Monday, April 2, 2012

#savethedinosaurs - What NYC DOE's attack on the Terrible Lizards reveals about Education

UPDATE: The New York DOE has backed off of its banned words list, relegating my #savethedinosaurs campaign to pithy quotes of the past. But feel free to read on for some nice hypothetical discussion. -- adding a few updates from social media comments too.

If you haven't followed, heard about, or laughed out loud at the latest educational gaff from a Department of Education, you can read about it in a CBS news report or any number of blogs like this one. In short, the New York City DOE has proposed a list of 50 words (and concepts) that should not be used on standardized test for fear of their potential to be upsetting or create an unpleasant testing environment.

I sat on this for a few days...ok, I tweeted about it, but i refrained from blogging for a few reasons. First, I was infinitely hopeful that NYC DOE would back off of the statement (They haven't. Originally, they were attempting the "but Florida does it too" defense that is so popular among my seven year old's Sunday school class). Second, there are much better general education writers out there (looking at you, Answer Sheet), and I wasn't sure if my voice had much to add to the discussion. Third, I was really struggling on the best format: I considered a McSweeney's style letter to the Dinosaur, a classic rant decrying the downfall of education due to big government short-sightedness, etc.

So why write?
  1. I think #savethedinosaurs is a meme that really needs to take off
  2. One thing that i haven't seen written yet is the intersection between this testing mandate and our current reliance on testing as an evaluation tool for schools, teachers, and students alike.

For lack of a witty subheading -- Seriously?

I am not going to include the full list in this post (the links above do a good job of listing), but I am willing to call out some things that I haven't seen mentioned yet (or at least not enough).
Extremely Sensitive: The initial claim is one of sensitivity -- not creating an unpleasant testing environment (Florida generally avoids the use of "hurricanes" for fear of PTSD triggers).Yet there are a number of items on the list that seem to be following this guideline in only the most general of terms:
  • Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)
  • Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)
While I understand that there are religions that do not celebrate another-year-around-the-sun days, I am hard-pressed to find evidence of a birthday-related question triggering a stress-event that skewed a test (in fact, the only mention of this situation during my search was in reference to the NYC Banned Word list). It is common in our society today to base policy on the hypothetical rather than the actual (closely related to Generalization from Fictional Evidence, but if you know what the actual fallacy is, please let me know in the comments). 

While I understand the need to be boy-scout-level prepared in as many situations as possible, we do ourselves a disservice to create general policy to cover every situation...better to create a general policy that, through care and sensitivity, can allow exceptions (the Jesuits refer to this hallmark of effective education as cura personalis -- an understanding of student context, caring adults who are able to be flexible in the moment, etc. (Note: this is not en vogue in education practice today).

Not-So-Hidden Agenda
  • Bodily functions
  • Celebrities
  • Junk food
There is always a risk when we mix assessment instruments with social-norm change goals. Again, I have trouble visualizing the PTSD moment from being asked to answer a question about hotdogs and potato chips (or the ever-popular porkrinds). At the point that we move away from the sensitivity claim, it seems that we have a number of items that are taboo because in an ideal world, we wouldn't have to deal with them (celebrity culture, overweight children due to malnutrition and overeating, fart jokes, etc.).

This becomes a slippery slope. Have we as parents and/or educators abdicated our duty of what should and should not be open for analysis and discussion? Arguably some of these "social" issues would be better served by some analysis and critical thinking. 

Note: one discussion in the Teacher Resource Center, points out that it could be even more insidious -- how difficult does it become to criticize the government when you can't discuss natural disasters (#FEMAFail), Politics, or War. Far from creating the informed citizenry, this list specifically encourages us to avoid assessing the ability to critique the government.

Good Test Practice: Even some of the legitimate test-avoidant topics:
  • In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge
are not really there because of cultural awareness/sensitivity. They are there because calling on specialized knowledge in a general question is a bad idea. So is writing a multiple choice question with one answer that is particularly long or a fill-in-the-blank that has the answer embedded in the question. Rather than giving a comprehensive list of words.verboten, the NYC DOE would be better off making the statement "write a good test".

Aside: this particular topic led to an excellent dinner table conversation hypothesizing "bad questions" based on this concept. My favorite was the ten-year-old's analysis that a question referring to pre-cellphone responses (contacting someone, emergencies, etc) would be impossible for most kids to answer.

On Backward Design - The hidden curriculum message in banning the Dinosaurs

Early in my teaching career, there was a battle being waged over the amount of standardized content that was appropriate in a classroom. Should every English teacher set his own reading list? are there a few must-reads and some flexibility in the rest? Is each book and each unit designed as a whole? -- While this argument has been settled in some schools, it is one of those classic discussions that appears to cycle about every 3-5 years.

As Wiggins and McTighe's Understanding by Design (sorry, no KINDLE link) took off in schools, the system began to weigh in on how we shape assessments and understand what is taught in the classroom. It is a popular framework, but by no means universal. In way-to-brief summary:

  1. Identify the outcomes for the individual learner.
  2. Identify the evidence that would constitute acceptable demonstration (mastery, etc.) of those outcomes -- commonly, this is the assessment instrument
  3. Design lessons, activities, and experiences that lead to effective demonstration.
  • In its most negative interpretation, this is "teaching to the test".
  • In its most positive reponse, it is retorted "of course. If the objectives are sounds and the assessment is good, why wouldn't you?
But what if the assessment is not good?

The corollary of this mindset is that there is little-to-no reason to teach content that is not going to be assessed, because it is extraneous to the outcomes being worked toward.
  • Why teach a lesson on junk food and nutrition if it will not be assessed?
  • Why address issues of social injustice if there will be no questions about poverty, homelessness, or even computers that are owned by a family instead of the library?
  • Why teach evolution if it has been banned from the assessment?
Teachers have been told (particularly in NYC) in no uncertain terms that the results of these test-scores are direct reflections on their ability as teachers and that this ability will be publicly pronounced in the virtual town square for all to see and comment upon. At the point that I have been told, specifically, that this content will not be a part of high-stakes assessment, the only responsibility I have to teach this content is my prerogative as a good educator -- and the DOE and legislatures have done a pretty good job of telling me, again and again, that this is not enough.

And so we are now to prepare students for a test that does not encourage critical thinking, does not ask for analysis of topics which may be deemed controversial or uncomfortable, and which puts forth a multi-faceted social agenda.

This goes beyond critical correctness.
And the dinosaurs will not the only casualties.

As always, if you made it this far, I appreciate your thoughts, comments, likes, +1s and retweets. If you are so inclined to share, please include the #savethedinosaurs hashtag, because I think that would be cool :)