An IEP is not a SEP…


By definition, standardized tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and predetermined.  Look carefully at this description: “consistent,” “predetermined.”

Having met Mr. Duncan some time ago, I am quite disturbed by his recent decision to expand the uses, interpretations, and accountability measures associated with the test scores of Students with Disabilities (not to be confused with the term, “SPED” students).  The reality is that Students with Disabilities have long been exposed to the wonderful world of high-stakes testing.  And do you know what they get labeled?  We talk about these students as a “subgroup,” often “below average,” “below basic.”  And do you know why?  Because many of them enter the world of academic rigor “below the norm,” as measured and defined by psychological and psycho-educational evaluations, eligibility reports, and a host of other nationally normed evaluations.

When we engage in a conversation about the true academic abilities of Students with Disabilities, we have to consider more than their performance on random, out of context reading passages about “Astronauts!” on standardized tests.  We have to consider the whole child.  We have to consider the nature of these assessments, because paper and pencil tests and scantrons are not for everybody.  But Duncan’s decision doesn’t seem to take that into account.

As Special Educators, we fight tirelessly.  Do you know how long it takes to get the student who is three grade levels behind to a point where he is only one grade level behind?  All we have is 180 days…  180 days to rewrite what this student has been thinking about himself for quite some time: “I’m below basic, I’m not good enough” … “inadequate” … “failure.”

I am not saying that Students with Disabilities should not be exposed to standardized testing.  They have been for years.  But what I am saying is that this “standard” decision needs to consider the very nature of an IEP: it’s an “Individualized Education Plan,” not a “Standardized Education Plan.”

How can we as Special Educators work year after year to help students master goals that are individualized only to turn around and say, “I know you can’t add two-digit numbers, but I want you to take this standardized test where half the questions involve adding with two-digit numbers so that I can see where you are.”  Umm, what?

Look, after certain early developmental stages, students recognize and realize when they just can’t do something.  And they know that their teacher knows… Think of what it does to the trust and understanding between a student and teacher when that student has to sit in front of that teacher and repeatedly fail standardized tests.

Mr. Duncan needs to be in the presence of Students with Disabilities who are assessed with DIBELS, for example, an early literacy assessment.  These students’ IEPs may stipulate “extended time,” but DIBELS administration prohibits it.  The students never get close to scoring “benchmark,” and they know it.

Mr. Duncan needs to have a conversation with the students who are overwhelmed on a standardized test of 40 questions.  If these students’ IEPs mandate chunked and tiered assignments, how can we be surprised when they are unable to finish the test?

Mr. Duncan needs to spend time with the student who has limited working memory and processing speed, so that he knows how this student feels when trying to respond to even a single question in a “standard” way.  How can we be surprised if the student quickly bubbles in answers, just hoping to get the process over with quickly?

Mr. Duncan needs to be in a room with a student who cries from anxiety during a high-stakes testing session because he is overwhelmed trying to decode all the words in non-fiction passage, just so that he can finally get to all the comprehension questions.  True story.

Again, I am not saying that Students with Disabilities should not be exposed to standards-based measures, but I am opposed to Mr. Duncan’s one-size-fits-all approach.  I think the addition of a portfolio assessment, for example, would give us a more robust view of what students are capable of doing.

The reality is that Students with Disabilities sometimes come into our schools with disadvantages that are beyond their control (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorders).  As Special Educators, it is our job to assure our students that growth is possible, growth matters.  But this must be individualized growth, not standardized growth.

 Alexis Mays-Fields is a, elementary school Special Education teacher in Washington D.C.



Last week, Russ Whitehurst (director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC) published an interesting essay proposing a novel approach to standards-based accountability.  I’ll summarize his main point below, but what I’d really like to talk about in this post is something that happens in the eighth paragraph of his several-page essay.  In two sentences, Whitehurst makes a common rhetorical move that I’ll call “bracketing.”  I want to discuss how this move affects our discourse and thinking about educational quality.

Whitehurst expresses concerns about melding the new rigor of the CCSS with the impractical “100% proficiency for 100% of students” approach of NCLB.  His novel solution involves a two-tiered accountability system: states and the federal government would be in charge of minimum competency standards, and schools and districts would take care of anything above and beyond the basics.  I trust this is a fair, if brief, summary of his article.  Now, on to his eighth paragraph…

“Note that my focus is test-based accountability.  Other things I’ll not cover here, such as students’ aspirations and soft skills, are important too.”

In his title (“The Future of Test-Based Accountability”), Whitehurst makes it clear that his discussion is about how to use test scores, not about what test scores tell us (or don’t), how they shape teaching and learning, or their unintended consequences.  These are all concerns that he chooses to “bracket.”

Careful thinking about the complex issues involved in education reform often requires us to set aside (or “bracket”) certain issues in order to narrow our focus and examine a particular issue in depth.  It is certainly defensible, then, for Whitehurst to “bracket” what he considers to be nonessential concerns within the context of his paper.

How does “bracketing” work?  Basically, by contracting the scope of the conversation.  It is a powerful silencing move because it essentially disallows discussion of the “bracketed” topic.  When the same issue is bracketed again and again, in a variety of contexts and discussions, then bringing it up can become difficult… you start to feel like that student who keeps raising his hand to say the same thing.  At some point, you begin to sense that the other students are rolling their eyes and getting irritated, and so you decide just to let it go.

This can become problematic in conversations about educational quality when citizens, policymakers, and researchers habitually (almost reflexively) “bracket” the same set of concerns and – this is the dangerous part – neglect to “un-bracket” them.  It seems to me that this has happened with the very concerns that Whitehurst “brackets,” concerns about the centrality of test scores in our concept of educational quality.

Recently, Arne Duncan announced a shift in federal policy that involves an unprecedented use of special-needs students’ standardized test scores. Predictably, he “brackets” the same issues Whitehurst does.

Next week we’ll hear from a special educator from Washington, DC, who will argue passionately against Duncan’s “bracketing.”  She’ll paint a very real picture of “students’ aspirations and soft skills” and argue that, particularly for special-needs students, the consequences of “bracketing” are just too high.


The Added Cost of Data


As a new contributor, let me just start with a big thank you! The amazing thing about this blog is it’s willingness to consider all voices and the value placed on the voice of the teacher. ¡Gracias!


This post is a response/addition to “The Cost of Data” written on June 16.

As a classroom teacher, I can very must attest to the ‘cost’ of data in terms of instructional time; however that is not the only cost of data. As data continues to be used to secure funding, open and close schools, and hire and fire teachers, it’s important to also consider the cost following: the type of assessments collecting the data, and how the data is being used in the context of the day-to-day teaching of children.


In terms of the types of assessments being used, I think that there should be more transparency between the big corporations who profit from selling standards aligned, PARCC aligned resources and those who decided to use the new kinds of assessments. While I think PARCC is heading in the right direction with the type of performance tasks that are based in the real world and promote critical thinking and problem solving, there is disturbingly little information on how these assessments will be adapted and used in the primary grades (a shocking trend). After witnessing testing anxiety in my six-year-old students, we have got to change the way we talk about testing and consequently data. The tests need to be developmentally appropriate and vetted by the people who actually have to use them: teachers. Amazingly enough, PARCC has posted sample assessments and asked for feedback, though I wish more teachers knew about it so they could actually give feedback.


When teachers don’t understand where the tests came from, the background of their development, or even how they address the standards, the cost is a wealth of information that doesn’t know how to be used to inform instruction or shared with parents about student performance. The cost is not only a rise in student anxiety, but also teacher anxiety as they teach to and prepare for a test they don’t really understand simply because the results are so important.


This leads me to the ‘how’ of data. In the daily life of teaching, data is used many ways: to make small groups, to decide what and when to reteach, to differentiate instruction, and to create and monitor interventions. When used correctly, data can be the best tool to tailor instruction for students. I’ve used it myself to engage parents in supporting students at home. I’ve seen it create ‘lightbulb’ moments where parents really see their children for the first time. Yet, there is a dark side to data as well. I have watched administrators sit in ESL or SPED meetings and use data to stereotype and pigeon-hole students. I’ve seen it used to bully parents instead of inspire them. I’ve seen it used to scare and intimidate teachers instead of using it to help them grow. I’ve seen it shared with students in an effort to ‘motivate’ them to do better only to leave them crying and wounded.


Data can be a wonderful tool used to make schools and teachers better, but there is an added cost when the assessments are foreign and tied to high-stakes and the data isn’t shared in a constructive way. The only way to keep making progress while using data is to have a conversation about it. Kudos Glo for keeping the dialogue going :)



Should we shoot for the moon, or aim for improvement?


A few weeks ago, I read a post that is still sticking in my craw.

Shooting Bottle Rockets at the Moon: Overcoming the Legacy of Incremental Education Reform

The author, Thomas Kane, argues that we need to stop tinkering and institute more drastic reforms in order to catch up to the highest-performing countries. He has written and researched extensively on teacher evaluation systems, so his voice is an important and informed one.

But I disagree with nearly everything he said.

I found only one area of agreement:  “In education…we do not pause long enough to consult the evidence on expected effect sizes and assemble a list of reforms that could plausibly succeed in achieving our ambitious goals.” Most of us can probably agree that education reformers do not pay enough attention to the relevant evidence, and I think this lack of attention extends beyond the expected effect sizes into things such as the limitations of the evidence base, the generalizability of the findings, and the extent of contradictory evidence.

But the parts that are sticking in my craw are pretty much everything else.

I’ll start with the title and the underlying premise. Kane argues that we have a “legacy of incremental education reform” that needs to be “overcome.” As a classroom teacher for nine years and a researcher and policy analyst for seven more, I nearly choked on reading that headline and I still can’t get over it. What legacy is he talking about? When I was young, education reform lurched from one end of the pendulum to the other, from whole language to phonics, from new math to back to basics, with lots of debate and idoelogical rancor in between. As I got older, education reform shifted to lofty platitudes with few specifics. Remember Goals 2000? That was the plan that basically said we’re going to fix everything about education by the year 2000. That was followed by No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top. Do those sound incremental? Currently, our high-profile reform efforts center on the Common Core. Overall, I think the Common Core is a positive step to move toward deeper conceptual development, but it’s hard to argue that overhauling the standards, curricula, and assessments of 44 states within the space of a couple of years is “incremental” change. It seems much closer to the truth to suggest that we are rushing things just a bit and might want to consider “pausing” enough to move at a more incremental pace in order to implement the Common Core more carefully.

Turns out that Kane is talking about reforms such as “better professional development for teachers, higher teacher salaries, incrementally smaller class sizes, better facilities, stronger broad-band connections for schools, etc.,” But those are hardly our highest profile education reforms.

Second, Kane states that those incremental reforms he mentions aren’t big enough to get us where we need to go, and he then proposes a set of four elements that “could provide the needed thrust.” Two problems with this:

A) It’s not at all clear that those “not-big-enough” reforms that Kane disparages are actually incremental. They are mostly things that we haven’t even tried to do on a large scale. And it’s not even certain that we know how to do them on a large scale. Can anyone point me to an example of a large district or state that has actually implemented “better professional development?”  Does anyone know how to implement better professional development on a large scale? What about $130,000 teacher salaries? If the state of North Dakota, flush with money from natural gas drilling, implemented $150,000 teacher salaries across the board, would anyone call that an “incremental” change? The class size example might even be more pertinent because we had good evidence that lowering class sizes in Tennessee worked, but when that evidence was applied to the Californian context where the policy resulted in hiring many thousands of rookie teachers, the inexperience of all the new teachers appears to have wiped out any benefits that might have been created by the lower class sizes. I don’t think we are in a position to quibble over effect sizes because we are still largely in the dark about the effects themselves.

B) The four “elements” of reform with sufficient “magnitude” and “thrust” are themselves incremental improvements at best. Kane argues that the best of them might produce .045 standard deviations of improvement per year. I don’t buy the evidence for his argument on some of his preferred reforms, but even if he is right, it’s hard to describe .045 standard deviations of improvement as anything more than an “incremental” improvement. Especially when we consider that in the one large random experiment that we have, class size reduction in Tennessee Kindergartens resulted in about 0.2 standard deviations of improvement after one year. For those skimming, that means class size reduction produced an improvement over 4 times larger than the largest of Kane’s preferred reforms. It is important for me to note that this result faded out somewhat over time, additional years of small class sizes did not add to this effect, and these results have not been replicated in other studies. But then, those other studies are widely considered to be less reliable. So the weight of the evidence might suggest that we should drastically lower class sizes in all U.S. Kindergartens.

On to my third big gripe with Mr. Kane. The reforms he proposes are not any bigger in size, nor any better in terms of their evidence base. They’re just more controversial. And that seems to be his true subtext. We can’t be so namby-pamby in education. We gots to start hurting people’s feelings and firing teachers if we want to compete with the Chinese. But of course, the policies he is proposing are controversial for many good reasons, not the least of which is that we really have no idea of what the unintended consequences would be if we were to, say, take his suggestion and not retain (or “fire”) the bottom 25 percent of teachers on value-added measures at tenure time (usually after two to three years of teaching). We have a difficult time recruiting top-notch students into teaching as it is. Will anyone with a modicum of understanding of statistics choose to enter a job knowing that they may be fired after two years based on a measure that has so much noise that a teacher who is rated at the 43rd percentile has a margin of error that ranges from the 15th percentile to the 71st (Corcoran, 2010)?

Another problem with his premise: why should we accept that incremental reform is somehow less than some grandiose promised moon shot? A large part of our ongoing crisis in American education stems from our propensity to lurch from one silver bullet solution to the next without enough focus to actually make any solution workable. Teachers know this. A continual gripe from teachers is how the district has abandoned last year’s pet reform in favor of a new approach that teachers are expected to quickly master with little to know support, all the while knowing that this new approach is almost sure to be forsaken within mere months. Instead, the international evidence suggests that countries such as Japan have achieved long-term, ongoing growth by providing a structure in which teachers work together to create incremental improvements in instruction. These incremental improvements add up to real learning. It’s hard to see what other types of improvements could really be possible in a field as complex as human learning. So I take back my third big gripe with Mr. Kane. Sort of. It’s ok that he didn’t find any bigger-than-incremental reforms to promote. There aren’t any. But it’s not ok for him to pretend that he has found some giant-sized solutions when he really hasn’t.

And, yes, I’ve got more gripes. Such as, why is closing the gap with China a “necessary goal?” If the Chinese are truly improving their education system (which is, by the way highly debatable since there is a lot of evidence that the highly touted results in Shanghai come from only testing a small slice of the best students, but anyway), if China is improving their educational system, we should celebrate that fact and rejoice in the hope that poverty, hunger, and human misery will be substantially reduced. The same is true for the improvement in any country. The growth of other countries is much more likely to lift all of humanity than it is to prove a threat.

We do, however, face real threats. Huge ones. Here are three that spring to mind: Climate change, income inequality, and the rapid pace of technological change that is projected to eliminate 50 percent of all current jobs within a generation. What are we doing to prepare for those threats? Are any of them likely to be met by increasing our PISA scores? Or do we need to begin to focus our educational reform efforts more broadly? Perhaps we should be developing involved citizens who are able to think critically and resolve political disagreements amicably. Or stretching children’s creativity and ability to adapt to new situations?

If those types of reform goals were met, they might very well bring along with them improved PISA scores and a closing of the gap with China. But they might not. And if we were able to end global warming, reduce income inequality, and find new jobs for all of our children, why would we care?

- Kevin

Students teaching students: What can we learn?


After reading the last two posts on pre-service teacher education (here and here), I began to reflect on an experience I had before any formal knowledge of teaching. When I was in college, I spent several summers teaching with Summerbridge Hong Kong (SBHK), an English summer program that provided a low-cost English immersive experience to low-income local students.

Like many overseas language programs, SBHK hires relatively inexperienced high school and college students from the US, UK, and Canada to help local students improve their English skills and increase their exposure to international cultures. Unlike many such programs, SBHK focuses on the development and empowerment of its teachers as much as of its students.

Looking back, after graduate study and several additional years of teaching, I continue to wonder what more I can glean from the program’s philosophy of education and model of teacher training.

Rather than prescribing a curriculum, the program’s administrators scaffold teachers towards designing and delivering their own 4-week lessons. Before arriving in Hong Kong, teachers work with a prior SBHK teacher as a “virtual mentor” to begin developing a final project for their class. Once they arrive, they participate in a series of training workshops designed to introduce them to basic principles and techniques of teaching, as well as to help them break their final project into 3-5 themed “mini-units.” Each mini-unit focuses on a skill that students will need to complete the final project. Throughout the summer, teachers use a similar backwards approach on a smaller scale to develop individual lesson plans, each of which works towards the focus of the mini-unit as well as the final project for the class.

Every step of the way, the Dean of Faculty, an experienced teacher or graduate student in an educational field, provides feedback that is intended to support teachers in meeting their own and students’ goals in the classroom. Just as students are encouraged to think of English as more than just a school class, teachers are encouraged to think of teaching as more than just a job. This is facilitated by encouraging teachers to try new strategies and techniques and to learn from their mistakes rather than fearing consequences. Celebrating such attempts allows teachers to develop as teachers and to take pride in their teaching.

Despite its seemingly loose structure, this program transforms some 300 low-income Hong Kong high school students from disheartened English language learners into dynamic language users who by the end of the summer communicate with confidence on stage in front of hundreds of people. Over 90% of program graduates consistently pass the HKCEE (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), compared to the 65% average of all Hong Kong students. While there is no such quantitative survey of teachers’ progress, in my years of working with this program I have yet to meet a single teacher who has described a negative experience. Regardless of how unrealistic it seems, such a model seems to work, at least for language education.

While there are obvious limitations to duplicating this exactly in the K-12 setting, structuring an environment in which teachers and students alike are encouraged to take ownership of their own classroom and education seems both productive and intuitive. Such a program can be structured enough to prescribe end goals for students and teachers through a semester, while remaining flexible enough for individual teachers to develop strategies optimum for their own classes or contexts. However, doing so requires parents and administrators to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust and respect such status deserves. In the same vein, it encourages the implementation of policies that increase teachers’ resources and confidence and encourage them to engage students and facilitate learning to the greatest degree possible.

However, such an approach is impossible to standardize. While every student in the country certainly deserves to benefit from the best teaching methods on hand, standardization assumes that there exists a singular optimal approach to teaching regardless of region, student demographic, income level, familiarity with US culture, etc. Standardization and scripted lessons can result in lost learning opportunities because such segues deviate from the script or in inefficient teaching methods that neglect students’ personal interests or previous knowledge. One of the most memorable and enjoyable lessons I ever taught was on body parts and illnesses to a night class of adults, each of whom had multiple tattoos and piercings.

Encouraging teachers to adapt their teaching to fit their own contexts rather than penalizing them for doing so provides spaces in which they and their students can have agency – and interest – in their own classrooms.


Geeta Aneja



The Cost of the Data


Teaching is delicate work.  What’s inside a student’s head is invisible, unique, and constantly evolving, and as teachers, our job is to know what’s in there and craft our instruction to match.  Figuring out exactly what a student is thinking and why is hard, but I suspect most teachers are, like me, inveterate junkies for the process.  It’s like careful detective work, a sort of cognitive investigation, in which we uncover confusion and map out the current state of understanding in order to build on that understanding. 

This detective work is fundamental to the teaching and learning process, and good teachers have been doing it since the dawn of time.  We currently call it lots of things (“data-driven instruction,” “responsive teaching,” “formative assessment,” etc.).  We put it front and center in many conversations about effective teaching, and rightly so: you need to know what kids know in order to help them know more. 

When we recognize the importance of up-to-date, accurate data on student understanding, we are faced with a tricky question: how frequently should we test students?  Let me point out an important factor that I believe is often overlooked in answering this question.

We must admit that the balancing act between instruction and formal assessment is a zero sum game.  Put bluntly, we have ‘em for eight precious hours a day… how do we want to spend those hours?  In my experience, decision-makers outside the classroom (administrators, researchers) often overlook the cost of the data, and in cases where this trade-off is considered, the arithmetic can be faulty.  What do I mean? 

Well, sometimes calculating the cost of test data is as straightforward as it seems: if a particular test takes 45 minutes and class periods are 45 minutes long, then that data costs one period of instruction.  Easy-peasy, right? 

But sometimes simple arithmetic doesn’t work.  What if a test takes 25 minutes and needs to be administered in the computer lab.  Lining up, trekking to the lab, finding seats, booting up computers, logging on, and getting settled… maybe 5 minutes.  And then logging off, lining up again, trekking back to class, and getting re-settled… another 5 minutes.  (This is all if we’re lucky and if we’re talking about older kids.)  Now we have 10 minutes left in the period, and the classroom zeitgeist is likely a bit jumbled.  Several kids probably need to go to the bathroom because of testing nerves or excitement over the disruption in routine.  Someone is crying because they’re worried about the test.  Someone else left their jacket in the computer lab.  Let’s face it: the period is over.  A 25-minute test cost 45 minutes of instruction. 

Or consider the phrase, dreaded by every classroom teacher ever: “oh, I’ll just be pulling kids to do some testing throughout the morning.”  Sure, each individual assessment might only last 15 minutes, but can we say that only 15 minutes of instructional time was lost?  Nope.  The constant movement of individuals in and out compromises the learning community that naturally forms over the arc of a lesson: each kid is missing a different chunk of learning, and (for young students) the distraction and novelty of classmates coming and going can be critically distracting. 

What I’m saying is that assessment data is not free.  We pay for it in instructional minutes, and it behooves us to think long and hard about whether the information we obtain is worth the cost we pay for it.  


Crowdsourcing Research


Dear Teaching Diablogue Community,

I’m here today not to offer my opinion on a topic, but to ask for yours.  As Talia Carroll’s most recent blog rightly points out, the pre-service experience is as much about developing a personal philosophy of teaching and education as it is about learning the ropes of your content, instruction, and classroom management. In fact, our assumptions about the students we teach, the communities we work in, and the systems we’re a part of, have profound implications for our day-to-day practice. The implications range from how we treat individual students to how we reproduce (or disrupt) societal  inequities.

With this in mind, I am in the process of designing a research project around the question “To what extent do pre-service teachers’ beliefs about  education change over the course of their training?” Through this study, I hope to learn more about pre-service teacher perspectives while offering participants an opportunity to engage in reflection around the development of their professional identities as teachers.

The crux of the research would involve interviewing a group of teachers at the beginning of their pre-service experience – before they’ve started classes, classroom observations, and research projects. I would then circle back with those folks at the end of their first year (of a two year program) and ask them to essentially have a conversation with their bright-eyed self of 9 months earlier. To what extent do they agree with their statements, how have their views changed, is there anything they would add or retract? I would then probe for the why behind these opinions.

So here’s my question for you: what type of prompts and questions should I ask in that initial interview?  I’d like to find questions that will get at the deeper, perhaps implicit assumptions about the purposes of schooling and motivations for teaching. Some ideas I’ve come up with so far include:

-What do you think is the most important issue in education right now?

- How do you define academic achievement?

-Who are your future students?

-What does it mean to be a “successful” teacher?

-What do you need to learn in order to become a successful teacher?

I would love to draw on the collective wisdom and experience of Diablogue readers and writers for more ideas. If you work with teachers, what do you think changes the most over the course of their preparation, and what questions would anticipate those shifts? If you’re a teacher, what questions would you have answered differently before and after you attended your teacher education program?  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!