Undercover Boss*

Not that I consider myself Lord Voldemort in any way, but borrowing the sentiment from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, at least the quote, “I confess myself disappointed.”

 

Our new superintendent has been on the job for a month now. Today she appeared on our local NPR radio station and their local program that runs from 9 AM to 10 AM each morning.

She continued her theme of Team Duval, how she needs everyone to be on the team as everyone in town has gotten behind the NFL franchise, and continued to appeal for community support even as she asserted that everyone should remember there is only one head coach.

Once again she has failed to recognize the people who make schools work: the teachers, support staff, and administrators who daily make learning happen.

Oh, she mentioned that she had seen some great things happening, but it’s summer. Exactly where did she go? No mention. Most schools are in hiatus. It’s as if she views schools as running machines, but cannot see the individual parts and how important each part is. Even Vitti saw the individual when he confessed that he had viewed teachers as replaceable cogs.

Coach, what’s going on? You’re standing on an empty field appealing to the crowd to suit up and get in the game. Meanwhile, your professional players sit in the locker room wondering when you will call them forth and acknowledge their efforts, their importance, their essentialness to produce a winning season.

If you want to win the Super Bowl, it is the players, not the crowd, not the community support that brings the Lombardi Trophy to town. The crowd and community are important to the success of the team, but the players are the ones who actually play the game, grind out the hard plays, and put the scores on the board.

I confess myself disappointed.

During my July visit to my parents, they introduced me to the show ‘Undercover Boss,’ in which a company’s CEO disguises him/herself and spends a week pretending to be a new hire in various workplaces to learn what’s really going on and have candid conversations with the line employees and first rank of management.

The week is a surprise to the CEOs, who had no idea what was really taking place in their companies. In one show, a fast-food boss found out that one of his restaurants had many problems, including potholes in the parking lot, and that ‘corporate’ wasn’t listening when the employees reported that they needed repairs. He was shocked to find that one of his joints was opening steel cans of peppers with knives because the can openers were broken and corporate wouldn’t approve a replacement purchase.

I wonder what would happen if superintendents disguised themselves and went undercover in their schools for a week. They would find out a boatload of disturbing information, that is true. Would they care?

With the Undercover Bosses, they took immediate action to correct the problems before meeting with the employees they met to reward them for the valuable help they gave the company by being frank and also showing how much they cared about the success of the business.

I wonder if Undercover Superintendents would do the same. Do they want to know the people who work in the schools, the people who make the system work every day despite the challenges and lack of resources, and do they want to find ways to reward them?

One month in, we haven’t seen that in Duval. I confess myself disappointed.

*It would be easy to depict this essay as a criticism of the new superintendent. It is not that. It is far too early to decide upon whether the Board made a good hire. Rather, I am confessing my disappointment to date as I explore my feelings as to why I feel no excitement about what will come next. I am eager, as always, to return for a new year and work with the incoming freshmen. But I feel a disconnect with district leadership. Hopefully, by the time Opening Day is over, I will be proven wrong. Rarely have I wanted to be wrong as much as I do now.

Competency Based Education

Personalized Learning

It goes by many names. Recently, this video from five years ago surfaced in my Facebook Newsfeed:

You remember the Texas teen who told off a teacher for handing out packets of worksheets, sitting at her desk, and otherwise making no effort to engage the class in learning.

After watching the video again, it struck me: this is the future of public education as envisioned by such personages as Bill Gates, Jeff Zuckerberg, the Waltons, Laurene Jobs, the Koch brothers, the list goes on and on.

Under a technology-based system of competency-based learning or personalized learning, children sit in front of computers and work on programs that have placed them on a learning path. The path is the same for each child, but the spot on the path where each child works is different.

If the computer does the teaching, then there is no need for a professional teacher. Paraprofessionals could be hired at minimum wage to supervise the room, keep behavior under control, and ensure each child clicks away on the keys.

How? Technology has a solution. The paraprofessional has no need to walk around the room; at her desk, she has a monitor to watch that shows what each child is doing to make sure they aren’t playing games or watching music/sports videos.

Human interaction is not needed.

Most monitoring systems provide features by which the monitor can interrupt off-task children with messages or even by killing the inappropriate apps they are on.

Now go back and watch Mr. Bliss again. Hear him as he demands that which competency-based education or personalized learning will eliminate: the human relationship between teacher and child that is the very heart and soul of education.

 

What’s the difference between packets of worksheets and computer-based programs? Only this:

PAPER.

About That General Knowledge Test

Recent headlines around the state of Florida gave notice that 920 teachers, otherwise effective in their jobs and receiving rave reviews, have lost their jobs because they could not pass Florida’s General Knowledge test, one of three an educator must undergo to receive a professional teaching certificate from the state.

Social media lit up with condemnations of the test. Many persons lamented how tough it was and questioned why some portions of the test are necessary. After all, they reasoned, why would a P.E. teacher or an art teacher have to demonstrate knowledge of how to write an essay? Or how to solve a problem involving similar triangles?

(These two areas, writing and math, are the sections of the test that are the most challenging for teachers to pass.)

While I will not defend the current version of test, administered by everyone’s favorite whipping post, Pearson Education, Inc., there is something to be said to require teachers to have “general knowledge” in order to be certificated.

  1. Students often ask a teacher questions that do not fall into the area of the teacher’s expertise.
  2. Teachers of all content areas have to read student explanations and know basic rules of spelling, grammar, and writing to help students clarify what they are saying.
  3. Teachers need a basic knowledge of all content areas in order to help students make cross-curricular connections and to understand why content is important and meaningful. (For example, it is important as a Geometry teacher for me to be able to connect triangles to bridges and other construction to show why studying their properties is important. Shapes and how they are used is crucial to understanding and creating art. Agility in solving algebraic equations is important in solving chemical equations to determine the result of combining two or more substances. )
  4. Teachers communicate with parents and others. It is embarrassing and would lead to a loss of confidence in a school if the teachers wrote in ways that were filled with errors and failed to convey meaning.
  5. If teachers are unable to answer basic questions or talk about anything that a reasonable person would expect an educational practitioner to know, again it would lead to a loss of confidence in schools.
  6. To restate the above point, a well-educated person, which all teachers should be, is in possession of a basic set of knowledge that covers academic areas, the arts and humanities, etc.

Because teachers need to possess a set of general knowledge, it is important for the state to be sure teachers do possess a set of general knowledge before certificating them for the classroom.

Two questions remain: (1) What is that set of general knowledge and should it be the same for every teacher? In other words, does an elementary teacher need to possess the same set of general knowledge as a secondary teacher?

(2) What are appropriate ways for the state to confirm that a teacher possesses the necessary general knowledge for the classroom?

I am reaching the usual 500 word limit for the typical blog post. I will break here and take up these questions in the next post.

Postscript: Because I am a secondary teacher and am not a practitioner of elementary education, it may appear that my reasons for requiring a set of “general knowledge” is slanted to the secondary level. I invite elementary teachers to add or explain why they also benefit from having general knowledge in their work with the younger children.

The Surplus Shuffle

It’s not a new dance. We did it last year and the year before that. The State of Florida, through its agency the Department of Education, calls the tune every July as it insists, through its governing body the State Board of Education, that public schools that have run afoul of its requirements for improvement must implement the predetermined plan proposed by the school district and approved by the State Board.

Even more, any school in turnaround status (in Duval, that is 21 schools, two of which must be turned over to an outside management company), must make staff changes based upon the Spring FSA results and the resulting VAM scores.

Thus, it is time for the 2018 Surplus Shuffle, when two weeks before teachers return for the new school year, they are informed that they will be moved to another school. Who shuffles in behind them? With less than a week to go before the teachers in the turnaround schools are mandated to begin work (because their turnaround status means that they must start work August 1 for additional training and preparation), the district has yet to learn who the surplused teachers will be.

What are the consequences of these actions and this timeline?

Grumpy Old Teacher has the following questions:

  1. What subject areas and years are under the surplus mandate? (Is it only FSA subjects, that is, only ELA/Reading grades 3 – 10, Math grades 3-8, and Algebra 1? These are the only subjects/areas where the State provides a VAM score.)
  2. If the surplus includes other subject areas, how will teacher data scores be determined? Does the district report district test results to the state to allow the state to run the data through its VAM model? Does the district have access to the state VAM model and do its own calculations?
  3. Given that Superintendent Greene and Duval County put in its plan for the two schools now under new management that they would replace the surplus teachers with only effective or highly effective teachers, as determined by the VAM/student growth scores only, how do they plan to induce such teachers to transfer at this time? Financial incentives? Administrative transfer, in which other teachers will be informed the district has changed their assignment?
  4. Because the district had not learned from the state as of Thursday, July 25 who the affected teachers are, yet the staff has to report for preplanning Wednesday, August 1 (less than a week), what is the plan for covering the affected positions until the transfers are in place?
  5. If the three extra days of preplanning are essential for the success of the turnaround schools, how will the schools bring new teachers up-to-speed given that it is almost impossible to have all personnel in place by Wednesday?
  6. Given the timeline between identifying surplus teachers and the date when new personnel should be in place, what efforts does the district make to anticipate the possible moves it has to make? Does it identify persons for transfer in the Spring, meet with them, and come to an agreement that they will move if needed?

 

We have seen this before. Florida school districts must comply under regulations set by the Department of Education and approved by the State Board of Education, who themselves are only implementing to the best of their abilities the policy mandates written into law by the Florida legislature.

That reasonable persons, looking at the process and its timeline, wonder exactly who thinks this is going to work is a question that readers should direct to their Florida senators, representatives, and governor.

7. What makes you think that this process will produce improved schools? Cite evidence, included peer-reviewed research by educational experts, that led you to the policy prescriptions you placed into law regarding ‘failing schools,’ including the controversial ‘Schools of Hope’ that you created in the 2017 education bill known as H.B. 7069.

By the way, peer-reviewed research does not mean you read a book by a self-designated reformer.

Devil in the Grove

(Gilbert King, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-179228-1)

An unvarnished look at actual Florida history, Devil in the Grove will not be an easy read as it tells the story of four black men accused of raping a white woman (only two of whom had even interacted with the young woman and her husband on that fateful night in July 1949) in Lake County, Florida, a county located to the immediate northwest of Orange County and in the center part of the state, a part resistant to the end to the orders of the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation.

Spoiler alert: There are no spoiler alerts. This is a story that the author cannot control. He can’t direct the plot away from the sympathetic characters because they don’t deserve their fate. The events really happened and the book will grip you as it takes you through what happened in Lake County against the larger backdrop of the action of the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund headed by Thurgood Marshall.

It is a story of abusive law enforcement and the way it terrorized people of color in the county, a story of power among the citrus growers and their need for cheap labor, a story of how segregation recreated a system of forced labor after the 13th amendment outlawed slavery, and a story of what happens to those who protest.

Lest you scratch your head in wonder, that you thought the real evil was in the Deep South (and there was real evil there) states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, that Florida being ‘south of the South,’ was nothing like them, you might be right in a twisted way: “From 1882 to 1930, Florida recorded more lynchings of black people (266) than any other state, and from 1900 to 1930, a per capita lynching rate twice that of Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana.” (pages 169 & 170.)

There was no rape. In describing the events against the larger national backdrop of the NAACP’s legal strategies, the reader gathers a good sense of the times, the struggles, the chaos, the fears, the terror, and the hope that were part of daily life in the South (“Lawyer Marshall is coming”), and the author then personifies those feelings and experiences in the story about Lake County, where the sheriff exercised tyrannical power to the point that people lied for him out of fear for their own lives and that in turn empowered him to be a law unto himself.

Read the book if you don’t understand #blacklivesmatter and why it is the height of stupidity to protest, “But #alllivesmatter.”

Read the book if you think those times are far in the past and we’re better now and we would never acquiesce in the worst violations of human rights.

Read the book and think about those red MAGA hats and what people really want. Fascism and National Socialism (yes, the Hitler and the German Nazis were socialists) will not take root here, but we have our own dark past yearning to break free because we haven’t ever really dealt with it.

No spoiler alert is needed because you know how the story turned out. While the NAACP was successful in overturning the original convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The sheriff collected the two defendants at Raiford (Florida State Prison where death sentences are carried out) and, on the way back to Lake County, was successful in murdering one. The other defendant played dead and survived two bullets from the sheriff and a third shot through his neck by a deputy.

The survivor was reconvicted but received a life sentence that was later commuted. One year after the commutation, he received permission to go back to Lake County to attend the funeral of his uncle. He was found dead within a few hours of his return to Lake County.

If you want to know why I am talking about this book in my new education blog, it is this: this book should be required reading in every U.S. History high school classroom in Florida.

Postscript:

As for me, Devil in the Grove is a cautionary tale about politicians and the power they wield in this state. The politicians who a generation ago would be protecting and enabling the Lake County sheriff, recognizing no bounds on their power and their desire to enrich themselves by it and the exploitation of the vulnerable and poor, these are the ones who have targeted public education for destruction in this state.

They hold the power and will tolerate no dissent. As I am a dissenter, this book is a cautionary tale about the risks of fighting back against the privatization schemes such as those manifested in the so-called Schools of Hope.

Scrubbing

I am interrupting my review of the book, The Testing Charade (Daniel Koretz, 2017) to address something taking place in Florida with the release of school grades. And yet, I am going to use the book to talk about it: scrubbing, that is, the practice of removing students not likely to score well from a test’s population.

“The method of choice was to exclude from testing students who were likely to score poorly, a technique that is often called ‘scrubbing’ because it entails removing the worrisome students from enrollment rolls.” (The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, page 74.)

In the early days of testing, this was easy to do. Tell the questionable students to stay home until the testing window closed. Suspend the misbehaving students. By whatever means, keep them off school property until testing was done.

States counteracted this by setting minimum percentages of students who must test, usually 95%.

Schools reacted by disenrolling the worrisome students and then re-enrolling them once the test window closed. They utilized school choice (an ironic twist) to counsel low-performing students to leave for charter schools or other options such as homeschooling. Charters play the same game, of course, and counsel out low-performers to return to their traditional schools.

Scrubbing is real and it’s wrong. Other forms entail schools and districts devising means to maneuver students around tested courses. For example, until Florida discontinued the Algebra 2 End-of-Course exam, districts began scheduling students with poor Geometry performance into a course called ‘Advanced Topics’ so that they could bypass Algebra 2 on their way to amassing the required math credits for their diplomas.

The state was complicit in this because, unless the state created an approved course in its catalog, the dodge course would not have been available to districts.

Districts also reviewed their mid-year benchmark tests for Algebra 1. Students scoring lower than what projected to a passing grade on that EOC were rescheduled into Algebra 1A so they would not have to take the exam. (In this instance, though, the state had the schools by the throat; passing the Algebra 1 EOC is a diploma requirement and sooner or later, students have to pass it.)

The same goes on with graduation rates. Schools routinely refer students not on track to graduate to leave the school and enroll in other programs to complete their education and receive their diplomas.

Campbell’s Law rearing its hydra-like heads; cut one off and three more grow in its place.

“‘The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.’ In other words, when you hold people accountable using a numerical measure–vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever–two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated …” (Koretz, page 38.)

Now to the controversy of the week. A conservative school board group, which may be composed of as few as five members, have questioned the Civics EOC results in three Florida districts: Duval, Polk, and Manatee Counties. Conservative School Board Group Questions Civics Results in 3 Counties

Soon thereafter, six lawmakers weighed in to demand an investigation. Here is the text of their letter:

Dear Commissioner Stewart:

It has come to our attention that allegations have been raised regarding Duval, Manatee and Polk County school districts potentially undermining the integrity of our state’s public school accountability system through employing questionable testing practices on the state end-of-course exam in civics. 

While we should all celebrate increases in student achievement, particularly in civics, we must ensure the results are earned with integrity. Otherwise, as we are sure you would agree, we are doing a complete disservice to our children.

As reported by multiple Jacksonville media outlets, the districts are accused of restricting certain students from participating in the state end-of-course civics exam in an effort to artificially inflate their final school grades. Not only are these allegations alarming, but we are fearful there may be other districts engaging in these same shameful practices. 

As parents of public school students and taxpayers, we share skepticism of the three counties’ testing practices with the public, and now we want to know more. In the interest of transparency of our public education system and the children it serves, we have the following questions for these districts and for your department:

1.                Were any students enrolled in a civics course during the 2017-18 school year prevented by any of these districts from taking the required Civics End-Of-Course exam? 

2.                When and how was it determined which students would sit for the exam and which ones would not? 

3.                Who at the district level made this determination?

4.                Some schools are employing these dishonest tactics specifically to game the school grading system, especially those schools seeking to avoid the implications of the Schools of Hope interventions. Others do it to unscrupulously collect school improvement funds every other year, while student achievement never actually improves. How will manipulation of the system and avoidance of accountability be addressed by your department?

5.                Are there ways FLDOE could penalize a school or district found guilty of these tactics by lowering its final grade and/or withholding any school grade improvement funding?

Upon receipt of your answers, we plan to work with you, your colleagues at the Florida Department of Education, the governor and our legislative colleagues to review and improve existing state testing policies to ensure these dishonest and unethical practices do not happen again. 

Florida’s public schools have improved more than any other state in the last 20 years due in large part to A-F school grading and the transparency it brings to parents, taxpayers and the public. However, we will not see sustained growth if certain adults running the system are more committed to their own interests than the interests of the students they serve. 

We look forward to your response and appreciate your leadership and immediate attention to this matter. (Source: The Tampa Bay Times, use the link above to confirm.)

Take a good look at item 4 and the unfounded accusations thrown out with no supporting evidence.

We must ask ourselves: did the three districts and possibly others engage in scrubbing?

The answer is NO. They did not game the system by removing students in ways such that the students would never be tested. They did determine that many students needed more preparation in their studies and arranged their schedules accordingly.

Every 7th grade student who did not take the Civics EOC this year will take it next year as an 8th grade student.

The Florida Department of Education has already acknowledged that this is allowable by the law. Students must take the Civics EOC at some time during their years in middle school. The exact grade level is not specified.

Ya know, in the education biz, we call this differentiation of instruction to meet every student’s needs. Too bad we have lawmakers in Florida ignorant of the concept, even if they once served as a school board member.

The Testing Charade, Part Two

“In other words, when you hold people accountable using a numerical measure–vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever–two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is supposed to measure.” (Koretz, page 38.)

Inflated scores is not a problem limited to education. Koretz takes pains to demonstrate how it permeates any endeavor where too much focus is placed upon a score. He describes how British hospital emergency rooms were scored on how quickly they saw newly arriving patients, but the response was anything but good. Some hospitals hit their target by queueing the ambulances in the parking lot and not allowing people to be brought in until they could see them!

In other cases, hospitals were scored on how long it took to admit ER patients to the building. They got around that by declaring a gurney in the hall a hospital bed and patients lined the hallways as no rooms were available.

We haven’t been immune to that in the U.S. When New York began publishing mortality rates for cardiac patients, many physicians refused to treat the most seriously endangered patients.

When the target becomes the measure, it distorts the behavior of the people involved and it produces undesired outcomes.

This is known as Campbell’s Law and it rears up anywhere numerical measures are used to judge the performance of people. Decision-making inevitably skews towards whatever will make the number better.

As in education. Koretz shows how the results of high-stakes tests do not match those of low-stakes tests. He demonstrates how the dramatic improvement in 8th grade math scores in New York is not confirmed by the little improvement in the same grade on the NAEP scores. New York is not alone. The phenomena of state tests showing increasing gains while low-stakes tests do not is widespread and has been going on for decades.

What makes the difference? In the case of New York, the one area NAEP showed increases was algebraic thinking. Not coincidentally, that is the area heavily emphasized on the New York state test. That is the area, therefore, that teachers focused on to the detriment of the rest of mathematical content.

Koretz documents the reluctance of states and school districts to allow researchers to study this. It seems they simply do not want to find evidence that the proclaimed success stories, the gains in learning, are an illusion.

Why do scores inflate? Whenever a new test is introduced, scores drop. But as time goes on, scores move upward as teachers become more familiar with what is being tested and how it is being tested. As a result, they are better able to predict what students will see and prepare them to be successful.

The predictability of the test items is a large factor in inflating scores. Teachers can ignore what is not being tested; teachers can give students strategies to recognize test questions and answer them correctly whether or not the students actually know what to do.

In other words, because the tests are predictable, teachers are able to teach to the test and ignore the rest.

Why would they do that? Even ignoring VAM measurements and the career-ending and maybe life-destroying consequences of not focusing on getting the highest scores possible, the unrelenting pressure on teachers, administrators, and schools pushes them to make test scores the purpose of education. Good scores? Golden. Bad scores? Gehenna for you! The pressure began before VAM became the vogue among policymakers.

Few can withstand it. Koretz discusses cheating in Chapter Six, a chapter he allowed a colleague to write and share. The mentioned scandals are well-known. What is interesting is that, in passing the chapter to someone else, he subtly undermines it as a chief concern. Yes, cheating is wrong and yes, cheating should be stopped. Cheating should be punished. But even if all the cheating ends, test results will still be corrupted and we will still have a false picture of school improvement.

Next: Test prep, good and bad, unrealistic targets, the sham of Vam and the Common Core.