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Waiting For Godot. If You Test It They Will Come. (Updated)

With today’s NY Daily News article about the New York City Department of Education’s arts assessment program, I thought I would update and repost this entry from a few month’s back.

Let me start with some new thoughts and then segue right into the original entry.

I was a member of the NYS Regents Task Force that helped to develop the assessment program for principal and teacher effectiveness in New York State, a program mandated by New York State law and paid for by the Feds, through Race to the Top funding. What we are talking about here is using measurements, including test scores, to evaluate educators for tenure, potential performance bonuses, and for potential firing. In essence, its the new super fuel that for the high stakes accountability torture chamber.

The assessment program has been moved forward by the NYS Board of Regents. But, if you would like to read from the dissenting opinion of Regent Roger Tilles, click here. You won’t be sorry.

A task force created by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards stated in their report: “Much of what is tested does count, but much of what counts cannot be tested.”

There was a point in one of the Task Force subgroup meetings where Task Force members started to reveal their discomfort with much of what was developing. My take is that the discomfort was always there, but unspoken early on, for people did not want to appear as contrarians to the task at hand. In other words, the initial conversations about the work focused on the basic role of evaluation in teaching and learning and omitted the political role of evaluation. Let me try one more time!: the role of the Task Force was to develop something that could be used as a formal tool to get rid of “bad” educators.

Little by little questions started to emerge about how the Task Force’s work was developing, including practicality, need for pilot testing, timelines that were shortened mid-stream, and more. At one point, a consultant for the Task Force express some frustration, essentially stating that she didn’t understand the misgivings of certain members, for after all, assessment is a basic part of teaching and learning. At least one response to that statement was: look at the newspapers and what is being said about the role of these teacher evaluations. It is political, not educational.

So, there you have a greater backdrop to the creation of assessment tools in this decade. There are two realms in which student and teacher assessment live: the realm of the educational and the realm of the political. Imagine a Venn diagram. One circle is educational and the other is political. In a Venn diagram, you are always looking for what resides in the shared space between the two circles. And for this diagram, what is in the shared space?

Have you heard of Campbell’s law?

Campbell’s law
stipulates that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for
social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption
pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social
processes it was intended to monitor. Campbell warned us of the
inevitable problems associated with undue weight and emphasis on a
single indicator for monitoring complex social phenomena. In effect, he
warned us about the high-stakes testing program that is part and parcel
of No Child Left Behind.

Have you heard about the cheating scandals in Atlanta, which brought down Dr. Beverly Hall, 2009 Superintendent of the Year.

This from the Huffington Post:

The 178 educators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating
investigation received letters in their mailboxes Friday from interim
Superintendent Erroll Davis. The message: Resign by Wednesday, or get
fired.

The announcement comes after Davis replaced four area superintendents and two principals
as a result of the investigation into alleged cheating by teachers,
revealed early this month. APS Human Resources Chief Millicent Few
resigned Monday. Investigators accused Few of illegally ordering the destruction or altering of important documents that evidenced the cheating.

The report determined that teachers in at least 44 of the 56 schools had participated in various forms of cheating, including erasing and correcting wrong answers on students’ answer sheets for mandated standardized tests.

And, finally, I would like to add this bit of disturbing news: The UK is on the verge of jettisoning music as a core subject. Click here to read more. And dig this: the UK has one of the finest programs for assessing music learning int the world. If you test it they will come? Let’s get real about that particular silver bullet theory.

Okay, I am not against assessment. The fact is that it is indeed a fundamental part of teaching and learning. The fact is also that many arts teachers are and have been assessing student learning for a long time. Read further and you will see that there are state-wide assessment regimes already in place for the arts. What I am saying is that we need to be on solid ground about the rightful role of testing as a fundamental part of teaching and learning and also recognize the political context that has hijacked the real value of assessment in teaching and learning. I think this is particularly important for the arts education field, we need to keep in mind the larger backdrop to our work.
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Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot): “But that is not the question. Why are we here, that is the question.
And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in
this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for
Godot to come.”

 

Margaret Spellings: “We measure what we treasure.”

 

Diane Ravitch:
“How do you measure friendship, character, integrity?” “…you do some
things not for economic reward, and not because they are utilitarian,
but because they are right.”

More and more, I am
hearing that since we teach what we test, the solution to equitable
distribution of arts education, particularly at the urban school
district level where the equity issue is most pronounced, is to create
arts tests. No, not bubble-type standardized tests, but rather
performance-based assessments that include a broad range of measures, comparable from school-to-school, from student-to-student.

If
you want to see what this could look like, there is at least one state
that has put much of this in place and you can click here to access the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Arts Performance Assessments.

The
Evergreen State’s approach is an example of what the tests might look
like in a regime that is relatively common across a state, and
standards-based. That’s one key component of what I might call the arts
accountability movement. Actually, that’s two components of the Arts
Accountability Movement, in that it is both assessment and standards.

What
if all the components were in place? Would it be an answer to those
district leaders who have said they could not make the arts central
unless there were measurable outcomes?

Let’s look at the other pieces of the arts accountability puzzle.

Another
component is a common curriculum, or at least a common curriculum
framework. Let’s take New York City’s Blueprint in the Arts as a very
good example of a curriculum framework for the arts. The Chicago Guide
for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is yet another very fine example.

And
that’s not all, let’s add a special diploma endorsement that would
signify having taken a prescribed number of advance courses in the arts
and having passed a special performance exam. Again, New York City has a
good example here: The Chancellor’s Endorsed Diploma.
Last year, 857 high school students garnered the special endorsement,
taking a test reputed to be tough even for those graduating arts
colleges.

So, what would the ideal look like, if we one was to
go the accountability route to ensuring the arts. And, do we really
believe that such a program would flip the switch for ensuring that
every child has access to a quality education that includes the arts.

In New York State there have been discussions about putting together the following pieces:

1.
A common statewide curriculum, that could be modeled after the New York
City blueprints or developed by notable organizations that would come
together to create it.

2. A statewide Regents exam for the arts.

In
New York State, there is a group of high school exams required to
receive a High School Diploma. The Board of Regents are the governance
body for education in New York State. To receive a regular high school
diploma, students in New York State
must pass, with a score of 65 or higher, five Regents Exams: Integrated
Algebra (or Math A), Global History and Geography, U.S. History and
Government, Comprehensive English, and any one science regents. To
receive an Advanced Regents Diploma, students must also pass an
additional Regents science exam, (Earth Science, Chemistry, or Physics),
an additional math exam (Geometry, Algebra 2/ Trigonometry, or Math B),
and a foreign language exam.

The Regents Exam for the Arts
would be designed as a replacement exam, for example, you could replace
the Global History exam with one of the arts exams, presuming that there
would be an exam developed in all four of the official art forms
(music, visual arts, dance and theater). N.B., the strategy is to
implement the exam as a replacement exam, rather than as a test required
of all students.

3. New Standards in the Arts. The new arts
standards would be developed in a manner that was coordinated closely
with the statewide curriculum, and the Arts Regents Exams.

4. State issued common assessments at key grades, most likely 4 and 8.

5.
Requisite Professional Development. After all, you can’t roll out such a
test without support for teachers and administrators.

So, what do you think? Will this move the dial?

In
New York City, you have most, if not all of the pieces in place. What’s
missing? Essentially, the only thing missing is a common set of
assessments, which is being developed by the Department of Education as I
type. Moreover, you’ve got an additional piece here: a citywide
accountability report, ArtsCount, which seeks to inventory the provision
of arts education across the system.

I recently had a
conversation with some policy leaders about this approach. They had
argued  that in an age of accountability that the arts would only
advance by becoming part of the accountability movement. In other words,
if you test, it will be taught. To bolster the argument,, it was also
offered that any number of suburban superintendents were now asking for
the state to develop such tools to help blunt the pressure to reduce the
arts as state funding declines. The idea here is that in high
performing districts, such pathways supported through increased testing
would help protect the arts. Another way to look at it is that state
testing legitimizes a subject. A special endorsement on the Regent’s
Diploma would give higher profile to the arts, recognize the serious of
the subject area, and provide increased ammunition for superintendents
to protect the arts from those who might advocate for cuts, including
their school boards.

I posed this question to my colleagues: do
you believe that such an approach would make a difference for the kids
who currently receive little? I didn’t get much of an answer to that
question, but another scenario was proposed: that unless teaching and
learning in the arts became something highly measurable, that arts
education would decline. And that we shouldn’t fear accountability.

For
my money, while further development of formal arts assessments,
endorsed diplomas, new curriculum frameworks, etc., would offer
incremental benefits in both quality and equity, the real missing
ingredient is leadership.

We don’t offer ELA and math as optional subjects, do we?

Unless
steps are taken that are based upon real leadership, meaning district,
government, and civic leaders that are willing to stand-up for the arts,
requiring the arts be taught, all the replacement exams in the world be
be but another Waiting for Godot.

What would such leadership
look like? Look no further than Boston, where Carol
Johnson makes sure that all school leaders know that the arts are no
longer optional.

Here, leadership includes the area of
instruction. The most impressive of the district leaders are not solely
CEO’s but instructional leaders as well. And, the leadership, a good
friend of mine likes to say, is linked to action, not just exhortation
from the bully pulpit.

Providing a sound and basic education,
that includes the arts for all of our students will require leaders that
are willing to take a stand, in other words, lead, instead of offering
poor substitutes such as: “if we do it for the arts, we will have to do
it for every subject.”

Venn Diagram.JPG

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