Sunday, March 22, 2009

Accountability in Education?

They're going to have to re-think this "accountability" thing. So far, under the Texas experience, and now with NCLB nationally, we have had a total failure in two very important ways. (1) Any time one ties school funding to a lowest-common-denominator standardized test, students get taught to only that lowest common denominator, and (2) school officials are encouraged to cheat to ensure funding. And that's a fact, Jack! The cheating has already happened: the much ballyhooed "Texas miracle" was a Houston school district that was found later to have cheated. It is still happening, and is very widespread.

The same things will happen with proposals linking teacher merit pay to standardized test results: lowest common denominator and cheating. Further, a fundamental problem here is the use of multiple-choice standardized tests instead of actual measures of learning. The lazy bureaucrats refuse to do anything but multiple-choice testing because they are much easier to grade. Unfortunately, multiple choice format really measures almost nothing but "answer-screening" skills.

All of this sound and fury over education will signify nothing, nothing of any use whatsoever, until we go back to what was actually working 50+ years ago, and fix the "social promotion / mercy grades / grade inflation" problem that got started back then. Call it what you will, but youngsters are graduating with good grades on their transcripts that they did not earn, and have been, beginning about about 1957-ish (I actually saw it happen in a few cases). It has been happening with ever-increasing frequency, ever since. Until that grade inflation problem is fixed, no government approach of any kind, including any sort of "accountability" schemes, will ever work. It's not a top-down problem.

The textbook manufacturers already supply good exam materials with their books, and have for many years now. We need no standardized tests, including standardized final exams in lieu of TAKS tests, nor do we need bloated parasitic bureaucracies to oversee them. All we need is the TEKS objectives we now have, the already-existing law that says those textbooks and associated exams must be written to those TEKS objectives, and another new law that says students must pass those exams at 70+%, no grading curves, no fudging, no mercy grades, no nothing, in order to pass the course.

A much smaller TEA could enforce this simply by observing in the classroom occasionally, at random. Of course, those bureaucrats would have to get up off their duffs and actually do something useful, in my scheme. That’ll never happen, not until we change out about 90%+ of our elected officials at the ballot box. Maybe the freed-up funds could be used to fix some of our roads and bridges, without privatizing all our highways as foreign-owned toll roads.

Bottom-up reform to an objective grading standard instead of top-down standardized tests is the only fathomable way to free-up teachers to actually teach their subjects. If they can do that, then those of their students who are willing to learn (and here I emphasize the phrase “who are willing to learn”), can easily pass the new, objectively-graded final exams.

Here’s the real rub for fans of standardized test-based “accountability”: because not all students are willing to learn, accountability systems based on student scores, especially standardized multiple-guess tests, are nothing but the most egregious crap. Teachers have no control over student willingness-to-learn (self-motivation). It is pointless, and indeed very counterproductive, to hold someone responsible for things not under their control. Self-motivation must come from within, by definition. That’s really why there is such turnover among the ranks of new teachers, at all levels of education.

I know that actually teaching the subject will work. Been there and done it already. At a school I will not name, all the 9th graders were funneled through me for Algebra-1. The school knew they had an improperly educated cohort coming up through the grades, and were afraid of losing their "acceptable" TAKS rating, when this bunch flunked that bone-head 9th grade TAKS math test. This school was also very hard-over on TAKS test preparation, especially TAKS math.

School officials (whom I also will not identify) did not like it when I taught the subject, instead of teaching to the TAKS test. Furthermore, I identified where this cohort's math education had gone sour: coaches “worksheeting” students instead of teaching the subject, in at least grades 6-8, where actual math education is so critical. So, over that school year, I taught 150+ kids 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade math, all at once!

The kids failed every single TAKS practice test all year, precisely because they did not yet know their 9th grade math yet (we hadn’t finished it yet). School officials decided not to renew my contract because I did not teach to that stupid bonehead TAKS test, as evidenced by those practice test failures. I didn't care, I had landed the job teaching math for TSTC by that time. I just continued doing my real job: actual and substantive education of the kids.

When the real TAKS test came in April, by two bodies enough 9th graders passed for the school to keep their rating. I had pulled off a miracle of accelerated education, and I did it by teaching 4 years' worth of the damned subject in 1 year, not "training monkees" for that stupid standardized test, which is what the officials wanted me to do.

There are a couple of schools around here that do it right (I taught 3 years in one of them). All the rest do it wrong (producing trained monkees for a bonehead test). This miseducation surely shows in the product we get at TSTC. I actually had one student who was trying to take college-level algebra, when he could not even add 2 and 3 and get 5 on his fingers.

I pulled off the same accelerated-education miracle, teaching in a grant program at TSTC during summer 2008. Over 6 weeks, I had 3 groups of about 15-20 local high-schoolers come in for math remediation, each for a 2-week session. I used no textbook or computers for instruction. I simply re-taught grade 6-9 pencil-and-paper math (arithmetic, pre-algebra, and algebra-1) from a series of handouts and practice test problems. The students took a placement test when they started, and again when they finished. Out of each 15-20 student group, there would be 2-5 that were actually there to learn (self-motivated). Their placement test scores doubled. The rest showed no improvement.

Surprise, surprise! Motivation really does lie within the student, not with the teacher. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. And that is why top-down "accountability" based on standardized test scores for populations of students is pure crap. It always will be.

A final note about the TSTC grant experiment. The state bureaucrats running the grant insisted on describing my remedial math course as "computer-based", simply because the students took the placement test on the computer. Yet as I told them many times in post-grant interviews, the classroom teaching was pure pencil-and-paper math. I did not even teach any “calculator”, those devices were used only for running numbers after the equation was already solved analytically. The pig-headed idiots could not see the truth for their own pre-conceived notions. Not a damn one of them actually observed my class. Not once.

I think "accountability" lies in actually knowing what you are talking about, and it applies more to bureaucrats than to any teachers that I know.

I yield the soapbox,