Broadening Our Concept of the Whole Educator

Attending to the social and emotional needs of individual educators is an important component of a healthy classroom, school, and public education system. At the same time, ensuring a healthy system and a safe space for all children requires that all adults in the system go through the difficult work of uncovering and confronting assumptions, biases, and mental models. This work is confounded by the shared human trait of egocentrism. It is impossible for any human – regardless of age, culture, or experience – to truly “get” where another human is coming from. We are all limited in that regard. Yet, it is this very shared trait that allows us to create dynamic, diverse communities in which each person is seen and treated as a whole and rich being with their own perspective, passions, interests, and experiences. The creation of those communities, though, requires that we acknowledge our shared failings and work to openly address them. In the absence of these conversations, we may end up unintentionally causing harm to students. For example:

Last YearA high school teacher created an assessment to assess a complex Common Core standard and selected a series of texts for students to use to support or refute a claim. When all was said and done, 13% of the teacher’s students wrote papers making the claim, supported by evidence the teacher provided, that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

It’s not uncommon for school communities to say, in the wake of similar instances, “the teacher was unaware of any [Jewish] students in his/her class.” In other communities, parents of color have shared that their children only see texts by authors of color during Black History Month or the role of women is mostly addressed during the month of March. Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when a teacher or a school’s approach to what they put in front of children is informed by the absence of a demographic group within the school walls or by particular events on the calendar? What do teachers need to know, be able to do, and value in order to to select the kinds of texts that will lead to a more accurate, fair-minded understanding of historical events and trends?

Six Months AgoA transgendered student was told that the student would have use the restroom the school principal and teachers thought was appropriate for the student, not the restroom the student would have preferred to use.

In assuming a seemingly neutral stance, the school ended up denying an aspect of the student’s personal identity or may have creating shame or guilt in a young person struggling to protect her own emotional well-being. A similar defense around school policies (“It’s part of the dress code”) was used when a Navajo student was told to cut his hair (kept long for religious reasons) before returning to school. Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when our inherent inability to see through another’s eyes informs the policies and practices of school? Is empathy enough?

This MonthA teacher was suspended when, after the topic of Michael Brown’s death came up in class, a lesson involved having students act out Michael’s death. The re-enactment included researching the number of times the young man was shot and having students play the role of the officer who shot him.

In a powerful piece called “Facing Race Issues in the Classroom: How to Connect with Students”, an educator reminds the reader, “We may not be able to prevent everything, but we can control how we react to things.” Questions for discussion that events like this might provoke include: What are the implications when, having the best of intentions in reacting to student questions about a real and important issue, educators design tasks that in hindsight are clearly poorly informed? What steps can and should be taken before putting such activities in front of students?

In each instance, the educators involved were doing what they thought was best. Each of these teachers is also likely a family member, with friends and hobbies and pets. Based on the demographics of the American public education teaching force, the probability is high that these educators were white and female. It is also probable, that if asked, each woman involved would deny her actions were racist or biased[1].

Attending to the whole educator requires that we revisit who we think we are and how that fits into the larger social narrative and structures we exist, teach, and learn within. Learning more about how to confront our own biases and “blind spots” is the responsibility of all adults but given the impact that educators have, it’s crucial work for members of the profession. It’s also equally as important that as we do the work of broadening our conception of who we are as whole educators, we don’t infringe upon others’ emotional safety. It seems like a natural step to reach out to faculty members of color to discuss race or to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* or Queer (LGBTQ) colleagues around issues they may experience, but that small move is identified as “othering” by social justice advocates. Othering is where we use our frame of reference to define someone else’s identity. Instead of Ms. Jones being defined as a grade 5 Science teacher or however she self-identifies, she’s approached as Ms. Jones, a woman of color, based on how she’s seen by her white colleagues. Although intentions – seeking to understand – may be noble, constantly being “othered” can take its toll. [2] 

The students involved in the Student Six Tips in the “Facing Race” article shared that as a result of their teachers’ intentional work, they felt safer and found greater success. “The teachers treat us like peers and we respect that.” In a recent Twitter chat around LGBT issues, a teacher reported that a subtle shift in her language – from “husband and wife” to the more neutral “spouse” allowed one of her LGBT students to feel safe enough to confide in her the emotional and social challenges he was facing as a gay youth.

The work and heavy lifting of expanding the boundaries of the whole educator to include social justice and equity considerations has to be done by each individual. This work is not optional and should not happen in response to events like those listed. It needs to happen now, without hesitation, and without fear of saying the wrong thing, a common, shared fear. The hardest part may very well be admitting that for the majority of educators, discussions about race, gender, or sexuality are often event-based rather than a part of professional, reflective conversations. In order for us to answer the essential question, “How do we become a more just society?”  we have to start exploring the boundaries of our identities while seeking to understand others’ – even if, and especially if, the classrooms, faculty rooms, and media we see on a daily basis reflect mostly faces and experiences that look like our own. This work is important. The work must start now.

In addition to the resources linked in this column or referenced in footnotes, educators may find the following resources useful to inform their reflective practice.

Quick ReadsMedium Length ReadsLong Read
Race in education and the classroom5 Ways to teach about Ferguson 
“We cannot be color-blind” Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking by George J. Sefa Dei This is not a Test by Jose Vilson 
LGBT issues in education and the classroom#LBGTeach GLSEN school resource guide

Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

Learning more about fairness in assessment design“Identify and Eliminate  Assessment Bias” (video) by James PophamRegents Exams Item Criteria Checklist

Gender bias and fairness by Ruth Axman Childs

[1] This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Good, Racist People  or the TedX Talk by Jay Smooth are two great resources on the important distinction between racist actions and “being a racist”.)
[2] The blog space maintained  by Jose Vilson speaks to his experiences as an educator, parent, and man of color, and frequently makes connections to larger social issues.

Originally published in the NY ASCD newsletter (September 2014) 

Pick an item, any item - the reveal

Yesterday, I wrote a quick run through of item p-value in which I ignored a bunch of stuff about item analysis in order to focus on the big idea of predicting item difficulty. 20 anonymous people - of unknown age, teaching experience and background, answered a quick poll I put up about two items from the released NYS items. 20 adults (I assume -and based on their responses to the optional question, it's a reasonable assumption) picked which item they thought was harder. And 17 adults - about the size of an elementary school PLC - or 85% of them picked Item 1. Reasons for picking 1 included:
  • To answer question 1 you need to go off and look up the contents of the 4 referenced paragraphs and then keep them in mind while evaluating the most plausible answer. This would put more strain on the working memory. The content needed to answer question 2 is right there in the question, easily visible.
  • Question 1 requires students to go back into the reading selection; that is not required for Question 2.
  • "Predicts the action" is awkward phrasing, question requires students to flip back into the story to reread. Also, question number 2 is a more familiar format
All reasonable. All made by (again, I assume) well-educated adults using the evidence in front of them to draw a conclusion. And yet, the reason we need student item data...

49% of NYS 4th graders who took the test got this question correct. 
25% of NYS 4th graders who took the test got this question correct. 
Does this mean that the 20 adults don't understand teaching, students, or education? Not by a mile. It's a reminder that when it comes to assessment - especially multiple choice item design - when adults read items we see difficulty different than the test taker. Think one of the released items is especially hard? Check the p-values by using the released charts. See the small blue number in the top left? That's the item's code. Look for that code on the p-value chart. If you're in a school in NY wondering how to make connections to your students, look at your students' p-values in the reports released by the RIC and start to have conversations about the implications. SED has released guidance on how to analyze the data and educators across the state are writing (written by my co-blogger, Theresa) about how to state assessment data to inform conversations.

State ed testing takes 300 minutes, 1%, 2 weeks - however you chose to present the numbers - of a child's year. It is the LEAST important assessment children will engage in over the course of a year. What's to be gained - or lost - by framing the LEAST important thing students do as a way to advance our agendas? How does it help alleviate students' (and parents') stress when we give the LEAST important thing in the education landscape the most attention? 

Disclaimer: And as you read these posts, please know, gentle reader, that I am an advocate of performance-based, portfolio, and authentic assessment. I love roses but have committed to the science of the teaching profession which means working to ensure we're describing the daisies correctly. So the usual disclaimer - I am not defending NCLB, VAM, APPR. I'm not even defending the NYS assessments. It's my hunch that we're making it harder to fix the big picture when we neglect to accurately define the parts of the whole.

Pick an item, any item

So we're going to play a little game in this post. But first, let me set the stage.

While lurking on a Twitter exchange about race, education, and schools, I saw a great reminder from Bill Fitzgerald scroll by. In effect [and apologies, Bill, if I've summarized incorrectly], it's worth engaging around important topics even it's clear the discourse isn't going anywhere because you never know who might be listening, seeking to learn. To revisit an earlier post, I decided not to worry about the manager of the nursery, and consider instead the walkers just out for a Sunday stroll who may overhear the discussion about the daisies.

I am going to make one claim here in this post and one claim only: when adults look at multiple choice items, we see them differently than students do. Experience, background knowledge, expertise, confirmation bias, 20 years of living - a wide variety of things influence how we read an item. Any teacher who's seen students ace a "hard" item or tank on an "easy" one will know that it's not until students actually take the items that we get a real sense of the item's difficulty.

Item design is a science - and an art. Objectivity plays a large role. BUT:
One cannot determine which item is more difficult simply by reading the questions. One can recognize the name in the second question more readily than that in the first. But saying that the first question is more difficult than the second, simply because the name in the second question is easily recognized, would be to compute the difficulty of the item using an intrinsic characteristic. This method determines the difficulty of the item in a much more subjective manner than that of a p value. Basic Concepts in Item Design
This is why there's field testing. Or why we should field test classroom tests and why states have to field test items from their large scale tests. The test designer (teachers or Pearson writers) do their level best but we need certain statistics (available only after students have actually taken and responded to an item) to reach conclusions about how high quality an item is. The most common statistic we can use is what's known as a p-value. This value is the percent correct - the higher the p-value, the more students who got an item correct, the easier the item was for the group of students who took the test. There are guidelines around p-values but generally speaking, "p-values should range between 0.30 and 0.90." There's a lot more to unpack around item difficulty but we'll just leave this here.

In the absence of these p-values, our observations about the difficulty of an item are just that - observations. Hambleton and Jirka (2006), two psychometricians/unicorns reviewed the literature around estimating item difficulty and found studies where highly qualified, well-experienced teachers were inconsistent when it came to accurately estimating how students would do on an item. "No one in any studies we have read has been successful at getting judges to estimate item difficulty well." Pretty compelling evidence that we need to temper our opinions with supporting evidence from students who, you know, actually took the assessments.

So now onto the game. Let's pick an. any item. How about Item 132040149_1 from the released Grade 4 Assessment items?

Now, in order for this game to work, you have to play along. Click the link above to read the Pecos Bill story and do your best to answer the question. You may look at it and conclude it requires skills "required skills out of the reach for many young children" or that the number of steps to answer this question are too many and too complicated for 4th graders. Now consider the question below also from the fourth grade test:

Which one would you expect to be harder for the students? The top one or the bottom one? What's informing your decision making? What evidence are you using? What percent of students do you think got the top item correct? How about the bottom one?

Hit me up here or on Twitter and share your thinking. I'll follow up with the answer in an upcoming blog, provided I get through my rose-tending to do list.