Respectfully, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, You’re Wrong

 

For better or worse, education is a lightning rod topic in politics. In an election year, it’s super-charged. This year, the discourse largely centers around Common Core, testing, and teacher accountability.

Consider a few of the most recent political sound bytes and positions:

  • Hillary Clinton, who has been largely supportive of Common Core, has repeatedly said, “We should be ruthless in looking at tests and eliminating them if they do not actually help us move our kids forward.”
  • Bush’s nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education in Tallahassee stepped up its support of Common Core in 2014, but Jeb seems to shy away from saying the words Common Core out loud since Rubio called him out.
  • In a speech delivered to Burlington County College, Chris Christie said, “It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working… Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.”
  • In a Cedar Rapids forum on December 7, 2015, Carly Fiorina criticized the federal government’s involvement in education, noting that initiatives like Common Core and NCLB have failed to adequately advance our students in technology and innovation.
  • In a January 11, 2016 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump said he would “end the Common Core education standards and slash funding for the Department of Education.”
  • Kasich’s educational stance may be most characterized (fairly or unfairly) by his 2015 comment, “If I were not president, but if I were King of America, I would abolish all teacher’s lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”

 

There is no shortage of critics opining about education – a job that most of the loudest critics have never and will never do.  While the ongoing debate and criticisms about the best way to “fix our schools” are often heated and passionate, the solutions are neither simple nor easy. But few people have both the influence and the political agenda of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation.

With a net worth of $80 billion and the largest educational philanthropic foundation in the world, Mr. and Mrs. Gates have the means to truly impact what happens in our schools. Financially-strapped districts seem to be the norm rather than the exception, and who better than the richest man in the world to fix this? Gates has the funds and, it appeared, the personal conviction to make a difference.

“American education is broken,” he said, and since 2008 he’s donated billions to fix it. More than that, he’s actually changed the landscape of education.

The Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the Common Core State Standards. The funding  stream created a political platform that included national teachers unions, federal and state organizations, and big businesses that ultimately created systemic and costly changes. They incentivized states with a historic $4 billion grant contest called “Race to the Top” to ensure buy-in.

The result: Kentucky didn’t even wait for the final draft – they were the first to adopt. Other states quickly climbed aboard. Within just two years, the Common Core State Standards were fully adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. They would figure out assessment later, but the train had left the station.

Next stop, Academic Improvement

There is nothing wrong with common standards to ensure educational equality and improve education.  The fundamental problem was the sweeping massive changes with virtually no assessment plan in place and minimal professional development for the people expected to implement it. That should be enough of a problem, but it doesn’t stop there.

Despite the dollars they’ve funneled into a “stay the course” agenda, the first couple of educational reform and their political posse have a myopic view of educational improvement and progress. The self appointed experts in teaching, learning, child development, research and efficacy identified teachers as the problem and made it their mission to use test scores to weed out the bad ones.

Instead of fixing crumbling schools, empowering teachers, providing high-quality professional development enabling them to be more successful and thereby enabling students to be more successful, they adopted a punitive strategy that measures, rewards, and punishes teachers with students’ test scores – on assessments that didn’t even exist when teachers were expected to implement the Common Core.

Quite frankly, this is dangerous and tantamount to educational malpractice.

Perhaps the most troubling demonstration of arrogant ignorance centers around Gates’   view of the role that testing plays in the process of learning.  He was recently quoted in a Washington Post article saying that testing is “one of the most important things in the whole education process.” He went on to justify his stance with “research” (that he failed to identify)—“they did a thing—it’s one of the most dramatic results in education ever” that he claims has proven that kids will learn more if they are tested more.


 

Respectfully, Mr. Gates, you’re wrong.

Kids will not learn more by being tested more.


Perhaps Mr. Gates should read the Analysis of Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools (2015).  The Council of the Great City Schools, composed of superintendents and school board members from the nation’s largest urban public school systems, developed and launched a major inventory of testing practices in the Great City Schools. Among their findings was “there is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the NAEP.”

Moreover, while there may be studies that show immediate, short-term recall of information is higher right after a test, educators know there this is a big difference between recall and application, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity. For kids to advance beyond basic recall to understanding, critical thinking and problem solving, at least one of the major learning modalities (visual, auditory, reading/writing, and tactile kinesthetic) must be engaged and combined with some kind of emotional connection.

Back in the classroom, teachers call this engaging students in meaningful, relevant experiences in which they can interact with content and create their own meaning through discovery, exploration, experimentation, creative expression, art, music, and drama.

Teachers know that more time spent testing means less time for kids to build and create, take risks and make mistakes. These are the things required for kids to learn how to learn and think – not just remember the right answers for the test.

Since Mr. Gates has largely discounted the perspectives and expertise of educators, maybe he’d be more open to consider neuroscience.  The limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotions) is the hub for motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.  In essence, the limbic system is actually the on/off switch for learning.  Elevated levels of cortisol released by the limbic system in response to fear or stress actually inhibit learning, creativity, and memory. When a teacher’s job depends on the test scores of her students, everyone feels that stress.

A child who worries, cries, and experiences physical pain from the pressure of testing is the poster child for cortisol-induced failure.  That child is physically unable to demonstrate his cognitive ability on a test.

Furthermore, recent brain-based research (real research conducted by true learning experts like Jensen, Tomlinson, Sousa, and others) provide countless studies proving that learning environments that keep students active and engaged with hands-on exploration, manipulatives, and a variety of learning experiences are the ones that will elicit the greatest learning.  This is the essence of whole-brain teaching and learning.

Teachers, when given the time and freedom to implement the sound principles of whole-brain instruction, engage students, nurture their natural curiosity and cultivate a love for learning, and raise test scores. Sadly, many educators get their marching orders from people who have no idea how their plans and policies ultimately impact brain function, comprehension, memory, and learning.

They will define progress.

“I failed some subjects in exam, but my friend passed in all.  Now he is an engineer in Microsoft and I am the owner of Microsoft.”  -Bill Gates

This is rich coming from the guy who wants to evaluate teachers based upon the test scores of their students.

But, wait… what about all of the data Bill and Melinda tout as proven efficacy of their reform efforts?  Let’s take Kentucky, for example.  In a 2015 PBS interview with Gwen Ifill, Melinda calls Kentucky a “fantastic example.”

“They’re the first state that put the Common Core into place statewide. And what we’re seeing is that their graduation rate has gone up, and that’s incredibly important. But even more important is the college readiness rate. And that is, before — before they put the Common Core standards in, 34 percent of kids who graduated from their high schools were actually ready to go to college.

Today, that number is 62 percent. That means that kids are going into college and they’re succeeding. They know they’re ready to go and they’re not having to be remediated and then dropping out. That is a profound change in just a few years.”

The truth is that Kentucky really isn’t much of a success story.  The 2015 numbers on the National Assessment of Education Progress are out, and progress isn’t the best word to describe them. Average scores across the country dropped from 2013 in 4th and 8th grade math, and in 8th grade reading and showed no change in 4th grade reading.

While Kentucky did show an increase 4th grade reading, scores in 4th grade math showed no change and scores in 8th grade math and reading dropped. Success story?

And, is she really saying that Kentucky kids are more college and career-ready because of Common Core?  Where did she get the number 62%? It would be accurate to say that Kentucky kids are a little bit more college-ready than they were in 2011 (when Common Core was implemented).  The fact is that the overall percentage of Kentucky students who met the ACT standards in all four subjects did increase from 20% to 21%.  At 21%, they are still below the national average by 7 points.


 

Respectfully, Mrs. Gates, you’re wrong.

21% is not 62% – not on any test.


The Bottom Line

While student achievement is one indicator of teacher performance, decades of learning about learning illuminate a variety of factors beyond standards and instruction that have a huge impact on student achievement.

Over 100 years of studies show a huge correlation between parental involvement and student achievement.  How is that factored into teacher accountability?  What about the children with poor attendance?  How can teachers teach kids who are not in their classrooms?  And what about poverty?  Poverty is considered a major “at-risk factor.” What about other at-risk factors such as abuse and neglect, crime-filled neighborhoods, homelessness, drugs, teenage pregnancy…the list goes on.


 

Respectfully, someone needs to tell Mr. and Mrs. Gates that schools cannot be run like businesses and students are not employees.  Teachers cannot just fire the kids that don’t make their numbers. They have to take them all… as they come… and the vast majority work hard to nurture the whole child, not just the part that takes the test. 


 

Educators agree that making sure students are college and career ready is essential. Standards, assessment, and accountability are necessary.  Most will also agree that we need effective methods of teacher evaluation and ongoing professional development if we are to improve education.

Are there lousy teachers out there?  Sure, just like there are lousy employees in every profession.  But, most teachers pursue this career as a calling rather than a job. Very few teachers see their kids as numbers, and, to most, the success of their students is very personal.

If we choose to determine the ROI of the very people we entrust with one of the most important jobs on the planet by the numbers on the scantron sheet, we will undermine one of the basic tenets of civilized society.

Can we afford to fix that?

 

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who are looking for ways to more effectively teach and learn. We deliver tailored, dynamic workshops to help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.

 

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