What’s More Important? Test Data or Life Data?

In my last post I suggested that if the government is so intent on publishing standardized testing data as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should likewise publish other meaningful data on the communities teachers and schools serve.  In What’s Missing in Education “Reform”  ?  Daun Kauffman discusses another dimension of child wellbeing that is distinctly missing from discussions of education reform.  One dimension that is missing, according to Kauffman, is “the massive incidence of childhood trauma, and its laser-like connection to cognition and education ….”  Children who live in urban settings typically experience more incidents of trauma.

A great deal of research has been generated about the impact of childhood trauma or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE).  Therefore, Kauffman makes the following suggested addition to the data that should be reported concomitantly with standardized test scores:

“What are aggregated, community rates of Childhood Trauma, or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE), as separate from ‘poverty’?”  What are the reported incidents within a community of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect?  How many children are being raised in single parent homes due to abandonment, separation, divorce, or incarceration?  What are the reported incidents of household violence, substance abuse, and mental illness?

I agree with Daun Kauffman that this type of data is clearly missing in discussions of child wellbeing.  The federal government funds research in the area of childhood trauma/ACE and, therefore, it would seem that the government acknowledges the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to meet the cognitive demands of school life.  According to Kauffman:

“ACE Rates vary widely. Chronic exposure to ACEs directly affects cognition. They have the power, as chronic events, to disrupt neurodevelopment and secondarily social behavior(as defenses against the onslaught). Presently ACEs are ignored in educational performance analyses. Ignored at macro levels, ignored at District level, ignored at school level . . .  Their prevalence is shocking:  suburban rates (for 3+ ACEs) have been measured at 22% and urban rates at 37% and greater.  A prevalence above the COMBINED rates of ELL and IEP students.”

It is not without irony that education reformers posit that improvement in the academic lives of children begins and ends at the schoolhouse door and they distance themselves from meaningful data about the realities of the lives of too many children through “no excuse” rhetoric that teachers can demonstrate academic improvement for every student regardless of all the factors that impact their lives.  No other profession is held to the same level of accountability, responsible for one narrow set of outcomes in spite of all other dimensions of human life.

Again, if the federal government is so intent on public disclosure of standardized test scores as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should be required to provide a full picture of the community data that impacts the lives of children.  Then, perhaps, teachers will get the credit for their noble efforts in trying to educate children who face almost insurmountable challenges every day.  As one teacher I interviewed a few years ago poignantly stated about her young students in a high poverty community, “I’m trying to teach these children to read and they’re trying to survive.”  I’ve experienced firsthand the devastating impact of unsafe communities on the lives of children.  I’ve heard children speak of family members murdered, imprisoned, and lives lost to drugs and crime.  I saw little children take freshly sharpened pencils and pretend to inject themselves in the tiny little crooks of their arms.  It broke my heart.

How dare education policy makers ignore the realities of the lives of far too many children in the U.S. when they boldly and callously propose systems for holding teachers accountable for academic performance while ignoring the devastation of too many of the communities that create the world children have to navigate through on the way to and from school?  Children deserve better.


For more information, see:

http://lucidwitness.com/2014/09/25/whats-missing-3/ http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/ http://captus.samhsa.gov/prevention-practice/targeted-prevention/adverse-childhood-experiences/1


Obsessive Testing and Data Collection One Step Further — Genetic Testing for Children

I’ve been thinking and writing about our nation’s obsession with grit  and big data recently.  I almost couldn’t believe it when I read Jay Belsky’s article in the New York Times entitled “The Downside of Resilience” in which he advocates for genetic testing of young children to decide issues of disposition and, specifically, resilience.  What if it isn’t true, says Belsky, that positive interventions like preschool education have the power to help all children?  What if, instead, we were able to identify certain alleles of genes linked to seratonin and dopamine early on to decide which children are “at risk” for being less gritty?  Belsky suggests that, ethics aside, this would enable us to target “scarce intervention and service dollars” toward “at risk” ungritty “delicate orchid” children who are genetically predisposed to “whither if exposed to stress and deprivation.” Other children, who “are more like dandelions,” … “prove resilient to the negative effects of adversity” and “do not particularly benefit from positive experiences.”

Anthony Cody wrote an insightful commentary about Belsky’s article, pointing out that, if Belsky’s ideas are correct, then the education community’s belief that resilience and grit can be taught is, indeed, incorrect and any instruction in these areas is a waste of time.  And there is a darker side to the use of genetic testing to determine resource allocation.  The eugenics movement thrived in the years prior to WWII as societies looked to science to produce a better human race.  The Nazis wholeheartedly embraced eugenics and we’ve lived with that legacy ever since, vowing to never forget.  But it seems that we are forgetting.  And now, we want to impose ethically challenged ideas on our youngest members of society.

However, isn’t this a natural extension of our nation’s obsession with testing, measuring, and data collection? Genetic testing at birth is merely another form of data collection.  This truly, however, harkens back to Huxley’s Brave New World —  schools for Alphas, different schools for Betas, and Epsilons can mop their floors (no need to waste money trying to education them).

Follow Deborah Duncan Owens on Twitter.


Why I Wrote “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy”

My book will be released next January by Palgrave Macmillan.  It represents a number years of research which began when I was an elementary public school teacher in Mississippi.  What originally began as an inquiry into the voucher movement emerged throughout the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top policies.


It’s Sunday morning and my husband, Thomas Fiala,  and I are listening again to an interview with David Berliner that was posted on Chalk Face radio last summer.*  Berliner has been a valuable voice in education policy for quite a number of years.  The book he wrote with Bruce Biddle in 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, is an essential read for anyone attempting to understand education policy history.  I read The Manufactured Crisis when it was first released.  It remains on my bookshelf, now highlighted, annotated, and a little worse for wear — an enduring valuable resource.

David Berliner was asked by Shaun Johnson, how do we go about having a conversation with our teacher colleagues about what’s happening in education?  Berliner basically said, by somehow getting enough people to talk about it will get the conversation going.  I found it interesting that the interview began with the notion that we need to get a conversation going, given that the blogosphere seems to be well populated with voices opposing Race to the Top policies and the Common Core.  Grassroots movements, such as the opt-out movement, have indeed been fueled by the blogs.  However, it’s hard to stop a freight train, particularly when it carries a cargo laden with millions of federal RTTT dollars and a slew of free market devotees poised to make huge profits from charter school expansion policies, creating data mining systems, publishing and administered standardized tests, and promoting Teach for America and alternate certification paths for teachers.  Well funded conservative think tanks have dominated education reform discussion for many years and they continue to fuel the education reform freight train, persevering in efforts to free-marketize and privatize public education.

The grassroots movement to address failed education policies certainly lack the financial resources of those who are actually making education policy in the U.S.  To the billionaires who have a seat in policy discussions, the blogosphere represents a swarm of mosquitoes biting at their heels, which they too often seem to easily swat away. Will grassroots efforts have an impact?  YES!!  Certainly, for example, the opt-out movement has the power to impact education policy — and it doesn’t cost a thing to simply refuse to take a standardized test.

One of my motivations in writing the Origins of the Common Core was to do my part in helping to get a meaningful conversation started.  However, I wanted to not only get teachers involved in the conversation, but to get all citizens involved who support their public schools and local control over those public schools, something that Berliner indicated was important.  I realized that what was needed was a coherent story that helped explain how we ended up in this place and time in education policy history.  On March 2, 2014, as I was completing my book, Diane Ravitch spoke at the first Network for Education conference in Texas, echoing my thoughts.  In her speech she explained, “The problem that liberals have is liberals believe that facts will persuade people.  Conservatives understand that stories persuade people, so we must have our story.  We already have the facts. … There is no question that the facts are on our side.  But we have to shape the narrative. … So its very important that we shape our narrative to say we’re defending American democracy, we’re defending the children, we’re fighting for what’s right.  We have the narrative.  We’ve got to think about our rhetoric and get the story to the public …”.**   In writing this book I have tried my best to accomplish this task.

Over the years, as I transitioned from elementary teacher to teacher educator, first at Arkansas State University and now at Elmira College in New York, I continued to try to make sense of what was happening in education policy. Why is America so convinced that our public schools are a failure?  Why were the dominant voices in education policy coming from conservative think tanks, continuously promoting school choice, high stakes standardized testing, VAM teacher accountability models, the erosion of local public school governance, and national standards?  And in spite of the voices of scholars like David Berliner, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Patrick Shannon, Joel Spring, and Gerald Bracey, to name just a few, who for many years warned the American public that we were on the wrong track, the freight train of systemic education reform continued at break neck speed.  Nevertheless, the voices of these giants should be heeded as never before!  Seamlessly, however, from one presidential administration to the next, education policies were re-hashed, re-framed, re-named, and foisted on the American public.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama spoke along the campaign trail about the problems associated with high stakes testing and promised to address these issues once he became president.  It soon became obvious, however, that President Obama would heed the siren song of free market ideas in the education arena.  His appointment of Arne Duncan solidified his position and, once again, the U.S. would continue its quickstep march toward free market education reform. Race to the Top policies would solidify the Obama administration’s allegiance to free market reform initiatives in education.

While much has been written about the current problems associated with the Common Core and corporate reformers, and certainly Bill Gates is being well and thoroughly blasted on the blogosphere, how is it that the Common Core so readily became the law of the land?  And why are charter schools seen as the panacea for education reform?  I set out in The Origins of the Common Core to lend my small voice in telling that story.  It was an interesting journey, leaving me to realize that our federal education policy makers acquiesced their decision making responsibilities to corporate reformers a long time ago.  Tech companies have led the way.  Bill Gates is walking, albeit with much more money at his disposal, in the footsteps of other technology corporate superstars like David Kerns and Lou Gerstner, who led the charge to revolutionize education policy through systemic free market reform education policies.  Other billionaires would lend their effort to these efforts.  Along the way, the voices of less monied education scholars were systematically silenced.  Federal policies, built on the false notion that America’s public schools were a total failure, continued to thrive in spite of documentation to the contrary.

The titles of the chapters in The Origins of the Common Core demonstrate a road map to my journey in writing the book:

  1. The Nation Was at Risk and the Public Schools Did It
  2. Public Schools: Conservative Coalescence and the Socialist Threat
  3. Friedmanomics, School Vouchers and Choice
  4. Corporate Superstars and an Inconvenient Truth
  5. Public Schools and a Third Way of Governing
  6. NCLB and the Texas Tall Tale
  7. Education Reform and the Deep State: An Alternate Universe
  8. The CCSS: Systemic Education Reform Writ Large
  9. CCSS: The Gorilla in the Room for Free Market Education Reform




The High Cost of High Stakes Tests

“ …  It is a great and more serious evil, by too frequent and too numerous examinations, so to magnify their importance that students come to regard them not as a means in education but as the final purpose, the ultimate goal.  …  It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies”  (in Nichols and Berliner, p. 1-2).

Truer words have never been written and while this could have been written today, these prophetic words were actually written in 1906 by the Department of Education in New York.  Sharon Nichols and David Berliner included this quote in their 2005 paper “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators through High-Stakes Testing” (available:  http://eric.ed.gov/?q=campbell%27s+law&id=ED508483).

In this paper, Nichols and Berliner explain the phenomenon Campbell’s Law, first described in 1976 by social science researcher Donald Campbell.  In short, according to Campbell’s Law, the use high-stakes tests can result in corruption and cheating as students, teachers, schools, and school districts are judged on their performance on these tests.  Since NCLB, school administrators facing increased scrutiny and sanctions have resorted to scandalous practices in a fight for their schools’ survival.

Absolutely.  And this is evident as the Atlanta school cheating trial began in late September this year.  The trial is expected to last for three months.  In 2011 a state investigation found 178 principals and teachers in Atlanta were involved in a widespread cheating scandal.  Earlier this week former Governor Sonny Perdue testified, stating,  “Even if a teacher were in the classroom, the amount of erasures that we saw from wrong to right could not have even been done within that testing period. … It became fairly evident to me that something had happened outside that classroom testing environment to those test documents, and that had to be conspiratorial.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/sonny-perdue-atlanta-school-cheating-was-conspiratorial-ex-governor-testifies.html

As the Atlanta trial unfolds (with little if any discussion by mainstream television media), education policy makers should use this opportunity to consider the high cost of our obsession with high stakes testing.   Obvious is the cost to taxpayers in Georgia for the investigations into the cheating scandal and the subsequent three month trial.  However, there are other not so obvious costs as well.  According to Fulton County assistant district attorney Fani Willis, “many of the victims of the cheating were struggling black students who would have been eligible to receive ‘millions’ in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/30/us/racketeering-trial-opens-in-altanta-schools-cheating-scandal.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article)

When administrators and teachers engage in practices such as erasing and correcting students’ incorrect responses on standardized tests, it may make the school look better, but it can be devastating to low-performing students, who are overwhelmingly poor and students of color.  False victories when low-performing students appear to score proficiently on standardized tests actually rob these children of the opportunity to receive the services they are entitled to — the tutoring that could provide them the ability to become successful students.  The Atlanta cheating scandal trial will shed a spotlight on the misdeeds of school employees.  However, it will not provide any recourse for the nameless and faceless children who were robbed of their right to tutoring services as a result of the cheating scandal.  We will never know how their lives were impacted.  That cost is much greater than the millions spent on investigations and a trial.

Wendy Lecker further explores the high cost of high stakes testing in her article “Lecker: A generation jeopardized by obsession with testing” (http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Lecker-A-generation-jeopardized-by-obsession-5894103.php?cmpid=twitter).   Since NCLB the curriculum has been severely narrowed, squeezing out the arts, music, science, physical education, and other subjects in favor of direct instruction and test prep in language arts and math, subjects that are tested.  And Lecker points out that there has been a sharp rise since 2005 in ADHD diagnoses among children who are required to sit for hours in school without physical activity.  Anxiety among students is on the rise as well.  High stakes testing is taking a toll on our nation’s children.  It is no wonder that the opt-out movement is growing as parents question the right of a state and federal government to force children to participate in day after day of strenuous high stakes tests.  It doesn’t make much sense that schools cannot force students to stand for the pledge of allegiance, but can force students to sit for hours taking tests in silent classrooms under lock down mode.