Are Georgia School Superintendent Candidates Willing to Oppose the Common Core & High-Stakes Tests?

Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller School" by Malcoml Browne is licensed  under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller” by Malcolm Browne is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dear Candidates for Georgia School Superintendent,

Today, I want to challenge you to not only oppose Georgia’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but also the use of high-stakes tests such as the CRCT. In this post, I’ll offer some facts you can use to discuss why to oppose the CCSS.  In the next post, we’ll give reasons why high-stakes tests need to abolished.

For nearly two decades, Standards and high-stakes testing have dominated teaching and learning in every Georgia public school.  I’ve shown in earlier posts, that standards are barriers to student learning, and if teachers are not given autonomy over the use of standards, then they tend to impede innovation, creativity, and teaching that focuses on the needs of children and youth.  Communication skills, problem solving, team work, and innovation are the kinds of experiences that are important to students now, and will be in the future.  The standards in the context of high-stakes tests impedes these goals.

Common Core State Standards

It’s time, however, to break these connections, at least for standards and high-stakes, and look for different ways to help students learn.

Making a one-size fits all curriculum for every student in Georgia makes little sense. We know that the “real” curriculum for our students is what happens in their classrooms with their peers and teachers. The curriculum should not be determined by non-educators from a highly financed organization (as was the Common Core State Standards), but should be an effort carried out by teachers and educators–Georgia has a top-notch teaching force, and some of the countries major universities.

Figure 1 shows the mathematics achievement level of Georgia students compared to students across the nation using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. Note that we have an upward trend in mathematics achievement in Georgia as well as the nation.   Figure 2 is a table showing the percentage of 8th grade students meeting or exceeding state standards on CRCT tests in math.  From the data presented in Figures 1 and 2, the trend in 8th grade mathematics achievement, as measured by the NAEP tests, and the state of Georgia CRCT, is positive, showing steady improvement.  If we look at results in math at other grade levels, as well as reading and science scores, the trends are similar.

Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 - 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 – 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 - 2012
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 – 2012.  Source: Kids Count Data Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Georgia’s state standards did not result in a tailspin of student achievement.  The Common Core State Standards, which were implemented a year ago, have not resulted in any major variation in testing.  In fact, the variation in test scores that we see not only in Georgia, but nearly all states (Massachusetts is an exception) is within the limits of what we would expect.  Figure 3 compares the average scores in 8th grade math achievement based on NAEP tests between seven states, including Georgia.

Using the control chart approach of W. Edwards Deming and Donald Wheeler and David Chambers (which I learned from Ed Johnson), we see in Figure 3 that for over a decade the achievement scores in most of these states and District of Columbia fall within expected limits.  In fact for most of these Any variation for these states, except for Massachusetts, is NOT due to any special cause (new curriculum, new standards, using high-stakes tests), but are simply what we expect in a system that is operating as it should.  In general we can conclude that education in these states is not a failure, but schools are doing what we expect them to do.  The continuous improvement that we see in the scores is not due to any innovation or special cause, but is simply the result of the way the education system works.  And it doesn’t matter whether we look at scores from suburban communities, and compare them to urban environments.

As a candidate, you will hear the oft mentioned phrase, that “America’s schools are failing and they need to be reformed.”  In fact, this phrase has been repeated so often, that in a recent survey over 70% of parents agree that schools were failing.  But over 80% said that the school their children attended was doing very well.

You need to use facts to show that our schools are not failing, and help your potential constituents realize that they’ve been sold down the river that America’s schools are failing.  They are not.

 

Figure 2. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits.  Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes.  Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center, datacenter.kidscount.org
Figure 3. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits. Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes. Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center, datacenter.kidscount.org

Schools, They Aren’t Failing

You might ask, what about urban schools.  Are our urban schools failing?  The fact is, there are lots of people who will tell you that schools in urban environments are failing, and what they need is help from charter management companies, and temp teacher preparation organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

They need none of this.

Take a look at Figure 4.  It’s an analysis done by Ed Johnson using data over the past decade comparing 21 city school districts, with the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD) highlighted in green and red, respectively.   As you can see in the graph, there is variation in math NAEP test scores over the ten-year period.  The variation we see is consistent.  There are not wide swings in the data.  Indeed, all the points of measurement fall within statistical control limits.

 

Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 4. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.

 

If there is any truth to this kind of data, there is no need to radically change the system.  But, as Deming and others have found, there is always the need for continuous improvement of the system.  If we want to improve schooling, say in Atlanta, we need to improve the system, not “turn it around.”

But the mantra you will hear is that we need to close schools, or turn the school around by firing the school principal and most of the staff, and then replace them with a new principal, and new teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified, and will only stay there for 2 years.  If you are elected State School Superintendent, you will find that there are questionable relationships among the Georgia Department of Education, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and charter management companies.

Don’t fall into the “our schools are failing” trap.

Improving Schools

As a candidate for the top job in education, you surely want to figure ways to help Georgia school districts improve their schools.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards will not improve our schools.

We want, what Ed Johnson explains, continuation improvement.

How do we do this?  First, we need to act on the idea that education is a human system.  It’s about people.  It’s about parents sending their students to schools enjoy learning, and not to be there to serve the state by simply being a number, and someone who is required to take tests throughout their school days.  If you ask parents what they like about their children’s school, they always talk about how their children are treated and accepted, and helped to learn.  They talk about the kind of communication among their children’s peers and teachers.

Improving schools means we need to think differently and bring to the front what we know about successful organizations.  In a recent post, I discussed some steps that we should take that have a greater likelihood of establishing an environment that will result in continuous improvement.

  1. Put high confidence in teachers and principals and learning.  The focus on meaningful learning must be at the school level.  Superintendents need to get out-of-the-way, stop micro-managing, and entrust education to well prepared teaching staff.
  2. Create a systemic environment which encourages teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches.  Encourage principals to work with teachers to push for curiosity, imagination and creativity in the classroom, and make that the focus of learning.
  3. Fill classrooms with well experienced and well-educated teachers who are not only knowledgeable in the content, but more importantly understand how to teach and how to experiment with different pedagogies.
  4. Empower principals to be the leaders of change, not superintendents.  Superintendents are too far away from the day-to-day life of students to encourage the kind of creative teaching that can be supported by principals.
  5. Teachers should have masters degrees in education and be knowledgeable in their field of teaching.  Reliance on uncertified and inexperienced teachers will in the long run lead to failure.

In the next post, I will provide evidence to support the second thing that I would like you to oppose, and that is the use of high-stakes tests.  High-stakes tests are the biggest impediment to real improvement of schooling for students.  I hope you’ll check out the next post.

School Closings in Our Cities: A Deep Ecological Problem

In this post I am going to argue that it is a mistake for large school districts such as Chicago, New York, and Atlanta to close schools on the basis of achievement and cost effectiveness.  The Chicago School District announced that they plan to close 61 schools which is 13% of the total schools in the district.  This will be the largest mass school closings in U.S. history.  If you map these schools and their communities, the Chicago school board acts as if these schools are unimportant, and indeed the children and youth that attend these schools, because they are poor, and failing state mandated tests, can be moved about at their whim.  According to the president of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the decision to close more than 50 schools has been done with no planning.

Deep Ecological Considerations

In their research on what they call “green governance” Burns Weston and David Bollier (2013) offer an insightful analysis of the consequences of the way business enterprises in partnership with government are “fiercely commercializing” many resources that were protected or beyond the reach of such shenanigans.  Bollier (2002) calls this a scandal, and refers to it as a “silent theft” and “the private plunder of our common wealth.”  The closing of schools in the urban environment needs to be considered in the context of ecological issues that are plaguing the world today.  All environments are subject to our understanding of the biosphere, ecosystems, ecology and environmental science.  We often fail to realize that the economic systems that are in place are not separate, but have consequences in the real world.  Weston and Bollier  (2013) call our attention to the effects of the “State and Market” pathways to development and profits.  They write:

The results include pollution and waste in the form of acid rain, hydrocarbon emissions, poisoned waterways, and toxic waste dumps; short-term overuse and destruction of natural resources such as forests, waterways, and fisheries, along with the roads, bridges, harbors, and other material infrastructure needed for their exploitation; and the devaluation of urban and other human settlements, exemplified by “brownfields” and suburban sprawl, which especially affect the poor and racial and other minorities. The policies and practices responsible for this state of affairs are morally and economically unacceptable; they are also environmentally unsustainable (emphasis mine).

The drive to close schools in the urban and inner city environments is clearly the result of policies that lack any understanding and empathy for a world-view that is sustainable, and humane.  I am not suggesting that the human species is any more important than other species of animals and plants.  I am suggesting that as one of many species sharing the earth at this time, we need to recognize how we are connected to other living things and the biosphere.  Without this kind of knowledge, it is very easy for the rich and for those in power to deal with others less fortunate in extreme inhumane ways.

School Closings in the U.S.
School Closings in the U.S.

In their research book entitled Ecology of Wisdom (2010), Alan Drengson and Bill Devall explore the works of Arne Naess, “mountaineer, Gandhian boxer, professor, activist and a student of life’s philosophy.”  Naess’s work has direct implications for the school closures in Chicago, and other urban districts around the country.

Arne Naess, as early as 1965 critiqued the short-term shallow ecology movement (Drengson & Devall, 2010), and compared it to his own thinking which was the long-range deep ecology movement.  Naess citied Rachel Carson as a major influence on his thinking or view of ecology (deep ecology), and joined this view with Gandhian nonviolence, to become an environmental activist.  The Chicago Teachers Union, which resisted peacefully the Chicago school board’s actions last year, is pushing back against the proposed school closings.

Naess realized that it was crucial to have a “whole view of the world and life” to have meaningful dialogue about the environment.  He also believed deeply in the Gandhian belief of respecting the humanity of others.  According to Drengson & Devall, Naess was an interdisciplinary thinker, and was interested in studying grassroots movements to realize the main principles and values of the movement.  The teacher’s union in Chicago, in my view, is a grassroots movement of educators who are willing to act on principles of equity and fairness, and a deep understanding of the ecology of neighborhoods and significance of schools.

Urban schools are important, and they are part of communities and neighborhoods that bring meaning and value to the people who live there.  Naess would most likely join with the Chicago Teachers Union to support their activism.

Schools are Part of, not Separate from their Communities

Mr. Ed Johnson, an education advocate in Atlanta, and a student of W. Edwards Deming, has worked for at least a decade to raise questions about the kind of education that is being put upon the children and youth of Atlanta, and the district’s policy of closing schools in poor neighborhoods.

In an interview posted on YouTube in 2012, Mr. Johnson discussed the Atlanta Public School (APS) closing proposed by Superintendent Dr. Errol Davis.  Ed Johnson opposes the closing of any of the schools in the system.  His interest is in how to improve Atlanta schools, rather than the effort to turn the schools over to private charter organizations.

Public schools should be sustained and improved, not closed.  Simply closing schools to save money (and Mr. Johnson agrees that the APS is in financial need) is a shallow way of thinking about school improvement.  Johnson, from his work professionally as a student of Deming explains that a school is part of a community, and to simply cut or close schools will result in consequences to the entire community.  Closing a school disrupts a community to such an extent that even though the district might save $5 million over a ten-year period, the real effect will be losing money.  Not only do parents depend on the neighborhood school as a public place to educate their children, but the school itself, being part of a community, is connected to many entities that make up the community.  Johnson recommends that instead operating a school at full capacity, we might consider a variable capacity school that makes adjustments to the student population.  By keeping the schools intact, and reducing the overall costs to run the school based on enrollment, a schools remains as a vibrant part of the community, and with community leadership can begin to rebuild and improve the school.

Johnson explains that s system (such as a community) is more than a sum of its parts.  He says that if we get the parts (of a school & its community) working together, it will result in much more than the sum of the parts.  Narrow thinking will lead to the closing of schools because the central office looks only at short-term savings of money, where the kind of deep thinking that Johnson is advocating might create an environment for school improvement, rather than closure.

And one more thing.  Mr. Johnson tasks the school board with telling us what they think is the purpose of schooling in Atlanta.  As he points out, asking nine school board members this question several years ago resulted in nine different answers. As Johnson says, if they can’t agree on the purpose of schools, how can they function to improve the district.  Why do have public schools?  What is the purpose of school?  If we can not answer such a basic question, how can we possibly make serious decisions about people’s lives such as shutting down their children’s schools.  And indeed Mr. Johnson’s ideas about purpose of schooling are in sync with Edward Deming’s ideas when he says:

People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve education, nor even how to define improvement of education (Deming 1994).

I think you might find it valuable to watch Mr. Johnson’s interview which appears in this video.  View the second part of his video interview here.

Why is that school boards and superintendents of some of America’s largest cities think that the quality of life for citizens living in poor neighborhoods is not as important as to those living away from these neighborhoods?  Instead of trying to foster leadership at the local school and neighborhood level, boards and superintendents are either closing schools or turning schools over to corporate run charter schools whose interest may not be in fostering learning beyond what it takes to pass a multiple choice test, and to staff these schools with outsiders who are un-certified and inexperienced.  As Deming, and in the case of Mr. Johnson, believe, our present thinking about schools lacks purpose, and is shallow and short-term.  The emphasis is on immediate results, and comparisons from one year to the next.  In the case of schools, student achievement test scores are used to make these evaluations, and because this is the bottom line for the state department of education, teachers are teaching for the test.  The Atlanta cheating scandal is a direct result of this policy.

We need new goals for schooling.  The goals need to be in the service of students and their families, not the broad economic interests of governments and corporations.  We need to think differently about schools, and we need to realize that they are not corporations, and they do not have the same purposes of corporations.

As Deming (1994a) points out, beware of common sense when we think about such issues as ranking children by grades, ranking schools and teachers by test scores, and rewards and punishments.  Deming believes that grades should be abolished, and that the ranking of people and schools should not occur.  And significant to the issue of school closure, Deming suggests that taking action (such as closing a school today) may produce more problems in the future, and that a better remedy would be investigate why children in poor neighborhoods are not doing well on state mandated tests, and then do something about it.

Why are we closing schools?  We are doing this because our thinking is shallow.  We use numerical goals as if they were real goals (90% of students will graduate by the year 2050), and in the end, we end up punishing those people and schools that couldn’t live up the expectations of people who know very little about schooling, curriculum, learning and teaching.  All goals are reduced to a report card, that in some states is as simple as A,B,C!

In a report by the Pew Charitable Trust on the effects of 193 school closures in six large cities (Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City, in addition to Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC), it was found that the money saved has been relatively small, its been difficult to sell the vacant school buildings, and when closing announcements are made, academic performance of students falls.  But perhaps more importantly, the study found that it was important for the school boards and superintendents to make a strong case for downsizing, and be willing to listen to parents and community leaders about alternatives and to make adjustments.  This does not seem to be happening in Chicago.

Is the policy of closing schools for cost effectiveness a way to improve education in that district?

References

D. Bollier, 2003. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.

W. E. Deming, 1994. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Second Edition. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

W. Edwards Deming, 1994a. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (Kindle Location 349). Kindle Edition.

A. Drengson & B. Devall, 2010. Ecology of Wisdom: Writings of Arne Naess. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

B. H. Weston & D. Bollier, 2013.  Green Governance (Kindle Locations 190-194). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Thank You, Chicago Teachers

This is a letter of Thank You to the teachers of Chicago from the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective.  The letter was initially posted on Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled website on the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The Teaching Georgia Writing Collective is a group of educators, parents, and concerned citizens who engage in public writing and public teaching about education in Georgia. Some goals of the collective include: 1) empowering educators to reclaim their workplace and professionalism, 2) empowering families to stand up for their children and shape the institutions their children attend each day, 3) empowering children and youth to have control over their education, and 4) enhancing the education of all Georgians.

Members of the collective do not have to disclose their participation in any way. However, each collective member can decide when and where she or he informs others that she or he is a member. It is important that all members of the collective respect the right of others to remain anonymous in the collective writing process.Contact the collective: teachinggeorgia@gmail.com

Dear Chicago Teachers,

The Chicago Teachers Union strike will go down as a significant event in history when educators stood up against the destructive powers of privatization and for workers’ job security and a strong middle-class in the United States. We want to thank you for standing up for yourselves, for your students, for public education, and for every teacher who is faced with constant criticism and attacks on their professional dignity. Your courage to stand up, walk out, and demand national attention inspires us and makes us hopeful that your actions will have a positive impact for the working conditions of all teachers, regardless of whether they have union protection or not.

Thank you for challenging the narrow-minded vision of using high-stakes standardized test scores to evaluate student learning, teacher effectiveness, and school rankings.

Thank you for showing America and the world that most teachers do not agree with the heavy-handed policies that have narrowed curriculum and made school a less interesting and enjoyable place for most kids.

Thank you for fighting for the rights of children, youth and families to have access to fully funded public schools that aren’t destroyed by for-profit charters not held to the same level of scrutiny.

Thank you for demanding rights for laid-off teachers.

Thank you for demonstrating to everyone in our country that working conditions for teachers have been deteriorating since before NCLB and won’t be improved by Race to the Top.

Thank you for reminding workers everywhere that they have a right to stand up for injustices in their workplace.

Thank you for teaching your students – and all of us – an important lesson about democracy, labor, and the vision of public education that is handed to us by “reformers” who rarely know anything about real schools and real kids and real teaching. We should all strive to be as courageous as you.

Sincerely,

Teaching Georgia Writing Collective