More Leadership Disconnect

It’s been a quiet/busy/chaotic (take your pick) summer here in Lake Wobegon (aka the overly-large school district). Schools are still closed, of course,1 with most teachers goofing off (which many politicians will tell you is what they always do) and most students playing around but not learning, because we know that real learning only occurs on “school days” and in official buildings.

But for our administrators, tech trainers, and other school staff, plus the rest of us lazy, wasteful central office types,2 today marks the start of a new year: our Leadership Conference. The day-long annual event where everyone assembles at a local college to get inspired for the coming year. And hear just how bad the budget for the following year will be.

I’ve been going to (and writing about) these things for a long time and, unfortunately, the content of the long morning session never changes. Lots of praise from local leaders for the job we’re doing in educating our children, inspirational videos featuring selected wise kids and adults, and token fine arts performances to remind everyone that testing hasn’t completely strangled those programs.

All of which is wrapped around an address by the superintendent (who this year didn’t waste any time getting to the data) and a keynote talk by a high profile outside expert, this time a female Navy fighter pilot telling us all about leadership skills that come from landing on an aircraft carrier at night. Interesting. Entertaining. Still trying to figure out the relevance.

Ok, I freely admit that I’ve become a little cynical3 about these affairs. Each year we hear from a wide variety of people, including big thinkers like Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, Pasi Sahlberg, and Daniel Pink, about how we need change our approach and help our kids learn to be creative, innovative, problem-solvers, instead of skillful test takers.

However, when the kids return in September, most school administrators fall back into the same mindset, pushing teachers to spend a large part of the year on a test-prep approach for most students. The engaging, interactive stuff we hear about, like STEM or maker activities or a problem-based approach, is all restricted to special occasions. Or reserved for the kids we know will have no trouble passing the SOLs in the spring.

We continue to talk a good game before the academic year begins. But still have a huge disconnect between what we are told school should be and the 20th century (19th?), teacher-directed, fact-based, narrow-defined central curriculum approach to learning that is the reality for most kids.

  1. Virginia says we can’t take the cheap labor and paying customers away from beaches and amusement parks until after Labor Day.

  2. Again, ask politicians about our value to the system.

  3. Maybe a lot cynical.

Investing in Pearson-style Learning

Yesterday Pearson, our favorite merchant for all things standardized testing, sold The Financial Times for £844m (roughly $1.3 billion US money) in cash.

So, what do they plan to do with all that money?

We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

This is the promise of learning– and the future of Pearson.

I’m not sure what most of that means, what a “bigger, bolder impact” might look like, or how they can help people “discover a love of learning”.

But based on Pearson’s history, be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s Not Pearson’s Fault

Despite carrying the title Everyone Hates Pearson, the profile of that company and it’s new CEO in Fortune almost makes you feel sorry for them.

The problem is, legions of parents, teachers, and others see the new Pearson in a very different light. Many of them, particularly in North America, where the company does some 60% of its sales, think of it as the Godzilla of education. In their view, Pearson is bent on controlling every element of the process, from teacher qualifications to curriculums to the tests used to evaluate students to the grading of the tests to, increasingly, owning and operating its own learning institutions.

Actually, the article is a good overview of Education Inc., and specifically the testing business. And the writer even includes a little bit of push-back on the assessment culture that has taken over most public schools, based on personal experience with her own child.

I cringe, feeling that I have failed as a parent if this is what she believes1. And yet she has a point. In New York City, that test helps determine which middle school you get into. In her classroom, the pressure was so great that the teacher referred to the tests by aliases: the “waka-waka” and the “whablah.” They were the elementary-school equivalent, it seemed, of Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, more commonly referred to as “he who must not be named.”

In a remarkably short time, the worthy notion of holding students and teachers accountable seems to have morphed into a system centered on “teaching to the test.”

But that doesn’t last long: “This is not Pearson’s fault, of course.”

And she’s correct. We in the US did this to ourselves.

We elected leaders at all levels who want to privatize public education – and view learning as a process that can be automated and enumerated. If Pearson didn’t exist, there would be plenty of other companies sucking up millions to provide the tools to make that happen. Which, of course, there are anyway, in addition to the “Godzilla of education”, taking their smaller share of the public pie.

Anyway, this is a long article but well worth the time, keeping in mind it comes from a business publication.

  1. “If I don’t do well on the fourth-grade test, I won’t get into a good middle school. If I don’t get into a good middle school, then I won’t get into a good high school, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t get a good job.”

The High Cost of Testing

noun_51139_ccMost of the time when I write about the “cost” of standardized testing, I’m thinking of the high price paid in terms of time and focus. All the human and instructional resources that are diverted to prepare for and support the assessment infrastructure in schools, plus the loss of opportunities for students to learn anything outside of a narrow group of testable topics.

However, there’s also the obscene amounts of money involved.

In just one state, Florida,

Agency staff said state-required tests cost $90 million each year. That includes the Florida Standards Assessments, college-readiness exams and others, but not required end-of-course exams chosen by each school district.

I’m betting that figure is just state expenses and doesn’t include additional costs incurred by local districts. It would also be interesting to know how much of that turns into profits for Pearson and other companies that administer and grade the various exams, plus sell a variety of test prep materials to schools.

Anyway, extend that to the rest of the country and you have a large chunk of change not being spent on actual student learning. And there’s more to come as the federal DOE forces new rules on teacher training programs.

The Education Department estimated that it would cost colleges and states about $42 million over 10 years to comply with the new data reporting requirements.

California education officials wrote in a separate letter that the proposed regulations would cost their state alone approximately $485 million each year. The California State University system said it would cost that institution approximately $4.7 million over 10 years to comply with the proposed rules.

While the reality, of course, probably lies somewhere in the middle, it’s still money that’s not being spent on instruction, either at the colleges or in the K12 schools of the states that fund most teacher prep programs.

Even worse, part of the DOE’s new regulations will tie teachers graduating from the prep programs to the “academic performance of the students they teach”. Which will further solidify the testing culture that is already the primary instructional focus of most schools in this country.

Image: Created by Laurène Smith for the Noun Project and used under a Creative Commons license.