Category Archives: testing

Respecting Teachers’ Professionalism in Reading Instruction

booksIncreasing the reading ability of young people is a major focus of critics of schooling, and prescribed remedies constantly rain down upon us. It is refreshing, then, to re-visit Richard Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006, 2nd edn.), as I (Clive) have recently done.

According to Allington, the remedies mandated at a system level typically have two flaws: (1) prescribing a single method for all students, and (2) not placing enough emphasis on the amount students read (including re-reading the same favorite works). With respect to the first, he says:

“Expecting any single method, material, or program to work equally well with every kid in every classroom is nonsensical. And yet we see increasing pressure for a standardization of reading curriculum and lessons…. The substantial research evidence that such plans have not produced the desired effects is routinely ignored in the latest quest for a cheap, quick fix.” (p. 34)

Regarding the second flaw in system mandates, Allington says:

“If I were required to select a single aspect of the instructional environment to change, my first choice would be creating a schedule that supported dramatically increased quantities of reading during the school day” (p. 35)

Unfortunately, federally funded Title I remedial reading and special education programs (in the US) have not increased the amount of reading children do. According to one study:

“[C]hildren who received reading instructional support from either program often had the volume of reading reduced rather than expanded as remedial and resource room lessons focused on other activities” (p. 43)

These “other activities” – such as extra phonics teaching, correcting pronunciation, asking comprehension questions – mean that children are interrupted in their reading. Apart from reducing reading time, this means children become used to being interrupted and read in a slow, hesitant manner, with half a mind on when the next interruption will come.

While attempting to support teachers in their reading instruction, then, it is essential to respect their professionalism so they are free to adapt to what works for individual students and give students abundant opportunities to read in peace.


Challenging the Use of Test Scores to Assess Teachers and Teacher Educators

Clare and I (Clive) have often argued against the use of “value-added measures” (VAMs) to assess teachers and teacher educators, measures that rely exclusively on standardized test scores. Others (e.g., David Berliner, Diane Ravitch) have taken a similar stand.

In the May 2016 issue of the Educational Researcher, opposition to VAMs receives dramatic support from Steven Klees of the University of Maryland. In a letter to ER, Klees welcomes a recent AERA Statement about how difficult it is to assess teachers using VAMs. However, he goes on to say that it’s not only difficult, it’s impossible! He notes that “dozens, perhaps hundreds, of variables” influence test scores, and hence misattributing cause is not only a “significant risk,” it is “rampant and inherent” in the use of VAMs. He concludes:

“The bottom line is that regardless of technical sophistication, the use of VAM is never ‘accurate, reliable, and valid’ and will never yield ‘rigorously supported inferences’” (p. 267).

In my view, even if we give some weight to test scores, it is imperative to supplement them with other considerations: e.g., the judgment of teachers and their colleagues about good teaching, opinions of students about their teachers’ effectiveness, theories about effective pedagogy. Effective teaching is so complex there can be no quick fix in assessing it.

It will be interesting to see how the education research and policy communities respond to Klees’s extraordinary claim, given that VAMs are the latest great hope for the reform of teaching and teacher education.


Literacy Pilot Program at First Nations’ Schools

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin recommends a four-year literacy pilot program implemented at two First Nations’ elementary schools should be put into place across Canada. Martin suggested the reading and writing program, implemented at Walpole Island and Kettle and Stony Point First nations in Ontario, improved students literacy performance. The program, designed by Julia O’Sullivan dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, required schools to carry out a mandatory reading and writing period for every student during the first 90 minutes of each day. Kettle and Stony Point First Nation chief Thomas Bressette drew attention to the underfunding of First Nations schools. Bressette noted “there needs to be a period of catch-up time because our people have been looked down on and set back because of underfunding, not because we’re ignorant and we’re dumb and uneducated and incapable of learning, but because of the circumstances.”

Link to the news article:

Assignments: Bane of Student Teachers and Professors

checkmark imagesI (Clare) was in my department yesterday and ran into a number of colleagues. Most were bemoaning their heavy marking load. This is the end of the semester and most seemed snowed under with the grading papers. A few weeks ago I observed a number of student teachers submitting their assignments. They too looked tired and were complaining about their assignments and workload. Yes assignments are work. Yes as instructors we need to grade student work. But there is something wrong with this picture. Many of the student teachers do not find their assignments useful (as a few commented – “they are just make- work projects”) and faculty spend huge amounts of time marking projects their student teachers found wanting. We definitely need to have assignments but I think it is time to discuss what are useful assignments for student teachers. The corollary issue is how can marking assignment be useful for faculty?
A number of years ago when I was Director of the Elementary Preservice program at OISE we created a survey about assignments which we distributed to around 600 student teachers. The results were surprising: they did not like having to self-assess, they disliked group projects, and they would rather have fewer, more in-depth assignments, than many little ones. (Most criticized were submitting long lesson plans with reflections. Many admitted they simply made up the reflections.) What was not surprising is they valued assignments where they had choice in both the topic and the format. If we (faculty and student teachers) are going to spend significant time on assignments then let’s use our time more fruitfully and productively. We cannot do away with assignments but I think we can reconceptualize them to be more useful for everyone involved.

PISA Results December 2013

The recently released PISA results have many Asian countries scoring substantially higher than the US, UK, and Canada on math, reading, and science. Some people are saying this shows that the latter countries need to place more emphasis on “the basics” (such as times tables, formulas, spelling, etc.) rather than problem solving and relevance. My response is threefold:

 ·      Part of the disparity in scores is due to typical features of Asian schooling that I don’t think are desirable: high-stakes national exams, cram schools, and enormous pressure on students to learn the basics at any cost. I rarely meet people from Asia who are glad they experienced this kind of schooling.

·      Part of it is because we’ve asked teachers to teach for meaning and relevance without showing them how. In math, for example, we give them an 36 hour math methods course in teacher education and send them out to reverse a lifetime of experience and cultural initiation.

·      Clearly, teachers need to do BOTH – teach the basics AND meaning, relevance, etc. And I believe this is entirely possible. But we need to figure out how to do it and systematically teach and model it in pre-service and in-service (in the context of the various subjects), rather than just making general pronouncements about constructivism, discovery learning, and teaching for understanding.  

                                                                                                                                       Clive Beck