To Catch a Cheat: More on the Pearson Problem as Our Problem

“Cheating by test takers is becoming more common in the United States and throughout the world,” explains T.J. Bliss, adding:

In the past year, multiple news agencies have reported several instances of cheating on high-stakes tests. Recently, news broke that doctors in a variety of specialties had cheated to pass certification exams (Zamost, Griffen, & Ansari, 2012). In another instance, high school students were arrested and charged with misdemeanors and felonies for cheating on the SAT (Anderson, 2011). At a university in Florida, over 200 students admitted to cheating on a midterm exam when faced with accusations based on statistical evidence (Good, 2010).

So what are teachers to do? Bliss offers evidence-based solutions:

There are many ways to detect cheating, some more useful and reliable than others (Cizek, 1999). Proctors and invigilators can walk the exam room and directly observe some forms of cheating, like answer copying. This method will not work, though, if a person cheats by gaining pre-knowledge of exam items (Good, 2010), is taking the exam for someone else (Anderson, 2011), or is trying to memorize items to share with others (Zamost et al. 2012). Some cheating is detected through whistle-blowers, manual comparison of answer and seating charts, and other qualitative approaches (Cizek, 2006). However, in both large-scale and classroom testing situations, statistical approaches have also been used to identify suspected cheaters. Such methods have been successfully utilized to detect several different kinds of cheating, including answer copying, collusion, pre-knowledge, and attempts to memorize items.

And why the increased cheating? It seems legislation, competition, and technology have roles in that:

With the passage of legislation requiring increased school accountability (e.g. No Child Left Behind Act, 2001) and increased compet[ti]iveness for jobs requiring certification (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011) the stakes for passing standardized and licensure exams have increased dramatically. At the same time, technologies to enable cheating have also increased. For instance, some examinees have begun using smart phones, digital recorders, and other personal electronic devices to cheat during exams. Fortunately, the advent of new methods for administering exams (like Computer Adaptive Testing) and analyzing test results (like Item Response Theory) have led to the development of more complex and sensitive statistical methods to detect cheating.

For classroom teachers seeking ways to prevent cheating and catch students who cheat, the Internet offers a nearly endless supply of strategies:

To be honest, I could continue that list for dozens and dozens of bullets, all of which have about the same strategies.

How many of us as classroom teachers at all grade levels have given traditional tests such as multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, etc., formats? How many of us have implemented some or many of the cheating prevention strategies commonly taught in methods courses such as creating several versions of the tests, asking students to cover their work, re-arranging desks and seating assignments, walking around the room during the tests?

And how many of us are outraged at Pearson and other testing corporations for monitoring social media in order to detect cheating and thus to protect the credibility of their product (as any business would do in a consumer society)?

How many of us as classroom teachers are rightfully angry about the misuse of value-added methods (VAM) for teacher evaluation and pay, and then hold our students accountable for tests in traditional formats in our classes?

How many of us help select, purchase, and then implement commercial programs for teaching and assessing our students?

I teach and co-teach several methods courses for candidates seeking certification to teach in high school. As a critical educator, my classes go something like this: For Topic A, here is what traditional/progressive educators say you should do, but here is what critical educators suggest.

Yes, this is a bit tedious, for me and, I suppose, my students.

In the methods course I co-teach, I am responsible for assessment, so the topics of tests and cheating are addressed.

In order to help my future teachers develop a critical lens, we often talk about their experiences with assessment and cheating while college students—by focusing on writing essays and being monitored for plagiarism.

Most of these students are familiar with directly or indirectly faculty using TurnItIn.com to evaluate plagiarism in student essays. And like most of the faculty, my students see nothing problematic about using that technology both to discourage and detect cheating.

As high-achieving students, my students tend to be harsh about cheating—until we start investigating their own behavior as students. Until we start unpacking what counts as cheating (for example, TUrnItIn.com allows each professor to manipulate the threshold for plagiarism, thus changing what counts as plagiarism from course to course).

Is sharing homework cheating? Is collaborating while writing an essay cheating? Is peer-editing an essay cheating?

And then we go further by asking why students cheat, and considering why students plagiarize.

Certainly all college students know not to plagiarize.

My larger point is about the conditions created in the classroom that foster cheating.

I explain to my students why I don’t give grades and don’t use traditional tests. My students submit multiple drafts of all essays and often spend a good deal of time in class drafting with me there to help.

I also detail how I incorporate a group midterm exam in my foundations of education course, the testing format being both small-group and whole class discussion with a focus on learning being a social construct.

I have consciously over 30-plus years sought ways to end the sort of testing culture that fosters cheating and instead implemented approaches to assessment that encourage full engagement that makes cheating (typically) not even an option.

Unable to avoid my English teacher Self, I tend to add that in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a powerful theme addresses the consequences of “reduced circumstances”; the main character Offred/June, who appears to be a decent person before the world crumbles, expresses murderous cravings—fantasizing about stabbing someone with a knitting needle and feeling the blood run warm over her hand.

This dystopian novel forces readers to consider the sources of the violent urges—are they inherent in Offred/June or prompted by her reduced circumstances?

That same sort of critical inspection must be a part of both the wider education reform movement and our own classrooms.

Under high-stakes accountability, why the cheating scandals in Atlanta, DC, and elsewhere?

But also, why are students cheating in our classes?

Why do students not read assigned works? Why do students claim they hate to read?

As teachers and public school advocates, to maintain our gaze only on outcomes is to miss the reasons for those outcomes, and to avoid our own culpability.

And then we come back to Pearson and the commercial boom connected directly to the accountability era.

A Software & Information Industry Association report reveals, “testing and assessment products–which include software, digital content and related digital services–now make up the largest single category of educational technology sales,” increasing by 57% since 2012-2013:

testing and assessment 57 percent

That tax-payer’s cash grab combined with what Anthony Cody calls “necessary surveillance” for national high-stakes testing is a cancer on the educational body—one that must be not only cured, but also eradicated and then prevented.

However, we must also admit that this cancer is the result of cancer-causing behavior.

As teachers and public education advocates, we must continue to fight the profits and surveillance of Pearson and other commercial interests, but we also must face our own bad habits.

While we raise our voices against misguided and harmful policy (including taking a professional and political stance), we should practice what we preach by creating classrooms that reflect our obligations and commitments.

So I completely agree when Peter Greene makes this pointed and accurate claim connected to Pearson: “You know what kind of test need this sort of extreme security? A crappy one.”

I also support Jersey Jazzman concluding:

But even more than that: a good teacher gives assessments that are largely cheat-proof. So if the PARCC people really think their exam can be gamed by students over social media, they are admitting they have created an inferior product. …

Further: if the assessment is any good, and is really measuring higher-order thinking, it likely can’t be gamed. It’s easy to cheat on a multiple choice exam; it’s much harder to cheat on a chemistry lab. And it’s nearly impossible to cheat on a choir concert, or a personal response to a novel, or number line manipulative. …

But if the PARCC is so vulnerable that a tweet by a student after the test compromises the entire exam, it must be useless — particularly as a measure of student learning.

However, I feel obligated to raise a concurrent point related to the opening of this post: If our own assessment practices need the amount of surveillance and diligence detailed for preventing cheating and catching cheaters, there is ample evidence some pretty suspect testing is happening in our classrooms as well.

Let’s end the tyranny of high-stakes standardized testing that has spawned Pearson et al., but let’s make sure we address that tyranny in our own practice as well.

For Further Reading

Who’s Cheating Whom?, Alfie Kohn

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, Bower, Joe / Thomas, P.L. (eds.)

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Problem with Pearson (and Hyperbole)

Passive Progressivism

The Problem with Pearson (and Hyperbole)

The education reform debate—one often derailed by both the tone taken and then the debate about that tone (and not the issues)—appears determined to have an Evil Person (or Evil Corporation) to slay.

There was Michelle Rhee (whose Time cover really was just begging for it), and then Bill Gates. But to be honest, the list of candidates for Evil Person has been pretty long.

If you mention a person directly, you are immediately discounted as using ad hominem (although in many if not most of those cases, legitimate issues have been raised about expertise, experience, and even intentions—and not ad hominem at all).

Now, Pearson has entered the picture and prompted a new round (and maybe a new level) of hyperbole.

Data security about children/students, surveillance of Twitter and social media—Pearson has become the manifestation of Big Brother for those skeptical of technology and high-stakes testing.

To that, I’d say that we can have a reasonable debate about whether the comparison is hyperbole or an apt literary analogy, but the larger point I’d like to make is that in ether the debate or the comparison, we are likely missing the important issue.

Pearson has earned 8 billion—4 billion in the U.S.—in annual sales as a consequence of the accountability policies adopted by those elected to office within a democratic process.

I’m sorry to have to note this fact, but Pearson is not a Evil Demigod or some such.

Pearson and its profits are a consequence of very clear and consistent decisions by people in power and the people who put them in power.

Pearson is the logical conclusion of democracy and capitalism—not some totalitarian monster.

When you look at the Pearson phenomenon, and its relationship with education policy and the drain on tax dollars, you must admit this: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And what hath we wrought?

If Pearson makes you angry, be sure to consider just who is to blame.

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Depending on your historical and literary preferences, spend a bit of time with Franz Kafka or Dilbert and you should understand the great failure of the standards movement in both how we teach and how we certify teachers—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy tends to be inadequate because bureaucrats themselves are often lacking professional or disciplinary credibility or experience, depending, however, on the status of their authority to impose mandates. For education, Arne Duncan serves well as the face of the bureaucrat, an appointee who has only the bully pulpit of his appointment to hold forth on policy.

However, as corrosive to education—and ultimately to evidence-based practice—is the technocrat.

Technocrats, unlike bureaucrats, are themselves credible, although narrowly so. For technocrats, “evidence” is only that which can be measured, and data serve to draw generalizations from randomized samples.

In short, technocrats have no interest in the real world, but in the powerful narcotic of the bell-shaped curve.

As a result, a technocrat’s view often fails human decency (think Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein) and certainly erases the very human reality of individual outliers.

The face of the technocrat—in fact, the technocrat’s technocrat—is Daniel Willingham, whose work is often invoked as if handed down by the hand on God, chiseled on tablets. [1] [Note: If you sense snark here, I am not suggesting Willingham’s work is flawed or unimportant (I would say important but narrow), but am being snarky about how others wield the technocratic hammer in his name.]

And it is here I want to return to a few points I have made recently:

  • Even the gold standard of experimental research fails the teacher in her day-to-day work because her classroom is not a random sampling of students, because her work is mostly with outliers.
  • And in the teaching moment, what counts as evidence becomes that teacher’s experience couched in that teacher’s content and teaching knowledge as all of that happens against the on-going evidence of the act of teaching.

Stewart Riddle, offering yet another effort in the reading war, is essentially speaking for evidence-based practice while raising a red flag against the tyranny of the technocrat, embodied by the systematic phonics crowd (those who wave the Willingham flag, for example).

On Twitter, in response to my piece on evidence-based policy and practice, Nick Kilstein raised a great point:

My ultimate response (prompting this blog):

My thoughts here, building on the bullet points above, are that having our practice informed by a wide range of evidence (including important evidence from technocrats, but also from other types of evidence, especially qualitative research [2] that can account for outliers, nuance, and the unexpected) is much different than having our practice mandated by evidence (think intensive, systematic phonics for all children regardless of needs or fluency because that is the program the school has adopted).

For day-to-day teaching, the tensions of the disciplines remain important: what we can measure against what measuring cannot address.

When Willingham proclaims that a certain type of research does not support the existence of learning styles, for example, teachers should use that to be very skeptical of the huge amount of oversimplified and misguided “teacher guides” and programs that espouse learning styles templates, practices, and models. [3]

But day-to-day teaching certainly reveals that each of our students is different, demanding from us some recognition of those differences in both what and how we teach them.

It is in the face of a single child that technocrats fail us—as Simon P. Walker notes:

Some educational researchers retreat to empiricist methods. Quantitative studies are commissioned on huge sample sizes. Claims are made, but how valid are those claims to the real-life of the classroom? For example, what if one study examines 5,000 students to see if they turn right rather than left after being shown more red left signs. Yes, we now with confidence know students turn left when shown red signs. But so what?  What can we extrapolate from that?  How much weight can that finding bear when predicting human behaviour in complex real world situations where students make hundreds of decisions to turn left and right moment by moment? The finding is valid but is it useful?

If that child needs direct phonics or grammar instruction, then I must offer them. If that child is beyond direct phonics and grammar instruction or if that direct instruction inhibits her/his learning to read and write, then I must know other strategies (again, this is essentially what whole language supports).

The tyranny of the bureaucrats is easy to refute, but the tyranny of the technocrat is much more complicated since that evidence is important, it does matter—but again, evidence of all sorts must inform the daily work of teaching, not mandate it.

Professional and scholarly teachers are obligated to resist the mandates by being fully informed; neither compliance nor ignorance serves us well as a profession.

[1] For more on worshipping technocrats, explore this, notably the cult of John Hattie and that those who cite his work never acknowledge the serious concerns raised about that work (see the bottom of the post).

[2] Full disclosure, I wrote a biography for my EdD dissertation (published here), and also have written a critical consideration of quantitative data.

[3] See, for example, how evidence (Hart and Risley) functions to limit and distort practice in the context of the “word gap.” The incessant drumbeat of the “Hart and Risley” refrain is the poster child of the tyranny of technocrats.

CALL: Chapters for revised volume, De-Testing and De-Grading Schools (Peter Lang USA)

Classroom teachers, researchers, and de-testing/de-grading advocates are encouraged to contact me about a revised volume for Peter Lang USA: De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization.

Synopsis of original volume from 2013:

A century of education and education reform along with the last three decades of high-stakes testing and accountability reveals a disturbing paradox: Education has a steadfast commitment to testing and grading despite decades of research, theory, and philosophy that reveal the corrosive consequences of both testing and grading within an education system designed to support human agency and democratic principles.

This edited volume brings together a collection of essays that confronts the failure of testing and grading and then offers practical and detailed examinations of implementing at the macro and micro levels of education teaching and learning free of the weight of testing and grading. The book explores the historical failure of testing and grading; the theoretical and philosophical arguments against testing and grading; the negative influence of testing and grading on social justice, race, class, and gender; and the role of testing and grading in perpetuating a deficit perspective of children, learning, race, and class.

The chapters fall under two broad sections: Part I: «Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stake Accountability in Education» includes essays on the historical, theoretical, and philosophical arguments against testing and grading; Part II: «De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform» presents practical experiments in de-testing and de-grading classrooms for authentic learning experiences.

Original Table of Contents:

Contents: Alfie Kohn: Introduction: The Roots of Grades-and-Tests – Lisa Guisbond/Monty Neill/Bob Schaeffer: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from This Policy Failure? – Fernando F. Padró: High-Stakes Testing Assessment: The Deus ex Machina of Quality in Education – Anthony Cody: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble – Lawrence Baines/Rhonda Goolsby: Mean Scores in a Mean World – Julie A. Gorlewski/David A. Gorlewski: De-grading Literacy: How New York State Tests Knowledge, Culture, and Critical Thinking – Morna McDermott: The Corporate Model of Schooling: How High Stakes Testing Dehumanizes Education – Richard Mora: Standardized Testing and Boredom at an Urban Middle School – Brian R. Beabout and Andre M. Perry: Reconciling Student Outcomes and Community Self-Reliance in Modern School Reform Contexts – David L. Bolton/John M. Elmore: The Role of Assessment in Empowering/Disempowering Students in the Critical Pedagogy Classroom – Alfie Kohn: The Case Against Grades – Joe Bower: Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning – John Hoben: Outside the Wounding Machine: Grading and the Motive for Metaphor – Peter DeWitt: No Testing Week: Focusing on Creativity in the Classroom – Hadley J. Ferguson: Journey into Ungrading – Jim Webber/Maja Wilson: Moving Beyond «Parents Just Want to Know the Grade!» – P. L. Thomas: De-grading Writing Instruction in a Time of High-Stakes Testing: The Power of Feedback in Workshop – Brian Rhode: One Week, Many Thoughts – Lisa William-White: Conclusion: Striving toward Authentic Teaching for Social Justice.

Most of the original chapters will be updated and revised, but a few are unable to work on the revised volume project. Thus, we should have room for 2-4 new chapters.

Please send proposals ASAP, and we are requiring full drafts by July 31, 2015, to submit the revised volume by September 15, 2015.

Chapters must be in APA citation/style format and about 6000 words maximum; both practical and research/theoretical cases highlighting de-testing and de-grading classrooms are needed.

Email me with proposals or questions: paul.thomas@furman.edu

 

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Possibly my greatest commitment while teaching public school English in a rural SC high school for 18 years was listening to my students, and by that, I do not mean listening to them during class discussions or in conferences (I did that also).

I mean listening to students when they didn’t know an adult was listening.

Some of those moments that have shaped my teaching include the following:

  • Student comment: A student walking into class told a friend that she had just failed a pop quiz in the previous class after studying all night, and from then on, she wasn’t going to waste her time studying. My lesson: Pop quizzes often taught students the exact wrong lessons intended; thus, I very early on never gave pop quizzes (leading eventually to giving no tests, for similar reasons).
  • Student comment: Two students were leaving my class once at the end of the school day. One asked the other if they had any homework in another class; the friend replied, “No, we just have to read.” My lesson: Students did not see reading as homework, and after I asked what the students meant, I discovered that students had learned they did not need to read since teachers told them everything they needed in class the next day. This profoundly impacted how I invited and required student reading in my classes, including offering adequate time in class for them to read, increasing choice in their reading, and adding an artifact of reading (response journals, annotating text, notes to classmates, etc.) to any out-of-school reading expectations.

Some of the listening I did, however, took much more time and required inference on my part. But it is that sort of listening that ultimately shaped my understanding that grades, averaging grades, rubrics, and grading policies contribute significantly to student opportunities to avoid being engaged with learning.

Let me explain.

Over a long period of time, and while carefully listening and even asking questions, I learned that many students gamed their math classes so that they passed math courses while never passing a single math test or exam.

Students had discovered that playing the game of averaging grades and manipulating the impact of non-test assignments (homework, projects, class participation, extra credit) on those averages allowed students to pass the course with a minimum of studying or learning the material for quizzes, tests, and exams. And, yes, the irony here is that students used math to avoid being engaged in actually learning math.

Since students were armed with detailed grading policies, many would keep a running record of their averages, weigh that against the extra credit and non-test grades they could compile, and then maintain cumulative averages just at the passing barrier (often something they learned they could negotiate near the end of the course, as well).

This is just one example of “school-only” practices and “student” behaviors that have guided my own teaching policies that seek ways to end both: I don’t want my class to be “playing school,” and I don’t want the young people in my classes to behave as students.

This came to mind as I exchanged emails with Peter Smagorinsky about a recent post of mine, Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful,” lamenting giving grades at the end of the semester.

I want to clarify what I do and why, but also add how I have course policies that delay traditional grading but are driven instead by minimum requirements for course credit that support engagement.

First, some may have assumed that my non-grading practices are somehow related to my teaching at a selective university where that is possible. But I must emphasize that I started de-grading my classes early in my career while teaching in a rural SC public high school, and I did so with all levels of students.

My practices are not about idealized students or settings.

Next, de-grading a class is not about being soft, or easy, or asking less of students. De-grading is about demanding more from students, notably more engagement.

In my courses (then and now), students had/have to participate fully in all activities and assignments [1]. To put this in traditional contexts, students are not allow to “take a zero” on an assignment and then just pass by on the resulting average.

There is no, “I just took zeros on my papers last year and still passed English.” (And, again, many students told me that when I was teaching public school.)

Again, then and now, when students are required to write four original and drafted essays over a grading period or during a course, that means several minimum requirements: initial submission of each drafted original essay (made directly observable during writing workshop in class), required conferences with me after each initial essay submission, and required essay revision meeting minimum expectations of revision (a detailed revision plan we created in each conference).

Don’t fulfill minimum requirements, and you do not receive credit for the grading period or the course (and, yes, I did this during my public school teaching career).

I balance those demands with other important policies: (i) students are allowed to continue revising their work as much as they want and time allows, and (ii) late work is not only accepted, but necessary.

The de-graded classroom is about engagement in the learning process and artifacts of learning. There is nothing soft or easy about any of this, and these are not practices suitable for only some students.

And students are not allowed the manipulation of grades and averages that I have witnessed and continue to witness in traditionally grade-driven courses where students focus on the grades or passing and not engaging with learning.

Minimum observable requirements for student participation trump significantly traditionally graded and averaged testing in terms of creating genuine student engagement in learning.

I want to end by emphasizing , again, that these are not idealistic practices or claims; I also practice concessions to the reality of grades in formal schooling.

The “de-” in de-grading of my classes is best framed as “delayed” because I do invite students to discuss the grades their works-in-progress deserve throughout the process and, of course, I do assign grades at the end of each course.

While delaying grades, however, I am increasing the quality and quantity of feedback my students receive and of student engagement in learning for the sake and advantages of learning.

[1] As an example, here is my minimum requirement statement from a first-year writing seminar:

Minimum Requirements for course credit:

  • Submit all essays in MULTIPLE DRAFTS before the last day of the course; initial drafts and subsequent drafts should be submitted with great care, as if each is the final submission, but students are expected to participate in process writing throughout the entire semester as a minimum requirement of this course—including a minimum of ONE conference per major essay.
  • Demonstrate adequate understanding of proper documentation and citation of sources through a single well-cited essay or several well-cited essays. A cited essay MUST be included in your final portfolio.

Time to Invoke Reagan Directive: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education”

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
R.E.M.
The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
James Baldwin

Speaking as a witness from within the bowels of the Ronald Reagan administration when President Reagan gave the committee responsible for A Nation at Risk their prime directives, Gerald Holton ended with Reagan’s emphatic “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

About thirty years later, we must now admit it is time to invoke the Reagan directive because the USDOE cannot be any other kind of government than the very worst kind: All uninformed bureaucracy that seeks always to dig deeper from the bottom of a very deep and fruitless hole.

While Reagan’s characterizing the USDOE as an “abomination” may have been premature in the early 1980s, we must admit now that Reagan was prescient.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, states scrambled to “fix” public education through a series of accountability-based bureaucratic mandates built on standards (and new standards) and high-stakes tests (and new high-stakes tests).

By the turn of the century, we witnessed the tipping point that would prove Reagan right—No Child Left Behind [1], the ultimate shifting of know-nothing bureaucracy from the states to the federal government, specifically the USDOE.

Few could have been brave enough to predict that the George W. Bush 8 years of horrible education policy could be trumped by the Obama administration, but we are now solidly in the reality that the USDOE is a total Obamination—relentless failed bureaucracy piled on top of failed bureaucracy.

Under Obama and the appointee-leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, public education has been bombarded by competitive grants, teacher bashing, union bashing, and a series of policies at the state and federal levels that are neither supported by research nor appropriate responses to the very real problems facing public schools (many of which are beyond the walls or control of those schools).

The two latest abominations are calling for expanding value-added methods (VAM) into teacher education and ranking colleges and universities.

Even those along a wide spectrum of ideologies who believe in the promise of VAM have consistently demonstrated that VAM is not as effective as policies claim and that VAM should not be used in any high-stakes contexts for schools, teachers, or teacher education.

Those of us who see no promise for VAM add that all this expanded testing is a tremendous waste of time and money—most notably because grasping at measurable data is missing the greatest problems burdening our schools, social and educational inequities (ironically, all circumstances that could be addressed effectively if government would behave as government as demonstrated in many other countries around the world).

As Gerald Bracey explained in numerous contexts, ranking itself is fool’s gold—and in education, ranking is particularly caustic since it creates competition where we should be in collaboration (this is also a fundamental problem with VAM as a mechanism for sorting teachers, schools, or schools/departments of education).

The two most recent abominations are not unique, however, but lie in a long line including Race to the Top, Opting Out of NCLB, and Common Core.

Simply stated, these policies are designed and promoted by people with no or little experience or expertise in the field of education. Their advocacy remains plagued by the bi-partisan political tactic of simple saying things that aren’t true and then using the bully pulpit of election or appointment to plow ahead (and thus, beware the roadbuilders).

Maybe this will sound outlandish, but let’s consider what people who have taught, studied, and researched the field of education recognize about the proposal to hold colleges/departments of education accountable for the test scores of students being taught by graduates from those colleges/departments (holding grandparents responsible for their grandchildren’s behavior, in effect):

Ridiculous I suppose—like asking the legal profession to weigh in on jurisprudence or the medical profession to craft health policy. [2]

Many people have called for the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and I never counted myself among them until now. But in the waning days of 2014, I welcome that ghost of administration’s past to ramble into the room and, as Holton paraphrased, make the call once again: “And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.”

[1] The irony is NCLB called for scientifically based policy in education, and we have gotten anything except: Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

[2] Education has a very long history of being ignored as a field in terms of policy, and public education has also long labored under a misguided business model; see from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press:

For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)

To My Students at the End of the Semester

After over three decades of teaching, only two realities about teaching are nearly unbearable for me: the end of class (like parenting, teaching is entered knowing that students, like children, will and must move on from the teacher, parent) and the ugly inevitable of having to assign each student a grade.

Since I do not grade assignments or students throughout the semester, that second reality creates a great deal of tension for you students as well as for me. So I want to take a few moments to emphasize what we were trying to accomplish together, an orchestra I conducted (possibly badly occasionally or even often), as I must add quite purposefully, with all my heart.

As at least some of you heard this story this semester, please indulge me.

Harold Scipio taught me high school chemistry and physics. He was a tall black man, very measured and formal. It is because of Mr. Scipio, I think ultimately along with Lynn Harrill, that I found my way to teaching after thinking I was going to major in physics (that was because of Mr. Scipio, but it was also because I was young and mostly misreading myself and the world).

Mr. Scipio practiced two behaviors that were totally unlike any other teacher I ever had. First, he referred to all of us as Mr. or Miss and our last names, and he explained to us that since we had to call him Mr. Scipio, he should certainly return the courtesy.

In the last days of my senior year at the National Honor Society banquet (Mr. Scipio was a faculty sponsor), as we were cleaning up afterward, he called me Paul, smiled widely, and told me to call him Harold because I was graduating and an adult.

And throughout my junior and seniors years, each time Mr. Scipio would hand out a test or exam, he would quietly gather a wide assortment of lab materials around the room before walking out of the main room and into the back where he washed and returned the materials to the storage shelf.

During every test, Mr. Scipio left the room, sent an unspoken message about not only our very frail and young integrity but also his trust that although we were surely not perfect, that we would ultimately make the right decisions.

I now teach every single day in the wake of Mr. Scipio—often disappointed in myself for failing his lessons about the essential dignity of all people, especially young people, especially students in the care of a teacher.

Teaching isn’t about chemistry or physics, or introductions to education or first year seminars and learning to write.

Teaching is about those becomings and beings that truly matter: becoming and being a citizen of communities grand and intimate, becoming and being the only you that you can be, becoming and being a scholar and student.

And yes, I placed student last because it is nested as least important among everything I placed before it.

But the semester is over. We will not ever share these classes together again, and I must per university directive issue you a grade now.

In my quest to honor the essential dignity of each one of you, then, I have fought the good fight against what I feel is deeply dehumanizing—grading.

My final stone cast at that unmovable and unbreakable window is that I have asked each of you to submit a final portfolio of your work this semester.

That portfolio is your argument, your final artifact of representing not only you but also the you that you have become this semester.

That collection of artifacts should show the you who could not have existed a few months ago, should show a young mind now capable of synthesizing a wide range of experiences and materials into something only you can offer, and should strike a blow against the former you while calling out for the you yet to be.

That portfolio is you, and as Mr. Scipio taught me, you are the most important thing in the world; thus, your portfolio deserves your undivided attention and care.

It deserves to be a purposeful thing of this moment, but it can never fully define you and certainly will only represent you in passing.

In these final moments before you submit the last act of our classes, forgive me your final grades—and I hope I have earned just a small kernel of the respect that Mr. Scipio received from me as I watched his back disappear from the room and then turned to those tests that really had nothing on them I remember today.