Sunday, January 20, 2013

Current Events - Florida Test Errors

A mom I know who has children in Florida’s Hillsborough County public schools was telling a group of us about her daughter coming home and complaining about all the grammar errors on a Language Arts test she had taken that day.  This was a Hillsborough County test, not the FCAT.  This 6th grader counted seventeen errors in the text of the materials themselves; these were not for the students to identify and correct errors deliberately inserted as part of the test.  These tests may have been part of the effort to design the course-specific evaluations that are to assess the new Core Curriculum standards that have the entire nation in a tizzy.  Or perhaps they are more connected to the teacher evaluation effort financed by Bill Gates’ millions.  Hillsborough was one of the districts chosen by the Gates Foundation to pilot school improvement ideas in return for piles of money.  If it’s the latter, we would have to wonder how happy Mr. Gates would be about the lack of quality in such important assessments.

Parents have become too used to finding errors in the written work of Educators at all levels.  Teachers are often lax in spelling and grammar, especially in letters and notes to parents.  This is true even when spelling and grammar checking are readily available to them.  At a slightly higher level, at which tests are designed and written, we have come to expect no better. (Kind of like what we expect of newspapers these days – doesn’t anyone employ editors anymore?)

Take a look at the second grade Reading Comprehension test below.  It looks a bit uneven because the last couple sentences were on a different page.  This multiple choice test was given on a computer at a Pasco County Elementary school using a program called “ExamView Web Site”.  The student had scored poorly, and the concerned parent wanted to see the kind of questions her child had missed.  Ordinarily, parents receive only the question number, the letter response of the student and an “X” next to the errors – not the narrative, not the questions, and nothing very helpful to the worried parent. 

Notice that the first paragraph is indented, but the rest are not.  For children who have been taught that paragraphs start with indented lines, this would be very misleading.  In fact, this child took the test two times, and both times missed number 5 which read, “Which sentence below tells the main idea of the SECOND paragraph?”  There were 11 multiple choice questions plus an essay question, yet the instructions were to “answer the question”. (Sic)  The scoring notes at the top of the test stated that the essay question would not be graded, but that was only half true.  The content was graded, but the spelling and grammar errors were not marked nor noted in any way.  Apparently the scourge of invented spelling is still with us from the days of OBE/Blueprint 2000.

If this parent had not asked to see the actual test, these errors would not have come to light.  The test given to the 6th grader in Hillsborough is never even seen by the students’ teachers, let alone by the students’ parents.  This is a serious down side to the computerization of the public schools – it can completely obliterate the tiny bit of accountability to the parents that still exists after decades of shoving parents aside.  This takes us in the opposite direction of what is needed if we are to turn our public schools around.  We need more accountability – to the parents – not less.

These examples of sloppiness in the quality of school assessments show a deep lack of respect for students, their parents, teachers, and for the educational profession itself.  It shows a grudging, half-hearted effort on the part of Hillsborough schools in making worthwhile use of Bill Gates’ good-faith financial support for improving student academic achievement.  And it also shows a critical absence of professionalism from people who keep demanding they be treated as professionals.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Drop-Out Prevention Programs - The Family Factors

When schools are in their dumbing down mode, they will be simultaneously shifting the blame for the results to someone or something else.  We were hearing an awful lot about dysfunctional families and at-risk children back when all the Outcome Based changes in the schools were coming down.  These unidentified, horrible families were blamed for everything from why students never had homework to why kids with head lice weren’t sent home.  Students were supposedly not learning to read because the dysfunctional parents weren’t reading to them every night.  The kids were flunking their math tests because the dysfunctional parents weren’t helping them with their homework – this would be the same “homework” that - at that time - few of them were getting.  It became such a pervasive theme that I finally asked a school shrink neighbor of mine for her definition of parents most likely to have at-risk students.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Two-income families.”

And here I was expecting the answer to be “Heroin addicts” or something.

Many different family structures, however, will have difficulty when schools stop teaching.  Two-income families have two parents getting home around 6 pm and squeezing meals, housework, laundry, activities, and sometimes more work, etc. into the 2-3 hours before their children’s bed time.  It is very hard for these families to also manage to teach their children how to read and how to perform even simple math problems plus basic grammar, as well as sentence, paragraph and essay writing in, at best, one or two hours a night.  If it’s hard for families with two parents present, you can imagine how hard it is for the single parent.  Plus this is assuming that all parents know how to teach even the earliest basic skills.  I spoke with many, many frustrated and desperate parents who had no idea how to teach and couldn’t understand how this could be expected of them.  Many of those who attended college protested that they didn’t study teaching.  (When I told them that a lot of us who got Education degrees didn’t study teaching either, they would give me funny looks.)  I also met many parents who were embarrassed to tell me that they themselves could not read.  They very much wanted their children to have a better chance.  I still meet illiterate adults – all the time – high school graduates plus - many of them are members of the middle class.

Interestingly, two-income families did not make it to Pasco County’s list of the family factors that would put children at risk of failure during the district’s latest paradigm shift.  See Below (pgs. 6-7):

I cannot stress this enough: The problem we have with our public school system is generational.  Because of especially harsh periods over the course of the last several decades, we’ve had large percentages of two or three generations deliberately dumbed down through the withholding of Phonics instruction, through the uselessness of New Math, through the total absence of grammar instruction, through the neglect of History and Science instruction - the list goes on and on.  These periods last around 10 – 15 years.  There are families who have older children able to read but younger children who can’t read, or vice versa, all because the schools chose to switch away from, or back to, effective reading instruction.  There are far too many families who haven’t had a well-educated generation in ages, simply because the timing of their children has coincided with their area schools’ dumbing down periods. 

In between these especially awful seizures which hit all children no matter what their family’s status, we’ve had outright discrimination against minorities, the recently immigrated and the poor of all colors.  All it takes is ineffective teachers using counterproductive teaching methods and weak materials.  I believe that the widening gap between the Haves and the Have-Not’s is caused essentially by the wide differences in educational quality available to America’s children in their public school system.  This inequality has been enabled by the lack of options given to the vast majority of parents.

The list above reflected the Educators’ confident expectation that it would be mostly poorly educated parents who would be providing the system with the subjects for their latest drop-out program research.  The uneducated are primarily clustered in poor, low-income families, many with a history of school drop-outs and dysfunction.   There is a great deal of stress in single parent and/or low-income households, and limited monitoring of student activities can occur when the adults are working two jobs or can’t afford daycare or any number of other circumstances. The poorly educated also will have low expectations for their children’s academic success because they never had any school success themselves and have no idea how to attain such a thing. We have to understand that most people who do poorly in school believe the fault lies within themselves, that there is something wrong with them, and that this wrong thing is genetic.  That’s what they’ve been told all their lives. “I’m dyslexic”, they’ll say, “And it runs in the family.” People who can’t read aren’t going to have books, magazines or newspapers in their houses, let alone “study aids”.  The lack of explicit instruction in the sound/spelling connections and the standard rules of grammar of the English language proves especially devastating to the progress of ESL children.  There was strong protest during the OBE days against fraudulent ESL classes that claimed to boost pride in the children’s diverse cultures, but proved much better at withholding the language skills that would help them succeed in their new American culture.

By improving no further than low-grade mediocrity, which looks so much better when compared to the sheer horror of what went before, the Educators continuously produce a steady supply of poorly educated children who will become the barely functional parents of tomorrow.  In fact, the E’s are just beginning to start the whole process all over again with new mandates and new goals and all kinds of promises – just as the victims of OBE have reached parenthood age.  This continuous loop of mediocrity - and worse - is not going to be corrected by shifting toward and mandating online instruction.  It wasn’t the lack of computers that led to our academic decline.  Nor is it going to improve the state of America’s public schools to have the E’s write yet another set of learning goals – we had goals galore during OBE/Blueprint 2000.  The only thing that is going to get Americans out of this cycle of educational abuse is universal parental choice.  The parents should choose whether or not their children take online courses at all, especially since reading text on a computer is already proving to be less effective than reading from print.  They also should be able to choose which online courses their children take since some of these courses are already getting iffy reviews.  I’ve heard of some students taking online gym classes – the fact that this would even be offered as a way for students to fulfill their online class mandate should disqualify educators from making these decisions.  Lots of decisions the schools have made over the course of the last 100 years or so should disqualify them from ever making choices for other people’s children ever again.  Universal parental choice – until we have that, we’ll continue to sink.