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The Criminalization of Students – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society

The Criminalization of Students – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.

Sadly this is a reality that is ignored by our policymakers who are only interested in testing and testing and testing and testing and testing

School accountability in action

Again we find more evidence that school compliance systems are on the wrong track by focusing almost exclusively on high-stakes testing. Part of the purpose of schooling is teaching citizenship which includes social emotional learning (SEL). Not only should schools focus more on SEL, this should be part of the overall data picture used for compliance and improvement purposes. Although more in-depth coverage would be more helpful, it is good that the mainstream media is noticing our current compliance systems for public schools are lacking.

A column all Tennesseans should read

Dave Cook’s column in this morning’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in education and education policy in Tennessee. Check it out at:

Using and Misusing Value Added Testing in Tennessee

A recent position paper published by The American Statistical Association (the largest professional organization for professional statisticians) questions the use of value added assessments to make personnel and other high stakes decisions. This is important for Tennesseans because Tennessee teachers have been subjected to such questionable use of TVAAS (Tennessee Value Added Assessment System) data since 2010.

First, a little about how TVAAS works. TVAAS uses a group of individual students’ past test scores to project estimated future test scores for the same group of students. So, every student who is starting school this month has a projected score of where the statistical model projects the average score to be at the end of the school year, thus measuring their “growth” by the end of the school year. For teacher evaluation in Tennessee if a class of students score above this projection a teacher is judged to have done a better than average job because the students improved more than the estimated projection. Should the students score lower than projected the teacher is judged to have done a subpar job. One might think that using TVAAS is simple as using a baseball batting average.

In fact, Tennessee has been using the TVAAS system for over 20 years and the system provides useful data since it shows much more than what percentage of students are proficient on testing standards from year to year. So, when used correctly an academic team, school or school district can tell if reform initiatives or program improvements are working (and how well they might be working or not working). For example, say a middle school wants to implement a new reading program, but they want to see if it works before trying it school-wide. So the school implements it in the 7th grade and the school decides to use their year-end TCAP tests to determine if the program worked. If the teachers and principal only look at the percentage of students who score proficient at the end of this year compared to the percentage of students scoring proficient at the end of last year in the 7th grade, then they can’t really tell if the program worked because they compared two different groups of students at different times. But if they have a projected score and an actual score on the same group of students, then they could more easily determine if their new reading program worked.

The problem is that value added assessments, like TVAAS, are designed to make programming decisions like in the example above. Value added systems are not designed to make personnel or teacher effectiveness decisions. According to the American Statistical Association, value added testing systems, “typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors not included in the model”. In other words a value added system is unable to separate out teacher performance from all the factors (such as student motivation, if parents have hired tutors, if there has been a high level of student transience during the year, or other factors) that affect student achievement.

This creates a problem for teachers and administrators in Tennessee. One-third of the annual teacher evaluation is based on a statistical system that is being used differently from how it was designed. Yet despite these problems there are lobbying and advocacy groups who are supporting using this system for hiring, firing and compensation decisions for teachers; despite the knowledge that using such systems can lack of fairness and possess questionable statistical appropriateness.

Who do our policy makers listen to? Experts disagree with a large part of our teacher evaluation system. Maybe more people should question their state representatives, school board members and other policymakers regarding statistically questionable use of TVAAS data.

The complete ASA statement can be found at

Effective teaching means developing relationships

Last Sunday’s Parade (August 3, 2014) magazine had an interesting cover story, “What Makes a Great Teacher”. Usually pieces like this make me groan with worry because often they are just fluff pieces and sometimes even have mis-information for parents or the community. Happily this article was actually quite good, particularly focusing on how good teachers often use student mistakes and/or misunderstanding to help them learn.

I think this would be a good start for learning more about what professional teachers do and how students learn, but only a start. What is missing, although hinted at, is the important nature of how teachers develop relationships with their students. One of the most difficult tasks teachers really face is how to motivate students to persist in completing quality, thorough work and how to help students risk making mistakes in front of other students. Creating such a relationship oriented environment takes more than awareness-it takes work every day. Some questions to ask about how your schools work might be:

Does the administration provide teachers the level of support necessary to develop such a relationship oriented environment?

Do teachers focus on helping work through mistakes or just point them out?

Are there structural barriers that interfere with relationship development (such as teachers who see 100-200 different students every day)?

Core Subjects?

I recently read in the newspaper about an elementary school that had been built fairly recently that had been built to include an art studio and a science lab. Sadly, if you guessed that these rooms were used for art and science you would be mistaken. These rooms were used for storage. Yes that’s right storage-students had never been allowed in these rooms, unfortunately just because you build a science lab or an art studio does not mean that you will actually have science or art teachers.

The problem is that Tennessee, like a lot of states, does not use art or science for school accountability purposes, meaning that these subjects are less likely to be taught. I would propose that states should instead mandate a common core of subjects that are taught not just in high school but in elementary school as well-including:

• Math
• English
• Social Studies
• Science
• Fine Arts
• Foreign/non-English Language
• Health/Wellness/physical education

By the way, the order should not be construed to indicate that one subject is more important than others; all of these should be taught at elementary, middle and high school levels. If we are really serious about preparing our students for the 21st century should we not spend less time on test prep activities which often cost several weeks out of the school year? Instead should we not invest instructional time in raising healthy kids who have real and useful knowledge of the 21st century world?

Overtesting in Tennessee?

Why do we test so much? During the last several years, as I have visited schools in Tennessee I have noticed that there is much more test preparation occurring than there used to be. I have visited classrooms where teachers are using practice manuals for Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) as early as January when to prepare for the testing cycle in late April.
This concerns me for several reasons, the most important two center around avoiding aimless learning in the classroom.

The most worrisome problem I see with this overtesting leads to an almost philosophical question. Do we want students to learn to take tests or do we want students to learn something useful? Despite all of the changes that have taken place over the last several years one thing has not changed: the amount of time students spend at school. The unintended consequence of the testing and accountability movement is that the priority for learning time is going to be to find ways to improve student test scores-whether those test scores represent achievement or not. So teachers are spending time trying to provide state administrators what they want-better test scores, rather than what students need-learning activities to prepare them for life in the 21st century.

Boredom. Are there more things that are interesting for students than learning how choose the right answer on a bubble test? Larry Brendtro (see for more information about Larry) has often used the term “interest deficit disorder” to describe why some students have difficulty in school. Think about your own level of curiosity and how long it would take to exhaust it by practicing to take multiple choice tests. Do you think children and adolescents can stay interested for several months each year? Now don’t get me wrong, I know that some school activities no matter how dull they may be are necessary. But I continue to question a policy decision that intentionally forces boredom on students where there little real world application.

Maybe what is needed is for citizens to actively stand up and tell political and policy leaders that testing should not drive teaching, learning and curriculum in schools.

TAEA Summer Institute

TAEA 12july Neurosci Inf Teach Practices At-Risk Students

The Tennessee Alternative Education Association proved to be a lively group that provided a great opportunity for discussion. Many of the comments left by participants indicate that we need to continue gain professional understanding of how education neuroscience can inform teacher professional practice in working with students in alternative environments. I want to thank everyone who attended the session and I look forward to further discussions.

Please feel free to send me an email and I can provide a complete bibliography.

TN CEC 11oct It’s Not the Program

This is a prese…

This is a presentation from the Tennessee Council for Exceptional Children Conference in October 2011. The participants were mostly administrators and professions so the discussion centered more  on organizational change. So instead of what to do which was really what the presentation was about we talked about how to create change within schools to create an environment and culture that develops resilience within adolescents. Of particular interest in the discussion was how some organizations can maintain a culture that is supportive or “authoritative” (see slide 9) and others do not. I still maintain that if the leadership within an organization really wishes to promote positive change within their students they can create and sustain such a culture. I have found in my own experience that often many organizations or schools for whatever reason prefer to make it look like they promote resilience rather than actually do it. I once worked in an organization where this was actually the case. Many in leadership positions believed that it was financially more feasible to fluctuate between authoritarian and permissive environments rather than really have an authoritative environment. Creating a positive environment that develops resilience in children and youth may often appear to take more work and resources at first, but once established it will more than pay for the investment in time and organizational success.