Are Children Learning

Survey: Colorado teachers say there’s too much testing

Colorado teachers claim they’re spending too much of their time prepping and administering state mandated tests, a survey conducted by the state’s largest union found. Those same teachers believe their time with students could be better used on instruction.

The results, released this morning, add another voice to the growing statewide cacophony on standardized tests.

Debates about how many state mandated assessments are required, whether those tests are valid and whether those tests should be play a role in a teachers evaluation and district’s performance have been growing in number and volume since the fall.

So far, the Democratically controlled Colorado General Assembly has been hesitant to act on those concerns. Last week, the Senate Education Committee killed a bill that would have postponed the implementation of state assessments aligned to the standards. On Monday, the House Education Committee postponed action on a bill that would allow districts to opt out of those tests. That committee is expected to pick up the bill Wednesday morning.

“It’s important to note that teachers are not ‘anti-testing’ — but testing is only one piece of a balanced approach to improve student outcomes,” Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said in a statement accompanying the union’s survey results. “We need classroom time to teach critical skills, meaningful tests aligned to the curriculum we’re teaching, and fair, valid evaluations on how we’re performing so we have quality teachers in the classroom.”

Dallman’s statement maybe considered an opening act to a rally CEA is hosting Tuesday evening. The union is billing that event as the kick-off of a new campaign called “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students.” The aim of the campaign is to garner support to reduce “educational mandates, testing time and bureaucratic red tape in Colorado’s public schools.”

CEA officials have publicly stressed their support for standardized tests and teacher accountability. But the most adamant supporters of Colorado’s education reform policies believe the union is attempting to undermine those systems of accountability.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Ninety percent of elementary and middle school teachers said mandated assessments get in the way of more interesting units of study which benefit students long-term.  
  • Teachers said they spend at least 50 of 180 days during the academic year administering state and district tests, with language arts specialists spending the most time on mandated assessments.
  • Sixty percent of teachers reported standardized tests and state and district assessments cannot effectively hold students accountable for learning; 80 percent of teachers doubt that tests can effectively assess teaching quality.

The online survey was conducted last week, and polled roughly 1,200 elementary, middle and high school teachers.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.