A Swinging Pendulum Never Stops Halfway

perseveranceWriting: Perseverance

Actually, I could have entitled this post “The Necessity of Writing in Community.” But that seemed a little long-winded, even for me. Both titles point to the same idea; every writer struggles with how they view their own writing. I’ve met a few – a very few – writers who thought their writing was better than it was. This particular malady is usually the province of the novice writer whose critique group consists of close family and friends.  Most aspiring authors grow out of this the moment they submit their work to someone who doesn’t know them. They have no idea who the writer is and they’re operating without the benefit of the new writer standing there, explaining their story-world with wide-eyed enthusiasm. All they can see are the words on the page.

I remember boasting to my wife about how well I thought I would do when I entered my first contest. I told her I actually thought I had a chance at winning. Then my scores came back. One of the judges had given me 52 out of 100. It was Christian fiction contest, so the judges were required to find some redeeming factor in the work. My judge told me she liked my punctuation. Funny, right? There was nothing about my description, characters, or story idea that she liked, it was the fact that I knew how to fire up Word and let it spell-check and auto-correct for me. Thank you very much, ma’am, may I have another?

I felt like I’d been hit in the gut, but after a few weeks, I recovered enough to go back to the critique and parse through the criticism in an attempt to improve my writing. There are a couple of quick notes here I want to stress. First, be careful who you let critique your work. My best scores in that same contest, 80 out of 100, came from a multi-published author. My worst scores (and worst reviews after being published) have consistently come from other aspiring authors. It’s unfortunate that envy is part of the human condition, but you need to guard yourself against it. There will be no shortage of people who will savage your work simply because you got published and they didn’t. Find people who know what they’re doing and earnestly want you to succeed.

So, fast forward. You’re published or, nearly so, and you find yourself with the opposite problem, which would be funny if it weren’t so crippling. You hate everything you write. “Garbage! Swill!,” you say, or some other derogatory epithet. This actually has a pretty funny analogy from the world of physics.

pendulum

I’ve never seen a swinging pendulum stop at the halfway point. It only passes through on its way to the next extreme. The funny thing is neither extreme is the truth. Recognize the fact that you cannot see your work in a truly unbiased way. This is why you must create in community. In my experience, finding good critique partners is an organic endeavor. They’re grown, not manufactured, and it’s beastly difficult at times. As with your writing, keep at it. Success will come.

Education: The Growth/Achievement Chasm

TVAASThis is an example of a typical “value-added” formula that’s supposed to be able to predict a child’s test scores. Cool, huh?

 

A few weeks ago, we received the announcement that our TVAAS scores were up on the state education website and were available if we wanted to look at them. I didn’t…want to, that is. When I was going through grad school, I did my research paper on the validity of how TVAAS was calculated and found that basically, it just wasn’t. As an example, over half the teachers who attained the highest score, a 5, one year would fail to attain that score the following year. Think about that for a moment. With an additional year of experience and wisdom, over half of the best teachers in the state get WORSE at their job. There are other examples, but I don’t have the time or inclination to list them here. Suffice to say that after I’d finished my research paper, I decided to use my time in education improving my craft rather than worrying about a capricious scoring system.

However, our data coordinator at the school asked to sit down with me and go over my scores. I agreed, because my principal wanted me to, and as we like to say, “I’m a man under authority.” Well, my students did well enough that I scored a 5. Actually, I’ve scored a 5 most years. Now, here’s the scary part. That 5 is based on perceived student growth. Now, don’t ask me how that’s calculated because the formula is completely proprietary. That’s right. Nobody knows how those growth scores are calculated except the guy who created the formula and he’s not telling. Nice work, if you can get it.

Worse, those growth scores are completely divorced from achievement. Here’s a true-life example. One year, I was teaching a Geometry course to a group of 8th grade students. These kids were brilliant, but in this particular year, there was no Geometry end-of-course exam, so they had to take the 8th grade TCAP test because, well, we HAVE to have data. So they did. 10 kids out of 24 aced it. That’s right. Over 40% of my students in this class made a perfect score. The lowest score in this class was a 95. The average score was just shy of 99.

What was my growth score for this incredible feat? A 4.

Why? Because the growth scores have almost nothing to do with what the students know (achievement), only growth from the previous year calculated according to a formula no one knows or is willing to explain.

So, now the question usually comes up, why are we doing this?

Answer: Because we’ve given up on achievement and we have to make it look like things are getting better.

But they’re not. In our best county (Williamson) less than half the students are reading at grade level or doing math at grade level. And that’s our best. In my ten years as a teacher, I’ve noticed a sinister pattern to state testing. It goes something like this:

– Roll out a new test amid the claims the old one is obsolete and we need new benchmark data.

– Tweak the test in succeeding years, ostensibly because it needs refinement, but in reality because it accurately shows just how bad things are. These “tweaks” make the test easier.

– Report that our schools are improving because student scores are going up, while in reality, students are scoring better because we’re making the test easier.

– Student scores stall out, because we’ve made all the tweaks we can make without completely undermining the process.

– By this time, five or six years have gone by and it’s time to go back to Step 1.

So, what’s your takeaway? This. If you’re looking at a school for your children, don’t look at their improvement scores. That’s a trap. It’s easy to show a lot of improvement if you’re starting from close to zero. Ask to see their achievement scores. How many of their students are working at grade level or above? The data is there, although it’s harder to get to because, well, it’s not as pretty. However, as a parent, you have the right to ask for and receive it.

 

Status Updates:

I’m almost through with the manuscript for “The Wounded Shadow,” which is the final book in the current “Darkwater Saga.” For the most part I’m happy with it, but I’m sure there are going to be some substantial edits ahead.

I’ve lost ten pounds since the first of the year, but I’m not exercising as much as I should. When I come home from school, I feel like a wrung-out dishrag.

Jazz Piano is coming along slowly right now because of the writing, but when I can, I’m working on my “drop-2” voicings so that I’ll be ready to comp. Soloing well, still seems like it’s a long way off.

Next Time: The world through a mathematical lens. I’m going to show you why we’re in deep trouble, BUT, I’m going to make it entertaining. 🙂

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