Data Junkfood. Is Your School Eating It?

If you live on the west coast and you are in any way connected with education, you know of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. As an acronym, we see this in our written communication as SBAC. When we speak of it, we say Ess-Back, which manifests in my mind as a coiled, hissing snake, or perhaps a maligned Harry Potter character, embittered by years of living in ostracized seclusion with a painful spinal disfigurement.

The SBAC is a bit of a shadowy figure. I have taught in two states and internationally. I have attended and given workshops in dozens of venues and with hundreds, maybe thousands of colleagues from around the world. Daily, I read literature on the subject of education. But I cannot recall ever meeting someone who admits to working for or on the SBAC. Which is weird, considering that nearly every single student on the west coast, over the course of several grueling days, takes the SBAC exam in the spring. Weird, considering that the federal government has threatened to retract millions and millions of dollars in federal funding from the states, districts, and schools who opt out of the exam. Weird, since almost all of our professional development is carried out with SBAC results in the backs of our minds.

When the stakes are this high, it would stand to reason that teachers and administrators have a voice in, or at least a rudimentary understanding of how the data is collected and calculated. After all, the numbers will publicly reveal holes in our credibility as professionals and later guide the mandatory professional learning we pay for with our time and energy. However, when I look closely at my students’ data, as summarized by this one-shot test administered long before the year is even over, I do not feel like I have learned much that will help me improve as an educator. If anything, I might even feel a little bit messed with.

Here’s what I mean specifically:


What you just looked at in confusion is a page from my student roster report, courtesy of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The colored numbers represent each student’s overall score on the exam. Trust me, there are some red numbers on other pages. That aside, I think most of my colleagues would agree that within the first six weeks of the school year, any mediocre teacher can predict, with about a 90% degree of accuracy, the number that is likely to accompany each name on the roster when we receive the results the following year. However, good teachers are interested in why each student earned the score that they earned. If trends emerge over time—gaps in particular standards, for example—maybe we can work with that information to improve our craft in the long run.

The SBAC sort of breaks things down for us. Notice the four categories of reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry in the roster report above. That’s almost helpful. But what about the fact that Student A and Student B performed identically within each of the four categories, yet received two different overall scores?

I understand that small variances in performance in each category can lead to a difference in overall scores. But if this is the case, I might expect Student A to be hanging precariously close to a 2. And I might surmise that Student B had a good day and punched above weight towards a 3. But if we zoom in closer, we see this is not the case at all:


Student B.png

Student A was quite a distance from a 2. Student B is actually closer to a 1 than a 3. But as far as the roster report tells me, these students have nearly the same score across the board in reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry. I understand that a 2 and a 3 have different ranges, blah, blah, blah, but this is annoying to me. It is confusing. The data actually makes me understand these students less than I did before attempting to analyze it.

Data like this is terrifying to those teachers whose evaluations and salaries are tied to these ambiguous and flawed results. Many of those teachers will not be in the profession much longer. They are already leaving in droves.

Data like this is also terrifying to good administrators. They are under immense pressure from politicians to look at these numbers and develop plans of action that impact thousands of students. But what good is a plan if the data that guides it is so questionable?

And maybe this data should be disconcerting to you, even if you are not an educator. Your tax dollars are paying for the design and implementation of the test, including all of the technology infrastructure and personnel required to implement it in every school across your state.

But let’s back up for a moment. I am not here to rant against the Common Core Standards or against standardized testing as a whole. I think both can serve as powerful tools that will improve instruction. And maybe the people in charge of the SBAC are decent humans who have learning rather than profit at the core of their beliefs. Maybe someday I’ll meet one of them and I can find out.

But in the meantime, I feel it is my duty as an educational leader to identify a problem, which I think I have done, and then to propose some possible solutions. So here are a few solutions:

Students: Your teachers know the exam can be frustrating, tedious, and painful. However, please do your best. And please behave in a way that allows the people around you to do their best too. Think of that teacher or coach who has gone out of their way for you, even if it just offering you a kind word when you needed it. Dedicate your performance to them. Forget about that teacher who you think is kind of a jerk. In fact, maybe have some empathy for them. They have been pitted against you by the system, been told they are failing you in every possible way, and as a result, many of them go home and cry. Then they work until they fall asleep.

Parents: If you opt your child out, you are actually just causing more problems for everyone. Administrators and teachers have to figure out something to do with your son or daughter while he or she is not taking the test, which means they will probably end up sitting in some holding pen while supervised by an overworked secretary. Obviously, we know this is a terrible scenario, but we are not sure what you expect when every teacher and administrator in the building is occupied with proctoring the high-stakes exam you just opted out of.

Teachers: We need to draw the curtain away to see who pulls the levers that operate the fireballs and smoke that are pouring out of the machine at you. Maybe the SBAC people have good intentions but are just tragically misguided. Or maybe they are draconian profiteers who need to be exposed. In the meantime, support one another and keep learning. We don’t need to be perfect at what we do, but we can be better at what we do.

Administrators: We need to help construct a culture that allows for Professional Learning Communities. Effective ones that produce usable data. This might mean we push harder for a restructured school week with sufficient time built in for teachers to plan, collaborate, and analyze data. One hour a day is not cutting it anymore. This also might mean we need to get in there with teachers and use the tools they are using with the students they are interacting with to see the reality. As school leaders, many of us left the classroom before No Child Left Behind and before the technology revolution that completely transformed instruction and feedback. We are unforgivably out of touch. We have become the mouthpiece of politicians and massive corporations, when the information should be flowing in the other direction. Let’s remember whom we are here to support.

Superintendents, School Boards, and all other Politicians: Look closely at the budgets. Really closely. Factor in the technology costs. Factor in the training costs. Factor in the flawed data. Factor in the toll this process is taking on everyone else’s morale. Factor in the looming teacher shortage that is the inevitable result of these practices. Factor in that we have systematically forced many visionary and vocal leaders out of our organizations to start their own charter schools. Factor in how history is going to remember us. Factor in your conscience.

Does the money the federal government threatens to withdraw exceed these costs?

Those of us down here on the ground have been scratching our heads and wondering for a while now.

How Working in an Entropic Hellscape Prepared Me for Teaching

Next time you are near a convergence of a bunch of high voltage lines, look for the nearby monoliths adorned with porcelain antennae and cooling fins. Those are electrical transformers. They are filled with tons, literal tons, of copper, aluminum, steel, brass, porcelain, cardboard, and carcinogenic oil.

From the time I was 17 until I was 22, I worked for my Uncle Ray. He ran a shop where we disassembled electrical transformers and scrapped the components.

I should be clear about how this was achieved, and my role in the process.

Since I was the smallest in stature on the crew, it occasionally fell to me to peel open the steel housing of the dead transformers with a plasma cutter and a pry bar. Then I would climb inside with a can of Raid for defense against the yellow jackets and black widow spiders that make such environments their home. After grueling, filthy contortions to loosen all the nuts and brackets within, I would emerge, smeared with traces of grimy, blue corrosion and drenched in rank oil. We would then lift the core out of the can with an overhead crane.

The pay dirt was the copper. However, we could not harvest the copper until we purged the paper and cardboard from the massive, tightly wound coils of it. So we loaded steel pallets full of the unwieldy, poorly balanced cores into an industrial oven and bathed them in flame, sometimes for as long as 8 hours. Out of curiosity, I once put a 120-degree mercury thermometer on a rail near my workspace. When I checked it a while later, the mercury had shot out the top of it, like something out of a Daffy Duck cartoon.

With the aid of a forklift, finessing the precarious loads into the massive oven was relatively easy. Extracting the pallets, while unnerving green flames licked the drooping cores, and as ash flew in the exhaust fans like a blizzard, was not so easy. And stooping over the pallet and straining to lift, with my poorly protected hands, the layer of thick, high quality outer wire from the still-smoldering spool of inner wire, and then fanning it all out on a grate and blasting it with a pressure washer, effectively transforming the environment into a nightmare of fire and ash and murderous green smoke and hissing steam, all a rich recipe for the pitch-black loogies I hocked up each day at the end of my shift. This was all very hard.

But it was way, way, way easier than teaching.

This is not to say I am not enjoying teaching right now. I am. Three years ago, I made a move to middle school after ten years at the high school, and it turns out that most of the horror stories you hear about that level are myths. Last year was the most pleasant of my career, in fact, once I realized how miraculous it is when a 7th grader’s hormone-soaked brain has managed to retain any thing resembling prior knowledge. I have adjusted to this reality accordingly. The experience has made me a much, much better teacher and reminded me how rewarding it is to learn.

But over the years, as I have moved from experience to experience, both internationally and in multi-state public education, I have come to realize that working at my uncle’s shop prepared me for being an educator much more than any training packaged by higher ed.

I end with a short list of things I learned in my uncle’s hot, noisy shop, and which still influence my practice and professional relationships in education. Perhaps I offer these observations as advice to new teachers, as they are about to enter this grueling, yet oddly addictive profession:

  1. Build a system that controls the workflow and minimizes the mess or soon you’ll have a bunch of garbage lying around.
  2. The tool you need for the job you’re doing does not exist, so be prepared to improvise something.
  3. Never let your ego get in the way of an experienced colleague who has taken pity on you and offered to make your life easier.
  4. You are not going to survive in this environment unless you find something to laugh about.
  5. It is often a good idea to wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.
  6. Even though you’re on your feet all day, you still need exercise.
  7. If your job is always physically and emotionally safe, your job is probably also very boring.



The Conspiracy of You and Me

It was not just racist cops who killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. It was not just deranged snipers who killed police in Dallas. Those answers are too easy.

If we leave all the blame there, historians of the future will have a heyday with us. They will marvel at how we ignored the obvious perpetrators, the real murderers: You and me.

It’s you and me that outsource cheap labor to meet violence and despair in our streets and classrooms. We poke a starved bear with a thin stick and blame the bear and the stick when they snap.

It’s you and me that fault the media for drenching our screens with blood and bikinis. We go on clicking and then lament the candidates we tailored for ourselves.

It’s you and me that mask fear with bravado. We speed to the car lot or comments section to ward off what threatens us.

It’s you and me that ignore cries for help. We don’t want to believe there are people less lucky than we are.

It’s you and me that have never had passports. We have long looked at the world through flat screens and rifle scopes and lost sight of freedom.

It’s you and me that let our appetites define us. We finish our burgers then soak our hands in anti-bacterial gel.

It’s you and me that merge democracy with narcissism. We weld misspelled convictions between pictures of us with our dogs.

It’s you and me that mistake coliseums for schools. We make fan and alumnus into synonyms.

It’s you and me that cling to stale customs and culture. We don’t see that what we preserve is not culture at all, but the absence of it.

It’s you and me that rub our hands together when something like this happens. We know it will energize the base.

It’s you and me that will watch it all happen tomorrow. We are looking for scapegoats everywhere but in our own apartments.

The victims are gone. The guilty will go free. All laws, all prayers are futile against this conspiracy.

This conspiracy of you and me.

Is Your Vision Buzzing?

A strong vision is well-articulated. It is widely inclusive. It conveys urgency and optimism. It is organic in the sense that it can evolve to meet new demands of the environment. In a perfect world.

Two years ago, when I made the move from an international school in Mexico back to the United States, part of my job search entailed visiting the website of every public high school in San Diego to get a sense of culture and climate on each campus. This was after I had scoured international school websites for months before making the determination to return to the U.S. for this phase of my career. In short, I read a lot of vision statements, and the three terms discussed below were the most commonly occurring. After a while, they actually began to turn me off from schools where I sensed nothing more in the vision statement than a meaningless buzz.

Student-centered: A well-intentioned term that once implied that students are responsible for the heavy lifting in a learning environment. The catch is that under disconnected, politically motivated leadership, the term student-centered becomes a tenet of customer service rather than of social, emotional, and intellectual growth. Dangerous. It can lead stakeholders to become dissatisfied, even antagonistic toward the education system. This is inevitable when imprecise language in the school vision implies the customer is always right. As leaders in education, we should consider moving away from the term student-centered and focus on being learning-centered. I know. It sounds obvious if we are talking about a school. But a learning-centered approach suggests we are all here for something bigger than ourselves. We are articulating the hope that an education produces an informed, cohesive society rather than a disparate throng of individuals.

Life-long learner: As noted above, I value learning. I understand the importance of keeping my brain spry as I age. However, experience tells me some of our colleagues striving to make students into life-long learners are confusing education with entertainment. Often learning is fun. But the most rewarding moments of life also require some serious gut-checks, whether it be finishing Ulysses by James Joyce or kissing a romantic interest for the first time. If we hope to propel our students toward noble endeavors, we must understand the quest of a life-long learner is to navigate risk and ambiguity, not to pursue comfort and self-satisfaction. Teachers should make no promises of a happy ending. We offer an interminable series of questions, some of which will remain unanswered in our lifetimes.

Differentiation: By far the most over-used word in all of education. Uttered with alarming frequency by administrators and policy makers who then turn this monumental task over to a public school teacher equipped with a few tables, a whiteboard, and a grade book designed to calculate numbers but not necessarily the growth those numbers represent. Here’s what classroom teachers can and should be doing to make content as relevant and as engaging as possible: Present content in a variety of ways. Promote a safe and reasonable degree of student choice, autonomy, and movement in the classroom culture. Reframe a question or concept when a student’s response is a zombie-like stare. But at the end of the day, a classroom teacher in a traditional public school cannot provide an individualized lesson plan and one-on-one instruction for each of 160 students. This is not the purpose of a classroom anyway. Nor can a teacher catch stragglers up by moving them forward at a slower pace than everyone else. This defies the laws of physics. However, we have all received emails from confused or angry parents who were led to believe the impossible is possible. If we use the word differentiation in our vision, we must have a strategy for addressing learning factors beyond a teacher’s control. Scheduling. Transportation. Technology infrastructure. These peripheral systems are the key to real differentiation. They are what facilitate the exploration of passions beyond the classroom walls and outside the time boundaries a classroom teacher is working within. Unless we imbue these systems with the same flexibility we expect of teachers, we are promising the impossible, or at least, the unsustainable.

Teachers, students, administrators, parents. Check your school’s vision statement. Does it contain any or all of the three terms identified above? Perhaps it is time to recalibrate to make sure we all know what they mean. Or if these terms lack a meaning we all share, it might be time to get rid of them altogether and come up with something we understand and believe in.