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

 

The Teeches & Leeches… by Dr. Soods

The Enemy

 

The peeples of Lernville were learners—the best!

They shared what they learned; it was school, sans contest.

 

The pathways of Lernville were twisty and turny,

Fun things to look at, no one in a hurry.

 

The Pooples of Lernville were taught by their Teeches—

The Teeches of Lernville: adored by their Pooples.

 

Learning’s the journey peeps wanted to last,

They never got finished, “What for?” they all asked.

 

The Teeches all knew each Poople they taught

And the Pooples were happy—they learned quite a lot!

 

The Teeches helped Pooples with readin’ and writin’,

They helped them with buildin’, they helped ‘em stop fightin’.

 

Teeches taught Pooples old songs and new dances

They talked about kings, long ago happenstances.

 

Pooples learned to count numbers, they learned algebratin’

It weren’t always easy— it could be frustratin’…

 

But all of the Pooples knew Teeches were there

To help them and guide them if they felt despair.

 

Teeches helped ‘em explore the world and its voices,

The Pooples of Lernville, they made learning choices.

 

Their neighbors in Gatesville weren’t nearly so lucky,

The Schoolmeister there was really quite touchy.

 

“A box for each student! A box that they’ll fit in—

We chop ‘em, we pound any part that is stickin’!

 

“We make sure they learns every fact in the book,

Or go back and start over, by hookety-crook!”

 

Gatesville was orderly; neat and quite straightly,

No wasting of time, no Poople-come-lately.

 

Schoolmeister McDuncan was very specific,

His speeches on learning were, alas, quite prolific.

 

A standard for reading, a test when that’s finished,

More standards, more tests to keep students skittish!

 

Obedient students reading 70/30,

Not too much fiction; it makes your head hurty!

 

The two Bros. Kooks were both up for a quest,

They relished a chance to purloin an int’rest.

 

They handed McDuncan their credit-y cards,

And told him to spend ‘til the stack reached to Mars.

 

And the man Gatesville’s named for, he told them to hurry,

“We got to remember, Standards must be quite sure-y!”

 

Together they Kooked up a doozy for students,

They called it the Kommon Kore Standard Impudence.

 

“No student can do this! It’s truly implacable–

With this we can show Lernville Teeches are laughable!”

 

“Once Lernville parents lose faith in their Teeches,

We sell them our Kommon Komputery Leeches!”

 

Quite soon in Lernville, the message descended,

Less fun for Pooples! No school open-ended!

 

It’s got to be done to fight off the foreigners,

National security calls for cast-iron outcomers.

 

The Teeches of Lernville were terribly stressed,

They didn’t believe what they worked for were tests.

 

The Pooples of Lernville felt less than inspired—

Their grades on the tests could get Teeches fired?

 

In place of the Teeches the Leeches were tendered,

Costly machines that Poople minds might be rendered.

 

At this point, Teeches and Pooples became furious,

They hated the changes, which had grown rather serious.

 

And all of the Teeches, they came to consensus

That all of that testing made no common senses.

 

They marched to the office of Principal Doopt,

“This testing is tedious, it’s dull and we’ve drooped,”

they said in one voice, “Away with this scam!

We want to help Pooples, that’s who we am!”

 

And all of the peeps of Lernville that day

Decided to make sure that Teeches would stay.

 

“We don’t want Leeches or any machines

That don’t know our Pooples and walk in like kings.”

 

And that’s how they ended the Kooky Kore Schemin’

While Pooples resumed both learnin’ and dreamin’:

“We want to do stuff, and share what we’re learning,

School always includes things we might need for earning.

But don’t try to stuff us like moon pies for parties,

‘Cause the dreamin’ part makes us more than just smarties!” 

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Are We Simply Mad?

Are We Mad Graphic

Bedlam.

The word invokes images of madmen chained to walls, ignored by society, abused by caretakers. We cringe at the idea that places like Bethlem Royal Hospital (nicknamed “Bedlam”) actually existed to isolate the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, under the oppressive watch of “keepers” like Helkiah Crooke and James Monro. You could end up in Bedlam if your behavior did not fit social norms, if you stuttered, if you suffered from strabismus or physical deformity…or just about anything else that might set you apart from society. A lifetime of imprisonment and abuse accompanied the label of insanity.

So, what determines that a person is “mad” today? The recent publication of DSM5, the new diagnostic manual for mental disorder, has touched off a firestorm of debate within the medical community. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has declared that it “will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” It’s fascinating that scientists are rejecting a cookie-cutter approach to defining mental disorders and advocating for the conscious application of subjective professional judgment when the educational community seems hell-bent on doing just the opposite.

Educators live in bedlam today, and Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and their ilk are our new Helkiah Crookes. The Gates Foundation funding of Common Core State Standards has given rise to a new House of Bedlam, created without any meaningful input from public school teachers. The U.S. Department of Education, eager to subvert the delegated state power over public school curricula, has leveraged Bedlam by requiring states to accept the CCSS or forgo federal funding for schools. The Danielson Group tools for teacher and principal evaluation places educators in Bedlam cells of specific, measurable, attainable, (un-)realistic, and time-bound goals. Bob Marzano’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) scheme promotes itself with quasi-evangelical workshops that demonize educators resistant to the dogmas of standards-based education.

Conservative political lust for objectifying learning outcomes has blinded us to the value that professional judgment offers. When we accept that “standards” should function as an adjunct to qualified discernment—and not as a replacement for it—we will emerge from bedlam.

We’re mad, you know.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Truth In Labeling

plc award

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 Inigo Montoya: The Princess Bride

 I hate buying things and finding out they aren’t what they were advertised to be, don’t you? You’d think that when people put a label on something, that “something” should be exactly as described. I either feel cheated or manipulated when stuff like that happens, and I’m unlikely to respect or trust the company or person who treated me that way. I remember accompanying a friend to an auto dealership—he was looking for a truck, and was assured by a salesperson he had talked to over the phone that the “Custom Deluxe” model had all the bells and whistles he’d ever need. Upon examination, it became obvious that the truck’s label ought to have been “Generic Unequipped.” It didn’t even come with a radio or floor mats…you had to select each desired option and wait weeks for the items to be shipped from the factory for installation. Neither of us has ever purchased a vehicle from that automaker since walking (running?) away from the lot.

“Professional Learning Communities” are another good example of mislabeling.  They are neither professional nor learning-centered, and are as likely to be divisive as they are to unify.

When I first heard of Professional Learning Communities, I had high expectations of meaningful dialogue and exploration of ideas in education. I love ideas, and an opportunity to sit with respected colleagues and engage in heated discussion as we debated new (or old) educational initiatives sounded ticky-boo to me. Imagine my discomfort after discovering that no debate was included—I was treated to a PowerPoint on the “correct” way to teach and collaborate. A behaviorist definition of learning was assumed; students have objectives to master, they demonstrate competency or are assigned involuntary “interventions” to assure that they progress in lockstep with their peers. Every teacher uses the same “common formative assessments” so that every student receives a “guaranteed” education. After the PowerPoint, I got to sit down with my peers and “clarify essential outcomes” so that our “achievement data” would be aligned for later “discussion.” Over time, I’ve discovered that challenging the underlying assumptions or the practices of PLC dogma is enough to trigger questions of one’s “professionalism.”

Yawn.

Professionalism, in my book, is a concept that deserves more consideration before being equated with compliance with one philosophy of education or learning. Professionalism means making decisions based on a deep understanding of the history and philosophies related to a discipline; it means autonomy within a range of practice; it means being part of a self-governing body of practitioners. I try to behave as a professional, but I’m pretty sure I’m not treated as one by society, and I’m convinced that the PLC folks have hijacked the term for purposes unrelated to its true meaning. They want to eliminate teacher autonomy and replace it with lists of standards to comply with.

Learning, as a concept, has also been corrupted by the PLC folks. If you accept their limited definition of learning (“what you know and can do”), you’re likely to accept the rest of their dogma without question. I don’t accept it, because I believe that their definition is only one of many ways to parse the term. Humanists often describe learning as an ongoing process rather than as attainment of a particular goal. To constructivists, the act of imparting meaning to the world by assimilating and accommodating experiences is an internal process a teacher can assist, but only occasionally trigger.  There are many other definitions, but it’s sufficient to say that the PLC brigade rejects them all because they do not focus on utilitarian outcomes open to measurement. The absolutist attitude of this behavioral stance should be repulsive to anyone who wants to treat education as an interactive journey of exploration rather than a prescriptive march to an unwavering end.  Try suggesting an alternative to the PLC definition at a staff meeting—it’s guaranteed to cause administrators to blanch and assessment supervisors to gasp at your heresy. They want certainty, and any suggestion that acceptable alternatives exist endangers the house of cards they are building.

Community is a term that connotes kinship and identity, but that’s not what is being created by PLC. I have kinship with my family, and they certainly provide me with an identity, but I am not expected, by virtue of my family membership, to believe or behave in exactly the same manner as my parents or siblings. The advocates of PLC demand exactly that. No? Then why is there an entire book devoted to the subject available for sale on the Delusion Tree website called Working With Difficult & Resistant Staff? If you’re not on board with every detail of the PLC belief system, you will be plastered with a label. You must be one of these:

  • An Underminer (Or are you just digging a hole to jump in and hide?)
  • A Contrarian (Because you must be a negative person not to drink the Kool-Aid…)
  • A Recruiter (“Come to the dark side of progressive thinking, Luke…”)
  • Challenged (…you can’t possibly be “normal” since you have an alternative viewpoint…)
  • An On-the-Job Retiree (You’re just bellying up to the public trough, aren’t you, you slacker?)
  • The Resident Expert (Hey, that master’s degree on your wall isn’t really yours, is it?)
  • An Unelected Representative (Gee, and you hadn’t even considered running for office…)
  • A Whiner & Complainer (Just stick a hanger in your mouth before the next meeting, huh?)

The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind as I peruse the list. There is no room for dissent if you call yourself an educator! True believers will burn you at the stake. Straw man arguments like this do not bear up to the slightest examination, and are insulting to those who think deeply about education—but think differently than devotees of the PLC cult. PLC is a belief system akin to a religion, requiring the faith of believers rather than the contributions of thinking skeptics.

Just as the truck my buddy and I went shopping for deserved a truthful label, so does what is now termed “PLC.” Let’s call the initiative “ABC,” or Amateurish Behaviorist Congregations. After all, it advocates a sloppy and un-professional treatment of the multi-dimensional concept of learning according to behaviorist maxims, requiring unthinking obedience from the converted.

I claim religious freedom as my ticket out.

If that won’t work, just burn me as a heretic and scatter my ashes on the doorstep of the Gates Foundation.

© David Sudmeier, 2014