Thursday, February 16, 2012

Leave Dueck where we left him

"We need to prepare kids for their future not our past."

Here is a response to an Edmonton Journal article by David Staples titled Spare the tests, spoil the school system, former deputy minister says
First, some quick background. Jim Dueck is a former Assistant Deputy Minister who parted ways with Alberta Education in 2010. Dueck's departure was a part of an Alberta Education realignment that saw the Accountability and Reporting Division eliminated.

Dueck's exit and the elimination of the Accountability and Reporting Division reflected new priorities for our province.

Now Alison Redford is our premier and she has yet to make good on her election promise to abolish grade 3 and 6 Provincial Achievement Tests, but her Minister of Education Thomas Lukazsuk has said that he is in the process of reviewing them.

This has Dueck angry and bitter.

Here is a response to a number of Dueck's arguments:

First off, Dueck's title is problematic: Spare the tests, spoil the school system is a play on spare the rod, spoil the child. This should tell you all you need to know about Jim Dueck's definition of accountability. When he says he wants to hold teachers accountable, what he really means is that he wants to punish them.

I'm not a policy-maker, but is this really solid foundation for policy in a democracy? Do we really want to create and perpetuate a relationship between government, teachers and the public that is built on testing and punishing? It's time to break down these combative political barriers and do what's best for children. It's time we collaborated in order to provide our children with the schools they deserve.

Let's now take a few of Dueck's quotes:
DUECK: Alberta school teachers inflate the grades of students, so much that report cards can’t always be trusted.
Even if there is a discrepancy between teacher grades and standardized test scores that does not prove that one is more or less valid than the other. Instead, Dueck simply leaves it to your imagination to assume that because they are lower, the test scores are more valid. 

The other problem here is that standardized test scores are designed to have a range of scores. That is, not every child can get 100%. This means that these tests were designed to rank students not rate systems. These tests were never intended to attempt to replace or supplement the report card.

It's also important to note that real learning is not found in teacher grades or student tests. The best way to know if a child is learning is to watch them learn. There is no substitute. Testsandgrades merely offer a crutch to those who wish to judge schools without ever spending time in schools.
DUECK: Teachers are against standardized provincial tests not because they’re bad policy but because such tests hold teachers more accountable.
False dichotomies can be fun but they are rarely helpful in advancing a sophisticated conversation. In fact, this comment of Dueck's doesn't even constitute an argument - it's a rhetorical trick to dupe you into thinking that resistance to standardized tests equals a fear of accountability. Teachers are not afraid of accountability, but they are acutely aware of the costs of standardized testing and the cancerous effects they have on depth of thinking, quality of teaching and interest in learning.
DUECK: An excellent teacher can make a huge difference to a student, and deserves both recognition and bonus pay.
Saying that teachers play a large role in student learning is one thing, but assuming that that role can be quantified in some kind of merit pay/accountability scheme is quite another. The truth is a reliable measure of teacher efficiency does not exist and on top of that, there is no agreement on what constitutes "good" teaching. And because, as one education researcher put it, "measurable outcomes may be the least significant result of learning", there is good reason to believe that these tests measure what matters least. That's why we should never suggest that high scores are prima facia evidence of excellent teaching.

While it is also true that the teacher is likely the most important in-class variable that affects learning, a student's world is a whole lot bigger than the classroom. A teacher's effectiveness often pales in comparison to out-of-class variables like socio-economics, health care and education levels of parents. To be clear, saying that poverty is not an excuse is to make excuses for ignoring poverty.

Merit pay systems tend to have disastrous effects as they tend to encourage professionals to avoid providing services to those most in need. They are also insulting to educators because they assume that teachers lack the motivation to do their jobs - as if they could do better but refrain until the proper bribes or threats are applied.
DUECK: The Fraser Institute’s system of ranking Alberta’s schools is fundamentally flawed... A better method is to rank schools on how much each school is able to improve the test scores of its student population from year to year. The schools where students improve the most should rank the highest.
I will agree that the Fraser Institute's ranking system is no good, but Dueck's is no better. Ask any teacher
and they will tell you that the individual students who make up their classes from year to year have a huge affect on the entire class's performance. It is well documented that using student test scores to judge schools or teachers is prone to error - in some cases up to 25% error. This means that a teacher or school might be classified as excellent one year and poor the next.

Another problem with measuring improvement is that the same score gains might not be equivalent. Getting students to improve from 40% to 50% may look the same as moving students from 70% to 80% but who says they are equal for the teachers? Smarter or higher income kids might be easier to teach or maybe less skilled or lower income kids start at the bottom so it's easier to move up and show improvement. Can you see how simply saying we'll measure improvement rather than raw scores is not as simple of a fix as it might sound?

For more on why measuring improvement with Value-Added Measurements does not work see here, here, here, here, here and here.
DUECK: If you lower class sizes through an entire system, students don’t learn more, they learn less.
If class size didn't matter, we would only need one teacher. Clearly this is ridiculous. My daughter Kayley is starting kindergarten this year and I care very much how many children will share her teacher. Relationships matter. Take away all the brick and mortar, Smartboards and laptops and all that really matters in the end is the relationship between the mentor and the protege, the teacher and the student. 

Want proof? Think back on your favorite teacher - I bet you don't remember much about the content they taught you but I bet you remember distinctly how they made you feel. For more on why class size matters check out this article.

Reducing class sizes may not be a sufficient change to improve student learning, but it most certainly is necessary.
DUECK: But without such accountability, Manitoba dropped from fifth to ninth among Canadian provinces in national language arts tests and from fourth to ninth in math from 2000 to 2009. Alberta, with its big focus on testing, continued to rank first or second among Canadian provinces, Dueck says.
When I take my umbrella to work, it rains. Does that mean my umbrella made it rain? Clearly not, and if you understand the difference between correlation and association, you will quickly see that Dueck can only assume that the lack of test-based accountability was the cause of the lower test scores in Manitoba.

I would be interested in talking to some Manitobans about this decrease in test scores to find out what possible benefits less emphasis on testing had on more important criteria such as graduation rates, money relocated to learning, and the children's desire to go on learning for its own sake.
DUECK: As for the criticism that increased testing could lead to obsession with these tests and too much “teaching to the test,” Dueck says: “I hope so. Teaching to the test is what we want because the test is on the curriculum.”
Because all standardized tests in Alberta are paper and pencil, and mostly multiple choice, they can only test a sample of the curriculum (actually this is true of almost all tests, regardless of format). For example, out of the 200 learner outcomes in grade 9 science, only 63 (32%) can be assessed. That Dueck openly encourages teaching to the test is to openly encourage teachers to narrow the educational opportunities that children will experience in the name of test-preparation.
DUECK: Great teachers make a massive difference to a child, Dueck says. In one major Tennessee study, it was found that an average student who had weak teachers three years in a row would drop to the 45th percentile, while average students with great teachers three years in a row would rise to the 96th percentile. “I have no difficult in saying to a teacher, ‘You’re so valuable, you deserve more (pay) than the superintendent.’”
The Tennessee study (and others like it) that Dueck enjoys citing are problematic. It's kind of complicated (you can read about them here and here) but essentially these studies are predicated under circular logic: they define effective teachers as those who raise test scores, then use test scores gains to determine who's an effective teacher.

Most importantly, these kinds of studies assume that students and teachers are randomly assigned to schools and over looks that they are not. Value-added models that measure for improvement typically act as if this is not important when it really is. Politically, studies like this are often used by data-mongers who wish to show that academic success starts and ends with the teacher, ignoring other factors such as income, health care, housing and other out-of-school factors. We know better than this, and so should Dueck.

To conclude:

Inspring Education is a bold move by Alberta to transform our education system in a way that sets up all children for a great education. Could someone show me the standardized tests that measure engaged thinking, ethical citizenry and an entrepreneurial spirit?

The lofty goals of Inspring Action can not and will not become reality if we limit ourselves to the same narrow-minded measures of standardized tests. When can we aspire to something more meaningful and sophisticated than ideological grunts: "test scores are low, make them go up."

If Albertans want to ignore Inspring Action and transformational change, then Jim Dueck is our man. But if Albertans want to be first into the future, rather than last out of the past, then it's time to leave Dueck where we left him and focus on meaningful learning rather than test preparation.

If you want to imagine a way forward, take a look at this.

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