Non-cognitive skills can’t be overlooked! Part I

Better Education Overseas Doesn’t Explain Outsourcing

Reformers are obsessed with cognitive measures of student achievement.  The reform movement maintains that ELA, math and science scores must be raised in order for American to be a world class competitor on the international scene.  I recall this same theme being promoted in the early ’70’s when New York began the Regents Action Plan to improve test scores.  I listened to state ed department experts justify higher standards in social studies by saying that if our students didn’t know more history, they couldn’t compete with other nations in manufacturing.

That was bunkham, and its essentially the same argument in replay we’re hearing today.  I earned much of the cost of my college education working in a skilled labor setting building machinery that went into automobile production factories.  I rubbed elbows with auto workers.  The skills they needed to manufacture cars had nothing to do with history or social studies, and for that matter on ELA, science or math.  Today, the low wage earners assembling iphones for Foxconn or sewing our clothes in Bangladesh need not be writers or mathematicians–they need to be willing to work in conditions that are, frankly, abysmally unsafe, without benefits, and accept that they have no recourse.  In other words, American jobs have been lost to countries with working conditions Americans would consider slave labor if they were found in U.S. factories.  The educational achievement of Americans is not the issue here at all–profits are the issue.

SCANS Skills–What do Employers Want From Workers?

Now that we are testing the life out of schools at all levels, what evidence is there that cognitive skills might translate into better jobs?  Let’s start this exploration with a look at the skills employers want their workers to possess.  Since schools are eliminating courses, programs, or activities that promote noncognitive skills, what role do noncognitive skills have in the lives of successful wage earners as described by employers?

We should take another look  at a report that came out in 2000, when the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education formed the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) to study the competencies and skills that workers need to succeed in today’s workplace. The results became What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000.  The link above provides a summary of those skills, which start with five competencies, each of which is broken down into additional elements that I’ve not included.

  1. Resources: Identifies, organizes, plans, and allocates resources
  2. Interpersonal: Works with others
  3. Information: Acquires and evaluates information
  4. Systems: Understands complex interrelationships
  5. Technology: Works with a variety of technologies

Examining the detailed breakdowns of these competencies will enlighten the reader–they are virtually all skills that are not taught in schools when the emphasis is on passing state or federally mandated tests.  The information competency comes closest to something we emphasize in K-12 programs today, but the SCANS versions are side-effects of the K-12 content rather than primary goals.

In a second level of SCANS skills, also found in the summary link above, a three-part foundation for SCANS skills is suggested.  I’ll list the three foundations here–italicized elements should be a part of Common Core competencies, and in red, I’ll identify those skills that are not built into the implementation of Common Core curricula that can be tested.

SCANS Foundational Skills

Basic Skills:

Reads, writes, performs arithmetic and mathematical operations, listens, and speaks

Thinking Skills:

Thinks creatively, makes decisions, solves problems, visualizes, knows how to learn, and reasons.  One might argue that Common Core curricula is moving toward these kinds of skills, but when you examine the detailed descriptions of each of these skills, you will see that they are, except for solving problems and visualizing, not particularly testable, and hence are unlikely to be a part of the curricular changes that the CCSS will inspire.

Personal Qualities:

Responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  There’s nothing here that is a direct focus of the Common Core, nor are these qualities testable with measures of academic achievement.

Looking at the foundational elements of SCANS skills, you’ll see that employers have identified 17 foundational skills, 10 of which are not academic measures and are not likely to be a part of Common Core curricula or Common Core tests because they simply are not measurable in any easy way.  They are skills that might be incidentally and indirectly learned in schools, but are infrequently or never explicitly taught.  When the SCANS report first came out, there was considerable interest among those who were involved with Career and Technical Education–folks had to show how SCANS skills were incorporated into their CTE programs.  Sadly, with cognitive skills taking the main role in testing, SCANS skills and CTE programs are on the back burner once again.

Social and Emotional Learning

However, there are lots of programs available that explicitly attempt to teach these skills and that have a reasonably strong evidence base supporting their use in schools.  The social emotional learning movement (SEL) is among the best researched.  Find out more about SEL from  At the bottom of this edutopia page you’ll also find organizations that promote SEL. 

If we can wrest education reform away from the profiteers and politicians, perhaps we can balance our K-12 goals to reinstate noncognitive education once again.  When is the reform movement going to pay attention?




Teachers: The Courts Might Not Care About Bad Evaluation Systems

Courts and Teacher Evaluation Systems

Writing in Education Week, September 18, 2013, James Popham and Marguerita DeSander suggest that “thousands of American teachers will lose their jobs in the next few years because of the recently designed, more demand evaluation systems now found in most of our states.”  They point out these systems have been triggered by recent federal policies, and then note that most teachers think the dismissals can be reversed in court.  The main point of their essay is that the courts, both state and federal, have “historically refused to substitute their judgement for that of a school board in cases where a teacher (whether tenured or probationary) has been terminated for substandard job performance.  This has been true if the termination is based on even a scintilla of evidence.”

Popham is a well-know figure among education professors who are experts on evaluation and assessment, with several books, most recently (2013) Evaluating America’s Teachers: Mission Possible? from Corwin Press.  DeSander is an ed admin professor and formerly was an attorney specializing in employment law.  These are two folks who should be seen as authoritative figures on this topic.

New York Teachers More Protected?

When I first saw the outlines of New York’s response to Race To The Top teacher evaluation changes, I thought that it might be a good time for college grads to go into the practice of education law, particularly if they had any statistical talent and were willing to delve into the psychometrics of testing and its use in teacher evaluation.  As New York’s teacher evaluation system, including the use of test scores in teacher evaluation rolled out, I continued to believe the system would collapse under the weight of court challenges to it’s fairness and it’s validity.  I still believe that, but I’m not quite so confident with my opinion after reading this piece.  If I look at New York’s system, which has a unique additional element–teachers identified as low performing have to be given opportunities for professional development by their school districts–perhaps that district responsibility is going to prevent willy-nilly teacher dismissals.  With the greater than anticipated increased costs of testing, and the Governor’s imposition of a 2% tax cap on raises in school budgets, it’s already estimated that 40% of districts across the state will be in bankruptcy in the next few years.  So districts won’t have the money to provide professional development to their low performing staff, meaning they might not be able to dismiss them regardless of evaluations.  That’s not the case in other states, where these warnings may be far more telling.

Evaluation Systems Show No Evidence of Efficacy

Popham and DeSander recognize that across the nation, the new evaluation systems have serious flaws–relying “too heavily of traditional achievement tests…”  They note that the tests “are unaccompanied by any evidence that they are able to distinguish between well-taught and badly taught students.”  They also point out that courts, based on past patterns of refusing to rule on the merits or validity of evaluation systems, “will not rule on the appropriateness of a teacher-evaluation system, or the evidence-collection procedures incorporated in that system, if the procedures are applied in a fair and consistent manner to all teachers affected. Thus, even an inadequate evaluation system will avoid the rigor of court scrutiny when it is applied equally to all teachers.” (Emphasis mine.)
The authors also take issue with the validity of classroom observations when they suggest that rating teacher classroom performance on the bases of “a handful of 30-minute classroom visits..” and even when looking at 40 or 50 dimensions of classroom performance, “the resultant observation data are often of little value.”

Courts May Not Overturn Bad Evaluation Systems

So where does that leave teachers all over the nation?  I agree with the authors that the evaluation systems lack validity as they are being designed–the reliance on testing is not warranted psychometrically at all, nor are the tests designed for the purposes being implemented.  And if courts are likely to disregard expert opinion because they won’t decide on system appropriateness, there is no venue for expert testimony about why these systems should be disregarded.  If the legitimacy of procedures is not about to be adjudicated, there’s no place for teachers to turn.  One need only review the multiple interpretations of the evaluation designs across 696 districts currently approved by the New York State Education department to know that there is no consistency in their format across the state.  If courts give deference to school boards, teachers might be in far more trouble than they currently expect.  Finally, a good civics education will remind all of us that courts are not always about right and wrong–they interpret the law. Where courts defer to school boards and states who have implemented bad evaluation systems, teachers beware.

Teacher Devotion

As I listened to the accounts of survivors and rescuers talking about the actions of teachers in two school buildings in Oklahoma during the May 20th 2-mile wide tornado, I was overwhelmed by the contrasts between the selfless acts of these devoted teachers and the endless attacks on the profession coming from those who endlessly attack teachers and want to hold them responsible for the problems in education today.

From the May 21 New York Times ‘Crews Search for Survivors in Oklahoma’ comes a report of the actions of teachers at the AgapeLand Learning Center, a day care program, the staff “hustled some 15 children into two bathrooms, draping them with a protective covering and singing songs with them to keep them calm.  As the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathroom, and debris rained down on the children, they remained calm singing “you are my sunshine…  Though the day care center was almost entirely destroyed, the children were unharmed.”

Teachers in other buildings were reported to have covered children with their own bodies–one teacher covering three and another covering five, risking and suffering injuries themselves but keeping their charges safe.

In Newtown, CT, the principal and classroom teachers stood between the gunman that threatened kids in the building, and were gunned down.  In buildings across the nation, teachers are trained in emergency procedures to follow during school crises, but putting one’s own body between kids and the danger is not part of the training.  it is, however, what teachers everywhere would do.  In eduction, we take care of our charges–regularly, again and again, and without remorse.  It is part of our dedication to those children entrusted to our care.  In emergencies, we lead by example.

At Columbine, as the shooters fired on students in the cafeteria, a teacher and two other school employees helped students escape throughout the firing.  Later, that teacher fell victim to the shooters in a hallway, and died despite being dragged into a classroom by another teacher and students who attempted to save him as the shootings continued.

I recall a colleague in New York, Charles Deahl, and his automatic response that likely saved a student at Woodlands High School, where I was an Assistant Principal.  Charles was a quiet English teacher and senior adviser who could step into any movie roll as Mark Twain, without makeup or voice coaching, and probably without a script.  As he walked to his classroom after lunch, he observed a panicked group of students around a girl bent over the corner of a stairway handrail, trying to push her own abdomen onto the rail.  He calmly walked behind her, performed a heimlich maneuver, pushed the obstruction out of her windpipe, checked to see that she was OK, sent her to the nurse with friends to be sure, sought no credit, and went on to teach his  class.  Most of the building heard nothing about his performance until observers made a point of highlighting his life-saving behavior.

This isn’t comparable to stepping between a gunman and a classroom of kids, but I know 60 of the 80 staff members, and perhaps all 80 of them in that building, would have stepped up in a similar emergency.  The other 20 would have been leading and herding students to safety through hallways and stairways, following rehearsed evacuation routes and leading students to alternate routes if the nearest hallway was blocked.  Teachers and administrators all over the country, without hesitation, act in crises to help their students first, and they do it all day and every day.  We all know it’s a part of both our moral and our professional responsibility.

On the website Stop the Shootings you’ll find 387 school shootings in the US since 1992, and about half of the victims are adults.  Reviewing the brief descriptions of each event will show that many were school administrators, teachers, or staff attempting to protect others or stop the shooter.  This is what school people do.

I’m not surprised that educators and some parents, teacher unions, and a few administrative unions and professional associations are beginning to push back at the incessant droning on about “The Manufactured Crisis,” as David Berliner and Bruce Billed wrote about back in 1995.  The mythology about America’s crisis continues to be parroted by pundits and profiteers today.

When will these folks thank their teachers for the selflessness displayed where and when devoted teachers are most needed?