When “Sorry” Means “J’Accuse”

The letter "J'accuse"

The following column about a letter appeared on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday, July 23.  The letter is in the form of an apology, but it is actually a series of accusations about testing and accountability.  Like another front page letter of accusation, this one has all of Emile Zola’s moral outrage but has none of Zola’s justification.

I’ve reprinted it here with my comments in blue italics.

Students pass state test, but at what cost to their education?

by Regina Brett

The school report cards came out in June.

Rocky River Middle School passed the 2008 Ohio Achievement Tests, earned an Excellent rating from the state and met the requirements for Annual Yearly Progress.

For all of those accomplishments, Principal David Root has only one thing to say to the students, staff and citizens of Rocky River:

He’s sorry.

Root wants to issue an apology. He sent it to me typed out in two pages, single spaced.

He’s sorry that he spent thousands of tax dollars on test materials, practice tests, postage and costs for test administration.

Actually, he did not spend the money.  The taxpayers did when they decided through their elected representatives to adopt a testing and accountability system.  They then hired David Root to implement this policy in his capacity as principal at a public school.

Sorry that his teachers spent less time teaching American history because most of the social studies test questions are about foreign countries.

I guess the people of Ohio thought it was important for students to learn about foreign countries when they, through their elected representatives and hired agents, devised the state curriculum and test.  Besides, if students learned more about foreign countries they might know who Emile Zola was.

Sorry that he didn’t suspend a student for assaulting another because that student would have missed valuable test days.

Sounds pretty irresponsible.  Would he have made a different decision if the student would have missed valuable instructional days?  If so, whose fault is that?  Oh yes, I forgot that this is an accusation, not an apology.

Sorry he didn’t strictly enforce attendance because all absences count against the school on the State Report Card.

So, is David Root saying that he cheated on the state accountability system?  Isn’t this like lying to your boss about your job performance?  Will he be fired, sanctioned, or resign to make amends for his infraction?

He’s sorry for pulling children away from art, music and gym, classes they love, so they could take test-taking strategies.

Why didn’t he just follow the state curriculum and let the scores show what students knew? The decision to take time away for “test-taking strategies”  was completely unnecessary given that more than 90% of Rocky River students have been scoring above the proficient level in reading, math, and writing.  It sounds like they would have done just fine on the state test without working on test-taking strategies and having spent more time on art, music, and gym.

Sorry that he has to give a test where he can’t clarify any questions, make any comments to help in understanding or share the results so students can actually learn from their mistakes.

How reliable would the results be if principals could clarify questions, help in understanding, or share secure test items that would be re-used on future tests?  Does every assessment have to be a formative assessment?

Sorry that he kept students in school who became sick during the test because if they couldn’t finish the test due to illness, the student automatically fails it.

This sounds like a difficult decision.  Football coaches similarly have to think about whether to take injured players out of the game versus having the players tough it out.  We pay leaders to make these difficult decisions, balancing competing interests wisely.

Sorry that the integrity of his teachers is publicly tied to one test.

Actually, the state accountability system — let alone “the integrity of his teachers” —  is not based on one test.  The overall rating of Rocky River Middle School is based on several test results (in Reading, Math, Writing, Social Studies, and Science), the progress students have made in those subjects, and (as we already heard about) the possibly fraudulent attendance rate.

He apologized for losing eight days of instruction due to testing activities.

I thought Root didn’t want one test, so it takes time to administer several.  While testing takes place on eight days it does not (or at least does not have to) consume the entirety of those days.  My understanding is that the average student only spent two mornings being tested, as testing occurred in different grades and subjects for different students across eight days.

For making decisions on assemblies, field trips and musical performances based on how that time away from reading, math, social studies and writing will impact state test results.

I would hope that the principal would think about how assemblies, field trips, and musical performances impact instructional time for other academic subjects regardless of whether those subjects are part of a state accountability system.

For arranging for some students to be labeled “at risk” in front of their peers and put in small groups so the school would have a better chance of passing tests.

Again, if smaller group instruction would help certain students, the principal should arrange for that regardless of the state accountability system.  And the principal would have to think of a way to provide that necessary assistance without stigmatizing the students who need it.

For making his focus as a principal no longer helping his staff teach students but helping them teach test indicators.

Why didn’t he just help his staff teach the subjects with confidence that the test indicators would show what they had learned?  This is especially puzzling given how likely it is that students at Rocky River would pass the state test without paying any special attention to test-taking strategies.

Root isn’t anti-tests. He’s all for tests that measure progress and help set teaching goals. But in his eyes, state achievement tests are designed for the media to show how schools rank against each other.

Seems like the state accountability system does measure progress and help set teaching goals.  What’s wrong with it also informing the public and policymakers (via the media) about how their schools are doing?

He’s been a principal for 24 years, half of them at Rocky River Middle School, the rest in Hudson, Alliance and Zanesville. He loves working with 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

“I have a strong compassion for the puberty stricken,” he joked.

His students, who are 11, 12, 13 and 14, worry that teachers they love will be let go based on how well they perform.

One asked him, “If I don’t do well, will you fire my teacher?”

He cringed when he heard one say, “I really want to do well, but I’m not that smart.”

Has a single tenured teacher in Ohio (or in the United States) been let go based on performance on state accountability tests?  Maybe he should reassure the students that their concern is misplaced.

He wants students to learn how to think, not take tests.

Can’t they do both?

“We don’t teach kids anymore,” he said. “We teach test-taking skills. We all teach to the test. I long for the days when we used to teach kids.”

Why not just return to those days and let the test results show what kids have learned?

Unless we get back to those days, principals and teachers all over Ohio will continue to spend your tax dollars to help students become the best test takers they can be.

The people of Ohio decided to adopt an accountability system because the schools weren’t doing an adequate job teaching kids to think without it.  The “just trust us to do a good job” approach wasn’t working.

(edited to add color)

7 Responses to When “Sorry” Means “J’Accuse”

  1. […] Jay Greene has taken the time to knock down the straw men set out in the column one by one.*  I highly […]

  2. KDeRosa says:

    Good job, Jay.

    I wanted to do a point by point taken down like this, but didn’t have the time.

    Now I don’t have to.

    That win-win, at least for me.

  3. Thanks! I was amazed that this “letter” was on the front page. I was even more amazed to see the positive response it received. See the comments at http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/2008/07/23/principal-apologizes-for-excellent-rating/

  4. redneckprof says:

    BRAVO! If you saw the positive responses at core knowledge, you saw my slightly insane takedown as well. Good for you. The columnist in question has this same intellectually dishonest tone to everything she writes.

  5. One cannot (honestly) apologize for the actions or feelings of others. The pretense is an insult. Just as, in personal relations, “I’m sorry you feel that way” evades responsibility for causing an injury, so does “I’m sorry THEY made me do this” evade responsibility.

    Perhaps this principal intends “I’m sorry” not as an apology, but a description of his feelings, like “I’m sorry to hear that your mother died in a car accident yesterday”. In that case, this principal has declared his opposition to his employer’s policy, and should quit or be fired.

  6. […] a teacher.  I predict that by the time the sun goes down, a smart guy like Jay Greene will have a line-by-line rebuttal on his blog explaining why this teacher is all wet.  Why there’s no evidence that curriculum […]

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