Friday, November 22, 2013

Ken Wagner at PTA Convention

On November 15, 2013, Ken Wagner, Deputy Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment and Educational Technology addressed the New York State PTA. He described the continual process of revamping curriculum to meet the ever changing world in which we live. Unlike the presentations by Commissioner King, his presentation did not seem patronizing, disrespectful or insincere as a listening post.

Dr. Wagner then spoke about the modules that the New York Department of Education has provided for its teachers. He noted that this is the first time the state has ever provided resources to accompany the standards. They were slow in their release, some not coming out until the 2013 summer when schools were to be fully implementing the CCSS in September, because the CCSS release itself was slow. He did not comment upon the initial math materials being fully rejected. He emphasized that the modules were not mandates or a script. Further, he characterized scripted curriculum as a waste of children's time and demeaning to teachers. (He got that one right.) He even went so far to say that some of the standards could actually be higher. He encouraged curriculum modification to meet the students' needs as an essential component of quality teaching. Modules were acknowledged to contain errors, typos and potentially inappropriate materials. He asked for forgiveness and acknowledgment that everyone makes mistakes. The modules were reviewed by several groups: un-described or unidentified "teachers," regent fellows, the board of Ed and the regents themselves. Either the review process was rigorous so we should find any errors unacceptable or the process was not rigorous, but rushed and accompanied by urgency of acceptance and errors should be accepted but the material itself should be held in question.

Next he took on testing. He proposed that the purpose of testing was to support high quality teaching and learning. Good teachers regularly assess students in their classrooms, but cannot compare their students to students across the state. In order to compare students across the state, he proposed the shortest test possible matched to instruction and learning. In follow up questions he said the reason that listening was removed was because it was too difficult to assess and the previous testing did not do it well. He also commented that there is a state mandate for the 3-8 tests and some of the Regents exams. Some of the higher level Regents exams like physics, Chemistry and Geometry are not mandated by the feds. He also included a comment that the testing had to be used for APPR (Annual professional performance reviews).

Regarding APPR implementation. He agreed that it was difficult. That some schools are now trying to modify their applications because the proposals that were previously approved by the state and local unions led to increased testing. Interestingly he said that there was no requirement for pretesting or SLO (student learning objective) tests. Tests may be the easiest was to measure the student performance, but projects and portfolios could also be used. He described the intent of the APPR system to increase the opportunity to get more information to improve teaching. Two years ago 99% of teachers were rated as effective; last year 91% were. I am not sure if the powers at be have a target number they expect to be rated as ineffective, but it feels that way.

Dr. Wagner then commented about the time devoted to testing. Out of the 64500 minutes of instruction per school year, 580 are consumed by mandatory state testing. While he acknowledged the prevalence of  test prep, he disapproved of it. Saying that it was "not good for students, teachers or the profession and does not work." The tests "should not be high stakes for students and should not be stressful." He failed to discuss the implications of the tests.  Teachers and principals who feel like their jobs are on the line will emphasize the tests to their children. Letters like the one that goes out in my district stressing the importance of the tests and how kids should get a good night's sleep and a healthy breakfast on those days raise the stress for families and students together. Districts will implement test prep, "temperature taking" as they refer to it in our district, where kids take a sample tests, including  90 minutes blocks of assessment time for three consecutive days. As a result, at least the struggling students given additional focus. Sometimes, however, all students will sit through lessons designed to address the needs of some kids. Sometimes the bright kids who aced the first assessments will be asked to do it over and over because that is what is required for all kids. He can minimize the required commitment, but the reality tends to be very different.

When asked how do we stop the madness, he had little advice other than it must stop. "Finger pointing does no good" and that we "must accept the fact that mistakes will happen" are little solace to parents with stressed out kids and school systems that pressurize their staff.

Regarding data warehousing. New York has agreed to work with inBloom, a nonprofit largely funded by the Gates Foundation. He asserted that the data was secured and protected by law. That the company could not sell the information or share it without a contract authorizing such behavior and that data mining would be prohibited. This is all well and good, but if the defense department and white house systems can be hacked, what makes people think inBloom will be so secure? Under the Patriot Act people were not supposed to be investigated unless there was probable cause, yet many cases were found where investigators pursued private vendettas against citizens without any suspicion of wrong doing. What makes us think that bad behavior will not go on? Although scheduling and online gradebook programs are widely accepted and should not require the mass approval of parents, warehousing statewide data is different. The choice is being made, not by the local authority, but by the state. The state and feds can use this information howsoever they choose.

He urged parents and teachers to apply pressure and demand a justification of every test so that parents can be critical consumers of education. This is what the parents and teachers are trying to do at public forums and they seem to be being discounted. People feel like they are being ignored. If there truly is an opportunity for parents to be critical consumers, there needs to be a choice. Private schools that have opted out of the system are not a choice for most. Is Dr. Wagner giving parents the nod to opt out of assessments or schools to option to not aligning their curriculum to the Common Core? I think not. In light of this, I wonder what he means when he says be critical consumers of education?

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