Sunday, December 9, 2012

Chapter 34: Teaching to the Data

Chapter Thirty-Four: Teaching to the Data

Good teachers love to get kids to think for themselves, to think analytically and to support their thinking with evidence from the text.  Teachers often hate to be told to “teach to the test” because it makes teaching formulaic by removing precisely the thing that makes sitting in a classroom worthwhile – the freedom to allow your mind to roam the universe in search of new ideas or ways of looking at things.  Worse than teaching to the test, however, in the current data driven rage in education is teaching to the data.  I’m not kidding.  I know this is going to sound like some absurd satire lifted from the pages of the Onion, but this is a true story.  I’ve been told not to teach students but to teach for the purpose of gathering data.
I’m an English teacher who has been instructed by my “superiors” to teach strictly from the Prentice Hall / Pearson anthologies both physical and on line (where Pearson must be making a killing).  The teacher editions of these books provide guidelines for instruction but you can never take the teacher out of teaching.  The goal in education today is to make all classroom instruction generic enough so that an automaton can perform the job as well as a human being but there is no teaching without a teacher.  If we could just put enough monkeys with teacher editions into the classroom!
For the most part I have used these anthologies as directed but one thing I still do even though Pearson doesn’t order us to do it is to ask kids to support their answers to multiple choice (MC) questions with evidence from the text.  I don’t want them guessing.  I want them to understand why “a” is correct and why “b”, “c” and “d” are incorrect.  I want them to be able to prove that they’re right when they circle answer “a”.
Pearson, you see, offers up multiple choice “selection” tests for all of the selections in their anthologies.  Since I’ve been ordered by my administration to use these books and materials, that’s what I do.  Now I’ve been told to use these tests to gather data rather than as a teaching tool.
The teacher evaluation system is supposed to work like this.  A teacher meets with a supervisor to discuss a way of presenting a lesson.  The supervisor then observes the teacher present this lesson after which a follow-up meeting is held to review the success or failure of the presentation.  These three activities should take place within a two-week time frame.
My most recent pre-observation meeting took place on Sept. 13, 2012.  I was instructed to bring along to that meeting primarily attendance records and phone call logs.  Nothing was said about any lesson to be observed; however a “pop-in” surprise observation took place over a month later on Oct. 16, 2012.  As luck would have it, I was modeling (using the newly in vogue “gradual release” model) how to find evidence in the text for answers to Pearson MC questions.  The text was “The Washwoman” by I.B. Singer.  The test was Pearson Selection Test A.
My A.P. (assistant principal) of instruction – a former math teacher who has not taught in the classroom for over a decade – observed from the back while furiously typing on her computer as students sifted through the story looking for evidence to prove correct their answers.  In fact we’d been told to do this at a professional development (PD) session earlier in the year.  The term in vogue for it at the moment is “text dependent writing”.  Of course, it’s nothing new and nothing that teachers haven’t been doing since the dawn of education.
On Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 – almost 2 months after this observation – I was called into this A.P.’s office for the “post-observation” meeting.  I assumed that I would be applauded for preparing students for the sort of work that college is going to demand of them where merely circling a letter isn’t going to cut it.  In fact, we are expected to be thinking of our “college and career readiness” data, part of a NYC school report card.  Applause, however, was not on my A.P.’s mind this day.
The interview began something like this: [1]

A.P.:            Read to me your aim, please.
Me:              “How do I use text to support MC answers?”
A.P:            Were you giving a survey of some kind?
Me:            No, I was giving the test you have there in front of you.
A.P.:            But you said to support “MC answers”.
Me:            Right, and …?
A.P.:            That sounds as though you’re asking for answers to a survey where they can give multiple answers.
Me:            What?
A.P.:            On surveys, they give multiple answers.  You used the word “answer” in your aim.
Me:            Well, since it says “test” on the paper and since they knew they were getting a test, the students understood that it wasn’t a survey.
A.P.:            You should have said to support “MC questions”.
Me:            Huh?
A.P.:            They were answering questions, weren’t they?
Me:            You were there.
A.P.:            Then you were actually asking them to support MC questions.
Me:            No, they were supporting their answers with evidence ….

This conversation took up the first 10 minutes of the meeting.  One monkey with one typewriter could have made more sense.  I could tell from the tone that this meeting wasn’t going to go well for me – not to mention the absurdity of the criticism.
Next we looked at the 3 samples of the test done that day.  As directed, I’d photocopied the test from 3 students’ folders.  For each MC question, the kids had written a quotation from the story itself or an explanation from the textbook to show why the answer (not the question) was correct.  They had written quotations and explanations to support their answers right on the test paper itself.
The conversation picked up with these papers in front of us:

A.P.:            What sort of assessment was this?
Me:            I was modeling for them how I want them to take tests.
A.P.:            But what sort of assessment was it?
Me:            It was both a pre-assessment and a post-assessment since I’d given it out when we started reading the story.  I wanted them to know what they would be looking for by seeing the questions beforehand.  This is called “reading with purpose”.
A.P.:            They wrote the date Oct. 11 on it.
Me:            Right.
A.P.:            And on the 16th ….
Me:            They had read the story by then and were going back to find evidence for their answers.  That’s what you observed.
A.P.:            But it doesn’t say in the teacher edition to ask the students to support their answers with text.
Me:            Really?
A.P.:            So why were you doing that?
Me:            Because I want them to be able to justify their responses.

It continued in this vein for a bit and then the A.P. turned to a document concerning the class observed.  She had emailed me an 11-page document, much of which consisted of her transcription of the observed class session.  I’ve attached this document at the end of this chapter and called it an appendix although it’s actually more like appendicitis. [2]  Of course, after 2 months, it was impossible for me to know how accurate this transcription was but I didn’t quibble over that point.  It’s worth as much as any other hearsay.
As you can see from glancing at the appendix, a great deal of transcribing took place in one way or another.  I might ask this question: how much could have been “observed” by someone doing so much typing?  But I’ll leave that for another chapter.
The current term for this sort of “observation” wherein the observer attempts to record everything said and done within sight and hearing, is “low-inference”.  A low-inference observation is said to do nothing but record factual information a la Joe Friday.  A low-inference observation is said to be objective and non-judgmental.  But as we know the only one who can truly observe objectively and non-judgmentally is the monkey who composed Hamlet.
            The meeting continued with reference to this document.

A.P.:            Would you look at line 70 in the document I emailed you.
Me:            Okay.

I scrolled down to line 70 of this document.
For some reason the A.P. was focusing on lines 70 – 85 or so where a student suggests text-to-text as a possible solution to something.  The term “text to text” refers to relating one story to another piece of literature.  This was a very good point, of course, since the week before they had read “A Giant’s House”.  Both stories in the first unit of the Pearson anthology are “narrative essays” and are meant to be compared.  The student was showing signs of actual learning.  What point the A.P. was making, however, by going over and over that part of the transcript eluded me.  The ludicrous conclusion she drew somehow from it a moment later did not.

A.P.:            This was an “unsatisfactory” lesson, Mr. Haverstock.
Me:            Let me get this right.  I’m not allowed to ask students to use evidence from the text to answer MC questions?
A.P.:            That’s right.  They should circle an answer and nothing more.
Me:            So I’m not allowed to teach “text dependent” writing?
A.P.:            No, you are to use this chart ….

Here she pulled out a Pearson chart showing the type for each test MC question: recall, inferential, analytical, “reading” – yes one of them was simply called a “reading” question – etc.

A.P.:            The students circle answers and you look at this chart and find out what type of question they have trouble with.
Me:            No text support.
A.P.:            No.
Me:            Even though asking for textual support doesn’t interfere with the data you want?
A.P.:            That’s right.

I’ve now been directed to “teach to the data”.  The purpose of the Pearson test is not to teach students how to work, study, think and use text to support their conclusions.  The purpose of the Pearson test is to gather data.
I won’t name names other than to say that I teach at the Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications – easily discovered anyway since I’m using my real name for this memoir / blog.  The school is located in the Taft building on 172nd St. in the Bronx where Stanley Kubrick once cut class, preferring movies to lectures and homework.  Taft no longer exists.  There are now 7 small schools in the building, mostly the academies of this or that.  JLHS has not fared so well over the past 3 years, as far as the DOE is concerned.  You can see for yourself by typing in the name of the school at the NYC DOE website: 
Since these grades are based on “data”, of course, they are meaningless.  Since the AYP numbers for “adequate yearly progress” are set by the very people who want to close schools, the system is entirely corrupt from top to bottom.  Teachers in the system know that none of the critical numbers used by these corrupt bureaucrats, particularly graduation rates and Regents scores, say anything at all about how well the school is performing.  It’s easy to convince outsiders, however, that numbers don’t lie.  Maybe numbers don’t but the people manipulating them sure do.

Appendix [3]

For the complete transcript of this observation document go to:

Complete Transcript of Observation Report

            NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

[1] All dialogue is paraphrased.  Theoretically if I had enough monkeys, I could recreate the exact words used.
[2] I have no idea whose intellectual property this document would be.  She typed it up but most of it consists of what I and students might have said in the class.  I don’t know to whom it belongs, as I said, but calling it “intellectual” property ought to be against the law.  I’ve edited out student names in those cases that refer to real people.
[3] I’ve replaced names with the phrase “student name” for those who were real people.
[4] There was no “Daisy” in the room.
[5] There was no “Diane” in the room.
[6] There was no “John” in the room.