Tag Archives: Standardized testing

Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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