Testing, Testing, 1, 2, Oops!

The news that Massachsetts is abandoning a planned  multi-state test for the Common Core (Kate Zernike, “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U. S.,” New York Times, November 22. 2015) and that New York Governor Cuomo is likely to retreat from his insistence that 50% of teacher evaluations be based on students’ scores on standardized tests (Kate Taylor, “Cuomo, in Shift. is Said to Back Reducing Test Scores’ Role in Teacher Reviews,”New York Times, November 25, 2015) reflects the reaction of state education officials and elected politicians to the public relations disaster facing standardized testing of K-12 students.  Although neither of these moves amounts to a wholesale abandonment of standardized testing,  the push for nationwide testing  as a driver of educational reform is clearly  losing its mojo. As I noted in my last blog on the backlash against micromanagement in several fields, the powerful force in this about-face is not the teacher unions or disgruntled bloggers but students’ parents.  The parents have become suspicious of tests that take significant time away from instruction, could rate their child negatively on material that teachers may never have covered (in part because the teachers themselves had limited or no professional development on the material), and about which the parents know the teachers themselves are suspicious.   In addition, the schools themselves can end up with a failing  or less than stellar “grade,” which could have a negative effect on  everything from a child’s chance of getting into college to local property values.

It’s important to remember that standardized tests in K-12 have been around a long time and were at least grudglingly accepted.  As I remember, most of them were not used to “grade”  anyone but to give teachers, counselors, and parents insights into the strengths  and weaknesses of an individal student. Aside from statewide secondary subject matter tests such as the New York Regents exams, where the individual student was graded on actual achievement, these tests were tests of intelligence, apitude, or potential, at least as those qualities were seen by the test creators. The tests were primarily a guidance tool and were not usually high stakes for the student, the teacher, or the school.

In the last 30 years standardized tests have  become a management tool to closely monitor student academic progress, to evaluate teacher quality, and to publicly rate schools based on students’ test performance.  As many commentators have noted, there are incredible problems with using standardized tests to achieve these varied objectives.  As just one example, does publicly rating a school in an overwhelming poor rural community with a grade of “D” actually help  anyone?  School choice is not an option when the nearest school is 20 or more miles away.  The school’s public rating is really nothing more than another nail in the coffin for another hard-luck town. Yes, the school must be improved, but another less destructive  way needs to be found to do it.

These numerous objections to the overuse and abuse of standardized testing were denigrated by the tests’ advocates, but their overweening ambition seems to be becoming their downfall.  There is the story of the peasants and the mule. The mule was very strong or seemed to be. Every time the mule carried items from the fields up the hill into the village, the peasants would load still more items unto the poor creature’s back.  Well before its time the mule died.  The peasants took advantage of the occasion and ate the mule.  The peasants ended up way ahead of our true believers, unless they plan to eat their tests.

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, Oops!

The Backlash Against Micromanagement

Although micromanagement seems to be a growing trend, there are some cases where its excesses have produced a backlash against it and in some cases genuine (though limited) reform. In my last blog I mentioned excessive standardized testing of students and use of these tests to evaluate teachers as well as mandatory sentencing of individuals convicted of a crime. Recently the Obama administration, after the announcement that  its testing hawk Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, would be stepping down, published new guidelines that call for limits on the amount of standardized testing students will be required to particpate in (in other words, endure). This reversal of former policy came after a growing reaction against testing that was seen as excessive by teachers’ unions, legislators, and most importantly, parents.  In New York State, for example, a growing number of parents were boycotting these tests, keeping their children at home the days of these tests.  Faced with what could have been a full-scale rebellion of angry moms and dads–a public relations nightmare for even the most hardened bureaucrat or calloused politician, the testing hawks backed off.

In criminal justice, some states that were the leaders in harsh, mandatory sentencing, such as New York with the Rockefeller drug laws that mandated very lengthy sentences for even relatively minor  violations, have also backed off.  Obama himself has spoken against harsh sentencing guidelines and has commuted the sentences of over 40 individuals who had been sentenced for extremely long terms.  The high costs of long-term imprisonments, the failure of the “War on Drugs” (for those of you old enough to remember that battle cry), and the hangover and regret that seem to accompany the aftermath of many American political crusades to drive evil from the world are all factors here.

Even in medicine, where the clamor for “evidence-based” practice is loud and continuous, concerns are being raised about the risks of this drive.  Of course, we all want doctors who examine the evidence, particularly the evidence in our particular case. The problem is that the evidence in “evidence-based” practice is based on the group, not you as a particular patient. You, your employer, or the government is paying a medical practitioner to address your individual needs, not what will work for 95% of the population. What works for that 95% might just be the end of you. As a recent opinion piece in the New York Times also notes, even “surgical-report cards” rating a doctor’s effectiveness are highly misleading, since the better surgeons tend to take on tougher cases that are more likely to end badly. The report cards also have the perverse effect of discouraging doctors from taking on tough cases that are likely to lower their score.  (Sandeep Jauhar, “Giving Doctors Grades,” New York Times, July 22, 2015. Opinion)

So there is some good news to report from the battlefield. Whether it is enough remains to be seen.  I don’t see the light at the end of  the tunnel. If and when I do,  I would still have to ask who is riding on that train. More to follow…

 

The Backlash Against Micromanagement

How this Blog Got Started

I retired in 2013 from my position as a Professor of English and a former dean and provost at the State University of New York ((SUNY) at Plattsburgh. When I retired a colleague asked me to write an essay reflecting on my career for a journal for which he served as a member of the editorial board. Although initially I was unsure where this project would take me, my readings and personal reflections led me to write “Northern Twilight: SUNY and the Decline of the Public Comprehensive College.” In the essay I described SUNY Plattsburgh in 2050 as a highly micromanaged branch of an extremely centralized system that pretty much squelched local initiative and creativity. Since projections for the future are inevitably based on present fears, hopes, and dilemmas, my version of Plattsburgh in 2050 reflected my concerns about growing tendencies towards micromanagement in higher education and elsewhere, including medicine, the military, K-12 education, law (particularly mandatory sentencing), and banking. The essay reflected my concern for the fate of public comprehensive colleges in systems such as SUNY but also my concern for the fate of professional autonomy and individual judgement in the workplace. The essay can be found on Google by going to “Thought and Action, Fall 2013,” where you can find the article on page 45.

I should note that Thought and Action is the higher education journal of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The essay actually won a Democracy in Education Award from the NEA. On both sides of the political spectrum teachers unions have often been used as the scapegoat for most of the ailments of America’s educational system, but the unions have been more right than wrong on the threats to individual teacher autonomy and on the sheer goofiness of America’s testing mania.

As I see it, professional autonomy isn’t just a nice thing to have, like an office with a great view (or maybe an office with any view at all), but a critical component in dealing with a complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing world where individuals will need to make decisions based on local and sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. Yet the actual practice today in many work environments seems to be headed in the opposite direction. There is hope because some of these tendencies, such as excessive reliance on standardized tests in education and mandatory sentencing in criminal justice, have produced negative consequences that many of us are no longer willing to ignore or tolerate. More on this later. Your comments are welcome, particularly if you have another point of view.

How this Blog Got Started

A Blues Poem on the Micromanaged Blues

A blog on the blues needs a blues poem. This one envisions a scary future where micromanagement reaches new levels, goes intravenous.

The Micromanaged Blues
I’m half-asleep, on twenty four hour call.
The e-mail streaming into my icing veins.
The net’s gone iv. What more can befall
My overloaded, stressed, and worn-out brains?
I am now watched and measured night and day,
Transparent as glass and watched by friendly spies,
Anonymous feedback always to weigh.
I stand and smile while my soul sits and cries.
I’ve got the blues.
Micromanaged, hounded, tied.
No place to run, no place to hide.
I’ve got the blues.

A Blues Poem on the Micromanaged Blues