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Sattler: Growth Isn't Enough

Sattler head shot 
0209Secretary Duncan loves to tell the story of a hypothetical fifth-grade teacher who is considered a failure under NCLB despite having raised a child's reading level two grade levels in one academic year because that child entered reading at a 2nd grade level and so is still a year behind.  Now I'm not aware of anything in the NCLB that actually calls any teacher a failure but it's true that the child would still not be performing on grade level and that would contribute to a school's failure to make AYP.  And I agree with Duncan that the teacher in question should be considered an excellent teacher not a failure.

But when Duncan uses this example to talk about how we should focus on growth, that's where I start worrying.

As I have written before, previous versions of NCLB DID focus on growth. As long as a student made some, infinitesimally small, growth, the Title I program requirements were satisfied. The 100 percent proficiency requirement is disliked by many, but what made NCLB revolutionary was that it required specific, measurable, ever-increasing growth.  NCLB was literally the first time that there was anything besides a vague growth expectation. Under prior versions of the law, Title I children never caught up, and they were never expected to.  There was no end goal.

So when Duncan talks about measuring growth, I wait for the other shoe to drop. How much growth will he expect? Will it be enough for children to catch up? Will there be any consequences for schools that don't make that much growth? Duncan dislikes labeling schools as failures, and dislikes that NCLB "gives schools 50 ways to fail." In his push for growth, I sincerely hope that Duncan doesn't lose the importance of setting the overall goal. (And for those who see the 100 percent proficiency goal as impossible, I refer you to Charlie Barone's excellent explanations over on The Swift and Changeable (scroll down a bit) of the safe harbor calculations under Title I, that require really very little growth to make AYP even before some states' growth model calculations are factored in.

Growth, by itself, isn't enough. There's got to be an end goal in mind.  

Cheryl L .Sattler, Ph.D., is Senior Partner at Ethica, LLC. She has been known to debate Title I policy with her 3 cats and 1 puppy, all of whom care much more about kibble.

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"As long as a student made some, infinitesimally small, growth, the Title I program requirements were satisfied." There is no such provision, and this statement conflicts with Charlie Barone's explanation of Safe Harbor (which is always about the school or district level, as AYP only applies to the school or district). The key issue has *always* been the proportion of a population meeting the state's threshold score for proficiency. Always.

... well, since 2002.

I think that this is the type of problem that we all over the past 8 years. Standardized tests and AYP scores do not show the progress that teachers get to see daily. I teach middle school and recently had a student drastically improve his test scores in class due to a different testing situation that I've set up. Unfortunately, due to the testing rules he will have to take the standardized test in the regular classroom. Everyone doesn't learn in the same way, as they shouldn't be tested in the same way. I could go on and on. . . .

Thanks for the memories with that link. Barone's three part series on Safe Harbor prompted 10 comments and 90 comments awaiting moderation (whatever that meant.) It culminated in a discussion of Zeno's Paradox.

I wish the authors of NCLB had spent more time with Richard Rothstein's paradox. Rothstein has documented the pervasive ways that human being respond through Campbell's Law to data-DRIVEN accountability. Tricks, evasiveness, and dishonest all become worse when the targets are SEEN as unfair and/or impossible.

NCLB would have had fewer unintended negative effects if its authors and propoents had been upfront and candid about the actual requirements. I was aware of the dynamic Barone illustated, but until I'd seen his chart I didn't know I could communicate it effectively. If that chart been proclaimed from the mountaintops at the start, and schools had been publicly given a goal that was less impossible, the panic that produced curriculum narrowing, nonstop test prep, etc., was have been less destructive.

I hope we don't see history repeating itself again, as "reformers" ignore the human dynamics of school systems. Seeing Ohio's name on the RttT, I'm reminded that we explictly copied Ohio's growth targets. The DOE even sent Ohio people down to the planning process. We were explicitly told that Ohio got the "best" possible deal due to its political importance in 2004. So we explicitly backloaded our targets until, we hoped, Republican governors would come to our rescue by rolling back NCLB.

From the start, we were waiting until NCLB became a discredited brand. I hope the RttT doesn't have to fail before the lessons of human nature are learned, but if that happens, maybe ESEA reauthorization will draw on the lessons of history.

I sound so Old School writing about "human nature" and the "lessons of history." But I don't think featherless bipeds have changed much in 10 years. If we had, we'd be listening to the social science documenting why and how NCLB failed.

I’m a big fan of Ms. Sattler and her work. In a thoughtful and provocative piece about Secretary Duncan’s consistently stated but vaguely specified notion that we should be holding kids and teachers to greater levels of progress, Ms. Sattler wrote the following:

“Growth, by itself, isn’t enough. There’s got to be an end goal in mind.”

Ms. Sattler is one of our country’s most passionate and articulate advocates for higher expectations and greater student achievement. But I believe her statement here reveals two parts of a currently popular educational philosophy that is hampering reform.

The idea that “Growth, by itself, isn’t enough,” makes sense in the context of her argument that for too long growth requirements for Title I students have been far too modest. She could have easily added as well that growth requirements for non-Title I kids are also embarrassing low. The well-known “race to the bottom” phenomenon, or “rigor mortis” as I like to call it, has shown us that states continually undermine their own standards by intentionally making their tests easier to pass. Therefore, growth for all students is easy to show, even when it is practically non-existent or simply results from chance statistical occurrences.

But I disagree with Ms. Sattler that “Growth, by itself, isn’t enough.” To the contrary, where learning is concerned, growth is all we should be caring about.

We have all had hundreds of teachers in our lives. Many have been in traditional school subjects, some have not. I had a piano teacher, a choir teacher, a jazz arranging teacher, a drama teacher, a football coach, a basketball coach, a baseball coach, and a chess teacher. My dad even chipped in to teach me how to be a pretty good fisherman. And later in life, my mom taught me how to be a good teacher. Along the way, I also had a few “regular” teachers who possessed the same extraordinary commitment to their work, not for the sake of helping their students reach arbitrarily imposed goals, but for the promise of consistent progress that would—and did—instill in me the value of continuous, lifelong learning.

In each of these cases, my recollection is that growth, not goals, was always the goal. I just seems that any time I met a goal, another goal was always waiting for me. As such, there was no end point, only momentum and the progress I achieved as a result. The best and most effective teachers and coaches I had always stressed progress over performance. This doesn’t mean my football coach was OK with the fact that we lost every game the year I played (not my fault!), or that my baseball coach wasn’t incredibly thrilled when I helped our team advance to the state tournament with a one-hitter from the mound and a three-run homer in the seventh inning. But in that particular case, my baseball coach got a lot more satisfaction, as he told me, by his ability to transform me that year from a lanky but lazy first baseman into a competent and competitive southpaw hurler. Did either of us view my pitching as an end result? Not at all. In fact, I had never pitched before in my life. But fortunately, someone smart saw something in me, and took the time to teach me how to make that something work. The “standard” for me at that point in my athletic career would have been to remain at first base for the rest of my natural life. Mr. Marrier cut me loose from that limiting mold and molded me into something much more interesting—and certainly more powerful when it came to winning ball games.

My piano teacher, my jazz arranging teacher, my chess teacher, my dad, my mom, all of these folks valued results, but they valued progress more for two reasons: (1) Progress is the most accurate indicator of teaching and learning success; and (2) Consistent progress leads not only to better end goals but also to potentially unlimited levels of achievement. When it comes to teaching and learning, arbitrary externally-enforced “Performance targets” or “AYP”-like concepts are not the best way to achieve the best results. Optimizing progress is.

Ironically, whenever we set a “performance target” we unknowingly trade the natural inspiration inherent in the quest to reach one’s full potential for the soul-sucking pursuit of minimum competence. This is why most attempts we have made in the last decade to establish state and federal standards for student achievement have been either a failure, a fraud, or a farce.

Every teacher knows, and most know intuitively, that learning is incremental and accretive. It’s not linear by any means. That’s what the phrase “learning curve” is all about. Much of the time, end results express themselves in something of a “stair step” fashion after what often appear to be long—and often frustrating—periods of stagnation that actually involve the consolidation or integration of new skills and information. This is often what the most significant “bursts” of learning require. The problem for standards-driven schooling is that the timing and extent of these critical and occasionally life-changing events is almost impossible to predict. Worse yet, they don’t seem to happen at all when every learner is forced to learn the same things, the same way, at the same time.

A focus on consistent progress has three advantages over a focus on end results: (1) It inspires greater student effort by allowing teachers to legitimately recognize small gains; (2) It instills in students the habit of disciplined and consistent improvement; and (3) It doesn’t limit students or teachers to an arbitrary goal that, by its very nature as a “common standard,” is as common as that designation implies and, as Ms. Sattler points out, is often insultingly low.

The statement that “Growth itself, isn’t enough.” is not only incorrect, it’s also disheartening. An “unlimited growth” approach to education is vital because it inspires students to improve continuously, because it inspires teachers to sharpen their skills, and because it inspires all of us to internalize the value of lifelong learning.

Ms. Sattler’s second statement that “There has to be an end goal in mind” is, I believe, also inaccurate. Though it’s great to have goals along the way, an end goal is not required for successful teaching or learning.

When I was studying chess, my only end goal, like so many young Americans of that time, was beating Bobby Fisher’s pace en route to becoming world champion. Yes, there were intermediate hurdles to clear along the way. I had to win my age class. Then my state junior tournament. Then the US junior tournament. Then the US Open. Then one of the qualifying “interzonals”. Etc. But even these goals were merely measures of incremental progress. And since neither my teacher nor I had any sense at all that I possessed the prodigal flash that might one day make me a champion, I happily learned and he happily taught simply for the promise of regular progress and the apparently now-outmoded notion of getting as far as I could as quickly as I could get there—wherever “there” happened to be. Despite this lack of an end goal, I learned rapidly through the simple everyday “miracle” of progress unlimited by any expectation of my achieving some arbitrary measure of minimum competence.

Results, goals, visions, expectations, all of these things matter. But only if they are expressed in terms of helping human beings reach their full potential. In this sense, growth is what we look for, and the only meaningful end goal is getting as far long as we can.

We know so much these days about the emotional aspects of learning and the psychology of success. Even teachers who don’t know the science, understand the concepts intuitively. We don’t want our children to make “Adequate Yearly Progress.” Worse than that, the attitude inspired by this kind of language ironically guarantees that all of our children will suffer from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

When I teach kids to read, for example, I don’t teach them about standards or tests or skills that a state has said they must demonstrate. Instead, I tell them about how cool it is to be an amazing reader. And I tell them that we will not stop becoming better until we all read amazingly well (and that we may not stop even then). I also point out that I, myself, am not yet an amazing reader (I read quite a bit slower than the average adult), so I, too, will be attempting to improve continuously right along with them.

The problem here is not with Ms. Sattler but with us all. An extraordinary and dangerous paradigm shift is in play. Even though our schools have probably never worked very well, learning was traditionally thought to be boundless, continuous, and valued not as and end in itself but for its inherent greatness and the wonder of its infinite possibility. In the new education economy, learning has become a production quota, teachers are standardized curriculum delivery systems, and the state controls the means of production. In our zeal to leave no child behind, we are leading ourselves down a path toward an apparently vital end goal where all children will be mediocre. Perhaps for extra credit they will also learn that achieving mediocrity means never having to learn anything ever again.

Growth will not be enough if SB 6 goes through in Florida. How do you feel about teachers getting their professional certificate renewed by proof of increased student performance? Districts being levied another mill on local taxes if they do not instill a salary schedule that has performance bonus components?

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