Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Pathwise Conference, or: Who's the Potato Head?

In June, I attended Educational Testing Service's annual Pathwise Teaching & Leadership Conference. The 9th annual gathering, held just outside the main thoroughfare of Orlando's bustling DisneyWorld Resort, was designed to promote what ETS has branded its "System 5" program for educational customers: Professional Development Solutions, Instructional Solutions, Assessment Solutions, Data-Driven Decision-Making Solutions, and School Improvement Solutions. (The 5-point and 5-year plans of certain historical dictators come to mind.)

Most of the attendees came from local superintendent and professional development offices, or were active classroom teachers. The group felt somewhat divided among administrators gunning to raise test scores, researchers curious about training teachers, and educators lassoed by their districts to gather solutions for local problems. The total turnout seemed relatively small, approximately 300-400 people, which I did not mistake as a sign of ETS's waning influence. (Coincidentally, the National Education Association was holding its annual convention in a hotel nearby, and there appeared to be no overlap in crowds.)

The rhetoric in Orlando displayed an intriguing shift from the brazen "rah rah tests and moolah" speeches at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers Conference in Scottsdale Arizona, where ETS logo, products, and corporate speakers had made a formidable presence. Here in Orlando, where ETS was the only game in town, we had a kinder, gentler and much more disingenuous language offered for the teacher audience--for those people in closest proximity to actual students. "We're not picking on teachers," one presenter said. "Change is hard for everyone." This rhetorical seduction was capable, smooth and (perhaps) well-meaning, as it was usually delivered by individual researchers themselves "on the ground" and less connected to centers of ETS power. (The only trace of corporate leadership appeared on certificates for professional development credit, via John Oswald's signature in black felt-tip ink.)

One of the central ETS promotions in half-day workshops was its Keeping Learning on Track (KLT) Institute, also listed under the title What is Formative Assessment? The idea, presenters insisted, was to change what happens inside learners' heads--and that requires minute-to-minute assessment in classrooms. Don't confuse what ETS means by this and what Madeline Hunter meant by "checking for understanding", "guided" or "independent practice," or for that matter any of the other hundreds of individual instructional, social and emotional assessments teachers make in the course of any given day. KLT means asking one particular question, with a quickly assessable answer, to an entire group of students--who indicate their responses, en masse, via A B C or D choice cards or, perhaps, by flashing up a few words or symbols on their personal white boards. The results tell teachers how to proceed.

Most bizarre during this workshop was how presenters openly attacked the idea of scripted learning and curriculum maps (ETS would offer a separate "Curriculum Mapping: Aligning Learning" workshop just two days later). There was something dissonant and surreal about the presenters' attack, since ETS benchmark tests--at district, state and national levels--were acknowledged openly as the keys driving curriculum alignment and realignment in the planning process. To sell KLT, however, presenters appealed to teachers' frustration with mapping and scripts. A brilliant maneuver.

For example: One presenter described how she addressed teacher frustration balancing KLT strategies with the weekly planning demands prescribed by her district. "You all remember the Nuremberg defense?" she asked us. "Saying 'I was just following the pacing guide' is no defense if your students don't move ahead." I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing aloud at the hideous analogy, especially by a representative of a corporation that drives curriculum mapping, but the quip drew solemn nods from the group. (I wondered how many teachers might be subjected to that comment when attendees returned to share the story with their districts.)

It was repeated at least twice in this session that it's not sufficient for students to arrive at the right answer for wrong or inaccurate reasons. (Terrific! An emphasis on thinking! says the conscientious teacher.) Nevermind that ETS and other brands of multiple choice tests--the big elephants in the classroom--rarely provide students with opportunities to earn credit for thoughtful or accurate thinking and methodology, even if they make a simple computational error at the very end. The teacher-touching emphasis on “process” in the rhetoric of KLT is frankly undermined by the reality that “product” is what our system ultimately measures and values.

A final note: It was hinted at various points during the five day conference that ETS researchers are now pushing to eliminate teacher grades in favor of written feedback or comments only. Keep in mind, however, that while it might consider “letter grades” from individual teachers irrelevant, ETS corporation has its eye fixed on the big prize: there’s no talk of eliminating the numbers, rankings, scores, and percentiles generated on a national level by its own test instruments. That sounds like Game-Over, Check-Please, and all in the name of "better learning": making one corporation the final arbiter of multiple-choice quality in the world of education-as-product.

Keep your own potato eyes wide open on this one.


Dylan Wiliam said...

Jo Scott-Coe seems to have difficulty with the notion that not everyone who works at ETS shares all their corporate values. I spent three years at ETS working on the professional development materials she described in her report on the ETS Pathwise conference, because I wanted to help teachers improve what happens in their classrooms, and how much their students learn. We already have evidence that these professional development materials increase student achievement, improve student engagement in the classroom, and help re-professionalize the work of teachers. Seems like a good start to me...

Jo Scott-Coe said...

Actually, the fact that researchers and trainers don't necessarily share the corporate values of ETS is precisely one disturbing part of the dissonance I sought to represent. Does the disconnect bother you at all? Individual motives and intentions are not the only forces driving change in education. Teachers come to terms with this--and are lectured about it--all the time.

Seems like little to ask that ETS trainers cut out references to Nuremberg when talking about "help[ing] re-professionalize" the work of teachers.