Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Inadvertent Admissions

How many times have you heard it? The idea that Maryland leads the nation in public education. Just take a look at the Governor's education website:

In 2013, Education Week named Maryland's public schools the best in the nation for the 5th straight year...

However, the story today regarding the drop in test scores on the Maryland School Assessment puts a few chinks in the armor of that story, and inadvertently admits several key components to the modern public education infrastructure, both in Maryland and beyond.

Now let's read carefully some of what the Sun has reported on this:

Admission #1: Maryland having the best schools in the nation is a myth
Maryland test scores declined significantly for the first time in more than a decade, a drop officials attributed to the beginning of a tumultuous time in public education that will bring changes to what is taught and how teachers are evaluated. 
The test score decreases in both elementary and middle schools were seen in nearly every school district and at nearly every grade level and were as great in the higher performing districts of Howard and Montgomery counties as they were in Baltimore City. Students did worst in math, with state scores dropping an average of 4 percentage points at both the elementary and middle school grades.
Now this clearly belies the idea that Maryland's schools are "the best in the nation for the 5th straight year." Regardless of whether or not they really are the best schools by whatever half-baked criteria that Education Week decides on schools that are the best, schools that are at their optimal level of performance, schools that do not need serious restructuring of curricula and spending priorities, do not see across the board reductions in performance, certainly not a reduction of four percent from 2012 to 2013. If that's the case, if that is acceptable, then the State of Maryland and Governor Martin O'Malley are asleep at the ship and abdicating their Constitutional responsibilities to provide "a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools."

Now the inadvertent admission of the myth that our schools are the best is backed up by the inadvertent admission # 2...

Admission # 2: Maryland's Education System is focused only on teaching to this week's test

How is that an admission, well for starters....
Maryland State School Superintendent Lillian Lowery said that she believed a variety of factors contributed to the decline, chiefly the gradual introduction of new standards called the common core.
Now there are a number of things that we learned from that sentence:

  1. Maryland schools are not the best in the nation; otherwise, why would we switch from the current curriculum to Common Core?
  2. The current Maryland School Assessment is not a valuable tool for assessing knowledge or skills that students need in order to succeed in college or in the workforce. If it was, why would the shift in curriculum see such a reduction in test performance, particularly in the math section among elementary and middle school students?
  3. With the introduction of new standards leading toward Common Core, the standards shifted away  from the current MSA standards toward the new Common Core standards. Because of that shift in standards, students (apparently) were incapable of adequately performing on the MSA test because the entire focus of the school year was not on the acquisition of skills and knowledge but on test performance.
No quote better sums up this point than this gem from Baltimore County Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance:

In an unusual twist, Dance said he is most concerned this year not about schools that have shown major declines, but those whose scores have remained the same or increased. Those schools, he said, are the ones that have not yet begun the transition and will face the greatest hurdles in the next year. 
"For me the individual school results tell a story," Dance said. "For schools that have the larger declines, they are definitely on the right track. ... I would say keep doing what you are doing."
Emphasis mine. It takes an amazing level of chutzpah for Dr. Dance to give an "attabaoy" to those schools with the largest declines, but he does. It seems to be that the emphasis of this year's MSA testing and the interpretation of this year's results has nothing to do with student and school performance, but everything to do with evaluating where schools are in their transition to this newfangled curriculum. 
Admission # 3: Protect the Narrative Over Everything
If Dr. Dance's quote wasn't bad enough, let us take you to what Governor O'Malley had to say:
Reacting to the declines, Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement that gains over the years had been "tremendous."
"Our new curriculum asks teachers and students to dig deeper into core skills and concepts. A drop in scores does not represent a drop in student achievement," he said. "We will continue to support our students and educators during the next few years as we make a transition that better prepares them to compete globally."
Talking about tremendous gains over the years while facing down a huge reduction in student performance helps keep the narrative on track, but it seems not at all indicative of what is happening in public schools. 
The Sun, in addition to reporting the news, is doing its part to keep the narrative on track:
It's not time to panic quite yet over Maryland's plummeting elementary and middle school assessment scores. To be sure, they're not good, showing widespread declines in performance for the first time in years. But the declines are so systemic and sudden as to suggest a single culprit could be responsible for most of the change, and this year, there's an obvious answer. Maryland's test scores went up year after year as its districts aligned their curricula and teachers their lessons with the Maryland School Assessments. Now, though, as part of a national effort to improve academic standards, the state is in the process of adopting a new curriculum, but it is stuck for the moment with the old assessments. Ironically enough, it's possible that test scores went down this year in large part because students are being taught at a higher level.
To top it off, the Sun endorses US Education Secretary Arne Duncan's proposal to delay implementation of new assessments:
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last month that state superintendents could apply for waivers that would allow them to delay the impact of the new assessments for a year. The evaluations would still be given, but they would not be used for personnel decisions. That's a reasonable accommodation, and it could help with low teacher morale, which local and state officials said may have been a factor in this year's test scores. Seeking such a limited waiver would serve the purpose of making clear that the state is committed to simultaneously improving its curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluations but would reinforce its commitment to do so in a fair way.
The bigger issues, through all of these inadvertent admissions, through this discussion of curricula, is the need for parents and taxpayers to really understand what the purpose of the Maryland education system is. Oh sure, Constitutionally speaking the purpose of the school system is to provide a "through and efficient" system of education for all Marylanders, but along the way that process has been warped to an educational system that is built primarily not to serve students, but to serve the system of the educational establishment itself. This has little to do with Common Core (which has been widely discussed elsewhere) but has everything to do with the system serving itself for its own continuation. While Common Core gets the publicity as the latest thing to be opposed, it is merely the latest in a series of curriculum revisions and implementations to be the "next big thing". A curriculum can be changed overnight, but it takes years to reform a school system, to reform educational tendencies, to reform union leadership. If that doesn't change, what will?
Common Core is a symptom. In this instance, the educational establishment is the disease. And the inadvertent admissions through today's release of the MSA Results tells us everything we need to know about it.

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