Students Are Not Like Beans

Great teaching and learning goes beyond standardized testing. Way beyond.

We are modeling our test-culture after a business theory popular mandated in the States that is based on quarterly earnings. This trains the eye toward the next quarter and the next quarter only. Myopia becomes the norm as participants scrape by on quotas. Similarly, students are put into various demographic groups and given frequent assessments. Their performance on these assessments (every three weeks in my current district) is analyzed to find out if each demographic is meeting the district’s quota. Easily enough, a person can see that this method is deeply flawed, primarily because people aren’t beans. This isn’t the way it has to be.

“Bean counting is the consequence of a view of the world as consisting of “things” to be manipulated, rather than people to be interacted with and conversed with and responded to.” — Steve Denning, Forbes Business, Online.

In fact, a student is very unlike a bean in so many ways. Consider the following ten facts about beans:

1. Beans are not cognitive creatures. 

2. Beans do not experience grief. 

3. Beans do not experience poverty. 

4. Beans do not experience discrimination. 

5. Beans are not affected by their inability to read, problem solve, or learn as well as other beans. 

6. Beans never need foster care, child support, or doctors’ visits. 

7. Beans do not feel the need to pretend everything is ok. 

8. Beans are not afraid to ask for help. 

9. Beans do not pressure other beans into poor decisions. 

10. Beans do not experience puberty.

I could continue to outline the many fascinating ways that students are not like beans, but but imagine if beans were just like students. Would frequent testing make the beans better beans? Or would a farmer be first obligated to address the ten issues (and hundreds more) first before considering the validity of any test or the judgment a test pronounces upon the quality of the beans (and their little bean trainers)?

No doubt, this metaphor is extremely exhausted by this point, but it certainly reveals the “data-driven” status quo’s absurdity. Great teaching is more than science — it is inarguably an art. A great teacher will be sensitive to a student’s individual needs in a way that no standardized test can be. A great teacher will be encouraging when a student feels defeated in ways that no standardized test could measure. A great teacher will strive to move mountains blocking a student’s achievements in ways VAM can not account. Great teachers are sensitive to a student’s stagnation and growth, pain and delight, poverty and privilege, anxiety and assuredness, turmoil and peace — and the list goes on.

I’ve compared our educational model to that of Germany’s in an earlier article. We can make a similar comparison here in the financial world. Germans rely upon great detail regarding complex businesses (like engineering fields) and take exacting measurements — however they consider the long term. If a product or service is currently unprofitable, they will likely continue to keep it if it shows future promise. They have more data and it is vastly more accurate. They have a much stronger information system than companies in the US as well. If you’re interested in reading more about this system, Management Accounting Quarterly has a wonderful abstract from 2007.

While it may sound at first like I’m arguing in favor of more data, I’m not. But I am. I don’t think the kind of data that comes from standardized tests could be construed by ANYONE as high quality or accurate. I do however think that the kind of “data” a master teacher utilizes day to day IS of this high quality and accuracy. Teachers use this data all day long — they confer and collaborate with colleagues about assignment ideas and lesson planning, they reflect with each other on the outcome of a lesson or event, they adapt their own lessons class after class throughout the day based on data that is collected in real-time through dozens of formative assessments while teaching. A really great teacher knows that their students succeed when they work well with teachers who teach the same students — regardless of department, when they listen to kids who look like they need an ear, and when they voice their concerns to the appropriate parties responsible for making in-the-now changes.

We horizontially align and vertically align — mostly through email and conversations in the hallway or during conferences. We pore over data we collect on our individual students when we ask a collegue, “Did Danny seem upset today? I wonder what was wrong?” and our reply is, “I called his grandmother. They were evicted since she lost her job and in two weeks they’re worried they will be living in a car.” We find solutions to challenges that no CCSS could ever address to help a student become successful.

The problem isn’t that students are not beans. The problem is the status quo is treating them like beans.



High-Stakes Testing Leads to High-Stress Lapses in Judgment

This is a handout given to third graders in El Paso, TX. (Check out the story here.)

The “lesson” was designed by a concerned counselor who wanted to diffuse students’ test anxiety and fears. She gathered their fears through some sort of survey and then put them on paper to talk with them about them. The district reports that it was a help to some kids. 

My greatest concern is this: Why are we making educational decisions that generate these kinds of fears among 8 and 9 year olds in the first place? 

Take a brief refresher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. 

I always point out to my kids that when the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are endangered, people quickly forget about values, morals, and ethics (self-actualization) to secure basic needs. 

This high-stakes testing culture threatens students and teachers and schools by putting their needs in serious jeopardy. 

A student’s esteem is threatened — confidence, achievement, respect by others, and self-esteem.

A teacher’s safety is threatened — security of employment, health, and resources.

When we are allowed to self-actualize, we can be our most moral, ethical selves. We just need to believe we have all the lower levels first. When those lower, most basic levels are threatened, people are pushed into desperation, which produces lapses in good judgment. 

The state’s answer is to threaten teachers and administrators with jail time for testing infractions. Not only will teachers lose their certificates to teach forever (their livelihood) but face PRISON for test security infractions. 

Does this sound like the kind of environment you would want your children to be educated in? Is this the kind of environment you would want to work in? What long-term effects do you suppose this will have on our children? On the profession?




It’s Testing Season in Texas

The EOCs for English this year are over in some districts, ongoing in others. The test this year is an amalgamation of last year’s two separate tests for reading and writing. The powers at Pearson combined the two four-hour tests into one five-hour monstrosity at the behest of our legislators here in Texas. It was anyone’s guess as to how this would impact students, but the intent was to reduce the time spent (wasted) on testing our kids. 

So far, I don’t think our kids feel confident about their anticipated results, regardless of their knowledge of English and their preparations to take the test. Students report feeling rushed and worse, not finishing their tests. This is so disheartening — we spend the majority of the year teaching them both English and instructing them on how to take a test like this and they don’t feel they have the time to properly perform. 

In general, I’ve seen faces marked by anxiety and fear that their efforts were not good enough. Some students reported that they could not answer their test questions due to medication issues (sleepiness is a side-effect of many medications students take). They report just trying to complete the test even without reading the questions. 

I’m still not sure how this system, this test, achieves what the Texas legislature or the POTUS hope to achieve. What it does achieve is erroneous data and a sense of wide-spread hopelessness among students. Our students are left feeling like they have no options and our teachers are made to feel ineffective at best. Meanwhile, campaigning politicians ironically point to our failing schools — a failure engineered by the politicians themselves. 

Parenting, Teaching

Fostering a Climate of Education At Home

[RMX] Studious cat

In public education, we are in the midst of a nationwide standardized testing frenzyAll over the country, states are carrying out aggressively daft measures to demonstrate “progress” in public school test scores. 

Teacher Monitors Standardized TestThese measures, brought on by a combination of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pursue scores often at students’ expense.

Teachers are prodded to be “data-driven,” studying locally administered tests meant to both measure a student’s progress throughout the year and predict their success on the state’s standardized test.  Students often face these assessments 2 to 6 times in a grading period. Teachers are asked pointed questions about the performance of different demographical sub-populations and about what actions they intend to take to assure that X number of students in that demographical sub-population will pass. Students also experience levels of stress similar to the pressures placed on educators by this technocratic approach.

test 2

Students feel punished as they are pulled from electives to be placed in remedial classes geared toward passing the state assessments. Sometimes they are pulled out of half an elective class so they can be tutored during their teacher’s conference period. In Texas, students could be required to come to school for tutoring on “Flex days,” days set aside to address ONLY those who are not making enough progress while all others are allowed to be home.  The system implies that if the student doesn’t make enough progress, their work is worthless.

This entire approach seems to be a good example of the law of diminishing returns. At some point, the sheer amount of stress/labor/work/fatigue begins to have a negative effect on progress.  This is when the question of “what are we still doing wrong?” becomes best answered by, “We are doing too much.”

Parent helping child study

Reflecting on which students seem to best able to adapt and progress with minimal intervention and which constantly struggle, I’m convinced that the main difference lies in parents.

Parents have the ability to begin their children’s education as early as they wish and ensure they are learning the concepts, skills, and attitudes they need to be successful at an early age. Parents have the ability to have one-on-one “lessons” (read: conversations) with their children. These sessions can be free of the usual classroom distractions, free of discipline issues that detract from instruction, and free of peer pressure to underperform. Parents alone may enjoy concentrated conversations that not only clarify, but reward natural curiosity and inquiry. Parents can do, one-on-one with their children, what a teacher cannot do in several tutorial sessions.

I realize that not all parents feel confident in their essay writing skills or their algebra knowledge. Many probably couldn’t say with certainty what binomial nomenclature is, much less explain how to identify a prepositional phrase.

I realize that many parents, overwhelmed by poverty, work several jobs to make ends meet. Time for these conversations is scarce if existent at all.

I realize that some parents don’t find education as important as football, cheer leading, or soccer practice.

Do It

To many, having an educated child isn’t as glorious as having a child who is makes a game-saving Friday night touchdown (in the short run).

I realize that this idea causes parents to invest in their kids in a way that exposes their own doubts, fears, and lack of confidence in education. It asks parents to take time out to re-learn material that might have been the cause for grief and frustration during their school days.

What if, though, parents agreed to find ways around some of these barriers? What if they used technology to assist in teaching the lessons instead of relying solely on their own knowledge? What if parents asked neighbors, grandparents, and after-school programs to help push a culture of education? What if parents took pride in their child’s ability to find the hypotenuse of a triangle and make head cheerleader? What if parents decided they didn’t want anything to stop their kids from succeeding, even if it meant confronting their own self-doubts?

I’m beginning a series of articles meant to help parents of all back grounds, cultures, and educational levels to begin fostering a climate of education in their homes on a daily basis. I’ll talk about what I find most secondary students lacking in their academic backgrounds as well as what has worked with my own students and even my own children. My goal is to empower parents to make a difference in their children’s lives, making school a much less stressful place to be. (No helicoptering needed!) 

Hopefully, this testing fad will fade and usher in a new educational era of freedom for students and trust in teachers. Until then, it takes a village.


The Cost of High-Stakes Testing


Test anxiety affects even Grumpy Cat.

This week, I had a Sophomore tell me he wanted to drop out. 

He is an intelligent, affable, respectful, kind, and enjoyable student. He gets along with others. He works hard. He asks questions. He cares about his grades. He turns his work in and has even voluntarily come for tutorials. But he has not passed a single standardized test while in high school. 

Texas introduced a series of new standardized tests to replace the TAKS test in 2012. The End of Course (EOC) exams in high school and STAAR exams in the lower grades are meant to meet federal requirements instated with No Child Left Behind and other similar state legislation. By the most recently updated standards, students entering 11th grade next year should have passed five tests — two of which are English tests — demonstrating their proficiency in the state’s TEKS. The tests focus on two-part questions that are meant to determine both a student’s knowledge of the material as well as their ability to reason and problem-solve. 

My district, like many others, has become “data-driven” — the latest fad in public education here in Texas. We are turning back the clocks to a time when technocrats ruled corporations with iron-fisted adherence to “the bottom line.” Regardless if the product is quality or not, regardless of whether our work is meaningful or lasting, we WILL produce results that appear quantifiably satisfactory. Our success has become quintile-based, our achievements parsed into sub-pop strategies, and the measure of our worth based on one lone testing date. 

To ensure the district can appear blameless to the powers-that-be, we have administered test after test after test to our students. We test them every three weeks in their core subjects to measure their progress and determine their likelihood of passing the EOC. Teachers must analyze their classes’ data, meet with administrators to discuss the results and provide answers for why their scores are thus or thus. Teachers must work to develop strategies to ensure their students are on the mark, prepared and projected to pass in the Spring. We must discuss students as numbers and develop strategies to get our bottom line to an acceptable level. When we finally near the official test, we administer a full-length mock test. Much like an election poll, it attempts to predict our final numbers. 

Meanwhile, Sophomore students who failed any one of their Freshmen exams (or all of them) are re-taking the exam over and over in hopes to pass at some point in the year. Many are repeatedly met with disappointment. They are placed in remedial classes for a semester meant to help them pass the test(s) they are failing. They are taken out of their electives and sent to tutorial pull-outs with a teacher during her conference. Their parents are informed of their lack of achievement. 

Students as well as teachers are expected to perform above satisfactory level in class each day, on each three-week’s assessment, on each attempt of the exam, during their remedial class, and during their mandatory tutorial pull-outs. If not, students are assigned to mandatory morning tutorials with the same teacher. The pressure mounts for students and teachers as administrators walk through classes and tutorials, trying to figure out just what exactly a teacher is doing wrong. 

This gives you some sort of idea of the state of public education at the moment. 

It also puts into perspective my student’s desire to drop out. Repeatedly, he has been told he is a failure by our public school system. This student, who will make a wonderful employee some day, believes himself to be a failure. He is weary from the constant defeats. He is depressed by a lack of success. Because all that matters now is the bottom line.