Thoughts on the Scottsboro Schools Continuous Improvement Plans

My purpose is to share concerns and hopefully initiate an ongoing dialogue about the quality of education. Clearly Scottsboro schools have people who care a lot and are dedicated to their work. The concerns and improvement opportunities that I will mention, in no way, are intended to question or challenge that highly positive aspect of our schools. Additionally, my comments are based on a generalization of the plan as a whole, recognizing that a few plans are sufficient. The Continuous Improvement Plan (CIP) is the primary means by which our community improves our schools and engages the public in the process. Unfortunately, the current CIPs are focused on what happens on standardized tests instead of what happens in the classroom. The emerging data, especially from the last decade, provides strong evidence that standardized tests are not serving children or schools well. To continue to focus on test scores is a path that neither improves education nor maximizes learning.

During last Thursday’s presentations, the term ‘data-driven’ was frequently used; however, some of the most significant results of the data were not discussed nor addressed in the improvement plan. Specifically, I refer to the publically available data (such as ARMT and the Graduation Exam). First, the data indicates significant differences between poverty and non-poverty sub-groups. Yet, the CIP fails to address this concern–the factors of poverty that effect education, and how those concerns can be addressed. Factors such as poor nutrition, access to books, access to the internet, availability of computers, and family support can be significantly improved with effort. Second, the data, dating back to 2003, indicates that the current approach to improvement is generally ineffective — the approach to raise test scores (i.e. proficiency rates) is not actually raising test scores. Taking into account the poor reliability and validity of these tests and other factors such as student-teacher mix year-to-year, it takes as much as a 12% to 30% swing in proficiency rates before any differences or improvements can be meaningfully detected. This is a troubling paradox when developing improvement strategies from test-score data.

The fact that standardized tests fail to measure any meaningful aspect of learning such as creativity, critically thinking, the ability to think abstractly, reasoning, or form arguments continues to be ignored on a wide scale. As Linda McNeil of Rice University observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.” Furthermore, looking at the near horizon, federal and state efforts to implement Common Core and Value-Added-Teacher measures will worsen the situation for children and teachers. If the political machine gets its way, we will soon see good teachers filtered out of the system because of bad measurement tools. And testing will increase at an alarming rate. Some experts are predicting a 20 times increase in standardized testing due to Common Core.

The current improvement approach is analogous to driving a car with four slow leaking tires. Periodically stop and measure the air pressure, fill up any tire that doesn’t have the correct pressure, and fail to evaluate what’s causing the leak. Researchers and education experts (Dweck, Deci, DeVries, Kohn, Ohanian, Rice, et al.) advocate multiple approaches that create significant improvements throughout schools such as helping teachers develop an autonomy supportive orientation, transitioning to a constructivist approach to learning and teaching, and integrated project-based learning. All of these are missing from the CIPs. The CIP is also missing plans to improve critical thinking, creativity, or enhance the arts. Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson emphasizes the importance of the arts in education; the arts help children negotiate and understand themselves and the world around them. It helps them express their own unique individual humanity. Marginalizing the arts is not doing education nor maximizing learning. Leaving the arts out of schools leaves out the area of human growth and development.

These types of negative trends in education are growingly pervasive. For example, there is over dependence on DIBELS to develop reading abilities. As expert P. David Pearson states “DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students (they end up engaging in curricular activities that do not promote their progress as readers) and bad for teachers (it requires them to judge student progress and shape instruction based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development).” DIBELS is much more a measure of speed than reading abilities. DIBELS neither promotes comprehension development, thoughtful understanding, nor joy in reading. As a result, DIBELS can lead to an aversion for reading.

In closing, perhaps the largest opportunity revealed during the CIP presentations was the perspective of school leadership. The policies and procedures passed down by the state department and other agencies are not conditions which must be responded to like the weather. Unlike the unchangeable weather, the policies and procedures were develop through the decisions of people and it is leadership’s role–their primary role–to expose when those decisions are not serving children’s learning in their best interest. When leadership responds by stating directives of a higher authority, they abdicate their leadership responsibilities. Albert Einstein claimed that the current problems we face today cannot be solved with the level of thought with which we created them. Likewise, Thomas Kuhn claimed that all of the significant breakthroughs in the history of humankind have come from break-withs in old ways of thinking. It is time to change the way of thinking about improving learning. Leadership must make that change.