On Negotiating Nuance

The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Mark Twain

I have awesome cats. Two of whom like to hang out in my office when I’m working from home and provide company while I work AKA walk across my keyboard when I’m not honoring them sufficiently. More than once, they’ve been my audience as I’ve scrolled Twitter and mumbled a strongly worded opinion about something I’ve read. And I swear, the cats rolled their eyes at me and I hear my mother’s voice telling me, "there are starving children in China!" when I refused to eat fish sticks as a kid. The message is sort of the same – this thing that is so important to you, Jenn, isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things and I totally get it. I rationalize my obsession with nuance and semantics around assessment design as my commitment to the science of the craft of teaching. My nuance nudges, in no particular order.

1.       Assessment literacy requires that we consider the system and recognize that different assessments serve different purposes. Diane Ravitch recently said that the state tests were invalid because they served no “diagnostic purpose.” My nuance nudge: Well neither do the final exams that many students take in High School. So while the state tests provide limited diagnostic data for a particular child, they provide useful information for the system. Case in point? Next year, 2015-2016, will be the first year that the students taking the CCLS tests will have only known curriculum aligned to CCLS. The state assessments are the [likely] most objective way of documenting, or one might even say, diagnosing the consistency of alignment to the standards across the state.

2.       “Exam” is not the same as “test”. Don’t believe me? Check the cover pages.

3. Why does it have to be about “sides”? That is, it’s possible to do all of the following - at the same time.
  • support authentic, curriculum-embedded assessment and portfolio design,
  • struggle with the intent and purposes of the opt out movement,
  • be in favor of annual testing as a large-scale measure of the system,
  • think the Common Core Learning Standards are better than what we had before and not really care about where they came from,
  • be okay with providing students with direct instruction on how to take a test (AKA test prep done right), and
  • be against VAM as it currently being used in teacher evaluation.

So I guess this is less a statement on struggling to find a place for nuance and more a "here's where I am right now." I think Steve! the cat agrees or at least is pretending to. At the very least, he makes me feel less guilty about not carrying the laundry upstairs on a Sunday morning (Kevin is our tabby, Steve! is behind him. Baby, our oldest, hangs out elsewhere.)

You say Tomato, I say Tomahto ... it's [almost] 2015, why are we still talking about this?

We all like to think we're open-minded; that we arrived at a reasonable, logical and right conclusion after careful consideration of the facts, perspectives, and various opinions. Sometimes we get the benefit of cardiac assessment ("it just feels right") or a gut response to an issue. We weigh the evidence, reach a conclusion, and can rest comfortably in our superiority over those who haven't reached the clearly obvious conclusions we have. Ok... so that last bit may or may not be true, depending on your approach to critical thinking and awareness of cognitive biases.

Here's an interesting experiment. Below are two Kindergarten standards. One is from the Common Core Learning Standards (NYS's version of the CCSS) and one is from the so-called "Lost Standards" (the version NYS was working on when Common Core came along).

Standards A
Standards B
Ask and answer questions in order to:
• seek help,
• get information,
• or clarify something that is not understood.
• Ask and answer questions about classroom activities
• Request help when needed
• Know when and how to ask permission

My bias is that standards are the least important part of ensuring a quality public education for all students. I'd co-sign this post by Kathleen Porter-Magee on standards and curriculum if it were a petition. So when I make the claim: The text on both sides of the table are basically saying the same thing, it's informed by my bias and hunch that difference between any two set of standards isn't really all that big. In my opinion, the biggest change from the old NYS ELA standards and the CCLS (besides the six shifts) was the introduction of coding, shared language between grade levels, and the explicit inclusion of culture and choice in the language of the standards.

Someone with a different bias, perhaps that the Common Core are "developmentally inappropriate" will likely see the text in the two columns as different. The would likely make the counterclaim: one is more "appropriate" than the other. 

All of that said, here's my question: Does it matter? It's 2015. How will the problems created by the Common Core be fixed by dropping them and going back to standards that NYS walked away from in 2009?

This isn't about being right or being wrong about Common Core or which is better. This post is about humbleness and hubris. I've been writing this for a while now. While walking through airports, driving home from programs, falling asleep at night, in-between designing programs, and reading assessment research and I'm still struggling to find the right words. Usually, not always, I found myself mentally composing this post after scrolling through Twitter and watching the absolute confidence that a large number of educators speak about a particular issue. Mostly white male educators. Mostly about Common Core. I thought perhaps it was a function of 140 but the language of their blogs is often the same. Just for fun, I've "pushed back" (which I've been told is "trollish" and a "bad habit") and in most instances, I get a response that one might classify as doubling-down. I've reflected on why I feel compelled to comment and poke. It's partially because I'm fascinated by how we engage via Social Media. It's partially because I advocate for process assessments (asking students about HOW they think) and logical discourse. It's partially because I'm annoyed. I'm annoyed by hubris. I'm annoyed by the number of white male educators who write and post their thoughts on issues, rather than boosting the voices of women and men of color who have been writing about the given issue for months, even years. Maybe I'm a little jealous of the sheer hubris that some exhibit as they write and post about an issue, wrapped in a toasty blanket of confidence that they are absolutely, incontrovertibly right.

Mostly though, mostly it's because I'm angry. I'm angry that at the end of 2014, following months in which Black Americans had to say - aloud - "my life matters", people are still having conversations that feel like they should have been resolved in 2010. I'm angry at the data below.

I'm angry that we're not talking about cultural and racial literacy among the primarily white, female teaching profession. I'm angry that someone claimed (with a seemingly straight face) that replacing one set of standards that are basically the same as another set of standards will reduce misbehavior among Black preschoolers and therefore, reduce the suspension rate. I'm angry that a number larger than 1 of middle-aged, white men wrote long-form essays on the impact of Common Core - without citing or even referring to the lived experiences of classroom teachers or current college students. I'm angry that many of those who are anti-test (seriously folks, take Jose Vilson's advice and advocate for the "Whole Child") aren't offering alternatives to annual testing other than "Opt Out." It's 2015, not 2009. How about we move on from the standards and onto pedagogy, quality curriculum, equity, and cultural literacy?

How powerful would it be if instead of continuing the same conversations in 2015 that have been going on since 2009, we start or join new ones? The ones about race and culture and whose voices we trust and the role of public education and the tension between the learner and schooling? How about instead of tweeting "this is the truth", we ask "what makes you think that's the truth?" What if we asked more than told? Questioned more than pontificated? Reflected more than bumper sticker-ed? But eh... whadda I know? I'm just a troll.


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)