21st Century Bubble Sheets

When it comes to technology here in the overly-large school district, our little group often hears from schools about how they don’t have enough computers.1

Enough to do what? Student projects? Using Google Drive for them to collaborate? Something to do with that creative critical thinking we’re told is important in the 21st century?

Actually in many cases the answer is none of the above.

Take the example of one high school at which we’re told demand for computers has “skyrocketed” due to their program requiring teachers to administer standardized pre- and post-tests five times during the school year. Which is in addition to the regular block of state-mandated exams that suck down computer availability for a month or more in the spring.

And they aren’t alone. In many, if not most, of our schools demand for equipment is growing fast, driven by the increasing demand for “data”, frequently involving the use of our home-grown, big-ass, standardized test-generating database.

Bottom line, schools want many more expensive, sophisticated devices that could be used for a wide variety of learning and creative purposes so they can repurpose them into dumb terminals for the delivery of digital bubble sheets.

Welcome to the 21st century.

  1. Or not enough newer models.

The Fast-Growing, Cash-Generative Business of Education

I don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day business headlines, especially since reporting in that area is just as bad or possibly worse than what passes for public affairs reporting these days.

But when Pearson, the UK-based educational publishing conglomerate that pretty much runs the Virginia DOE, is the subject, things get a little more interesting.

Evidentially, the company didn’t have a good first half of the year and plans to cut about 4000 jobs. However, it’s this statement from the CEO that really caught my eye.

Pearson is positioning itself as “a global learning services company,” Fallon said in a statement today. “This will drive a leaner, more cash-generative, faster-growing business from 2015.”

And where does all that cash being generated come from? At least half is from public schools, of course.

Pearson is the largest company in the fast-growing business of standardized testing, both writing and scoring the exams. Plus study materials to help teachers prepare kids for the tests. And textbooks “aligned” to Common Core or state standards (alignment being a euphemism for test prep).

Even worse, Pearson sees a great deal of potential in “emerging markets”, other countries to which they are exporting American-style standardized testing.

In the end, their bottom line will likely improve in the next fiscal year, even if the quality of learning provided by their customers (aka schools) doesn’t.

In Pursuit of Data

We talk a lot about data around here. A lot! How to collect it, how to analyze it, what to do with the analysis.

Of course, data in an educational setting represents children and, let’s face facts, is little more than a code word for standardized testing. The reality is we have no other mechanisms in place for gathering the numbers administrators want and need to crunch into their reports.

But why are we so hell bent on turning our students into a stream of data?

A recent post at the Answer Sheet blog didn’t really bring much new to the discussion but one paragraph does provide an answer to that question.

It is clear why Arne Duncan and like-minded reformers favor standardized tests. Along with high-stakes accountability mechanisms, such tests have given policy leaders at the state and federal levels an unprecedented ability to pry open the classroom and control instructional delivery. Equally important to them, standardized tests have yielded a cascade of data that policy elites have assembled into a picture of school quality—constructing evaluative report cards, and even tying student achievement scores to particular teachers as a means of calculating “value” added.

That desire to “control instructional delivery” and to quantify “school quality” (meaning teachers and kids, of course) quickly gets pushed down to, and very much shapes what happens in, classrooms.

Here in the overly large school district that desire for data is manifested in endless teacher meetings to create a flood of “common assessments” (don’t use that T word) and an expensive online system to provide the raw materials and delivery system. Followed, of course, by more meetings to analyze the results.

All of which sucks up many, many hours of classroom and teacher time while contributing little or no value to meaningful student learning.

But it’s all good. We got data!

No Change, Just Better Numbers

Seth Godin’s daily post begins with a couple of interesting lines.

As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.

Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.

Is he writing about standardized test scores? No. As is usual, Godin is presenting his thoughts about a business issue.

However, between that opening and his concluding paragraph…

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

… it’s not hard to see plenty of overlap with our adoration of numbers (aka “data”) – and a corresponding lack of breakthroughs – in current education policy.

Resistance is Futile

I’ve been thinking about data a lot recently. It’s pretty much unavoidable here in the overly-large school district, where the rising tide of collecting and analyzing student data is starting to overwhelm everything else.

We start with Virginia’s standardized testing program, similar to those in other states, which replaces most learning activities in the late spring. Plus a variety of other required “assessments” for various purposes that students must take throughout the rest of the year.

However, most of the growth in student data collection comes from a combination of “professional learning communities” and our home-grown online practice testing system.

For the past three years at our annual Leadership Conference (the August kickoff for school administrators and others), the superintendent has decreed that everyone will participate in PLCs. Which would be a good thing if they were actually focused on learning and were communities of learners that had developed organically.

In most cases, they are neither.

Teachers discussing their required PLCs normally refer to them as “meetings” (assigning all the high regard most of us have for such events) rather than communities. The primary purpose of these meetings in most schools is creating “common assessments” for student to take and then, once the assessments are administered, sifting through the data as a group to make meaning out of it.

Increasingly that data is coming from our assessment reporting tool, which essentially is a big database that makes it easy to spit out multiple combinations of SOL-type* questions for kids to respond to. Twice a year the database also provides required “division-wide assessments” in many subjects for students in most grades.

The tests data just keep coming.

Of course, all this demand for data comes at a price. Collecting it subtracts from limited instructional time. Building the tests and analyzing the results syphons from limited teacher planning time.

And then there’s the question of whether any of these tests are valid assessments of student learning. Or whether the knowledge being tested is what students need in the first place.  Obsessing over data diverts attention from any real discussion of the changes that need to be made in our educational structure.

But none of that is important. The data is all that matters.

* SOL = standards of learning, the nickname for Virginia’s standardized testing program.