What we can control in education: What is taught, how it is measured, and how teachers are evaluated.

Common Core, STEAM and other initiatives have reached far into education with mixed results depending on how you look at it.

What is Common Core and what is STEAM?

STEAM is the use of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics in education to form a cohesive curriculum that prepares students for what careers most demand currently.

Common Core

This is a curriculum initiative designed to standardize what is taught and in some ways how it is taught. It works together with STEAM.

I’ll go into social studies first because I have first hand experience with this content.

Traditional social studies history and cultural education has been taught as a story for the most part.

A series of events that happened and at the most fundamental level of teaching pedagogy (the manner things are taught in) it is an exercise of memorizing names, events, locations, facts and figures.

Traditional civics, psychology, economics, and other social sciences have been taught as sets of facts to be memorized or skills to be learned.

With the onset of Common Core social studies became significantly different.

First the pedagogy was changed along with text books and available resources and materials. Also all of the core content areas (reading, writing, mathematics and science) were intertwined and became mutually supportive. Social studies teachers were expected to include heavy doses of reading into the material presented and how it was presented. Math skills were to be reinforced using statistics mapping, demographics and more. Science exploration and method were included as part of questioning what happened and it’s impact on today culturally, physically, and in current events. All of these were meant to mutually support each other so that students were able to weave together a skill set and knowledge base that would better prepare them for what they would see outside the schools. It was and is a noble and powerful way of looking at teaching. It has it’s flaws, especially in mathematics but it is a solid idea just the same.

What is taught in terms of skills and knowledge was also prescribed in Common Core. Students were to be taught not only facts but the reasoning behind those facts. They are taught not only the fundamentals of the Constitution but are also asked to delve into the thinking of the Founding Fathers and the larger social context surrounding the thinking that led to the formation of our government. Influential thinkers like John Locke are now part of the unit on the Constitution.

The Civil Rights movement is taught as an extension of slavery and the Civil War. They are indivisibly entwined and have cause and effect relationships that are to be discussed.

Also discussed at length are inquiry skills. Evaluation of source materials. Questions of fact, bias, agenda, validity and reliability are all part of the curriculum of Common Core.

Reading has also significantly changed. It isn’t just an analysis of what is written and different styles. Fundamentals of reading such as phonics, diction, parts of speech, vocabulary and others are now integrated into a more in-depth study of literature. Cultural and historical context are discussed, bias, point of view, and the more artful parts of writing are explored in a spiraling curriculum where skills that are taught as fundamentals in early grades are taken to more and more complex levels as students advance through the grade levels.

Science works to integrate the scientific method and experimentation into most of it’s teaching using discovery as a major part of it’s teaching. The content is the same for the most part, it’s the lens the facts are looked at that is different.

Mathematics has seen the most change and also the most controversy. The various disciplines of math ie. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus are taught at younger ages and in a far more condensed timeline. Some basic skills are not listed on the timeline and are assumed to be included as part of the instruction of more complex concepts. This has given educators some significant difficulty due to time constraints for mastery of materials and mastery of lesser included skills in the more complex ones.

Another significant change to mathematics is the manner in which many of the skills are executed. Traditional methods of completing a problem and arriving at a solution are considered incorrect and in Common Core mathematics process is King. Students are graded not only on a correct answer but also a correct process. Show your work has become a mantra and in some cases a battering stick.

Also tied to Common Core are standardized assessment tests that are included as part of evaluation of a teacher, school, and school system’s effectiveness. These tests are created by large corporations that specialize in test writing. They are based on the knowledge and skills that are part of the Common Core Curriculum.

These standardized test evaluations have been tied to teacher effectiveness ratings and school effectiveness ratings. The ratings are then tied to employment evaluations for teachers and staff as well as school funding and whether students will attend their neighborhood schools or have a choice to attend another school that has performed higher on the standardized tests.

In this 2014 article the NEA outlines the impact testing has on teachers based on polling.

http://neatoday.org/2014/11/02/nea-survey-nearly-half-of-teachers-consider-leaving-profession-due-to-standardized-testing-2/

The results show that teachers have some legitimate concerns however they are only one side of the story. The time taken from instruction as well as instruction targeted toward the content of the test are definitely part of education today. I have experienced this first hand but the underlying question is whether the material tested is valid or interferes with education that truly prepares the students for the world. Common Core and STEAM both work together to support integration of skills across disciplines but is that spirit of inquiry and critical thinking that is a hallmark of the initiatives really being tested on the standardized tests?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/01/what-do-standardized-tests-actually-test/?utm_term=.f7cbfbce76cd

The writer in this article is hyper critical of the standardized testing regime. They lay out numerous reasons that the tests don’t measure true learning but there is little evidence to back the claim. Where is the evidence?

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.edsurge.com/amp/news/2017-08-31-what-happens-when-standardized-test-scores-don-t-reflect-student-growth

This article provides some evidence that there are flaws in the system. Students invariably control the outcome of their testing experience. Some students including my own daughter have a phenominon called test anxiety. The test itself generates a state of mind where the student gets so worried over the results of the test that their performance is hindered. I’ve seen it but it’s not as common as you’d think according to my experience. Also there are those students that just don’t care about the tests. Their scores aren’t reported as part of an evaluation. They don’t carry weight. They are not part of college admissions or a major part of a students requirements to advance through the education system. Simply put they know the test is far more important to the school and teacher than it is to them personally. They don’t have a reason to spend all the time and effort on the test that seems to be put into it by the rest of the education community. Scores can reflect this. I have personally seen more than a few students who get bored and simply fill in the bubbles with any answer or even make patterns with their answers because they simply have had enough. This while common isn’t indicative of the general student population either.

But where is the evidence that says the tests are successfully measuring what a student needs to be able to be successful in the world? Where is the quantitative analysis of what has been learned about testing itself?

This article is a technical report of the results of a study done on one specific standardized test. The data is generated from responses by educators. The massive negative response only reinforces educator opinion of the tests.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://news.msu.edu/media/documents/2011/12/99bbd9f0-5818-4564-a0d5-1ee88b7531ec.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwid26O1hsXeAhUL64MKHeVPDIU4ChAWMAN6BAgIEAE&usg=AOvVaw31h52ToKlnloRDK9J42yXx

The study does specifically ask about the validity and reliability of the tests though. This means that the tests produce the same results under similar conditions over time and that they do in fact measure what they are supposed to.

This last article hits close to home. I have experience with PARCC testing in it’s infancy and this report is a damning condemnation of it’s results.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://shrivercenter.umbc.edu/files/2015/11/2015-PARCC.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjF1K3alcXeAhWJ5YMKHbCED9I4ChAWMAd6BAgDEAE&usg=AOvVaw19CLhmSHBp_HAcMasSrFF2

The same dilemma still exists though. The actual data about the tests is a closely guarded secret by the companies that make the tests. They say that the data could provide other test writing companies with information that could make competition difficult and allow companies to get trade secrets about tests.

Here is some more information then from outside the system that discusses the tests and how useful they really are or are not.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.cde.state.co.us/educatoreffectiveness/sceencmereport&ved=2ahUKEwid26O1hsXeAhUL64MKHeVPDIU4ChAWMAR6BAgFEAE&usg=AOvVaw3JANjgzZpLNGGfd4cPxfRC

This scholarly article discusses the validity and reliability of using test data to assess teacher effectiveness. 2 facts stand out. First is that the year to year scores for an individual teacher can fluctuate significantly. A teacher who scores in the bottom percentile often scores in the top percentile the next year. The second is that in order to create any kind of stability in test scores from year to year the teacher has to have more students in their classroom not less. This directly conflicts with data that says the lower a student to teacher ratio the more effective a teacher can be.

The reality of Common Core and the importance of high stakes testing is that it is a high stakes environment based on a series of tests given through out the school year on specified days in a specified manner. The tests are predominantly multiple choice tests with sections of writing and problem solving. They are given in content specific and grade level tests as well. Testing usually takes 2–4 days and takes about three quarters of the school day. The remainder of the school day on testing days is usually spent in non instructional activities designed to relax and reward students. There are also large numbers of schools that have events leading up to the testing days designed to instill excitement and a sense of importance on the tests for the students. This importance should be supported by significant data saying unequivocally that the tests are reliable and that using them to measure teacher effectiveness is a good idea.

There just isn’t support for that conclusion.

The other (usually) half of teacher evaluation has become a matrix of observation and evidence from the practice in the classroom itself. One very popular method of evaluation is the Danielson framework for teaching. This is a matrix of criteria that are used to generate a “score”. The score is on a scale out of four selections that looks at everything from questioning techniques to activities outside the classroom dealing with parents. There is one part that is specifically lacking however. There is no assessment of teacher grading practices or feedback on assignments or assessments. There is also no observation of the assessments the teacher gives to students.

All of this leads to a major question in the testing and evaluation of teachers. How can we determine that a teacher is effective or ineffective based on unreliable data and on incomplete observations done at most a few times a year that are pre determined and planned for?

How can we truly prove the adequacy of learning while using minimum standards and unreliable data?

The system needs a new measure. The goals of Common Core do not seem to be supported by the reality of the system. Inquiry, critical thinking, analysis, and decision making are not measured well only facts. The goal of Common Core is a well rounded student capable of being successful in the world after their education. The reality is that the system is falling short. Standardized tests show again and again that the impoverished and minority populations both do not do well on these tests and that in turn creates an even higher push to improve the students scores on them. It is a cycle that plays out only working to keep minorities and impoverished groups in the same place they currently are and creates generational issues that reach well into the future.

Even Bill Gates, one of the major proponents of the current system has admitted that it is problematic.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/Council-of-Great-City-Schools?WT.mc_id=10_19_2017_10_CGCS2017_GF-TW_&WT.tsrc=GFTW&sf66013815=1

While data is used to an advantage it does not show the full measure of what students and teachers are capable of. Gates push to more localized solutions and more professional development based on curriculum rather than testing shows promise. Time will tell.