Data—Dada—Dodo?

DataDataDodoPic2

 

“Speak roughly to your little boy


and beat him when he sneezes

he only does it to annoy


because he knows it teases.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The word “data” has invaded my teaching environment in new and un-intriguing ways over the past few years. To my mind, data is verifiable quantification of some variable over a period of time or space. Data sources I like to use in my history classes include maps—which are almost magical in packing both time and space together—and charts, which permit analysis of varied combinations of data. New on my living room wall is a map of the original Jamestown Colony, which constantly provokes new questions of relationships and consequences. Struggling with the questions that data suggests is some of the most rewarding work I do along with students. We don’t usually find the answers, but we expand our understanding and sure rack up a list of good queries to pursue!

I like data.

That side of data is not what I hear much about. Instead, teachers are asked to collect “data” on student achievement in their classroom in order to “improve instruction.” Districts need data! Are students up to standard? Did you use the Common Formative Assessment that your district Committee to Forestall Creativity and Professional Judgment created to go along with the Uncommonly Boring State Standards that were produced by a Secret Committee for Undemocratic Mandates? Since teachers must provide “data” to prove that students who don’t care about standards are mastering standards teachers did not choose to create or abide by, a “smart teacher” creates goals that are almost impossible not to achieve, or simply alters the data to suit. Data is no longer a tool of informed judgment, but a means of quantifiable coercion. Data “speaks roughly” to us in the tones of Duchess Michelle Rhee rather than conversing with us as Socrates might.

The surreal feeling of participation in a system that corrupts the meaning and use of data not only prompts alienation of teachers from their occupation, but also incites self-loathing. Somehow, teachers know that collecting data for an end of the year summary evaluation meeting has limited relevance to the development of student ability to participate effectively as an individual in a democracy. If you are compiling a stack of “evidence,” you sure aren’t talking with students, or working alongside them as meaningful, productive data is pored over. Data can lead us to greater interaction and thoughtful engagement in the process of learning, or it can limit our scope to one or two measurements, chosen a priori. Data becomes dada, because the natural and dynamic quality of data has become an obstacle to education.

I love the absurd and participate in it daily with gusto, but a system that is supposed to have serious merit should not be based on a preposterous notion. It is definitely absurd to think that persons drawn to a humanistic endeavor like teaching would value the reductionist quantification of learning this notion of data represents. Absurdity ought to make me laugh. This absurdity makes me wince, and every administrator doing their final evaluation meetings ought to cringe with embarrassment if they are focusing on numbers rather than the professional judgments that stem from them.

The true purpose of this system is to transfer students to a system where achievement can be thoroughly quantified and “individualized,” with those poor learners all becoming perfect replicas without blemish—of a systematically neutered blandishment. Machines do this sort of thing better and better, and do it without internal conflict. Computers collect data faster and more accurately than any human, and apply it without concern for irrelevant factors like, say, whether the learner had breakfast or a parental hug before school.

Data—Dada—Dodo. The extinction of teachers as a species is inevitable if we do not contest the perception of data as the final arbiter of educational excellence. I believe teachers will speak up to demand attention to the un-quantified and undervalued professional judgments that are necessary to a rounded educational experience and which do not exist without human interaction.

I may be a dinosaur, but nobody’s diggin’ my bones yet.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

AlbertHandsome

I used to live in a room full of mirrors

All I could see was me

I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors

Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

 

It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.

Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.

The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.

Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.

It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.

Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.

Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.

At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.

No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.

And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.

What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Who’s Selling You Shovels?

Pearson Snake Oil

In 1848, Sam Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco yelling, ”Gold! There’s gold in the American River!” Brannan had no intention to dig for gold himself, of course. Just before he made the announcement, he had purchased every pickaxe, shovel and pan available in Northern California. He knew that the people who came to California to dig for gold were suckers; a few might find wealth, but most would simply line his pockets.

Today, politicians, state education officials, district superintendents and school board members are suckers in the new “gold rush.”

In the “Race to the Top,” we have lined the pockets of gurus, computer hucksters, and corporate consultants galore—and the further we go, the higher the price tag gets. In the search for “gold,” we spend plenty of it.

So who’s our Sam Brannan? Well, Pearson Publishing has applied for the position, and appears to be the front-runner. But watch out, because these guys are famous for sloppy in-house “research” to support their money-making initiatives.

Take, for example, Cogmed, a “brain-training” system Pearson claims will “effectively change the way the brain functions to perform at its maximum capacity.” According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it’s all bunk. Dr. Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence says, “Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”

Pearson also markets “SIOP” (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) as a “scientifically based” program for ELL students. The Institute of Education Sciences found that No studies of … (SIOP) … meet … evidence standards.” Another study also found major deficiencies, stating “Because of the widespread use of the SIOP and its far-reaching advertising, published research supporting the SIOP should be made of sterner stuff.”

The Common Core and PARCC tests are baloney, too. There is no evidence that the CCSS “standards” positively affect learning or that performing well (or poorly) on these tests is any indication of future performance in college or career—and test results certainly have no relevance to becoming a productive member of our society. All evidence indicates that Pearson is making plenty of money, however.

Sam Brannan was a heartless capitalist, but at least his picks and shovels did the job. The guys at Pearson who have concocted the Kommon Kore Swizzle Quizzes can’t even claim that. They’re flogging bogus products, a pattern of behavior that seems well established.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be suckered? Several obvious factors include:

  • A sincere, but misguided desire to “guarantee” that all students make lockstep progress, despite poverty or other intervening variables.
  • Political and financial pressure—Arne Duncan demands that states accept the CCSS and use test scores to evaluate teachers…or face restricted use of federal funds for education.
  • Unwitting and unwarranted trust in companies that sell products to assist already overworked educators.

In the end, the only people who find gold in education today are companies like Pearson, whose main objective is a higher profit margin, not the development of young citizens for active participation in a democracy. They are snake oil salesmen of the lowest variety. They cynically peddle their products with false promises of better learning which is “scientifically based,” leading school districts to expend limited funds on unnecessary and unhelpful items. Those expenses rob students themselves of funds that might better be spent on decreased class size and an expanded, more personal curriculum.

So what does one teacher do?

You can start at your own staff meetings by forcing public acknowledgment of the stark realities of Testing über Alles:

  • Ask your administrators if the tests you are required to give have been tested for reliability and validity—and to supply the research on which that determination is based. If they can’t, assume it doesn’t exist.
  • Ask them for specific examples of “instructional decisions” that the tests will influence for the students you have at present. I’ll bet the results won’t be available until the little darlings have flown your coop.
  • Ask them how much money is spent per pupil on each test…and if they’d prefer to spend the money on some other frippery…like maybe additional staff?
  • Ask administrators for evidence that test scores actually reflect differences in classroom learning, and not income level or other intervening variable. All evidence is to the contrary.
  • Let members of your community know that it is legal to opt-out of standardized testing—and ask your administration for specific district guidelines parents should follow to do so. Advocate that those guidelines be published and distributed to parents along with all other information about standardized testing.
  • Then, when you are accused of being “unprofessional” because you are forcefully challenging decisions made by district or state officials above your pay grade, ask them how it can be unprofessional to expect that educational decisions be based on “real science” that shows a benefit to both teacher and student rather than the wallets of Pearson investors?

The moral of the story is that since we aren’t in the gold digging business, we don’t need to buy shovels from anyone.

And if you just can’t accept that, at least don’t buy your shovels from companies like Pearson, whose only goal is gold by any means necessary.