the last several superintendents has lived up to this hype.

And that may be okay.  If we hype less--by not overblowing the need to get an ├╝berintendent--and relate more, we won't be in such a panic to get everything done next year...with the latest surefire curriculum...applied through another round of professional trainings promised to be the one that will solve our problems.

Rather, we can all just get to the slow steady work of improving education and raising performance of our students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Neighborhood Forum--Tacoma Elections

I went to a Candidate Forum held by one of the Neighborhood Councils here in Tacoma.  All four School Board candidates were there.

All the candidates introduced themselves for one minute, then spent one minute each on two more questions.  One was, What do you think the district should do with the buildings that it has closed?  The second was, What is one policy you will pursue if elected?
3 minutes total, then much later a Q & A, that I did not stay to see.

Some interesting things....
Scott Heinze (seeking Seat #3--the very same which your blogger sought in the primary) did a very good job.  He answered both questions thoroughly and clearly.  In fact, Scott reinforced my feeling that he's the best of the four remaining candidates.  Dexter Gordon (Heinze's opponent) offered little specific material by which to take a good sense of what he's about.

Scott answered first of all four on the 'closed buildings' question.  And after he said that we need a long-term strategic plan by which to make better projections about facilities use, he advocated for 'repurposing' empty buildings into things like community centers for neighborhoods.  Last week, he was at a meeting at the Portland Avenue Community Center (which I also attended) in which Eastside community members talked about a variety of plans to establish community activities and a center in their neighborhood.  It was a good example of the specific ways that Scott works with regular Tacomans to solve problems.

Dexter Gordon and Karen Vialle (Seat #5) both largely recycled Scott's answer.  Dexter even used the word 'repurpose,' which I had always avoided (Scott's early and consistent use made it "his" word) and which I had not heard Dexter use before in 5 or 6 public events.

As for the 'one policy you'd implement' question, Dexter led off with a reasonable observation about eroded trust and the need to rebuild it among all players in the story.  Karen Vialle parroted Dexter, even to the point of squeezing in the same quick reference to how important the hiring of the new Superintendent was going to be.   Interesting observations, and I agree with them.  Neither of them answered the question, though.

Scott, by contrast, emphasized the need to focus energy on early childhood education.  He rightly pointed out how serious the consequences are for children that begin to fall behind early, and said we need to make sure we get the pre-school to 3rd grade students on an early track for success.

Nicely put.

Some interesting (as in, odd) things, too, I thought.

Everybody pushed their doctoral status pretty hard.  Kim Washington emphasized the 'Dr.' in her name when she introduced herself.  (She's an Ed.D.)  Dexter Gordon introduced himself as a Distinguished Professor at UPS, sort of hitting 'Distinguished' hard.  Karen Vialle noted that she finished all graduate work for the Ph.D., except the dissertation.  Only Scott neglected to mention his doctoral status.  Last I heard, he was beginning work on his dissertation.

Another interesting aspect....I saw and heard Kim Washington (Seat #5) for the first time.  All during the primary, she participated in none of the public events to which we were all invited.  It's tough to imagine she can surmount Vialle's sizable lead.

The most surprising, however, was Dexter Gordon's listlessness.  As a voter, I have not been thrilled with his zeal--it tends toward zealotry.  But as more than one observer has pointed out, "He's passionate."  Well, the passion seemed absent.  Recycled answers, lower intensity....I hope he's not flagging.  Not with a month still to go.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Standards based assessments not a panacea

A Tacoma School Board candidate that I know asked me what I thought of standards-based assessment.

Well, I told him, I have a lot of thoughts...depending on the more specific framing of the question.

First, I think everybody just imagines the 4-3-2-1 as grades anyway--A-B-C-D.  So there will need to be some relearning of what the scores mean.  Unless that IS what they mean?

More importantly, the human element still exists in the determining of how well the student met the standard.  Last year we had some oddly written standards rubrics (from OSPI, for the social studies CBA), so we had quite lengthy discussions about how to evaluate whether the student met the standard.  (The question of what the standards are and how they're created is another matter.)

Further, I think teachers are subtly encouraged to read the standard then simply look for the presence of material that matches that standard.  And it doesn't matter whether that material is any good or not.  This is particularly problematic in social studies/humanities kinds of subjects.

Ultimately, I think the impulse toward standards based assessment is driven by the (mindless) desire to numerate and technologize things.  If we can put seemingly replicable numeration to something we can believe that we're standardizing the measurement and production of what in this case is hard to measure in that way.  We've thus technologized it in a way that makes us think we can routinize the production of that thing.

Neil Postman writes extensively of this in his book Technopoly.

In the end, I don't think we're any clearer that a student is actually learning something or learning as much as they should/need to.  I think the standards movement thinks that standards based assessment does give us a better sense, but I don't know that it does.

Take 'inference making,' for instance.  I can teach about that.  Talk about what goes into it, etc., but some kids will always be better than others.  Or writing.  We are going to work on a 'standard' that involves teaching the writing process.  We'll measure their facility with naming and knowing the process, but not worry so much about whether they actually write anything worth reading.  Seems strange to me, but the logic goes, 'well, at least they know the process.'

As I've said before, education is an endeavor that entails a certain degree of sloppiness.  Thinking that we can clean up that sloppiness with a new evaluation system may be too hopeful.  I'd much rather prepare teachers and administrators to identify the ways that teachers and students accomplish good things in looser ways, and encourage a general alertness to shifting and stretching what works to cover more students in more skills and content areas.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Perception management

My father--who was for years the public relations director for a major state agency in CA--often said, "It doesn't matter what IS....It matters what people THINK things are."  Obviously, that can be used cynically or constructively.  He being my father, I liked to think that his candor reflected that he was trying to open, honest, etc.  His truism also reflects on our penchant for conspiracy.  It is all too easy to think something, even if that something ISN'T!

It would be tempting, for instance, to see a public agency post notice of a fairly unusual idea/plan after close of business on a Friday (as the Tacoma school district did with its unusual Deputy to Elect to Interim--to beyond??--Superintendent plan) and think they did so with the intent of minimizing the prospect of questions or blowback.

(Just as tempting, by the way, as when I kept asking the Tacoma Education Association why they had not interviewed me as part of the endorsement process during the campaign last summer and they finally responded to my 4 phone calls and one in-person visit by calling me Friday--the last day before they would be closed for a week--at 5:15 PM.)

It would be tempting to look at that Deputy Interim Elect Super plan and think it is a back-door mechanism by which to give Carla Santorno the job, since they seemed eager to do so in September.

It would be tempting to look at the idea for the current Superintendent to represent the district in Olympia as a way for him to sharpen up his lobbying credentials while drawing a big salary and move into an attractive career after he finally leaves Tacoma.

These--and many more--tempt one to conspiratorial thinking.  I'm working hard to resist that inclination...but I'm just saying.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tacoma comes up with another dubious plan

The school board in Tacoma is considering a plan to...well, read it here.

I think this is a very problematic idea, not because of the individuals involved but because of the organizational realities of such things. 

Interim, Elect (interim), what does all that mean?  Is it a probationary period?  What kind of expectations does everybody have?  What expectations will develop?  

Patterns tend to get set, so in 18 months she's "in place" or we need to remove and replace, which becomes another political brawl because she's entrenched with allies.

Is this a back door way to get her the job?  And why in the world is the district paying Jarvis a fat salary to go grease the way to a lobbying career?

Why does it seem like 2 board members (Dugan and Golding are lame ducks, Winskill seems absent) are driving this so hard right now?

The personal, personnel and organizational tangle that such things create primarily promise to project the staffing/appointment process into the future.  

Organizationally, this seems like a dubious plan that generates a lot more questions than clarity.