January 14, 2012

Weighing in on the FSA debate, a boxing metaphor.

The turn of each year brings new goals, hopes, promises and...wait for it - the Foundational Skills Assessment (FSA), for students in British Columbia. Look in any local newspaper come January and the mud-slinging should already be underway. Who are the contenders for the title? Suiting are the usual foes. Weighing in, in one corner is the all powerful and reigning champ of top-down reform - the government (Ministry of Education). And in the other corner is the underdog - the teachers (BCTF). Refereeing this match-up is the community of parents. They try to be objective, but with all the rhetoric in this conflict, it can be rather confusing. Last (and possibly least), on the scorecard is the Fraser Institute. Booooo. Oops, did I say that out loud? 

The debate is not that old, but it is becoming quickly tiresome for all involved, as each political round is fought and each side tries to sucker punch the other to "knock them out". What's at stake? The well being and meaningful education of our children - they are the real losers in this melee. And there's the bell! 

Round 1:

The FSA began formally in the year 2000, and 2 years later the BC government passes legislation that promoted the values of choice, accountability and competition into the BC School Act. These are the hallmarks of what we would normally see in a privatized, fee-based system of education; rather than a public one. The FSA tests are written every year by elementary students in grades 4 and 7. The FSA consists of a set of reading, writing and numeracy tests administered, usually by teachers (often against their good judgement and protests) and administrators, to provide a "snapshot" of how well students are doing. 

There are 3 types of analysis used in the FSA. 
  • whether student achievement is improving over time.
  • an attempt to see trends at the school, district and provincial levels.
  • a look at how specific population groups of students are doing (based on ethnicity, Aboriginal status, learning needs, etc...).
You might want to get some smelling salts before you nod off! 

These goals are not necessarily bad in and of themselves; however more attention and questioning must be brought to the methods in which this information is gathered and how it is subsequently portrayed to the public. In my opinion, it is the misuse of FSA results by the Fraser Institute to rank schools that is alarming to any thoughtful educator or concerned parent.

The Ministry of Education proposes that the FSA provides important data to schools and districts for setting goals for improvement. Further, the FSA does not measure students' ability to memorize facts; rather their ability to use problem solving skills. Okay, not too bad so far...but the Ministry also claims that they work with school districts to provide support for students and to improve teaching and learning conditions for the coming year. (I will remind you that teachers in BC are currently in job action over this issue). This is where teachers lose our collective footing temporarily and stumble. It feels like a "low blow" to hear that, and I find it difficult to understand and see a correlation between FSA results and actual tangible support in the classroom. Over my 13 year career I have seen only a decline in support, the cuts sting and are deep! I might have to give that round away and catch my breath, but I'm not out!

Round 2:

The Ministry of Education speaks of the validity of the figures provided by the FSA that can predict the likelihood of students graduating on time. Ask any teacher you know whether or not reading, writing and numeracy are critical to a child's learning and future success!? I will suggest that the FSA may contribute to more of a cause of failure than a predictor of it based on current performance. If children get the idea that they just don't get it and don't get it fast enough for a test such as this, then what does this do to their self-esteem at a very early and critical age? There is nothing stated by the Ministry about the adverse effects of this kind of mass testing on future motivation to learn. My blood is pumping, I'm ready to launch my full counter-attack.

Teachers (BCTF) strongly argue that the FSA does not help teachers teach, nor does it help students learn. The FSA does not even accomplish what it sets out to do, which is to give parents a meaningful interpretation of their child's or school's results. It is noteworthy to say that when students are absent the school receives a zero score for that student which lowers the overall results of the school. This is something the Fraser Institute denies, but what happens for students who complete only portions of the test? What I know is, this happens frequently and the FSA has no capability of taking incomplete information. So if a student completes 39 out of 40 questions, it will show as "no result". 

Undoubtedly there is misinformation out there and we are not getting the whole truth. Regardless there are still parents who call schools to register based on the Fraser Institute scores. Teachers will tell you that there are so many more important factors in determining what makes a school successful. Overall, teachers are concerned about the FSA because we are trying to preserve and get back quality classroom working conditions and to emphasize authentic, meaningful context-specific assessments. I think that was a good round, but I'm not sure who took that one!

It's time between rounds to shed some light on what standardized tests do. What are the true benefits to large scale assessments such as the FSA? Joe Kincheloe says in his 2005 book, Classroom Teaching, that standardized tests follow a reductionist model which means they are:
  • over critical
  • performance driven
  • learning in isolation
  • disconnected subject matter
He says we need a "re-conceptualized" model, where learning is democratic, process driven, and is part of authentic learning and experiences. (I have written about this in previous posts on the roles of students and teachers.) Why does the government feel it is necessary to do this analysis and rigidly control the work of teachers (who are professionals!)? More importantly, why does the Fraser Institute need to publish and rank schools against each other? Hey, wait a minute, now that I have taken a rest to reflect on this in my corner, I see that these 2 foes are working hand in hand against us teachers! I will need to "jab" and defend my way through these thoughts and questions, and hopefully get some support before I lose my strength and have to throw in the towel!

Round 3:

The FSA has been brought in as a reaction to the current state of education that in many ways is not cutting it. This measure only serves to appease public dissatisfaction temporarily. Kieran Egan says that, "This catastrophe of incompetence makes it seem as though they ought to do something - anything to maintain respectability". When members of the public understand that these types of analysis do not make meaningful changes; that is why there are willing to fight with the underdog. It's time to get that second wind and dig down deep! 

The philosophy behind standardized tests goes all the way back to Plato, where the core concepts are all that matter. Unfortunately, our society continues to drive this idea of competition and success ahead, without really examining its implications. David Orr says in his 1991 article, So What is Education for?, "For the most part we labour under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the students' minds, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used." Kieran Egan has written about the problems facing public schools in his 1981 article, The Erosion of Education. He also believes that we have a "pre-conceived notion of what schools should do", and this is what he argues leads to strong constraints and pressures on our school system and consequently on the mastery of certain skills in our children. 

We need to ask ourselves, with the turn of a new year, what are our goals and intentions for education?. So what are we teaching children? And how are we teaching them? It's good we caught our breath in between rounds back there, because this is a marathon match with much more to come. What we have then is schools serving utilitarian purposes, preparing children for society's purposes. But what if we want to promote new ideas and not just maintain the status quo? How do we promote the idea of innovation, imagination, collaboration in a suffocating education system? We don't want a "No Child Left Behind" scenario here! Putting a number to a problem will only give false hope and even despair. Further, ranking offers a fleeting sense of identify, but it will not solve our current condition. Nothing essentially changes in the way of reading, writing, or numeracy thinking because of the FSA. Egan says, "Mass testing for minimal competence, with legal sanctions to enforce them, will draw down to the vacuum of minimal standards of all those teaching and learning bodies subject to it. To ask for so little is to expect even less". I'm feeling rather good now, because I have exposed a few weak areas of my opponents with a few well landed blows, but it's not time to declare victory yet!

Round 4: 

It is straightforward to say that ranking schools distracts from what we should be focusing on - learning. Scores taken out of context provide no meaning or relevance. The Fraser Institute oversimplifies what schools and families bring to learning (that's right, parents are on our side now, we needed to join our forces to win this battle!). The FSA results do not take into account the true learning needs of students, the change-over in population, extra-curricular achievements, the dedication of school staff to support children. If you were to look at the scores for my school over the last decade, you would not necessarily see the high quality of teaching (teachers with Masters degrees and specialty training in a number of areas). You would not see the hours of dedication in meetings and filling out doctor's reports and Individual Education Plans (IEP). You might not be able to quantify the development of ongoing caring relationships between staff and families in our community (often I am teaching the 2nd or 3rd child in a family). You might miss the progress and "success" of many of our most needy students because they do not show up on the FSA results. We are a designated "vulnerable" school with a fluctuating population, AND (not but) we love where we work and who we work with! Ranking will only undermine our efforts to make a difference in the lives of our students and families. Despite lagging resources and inadequate, declining support; we are a teaching staff that sticks together, year after year, giving hope, continuity, and encouragement to our students and families. In turn and in time, these students will make leaps an bounds and become hopeful, productive members of society who know how to interact with others and solve problems - because that is what we do every day. We model flexibility, integrity, imagination, courage, and collaboration every day. The Fraser Institute can never understand or put a number on that! 

It's time for a one-two combination! Instead of more intense measures or even random sampling efforts (this is one of the proposals), what about changing what really matters? I absolutely refuse to spend time on "preparing for the test". What is more important to me, and my students, is that ongoing, meaningful work that we are doing together. Out of that I will put my assessments and spur them on to greater things. What are we teaching our children about the value of the work we are doing, if we drop everything we are doing, to prepare for a one-time test? How will they interpret this? In this match there are no real winners. It seems as though it has been rigged from the beginning, we deal more with illusions than reality when we are up against the government and their private, corporate buddies like the Fraser Institute. The score? Whether we agree with it or not, we (teachers) are often not seen as powerful or capable enough to overcome; however, if we continue to focus on good learning, authentic assessments and really helping our students to become critical thinkers, then I think we will come out on top. We will leave this fight a "draw" for now.

January 02, 2012

New Year, New Focus! Allowing students to pursue their passions.

I had a great conversation with some friends on New Year's Day - which for most of us is a time to reflect a bit, but even more so a time to look ahead and make some plans for the near and distant future. My friend shared a youtube clip with us where the speaker was talking about how to follow your passion, rather than setting goals that you think are "reasonable" (these latter goals are the ones you think you should strive for because of what you think other people would value, but it is not necessarily what you would do if you weren't worried about what others think). I shared with my friends how I had an opportunity - a fork in the road about a decade ago, to pursue an art career with a contact I had in California or to go full on into teaching. Well I guess you know what I chose, but I would have never know then that my choice would lead me to embark on a Master's degree, or even that I would be sharing my ideas through this blog. I remember how many people around me at the time were encouraging me in my artwork and saying, "why don't you go for it!" To be honest  the money was good and I love art (and I was getting better at it); but there was something missing. I didn't have that feeling. It's a spiritual thing for me as well. What I am passionate about, what gives me true joy and drives me, is teaching. I feel that it is what I was born to do. With the new year I began thinking about the changes I want to continue to make in my teaching and how to improve on those things that are going well. The purpose is to enrich the lives of the children I am teaching and the staff I am teaching with. How can I continue to expand the sphere of influence that I have in a positive way that will uplift those around me? 

Over the holiday I took some time to re-plan my classroom space with the end in mind that it would allow for more flexibility in the physical space and create more opportunities for lesson ideas. Here is the design I am playing around with. In this first organization of my classroom space I have attempted to create an area in the middle of the room for students to move around. The projector can be moved out of the centre of the room, but the "movable" smartboard is quite big and cumbersome, and it cuts off the use of the whiteboards behind it (as shown by the red rectangular area).

the "before" floor plan
So I moved the smartboard in front of my desk to eliminate this problem and create more usable board space. This created a new problem of course, which was that I couldn't sit down at my desk and still see the kids. So I thought some more. And this is what I am thinking to do. I will move my desk to the other end of the classroom and the round table will go to the back. In the new floor plan below I have brought in an area rug and some lamps to make the space more comfortable. You might also notice that I gained a student (grey rectangles are desks).

new floor plan
Since the smartboard is on wheels it can be moved out of the way when not in use and then I get my big area down the centre of the room, a truly open concept (as shown in the red rectangle).

the flexible floor plan

Not only I am interested in the design of my classroom, it is also part of the metaphor I use when thinking about the students I work with. I am passionate about making learning fun for them in their journey from the time I see them all the way through to their graduation. I hope to change their perspective on what their role in learning is. I wrote an e-mail to some colleagues a month or so ago which I think is relevant here because it points (metaphorically) to the bigger picture of education. In a way this is part 3 of a series of posts I have been writing about the roles of teachers and students.

"Imagine you are a construction worker, but you have always really felt like an architect. Every day you struggled to get out of bed and go to work. Really you have just been going "through the motions". You grab your toolkit and head out the door. When you show up on the job site you are given your instructions for the day. You will need to read the blueprint plans as usual and is expected of you; however this time you are shocked to find out that you are being given some freedom to do some designing and frame up a few wall that will not only be sound structurally, but will add some flare to this space. You are told that this is a critically important step because the way in which you set up these walls will create a structure and a flow not only for the room but for the entire building. This will connect to what other workers are doing because it will also get things ready for electrical and plumbing (the guts of this new building that - yes, you are building). Although this is an overwhelming task ahead of you, which could create some initial anxiety, the excitement and feeling of adventure takes over and you jump in with both feet. On all the previous work sites you have only ever been asked to follow the plan and repeat the same job over and over. All you ever needed was a hammer because everything was set up for you. Just "hammer" away at those lessons. Every heard of math drills? But now you open up your toolkit and you look with amazement at all the other tools that you have that you were never encouraged to use before. You realize this is going to be a completely new kind of job that is going to require a completely new kind of thinking, and you are probably going to need some help and talk to some other people (which was never encouraged before either). Picking up your level, your measuring tape, your pencil - there is a new feeling that enters your body. You can't wait to get to work. 

Story, narrative, metaphor, imagery...these are all powerful "tools" that through their very use, creates emotional engagement - the key to learning (See Kieran Egan, 1997, 2005). Students are construction workers, but they are not the kind that should be just told to swing their hammers and get really efficient at that. Ask any student who has completed 20 worksheets in a row if they really enjoy what they are doing. What if we gave them opportunities to look into their toolkits and we actually taught them what those tools are and how they could be used. The classroom would look radically different because their might be some students using saws - cutting up knowledge and refitting it, others might be using rulers and pencils - measuring and comparing information, or using drills - looking deeper into concepts or even poking holes in theories. Through all of this, students are encouraged to plan, collaborate and design new projects and share new ideas. Once students become more aware of how their toolkits can be accessed and they are allowed to bring them out, they will start to use them more often and take some risks...as I have done here. They become designers, creating a new vision for themselves as they pass through the education system, they become empowered as learners! It's definitely a more engaging process. Instead of going through the motions, you are now engaged by your emotions! This is what our culture needs, people who have come alive and are passionate about what they are doing! 

Happy New Year!