When the Fayette County Board of Education meets Monday night, somewhere toward the end of the meeting, 10 minutes will be spent discussing issues raised by a parent group calling itself Fayette Advocates for Balance in the Classroom (FayetteABC). At present, FayetteABC boasts 300+ signatories - representing more than 14 schools and 16 Fayette County zip codes - on a petition which calls test-driven instruction into question.
To better understand where FayetteABC is coming from, I met with Dr. Erik Myrup, one of the group's co-founders, in his office high in the Patterson Office Tower at the University of Kentucky, where he serves as an assistant professor in history. Also in attendance was one of Myrup's top advisers, three-year-old Lars Myrup. And historian David Hamilton, an old friend and colleague from my days at Cassidy, stopped by briefly. We spent just under an hour and a half together.
Erik Myrup grew up in Salt Lake City until he was 18. He completed a Mormon mission, serving in Brazil. After that he went off to Yale University, as a 21-year-old freshman, where he met his wife Cheryl who had also served an LDS mission in Taiwan. They were married and lived in Taiwan for a couple of years teaching English and editing textbooks.
The Myrup’s taught in a buxiban. In Taiwan, the kids go to school, and then, after school, they go to the buxiban, which is where they catch up on all the other things they didn't get in school.
“So we got this group of kids that are highly pushed by their parents. And their parents come from fairly high socioeconomic backgrounds, and they're sacrificing everything to try to get their kid to keep up with somebody else,” Myrup said. “And then we’d go to baseball games and we'd see these kids who were from a totally different background than the ones who are taking these international tests that America is being compared to. They had mechanic’s kids (who were going grow up to become mechanics) and they’re chewing beetle nuts, which are like tobacco, and these are not the kids that were in the buxiban.
Myrup returned to Yale as a graduate student and lived in Lisbon, Portugal for two years while he was conducting research for his dissertation. He came to Lexington four years ago from Greeley Colorado where he had taught at the University of Northern Colorado for a year.
Myrup says FayetteABC is trying to keep a fairly narrow focus on test-driven instruction. “We know that testing is not going to go away. There are always going to be numbers. But people need to understand the limits of what that data is actually saying. And a school, and a teacher, and a child shouldn't be judged totally on that. We need to take a much broader set of things into account. And of course, the data can be manipulated, Myrup said.
Myrup shared how FayetteABC got started and says the group is essentially “just some parents that came together." Myrup and his wife Cheryl are the parents of two fourth-graders and a kindergartner at Glendover Elementary School, plus 3-year-old Lars, pictured above with his father.
For four years now, Myrup has been volunteering in each of his children's classes on a weekly basis. He does dramatic readings from literature [The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, Roald Dahl…] with voices – and, from the sampling I heard, he’s very good. This year, in his children’s fourth grade, he read throughout the first semester. But in the second semester, the testing activity schedule got to be too much. He shifted to short stories because of the interruptions to the schedule.
Myrup appreciates his having been involved with his children during their early developmental years. His graduate preparations in history took eight years, instead of the more typical five years, largely because of activities he was involved in with his children. Myrup's wife worked full-time and he would read to the kids for as much as two hours a day. “It took me eight years to get through grad school. It didn't take me long as it took you, [laughing] but it took a long time, Myrup said. [In fact, it took me 13 years. But in my defense, I was serving as a principal at the time.] He says he can look back now with no regrets about how he spent his time.
Myrup says the experience at Glendover has been very very good. We've experienced some very good teachers, but some have been better than others. “Our sense is that as the children have gotten older and moved on…it has become all about the test. I think when they were younger the teachers were able to shield them a little bit more. It wasn't all test-driven instruction like it is now,” Myrup said.
He thinks the district has made some changes that have led to this situation. “My sense is that the school board played a part in this. One of the things we want to do is to try to make changes," Myrup said.
He notes that Fayette County schools Superintendent Stu Silberman is being replaced at the present time and FayetteABC does not want their concerns to be focused on his administration. Silberman will begin leading the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence beginning in July. "We want to go forward," Myrup said.
But has Silberman driven much of what FayetteABC is concerned about?
"I think that he's played a role in that…I think it's a reflection of administrators who are very quantitative. They look at numbers; they're taught to do that. And maybe they have not been in the classroom for a while…A teacher in the classroom has a very good sense [of what children know] regardless of what the data points show.
KSN&C: Wait a minute. Let me challenge you on something. You went to Glendover. You chose Glendover. You knew where your kids were going to be attending school based on some assessment of the school, I'll bet you. Why did you choose Glendover?
Myrup: In part, because it was close to work. We didn’t look, though, at the test scores but we had good recommendations. And we liked the fact that it had kids from all over the place…because of UK. Our twins had grown up with that in Portugal and we speak some different languages, so we liked that… We didn't do all that much research but we knew that Glendover had gotten good recommendations from people we trusted.… Our kids have done well. We could have had them try to get into SCAPA. We have a short story writer, and artists, and we did look at that. But we said, ‘No. We like it here.’ And [one of the girls] tested into [the gifted program]... And we went and looked at it, but again, we like [Glendover]. The last thing we want for these little girls… is to take them out of an environment where they are dealing one-on-one with kids from all sorts of backgrounds, and put them in a classroom where all the kids think and act like you do. Some time back, we had gone to the district office and asked what goes on in terms of gifted and talented. We were told that you take these tests and if you get a certain number, then you get in. And I remember the one person, (I think this was like a volunteer, or a part-timer - I mean this was not an administrator) whose children had come up through the program, and had a good experience. And this person said to us, ‘Your child is a frog. And they have been surrounded all their lives by monkeys. But they can't talk to monkeys. And you put him next to other frogs and they can suddenly say, ‘ I'm not different…’ [Laughing]. But the last thing I want this to become is a harping on gifted and talented. Ultimately every child is gifted with unique talents—many of which go unrecognized in our current system. In any event, you've got a huge number of kids who've got needs and they try to come up with a variety of ways to meet those needs. But the truth is…the opening of gifted and talented classes has every bit as much to do with raising test scores [at particular schools] as…
KSN&C: Gee, you think?
Myrup: I think so, but I'm a skeptic. [laughing]. That's just who I am.
KSN&C: Well the gifted program in Fayette County has been around since about 1980. But they kind of took on a new life around the time Fayette County was implementing magnet programs. And those magnet programs were specifically designed to try to attract students who would not normally choose a particular school, and in that way balance building usage and transportation issues and all of that. So I suppose there is some residual validation to your suspicions.
But let me take you back to Glendover. So now you've selected a school. Your kids are going to school. They are having a good experience. You're running into some pretty good teachers...and all that stuff. But you start seeing some things that raise concerns that the school - this school that you like - is just a little too focused on testing. What kinds of things are you seeing?
Myrup: Well, the thing that got me… they had an assembly. And we were never aware that this is an assembly that they have in the fall. My sense is that all the schools have them, although, in talking to the superintendent, he insists that this is all a local thing, and that there is complete local control, and that they want to celebrate. But in our school, the way it worked: they called the assembly; the tests and been taken the previous year; and they have these designations – distinguished, proficient, apprentice, novice. I guess some kids, we found out, don't get anything at all. Anyway, they announced [each child's name] one by one, and it flashes what their [designation]is up on the screen. It's announced to the whole school. And then that child comes forward and picks up their [certificate]. Our daughter knew this was coming. It's so surreal. We were dumbfounded. I kept saying, ‘This can't possibly be right.’
KSN&C: Class rank for fourth-graders?
Myrup: …and the kids and teachers we talked to about it didn't like it. And of course we talked to [principal] Cathy Fine, and she was embarrassed about it. I mean, she said, ‘We just want to celebrate. We’re instructed to celebrate.’ And that's what led me to think that this isn't just an approved-locally sort of thing.
KSN&C: Like someone else says what you're going to do, and you determine how?
Myrup: Yeah. I assume they're told they have to do something, based on some mandate. But they've got some local control. But to have an assembly? But anyway… I wrote a fairly scathing letter at the time and pulled my kids out. The teachers told us they would be sure to let us know when it was going to happen. The original plan was to have [my kids] come to my grad course here, although at the time we ended up with sick kids and we couldn’t bring them over here. But it disturbed me as well because, as a university professor, I would never do such a thing with college kids. It would be against the law!
KSN&C: That occurred to me while you were saying it.
Myrup: Yeah. You teach. It would be against the law. And these designations—distinguished, proficient, novice, and so forth—are really euphemisms... Children aren’t dumb.
KSN&C: Oh no.
Myrup: And one of my daughters was terrified. She said, “Dad, what if I don't get distinguished?... I'll be embarrassed in front of all…” But we asked a bunch of parents at the time, and we jabber little bit. A lot of parents weren't…
KSN&C: … not crazy about it?
Myrup: No. They weren't upset…They said, ‘Shouldn’t we celebrate?’ Not everybody. But this is sort of what started us off. …finding like-minded parents.
KSN&C: My experience has been that people at the top don't mind keeping score, as a general rule.
Myrup: I was dumbfounded. In my letter I say, this would be against the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act…
KSN&C: That's the one.
Myrup: One of the points I made in my letter was that this is basically using peer pressure to try to motivate children.… And scare them, and reward them, I guess.
Together with others, the Myrup’s would go on to found FayetteABC. And Myrup himself would eventually end up on the telephone with Silberman a couple of weeks ago, leading to FayetteABC’s inclusion on the board agenda for May 23.
Myrup indicated that he was grateful for the time that Silberman took to speak with him—nearly an hour and a half—but that he wasn’t necessarily satisfied with all of the superintendent’s answers. One of the points that Silberman made, according to Myrup, was that the problems he was describing could all be solved locally by a school council. “The implication was that this wasn’t a district problem, but a problem of individual teachers.” Myrup indicated that he was "really mad" when he got off the phone and that he wrote Silberman a letter, in response. (Additionally, he visited with each of his children's teachers to discuss his conversation with the superintendent and to assure them of his support. He said the last thing he wanted was for anything he said to come back against the teachers in any way.)
Myrup noted that Silberman responded to his letter quickly, acknowledging that the district has many wonderful teachers. More generally, Myrup noted that Silberman “said everything I wanted to hear": That test-driven instruction isn’t a good thing; that he prizes other things; that the district puts a lot of money and resources into languages; the arts and sciences; and that he does not support the idea of a teacher teaching to a test. “These are all the things that we wanted to hear,” Myrup said, “but we still feel that a great deal more could be done at the district level to solve these problems. Ultimately, the superintendent sets expectations for principals and principals do the same for teachers, and eventually these pressures make their way into the classroom and are placed upon the shoulders of our children, taking away everything that is fun, exciting, and inspiring about the learning process.”
FayetteABC spent about two months doing research before launching their website. Some of the parents in FayetteABC have backgrounds that allow them to do educational research and they are conversant on the work of Ravitch, Rothstein, Koretz, and others. So far, more than 300 folks have indicated sympathy with the FayetteABC message, but some teachers are reluctant to join in openly.
“We've had a teacher say to us, 'I would sign it, but I just can't,'" Myrup said. “We've even had a teacher who signed [our petition] contact us in say, “Can you please take my name back off?” What they say is, “I don't want to put my principal in a bad light. I don't draw attention to my school.”
Among the research FayetteABC looked at was the TELL Survey data for Fayette County. That data suggests that Fayette County teachers don't feel there's an atmosphere of trust and respect in the schools.
“My child's kindergarten teacher showed me this list of data that she needs to gather for each child. And I thought, “Wow. Do you know how much time that takes? What wasted time. And that's kindergarten. I can't imagine what they're turning in for the fourth-graders…(The [MAP tests] are tools that can be used to diagnose, but basically, [teachers are] required to turn in all these numbers. Of all the people it's the teachers who can speak to the data and whether it's being misused,” Myrup said.
So Myrup had a conversation with Silberman, and he said the kinds of things they had hoped he would say, yet they believe he has led the district to where it is. And now, FayetteABC is focused on the next superintendent and they are about to have a chat with the board.
How are they to know if the next superintendent is what they are looking for, or simply someone able to talk a good game?
“You roll the dice,” Myrup said. “Some things are out of your hands and the board will have to make the best judgment they can based on the information they have. We know this is a problem…and we don't pretend to have answers. We will say that we want balance. And we really want there to be discussion,” Myrup said. That discussion would ideally include administrators, citizens and teachers coming together and not being afraid to speak honestly and openly.
Myrup believes that if administrators knew they had public backing, and the school board members knew they had public backing for ratcheting things down, that they would get a lot more than they would without that public backing.
Myrup sees hope in the school board’s hiring process, which appears to be open enough that the public will have a week or two to take a look at the candidates before the board makes a final decision. That will allow enough time to create a verifiable track record of the finalists that will give the board some basis for hiring.
FayetteABC sent out an e-mail message to each board member this week. They would like to speak to each member before Monday’s meeting and for each of their 300+ petition signers to show up. Of course, it's one thing for people to sign a petition. It's another thing for them to show up. The present level of fear expressed by teachers, though, is a cultural marker. It says something about what life is like in the Fayette County schools.
Myrup seemed skeptical of Silberman’s attempt to distance himself from the various manifestations of the push for higher test scores. So far, he does not see the situation getting any better. The heat is still on and indications are that it will remain so.
Myrup noted that test scores are an incomplete measure of assessment and should always be accompanied by additional sources of data. “In the current system, the whole assumption is that test scores provide some magically precise way to compare schools, and that a nudge up or down is indicative of progress or decline. The reality is that the scores are indicative of a student’s ability to navigate a very narrow set of parameters, and that the scores themselves are not meant to be precise but to speak to larger ranges. A child at any given moment will fall somewhere…within a particular range. So [answer] one test question and you move a certain number of points.” One of Myrup’s daughters scored in the 99th percentile when she took the MAP back in the fall. (That’s the one time when teachers hope that students don’t do too well.) Then she got five fewer questions correct in the spring and instead of scoring at the ninth grade, as she had, the fourth grader only scored in the eighth grade. Based on a simple reading of the numbers, he noted, she would appear to have failed to make her year’s progress. And yet, as he also pointed out, a closer reading of the data would show that her final score fell within the standard deviation for her stanine. “Scores can easily be misused and misinterpreted,” he maintained.
Myrup noted that in their conversation, Silberman assured him that common sense needs to be taken into account when looking at the numbers of individual students, but Myrup is still skeptical that this truly happens at every level in the district. “I suspect, in all good faith, when you're [the superintendent] trying to make changes…you set the big picture... And then what happens is you’ve got underlings that don’t truly understand what the numbers mean and crank up the pressure, and you’ve got principals that are scared,” Myrup said.
As for Monday’s meeting, Myrup says, “Our main thing is that we want…to introduce [to the board] the idea that a number doesn't always mean what we think it says. If we can just get that just the whole idea that there's more going on – that the most important things a child is going to learn in school are not going to be things you can measure; certainly not the way that we do." Quantitative numbers are going to exist. But you have to take some of that with a grain of salt and understand the limitations and caveats that accompany their use, Myrup believes.
As a principal, I liked data. It gave me a lot of good insight into how things were moving programmatically, but most of it I ignored because not all data is really useful to you in planning. But invariably you'll see something that will wake you up and you'll say, ‘Hey, that oughtta be better,’ or you'll ask, ‘Why is that happening?’I would look across all of the data, inferentially, and ask myself, ‘What story does this tell?’ It may cause me to change focus, put money here instead of there, bump up this instead of that. Data is a useful tool. But on some level, the impulse to quantify everything kind of dehumanizes the educational process in some sense.
“It's About People [is] the mantra of the district. 'It's about kids.' But somewhere along the way the bigger picture is that it has become about test scores, Myrup said. “Kids come to school and they don't think the whole purpose of learning is to be creative, or to be inspired. I think the idea of the teacher inspiring a child was totally lost in test-driven instruction.”
People may not agree with everything Myrup says, but much of the goal of FayetteABC is to create a dialogue where one presently does not exist - between citizens, teachers, administrators and parents. “Ultimately, we all want what's best for these kids,” Myrup said.”Everybody has a stake. To iron these things out we have to have dialogue. We have to bring these things out into the open.”
CORRECTION: This article was edited to resolve several journalistic issues in the original. Most significantly, the author included some information in the first posting that was not intended for inclusion. That error was the author's and it is regretted. Some spelling and language corrections were also made.