Monday, May 10, 2010

Part 5- Ravitch Book Review (Ch. 8 and 9)

Forgive me blog, for I have sinned. It's been over a month since my last entry. (hmmm you can take the boy out of Catholic school, but...)

Anyway, my spring break ended and craziness happened at work, as usual. I did finish the book a few weeks ago but hadn't had the chance to come back and finish up these review posts. So here goes, I'm going to do chapters 8 and 9 here, then 10 and 11, then a post with some final thoughts. Again- these are just my gut reactions/reflections and they will probably read as such!

Chapter 8- The Trouble with Accountability

Chapter Review:

Ravitch speaks about how the mantra of accountability came to be embedded into education reform in the 1990's. The movement grew steam until President Bush, in 2001, introduced NCLB- the ultimate throwdown in accountability, proclaiming that all students would become proficient. It was entirely tied to testing and "came down from elected officials who did not understand the limitations of testing."

Ravitch spends some time going into detail about the limitations of testing. She is not anti-testing, per se- she recognizes that tests can be quality measures if used to inform, assess, and guide a teacher towards reteaching. She told about how they are imprecise, have margins of error, only take a snapshot, don't take into account wide abilities of students, NCLB-based tests only happen once a year, etc. Basically all the stuff that educators are already aware of, I'd say. =)

She then gets into the real troubles with "accountability", when it's based solely on test scores. The tests completely absolve the student and their parents of any responsibility whatsoever. Basing high stakes decisions, money, and labeling on test scores leaves the door wide open for corruption. Test-prep actitivites emerge as a way to game the test. In short, "What matters most for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached 'proficiency'. This sort of fraud ignores the students' interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements." (p. 159)

My Reactions

Most of what Ravitch writes in this chapter rings true for me. It boils down to one sentence in this chapter for me: "When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble." (p. 166). This is exactly how I feel. School should be so much more than filling in bubbles and forcing students into the boxes that testing puts them in. School should be about opening the mind, allowing freedom, nurturing self-directed learners, and of course creating.....collaborating...publishing. The jobs the majority of our students are going to be doing in the future will require them not to be robots, but to solve problems creatively.

I am not anti-testing- I'm pro assessment. Tests are necessary, but only if used as they should be used- for helping students. The first year I taught 2nd grade, at the end of the year there was a test we had to give in our county. One of the questions seemed so benign- it showed a bunch of shapes (trapezoids, squares, triangles, pentagons, rectangles, etc.) and asked the students to simply color in all the rectangles. My kids totally BOMBED it- I think only one out of twenty-four got it right. My class was by far the lowest in the county on this question, and it wasn't even close! Why did they bomb it? Well...I had never taught them what a rectangle was, pure and simple. I assumed they knew it...but they didn't color the squares, and most colored any shape with 4 sides. Did I get embarrassed? Nope. Was I worried? Nope. Did I care? YES. I cared and was actually excited to see it- I knew exactly what I had to go over. We did some fun little activities to address it, they nailed it, and we moved on. That's what assessment should look like- a guide and opportunity to help students understand something better.

But that's not what we do with standardized testing at the end of the year. It's not designed for the student and it's not an opportunity. In fact, what often gets done is the scores come in, then we write little goals into the school improvement plan to increase the scores a little bit more the next year...In other words, we take the scores from one set of students and, instead of using those to help those students, we use the data to guide decisions for the NEXT group of students (the ones that didn't take the test...). This overlooks one huge issue- every teacher knows that every class is different than the last. One group is nuts, one is low, one is high, one has the extremes, one has all the talkers, one has a lot more ESL students, one has huge attendance issues, etc. Boiling teachers, students, schools, districts, and states down to points of data is way too narrow.

Chapter 9- What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?

Chapter Review

This chapter finally starts to personalize Ms. Ravitch a bit- she starts by talking about her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, who obviously had a big impact on her. Mrs. Ratliff was her senior English teacher. She challenged Ms. Ravitch to use proper English and to provide deep answers that revealed her thinking. Accuracy mattered. She had larger goals for her students- beyond teaching literacy and grammar. Stuff that doesn't show up on standardized tests. They dove into rich literature and the classics.

Ms. Ravitch sets this teacher up as an example of one that would not be valued in today's education world. This type of teacher has more and more trouble existing and functioning in today's high stakes testing environment. They are too pressured to prepare students for the test, their tests mirror the EOG/EOC, deeper thinking is not as much of a focus. If merit pay were around back in Mrs. Ratliff's day, she might find trouble eating....

Ms. Ravitch then spends a decent amount of time talking about teachers' unions and how they have become a lightning rod in the realm of education reform. The issues of merit pay, teacher tenure, teacher compensation structures all set battle lines between teachers' unions and market-minded corporate reformers.

Finally, she tells about the idea of good teachers being quantifiable based on data. Many reformers out there talk a lot about the effects of a good teacher on students, but what they're really doing is equating "good teacher" with "teacher that raises test scores".

My Reactions

So what we're talking about in this chapter is "What makes a good teacher?" What would the answer to this question be from parents? From principals? From businessmen and women? Most importantly- from students? I'd bet most of them wouldn't mention better-than-average results of standardized testing....and if so, that would be near the bottom of the list of qualities. Here are some qualities I think make good teachers, in no particular order and off the top of my head:

  • someone who can make students laugh at the same time they learn
  • someone who can tell you a personal story or some background about each student in their class
  • someone who identifies a students' interest and adjusts to meet it
  • someone who listens
  • someone who offers an ear more often than a pointed finger
  • someone who takes content seriously
  • someone who can make igneous rocks seem interesting
  • someone who tells students (and parents) about the GOOD stuff that is happening
  • someone who pushes and pushes and pushes and doesn't let kids give up
There are a million other qualities I'd list before I touched a stupid test score. And I'd wager most others feel about the same way. So this begs the question- why are so many "reformers" moving towards boiling a teacher down to their testing data? And why are so many people letting them do this?

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