How ‘platooning’ and data walls are changing elementary school

(The Washington Post)
(The Washington Post)

You may have heard about the increasing use in schools of data walls on which teachers often post children’s names along with their test scores and other academic information that too often humiliates kids who don’t do well and violate federal student privacy laws. But have you heard about “platooning?” In this post three education academics from the University of New Hampshire look at both trends. They are Associate Professor Joe Onosko, Professor Paula Salvio and Clio Stearns, a former elementary school teacher and current doctoral student.

 

By Joe Onosko, Paula Salvio and Clio Stearns

The relentless pressure of high-stakes testing in language arts and math — first under No Child Left Behind and now under President Obama’s Race to the Top — keeps driving educational leaders to experiment with new ways to increase scores and emphasize their importance in this “accountability” era.  The most recent examples are “data walls” and the “platooning” of students beginning in kindergarten and first grade.

Data walls are becoming one of the latest trends in teacher professional “development’ and can be found in the offices of administrators, faculty workrooms, classrooms, and school hallways. Many data walls use color-coded index cards to publically display individual students’ performance grades in class and on local and state assessments.  The performance cards of top scorers are high on the wall, middle performers are at about chest level, while the cards of the lowest performers are near the electrical outlets.  The K-2 teachers at the Rea School in Costa Mesa, California, include data from Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (known as DIBELS), “Math Facts in a Flash” (a computer-based math program), and district and grade level benchmark assessment scores in language arts and math.   More and more schools are beginning to place their data walls in public view and some are including students’ names despite the obvious violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (known as FERPA).

Given the obsession with assessment measures in public schools, it’s not surprising that mastering the ‘art’ of data walls is becoming a preoccupation of teachers.  Blogs and other popular resource magazines encourage teachers to create student data cards that can be easily moved to reflect new assessment data in each child’s ‘dynamic’ race-to-the-top (of the wall).  Reform ‘experts’ and administrators who advocate ‘making data public’ offer no research support for this practice and mistakenly believe that a scoreboard style visual will motivate teachers and students.  Nearly as disturbing, is the growing trend among teachers to proudly post their data walls on pinterest.  Note that this website advertises itself as “a tool for collecting and organizing things you love.”  Is this what we want our elementary teachers to love?  Is this really how taxpayers want their teachers to be spending their professional time?

Many educators and concerned citizens see data walls as a reprehensible way to shame and humiliate children, and not all communities are willing to comply.  Agustin Morales, an English teacher at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, opposes data walls along with many colleagues in his district, citing them as a cruel way to put students’ vulnerabilities on display in a high stakes testing climate, or, what teacher educator Barbara Madeloni describes as “predatory educational reform.” 

Another elementary school “‘innovation” that prioritizes test scores over children is “platooning,” which ends the long-standing primary grade practice of homerooms where a teacher works with the same group of students throughout the year in all of the major subject areas. Instead, each group of students, or “platoon,” moves every 45 minutes or so to a different classroom to receive instruction from a “teacher  specialist” in math, language arts, social studies, science, music, art and physical education.  Under platooning, even teachers of our youngest schoolchildren are no longer charged with knowing, caring for, and understanding the nuances of their students; instead, teachers deliver specialized content that students are expected to absorb in discrete, ever more hurried periods of time. Ironically, 30 minutes of each school day is lost during these many hallway transitions.

 What has precipitated platooning for children as young as 5 and 6 years old and radically altered a core feature of elementary schools?  Once again, high-stakes testing and the penalties that face teachers and administrators, especially under the new Common Core State Standards, drives the creation of what could be described as elementary school boot camps for high stakes testing. Platooning students has been underway in many fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms for the last decade as administrators try to game escalating testing pressure in language arts and math by having their “best” teachers instruct all students in these two areas. The remaining grade level teachers are assigned the social studies and science curricula; however, much of their time was and continues to be spent supplementing the efforts of their language arts and math colleagues (again, to improve test scores in these two areas).

A national study by the Center on Education Policy lends support when it reports that class time in the elementary grades, measured in minutes per week, increased 46 percent in language arts and 37 percent in math, while minutes in social studies (state, U.S. and world history, geography, civics and government) decreased 36 percent, science 28 percent, lunch and recess 20 percent each, and art and music 16 percent each.  And this was six years ago, long before school failure rates skyrocketed and before Obama tied test scores to teacher and administrator evaluation and removal.  In short, the imbalance in children’s learning will only get worse under Obama’s punitive Common Core high stakes accountability reform plan.

Sadly, when school success is reduced to achievement gains on standardized tests in two subject areas, and teacher time with each child is reduced to less than an hour each day, the potential for a child to develop an emotional attachment to a caring adult, one who is deeply knowledgeable about and dedicated to their full development, is lost.  The new teacher ‘specialists’ will be able to inform parents of each child’s academic gains and deficiencies on benchmark rubrics, but not the emotional arc of a child’s day, the kinds of social settings that are easy or challenging, or the child’s emerging interests and abilities.  It takes time to understand and connect with young children, and these close relationships carry much greater long-term benefit and can be transformative.  Moreover, children in the primary grades do not think in terms of discrete subject areas; to departmentalize curricula is to rob them of the opportunity to think in innovative ways, to come to knowledge on their own terms, and to love a life of learning in school.

Platooning also undermines the potential for teachers to integrate the various subject areas into coherent, daily learning experiences for children – there just isn’t enough collaborative planning time for the many specialists to discuss and create elaborate, richly meaningful curriculum. Might the alarming increase in reports of childhood anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder be attributed, at least in part, to the fragmented, pressurized, accountability-driven reforms of No Child Left Behind and now the Common Core?  All children, but especially those who struggle with attention, organization, and sensory over-stimulation, benefit from fewer transitions, not more.

Who exactly is willing to publicly defend platooning, a school practice that has early elementary teachers and students chasing high-stakes test scores that don’t even begin until third grade, and requires young children to walk the halls 30 minutes of each day to reach their teachers?  Do the children of our national leaders and affluent parents who send their kids to private schools get platooned like this, or have their educational experiences reduced to index cards on data walls?  Of course not.  Why don’t we, as a nation, demand that all students be given the educational opportunities that the children of many national leaders receive at private and affluent public schools?

No wonder Diane Ravitch and other critics are calling for congressional hearings to examine the negative effects of high stakes standardized testing on children and our nation’s public schools.

The madness of this more than decade-long experiment in national top-down, punitive, test-based “reform” requires a grassroots response.  Our national education leaders and state school officials are unable to admit the gravity of their mistakes, and most, but not all, school administrators and teachers are afraid to speak.  Across the country there is a growing movement among legislators, parents, concerned citizens and courageous educators to resist the many damaging effects of high stakes testing, including a National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing signed by more than 475 organizations and 14,000 individuals.  This movement is dedicated to the improved quality of all our children’s education.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 13