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The Myth of the Boiling Frog

I serve as the Chair of the School Advisory Committee for my school. One of my responsibilities is to help teachers and parents understand the state’s School Accountability Report, commonly referred to as the School Grade.

Each summer, I attend a training session on school accountability. I have to. As Florida continues to focus on reforming public education, the measures for school grades and our school improvement plan change almost every year.

To no one’s surprise, it only gets harder. It is these types of incremental changes, where the cut point for school proficiency is slowly, unnecessarily increased that remind me of the myth of the boiling frog.

Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The myth of the boiling frog says that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will frantically try to jump out of the pot to save itself. However, if you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly increase the heat the frog’s system will make adjustments. The frog will continue to lie in the pot until it dies.  It is a metaphor for complacency, the idea that people and systems make adjustments to increased pressure (or heat) over time- usually to their detriment

Ironically, the state has adopted this approach in an effort to fight complacency. As was suggested during one of those yearly data trainings, the state continues to raise the bar because schools continue to rise to the standards. And we have. Our schools, our teachers, our communities continue to work to increase our student’s achievement.

However, I disagree with the notion that schools work harder because the stakes are higher. Teachers and parents continue to work harder to increase student achievement because we care about our children.

We have wanted our children to be successful; to be prepared for college and careers long before there were new standards. We weren’t driven by the unrealistic goals of No Child Left Behind that mandated 100% of students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. We were driven by the belief that 100% of students could be proficient if we could find the right combination of teaching experience, instructional interventions and parental involvement.

I’m not arguing that standards be decreased, but let’s hold the line for a little while. Make the accountability standards the constant variable and look closely at some of the other factors of student achievement like socioeconomic status, early childhood education and teacher effectiveness.

The problem with myth of the boiling frog is that even in the pot with the slowly rising temperature, a frog that can escape – will – if given the opportunity. The only outcome of the incremental increase of standards has been the incremental increase of failures. More students, teachers and schools have been labeled as “Ineffective”. As standards rise, more frogs are looking for ways to escape the pot, too. The outlook isn’t very good for that frog placed in a pot of boiling water, either. As Professor Douglas Melton, of the Harvard University Biology department, said, "If you put a frog in boiling water, it won't jump out. It will die.” (1)

**NO FROGS WERE HARMED IN THE WRITING OF THIS POST**

 

1. "Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant". Fast Company Issue 01. October 1995. Retrieved 2014-01-11

11 Comments

Justin Minkel commented on February 8, 2014 at 10:14pm:

Great points.

I love this post, Julie--so thoughtful and coherent.

My one question: What is your response to the argument that other countries have dramatically raised their standards and we need to keep "raising the bar" to avoid falling behind?

My own take is that the problem is not higher standards ("failure" is a relative term, and to me, "failure" is not how a child does against an arbitrary standardized test, but plays out with things that matter like literacy and perseverance), but the punitive nature of consequences for failing to meet those standards.

I also see a need for higher standards--despite its many flaws, Teach For America's emphasis on high expectations tends to bring positive results for students for whom the expectations have often been criminally low.

That said, I agree with everything you've laid out here about the emphasis on student needs, not arbitrary political talking points.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 9, 2014 at 8:21am:

Standards versus Expectations

In my heart I am a continuous improvement gal, both personally and professionally. I have and will always support high standards. I’ve read the research and seen the results in my school and my home.  No matter what goal I achieve, there is always a way to do something faster, cheaper, more efficiently, smarter, better, etc.

That having been said I see the problem as a standards versus expectations scenario. The mantra has been: raise the standards bar for student achievement and teacher effectiveness and punish those that don’t make that goal. Problem solved.  

But the problem wasn’t “solved” overnight was it? Students and school continued to fall short of the standards. I’m trying to argue that education reformers need to adjust their expectations, not the standards. Those higher standards highlighted the need for improved teacher preparation and evaluation, new curriculum and technology, more efficient data collection and analysis and improved early childhood education- all of which take time and money to implement effectively.

What I would advocate is that we hold the line for a few years. No new end-of-course graduation requirements, no higher test cut scores, etc. Allow teachers and schools the time to properly implement the new common core state standards and their accompanying assessments without the fear of losing their job or having their school taken over by state or federal entities because it is labeled “failing.” Allow students the opportunity to grow and adapt their learning to the challenging expectations without fear of retention or failing to graduate. 

Diana Rendina commented on February 11, 2014 at 7:53pm:

Agreed!

I hear you on this one.  I work at a great school with great students.  We held onto an "A" grade for years.  But it gets to the point where you almost have to juke the stats to keep your grade.  Do we choose to not suspend a student for a minor offense so that our suspension rates stay low?  Do we encourage students who are frequenlty absent to withdraw so that our attendence stays up?  It gets to a point where it's impossible to improve without doing a disservice to your students.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:46am:

Sad, but true. Many recognize

Sad, but true. Many recognize that the current school grade system in Florida is not working. There has been a proposal from the Education Commissioner to simplify the system. (Read here: http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/florida-education-commissioner-proposes-plan-to-simply-school-grading/2165149) I'd be interested in reading the full report to see if this would indeed help schools and parents.

 

Anthony Colucci commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:04am:

Well, it seems as if more

Well, it seems as if more changes are heading our way for school grades. There  have been so many changes, the grades are losing their meaning...we had a school that would have dropped from a B to F if it wasn't for the saftey net last year. So are these C schools or F schools?  And does it really matter?

For a large part, these grades just measure how affleunt the school is.  The Title 1 Schools are the ones that struggle...and I don't believe that means there are worse teachers in these schools.  As a matter of fact, when VAM is considered (for what it's worth) these teachers perform better many times.  

It was ironic, at my old school, that a few years ago when the state ranked the schools we did very well, but still did not make AYP. So were we a great school or a failling one?

I'm curious to see what the new changes mean.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:55am:

The unspoken truth

Until we as a society acknowledge the reality that socio-economic status has an impact on student achievement most education reform is for naught. That is not to say that we lower the standards for this or any group, but we need to find a way to identifying struggling students and providing them with supports that does not label or shame the students or teachers. Even within the existing framework, I don't know if 100% of any socio-economic group would have be found to be proficient in reading and math as NCLB suggested.

 I have been an advocate for assessment that measure studetns growth since I began teaching. Measure student at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year and reward them and their teachers for making a year's worth of growth- or more. I recognize that there are flaws in this approach as well, mainly that if a student is behind at the beginning of the year the need more than a year's worth of growth to "catch up." (Not that I believe that knowledge can be quantified or measured in such linear forms.) It's at least a place to start the conversation.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:55am:

The unspoken truth

Until we as a society acknowledge the reality that socio-economic status has an impact on student achievement most education reform is for naught. That is not to say that we lower the standards for this or any group, but we need to find a way to identifying struggling students and providing them with supports that does not label or shame the students or teachers. Even within the existing framework, I don't know if 100% of any socio-economic group would have be found to be proficient in reading and math as NCLB suggested.

 I have been an advocate for assessment that measure studetns growth since I began teaching. Measure student at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year and reward them and their teachers for making a year's worth of growth- or more. I recognize that there are flaws in this approach as well, mainly that if a student is behind at the beginning of the year the need more than a year's worth of growth to "catch up." (Not that I believe that knowledge can be quantified or measured in such linear forms.) It's at least a place to start the conversation.

Scott Diamond commented on February 16, 2014 at 9:39am:

Ultimate outcome

Do the ever-rising academic standards reflect ever-rising student outcomes? It sounds like the standards (outcome measures) have become disconnected from actual outcomes (college/career outcomes).

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 16, 2014 at 10:10am:

Isn't it ironic that the same

Isn't it ironic that the same education reform groups that laud improved student performance through higher school grades and other accountability measures are the usually the same ones to preach doom and gloom about their student's college and career readiness? They seem to at least tacitly acknowledge the disconnect between standards and outcomes. If pressed they would probably tell you that's just an indicator that we need to be doing more at the state level.

 

 

Jane Rezos commented on February 16, 2014 at 10:15am:

I agree 110%!

We have a similar scenario in Tennessee with a push to continuously step up before really understanding/perfecting the prior step. When I first started teaching I was frustrated with the curriculum map that we were being asked to follow. I discussed this with a teacher consultant for the district and he said that he was having similar discussions with the district. He told me that you have to go slow to go fast; so that is what I began to do with my algebra classes. I moved slowly with the early concepts which put me behind with the district curriculum. I fell behind my peers in the first two months but then was able to pick up speed and pass them later. I allowed my kids to grasp those early fundamental concepts before piling new standards on them and they were successful.

I would love to see my district and the state embrace this type of mindset in regards to the various initiatives that are being adopted. I believe that we'd not only continue to see gains, but we would also get more teacher buy-in.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on February 16, 2014 at 10:29am:

I applaud you for doing what

I applaud you for doing what is right for you and your students. Sadly, in my district you would be marked down on your evaluation for not following the curriculum calendar- but that is a discussion for another post.

I often think that states are more concerned with appearances than reality. Similar to how parents can be more strict (or at least more vocal) with their children when their peers are watching, states don’t want to be viewed as weak or ineffective so they have to ramp up the accountability or standards.

The stakes just get higher with the adoption of the Common Core standards. In my state the Education Commissioner has balked at a suggested two-year moratorium on the high stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools. We don’t even know what test we’ll be giving our students next year (Florida pulled out of PARCC) but we know we’ll be accountable for the outcomes.

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