Monday, December 1, 2014

UVA and Our Heart of Darkness

All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz...

If you think our country isn't currently sinking in a fetid sea of corruption born of greed, inequality, and a slavish adherence to market forces, think again. Read the recent account in The Rolling Stone of the brutal, animalistic, predatory rape of a freshman woman on the campus of The University of Virginia. The scales will fall from your eyes.

The description of abusive behavior perpetrated at the venerable university is physically sickening.

Update: This article is now under scrutiny by the media for its failure to fact-check.  This is a sad turn of events surrounding violence perpetrated on women. However, I stand by my premise that women are being abused and the powerful are ignoring their sacred trust in order to protect their 'brand.'  The evidence for this lies in the student body reaction after the article and the pile of stones placed by women on the campus, with each stone representing an event.  There is clearly a problem.

The case is finally--years  later--the subject of an investigation.  But only after the leaders of the institution have had their hand forced by the publication of repetitive, abhorrent events swept under the rug to maintain UVA's "reputation."  In the modern parlance, the UVA 'brand' must be protected so the dollars keep flowing.

If you doubt a systematic abuse of women on the campus, look at the pile of stones placed on the Phi Kappa Psi porch last week by young women who have been the victim of "a bad experience," as the women in the Rolling Stone article came to view their sexual abuse in frat houses. As in: "I had a bad experience" after I was drugged and then raped by privileged frat boys.

From the article, it is clear that money talks--and that some are more equal than others.

Thirty years of concentrated effort has been centered on privatizing nearly every institution in this country because the 'magic of market forces' promises to right any wrongs through fevered competition.  But it has brought us down to this: we would sacrifice our own children in order to maintain a money-making machine.

UVA, like other public schools across the country, has seen state funding dwindle as taxes have been held low. Nearly all schools continually search for grants, donors, and wealthy alumnus with nostalgic ties to campuses. They pander to the monied elite, many of whom have fraternity ties.  De-funding public schools has been the policy of the right, including K-12 schools where "vouchers" are promised to bring market-driven competition into the lives of all our children.

In the 70's, when I was a college student, most of the funding of state schools was provided by the state.  When state funding was the norm, students found higher ed in easy access.  Who knew these would be the golden years of opportunity to advance by furthering an education?  It was possible then to work a part-time job, live independently, graduate debt-free, and find a decent job.

No more.  But that could be the case if we had the will.

Today we pit our students against each other in a "race to the top" where achieving high test scores and grades encourages cheating and a single-minded attention to scores, not learning for its own sake. Students, too, understand the need for winning at any cost and are mired in a market that demands ever more from those competing for limited resources.

Following a high-school career driven by the desire for a seat at a college--students land on campus where they apparently drug and drink themselves into oblivion. On some level the students must realize their purposeless existence of chasing the next score (money, grades, whatever).

For those who realize their dream (is it their dream?) of graduating into a job, most face beginning life mired in debt where true adulthood--owning a home, raising a family--is pushed further into the future.

We haven't learned much from the past.  This story has been told before (Leopold's Congo, the Gilded Age, Louis XVI).

Concentrated wealth corrupts absolutely.  Our education system has absolutely been corrupted by the same forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

There are no magic bullets

This week my brilliant seniors led their own discussion on the epic tale of Beowulf.  It was their first Harkness and they performed phenomenally, as all students will when given the guidance and opportunity to follow their thinking around a text.

At one point both of the classes arrived at a similar conclusion--just one of many they circled around until they were able to summarize their thinking and talking.

They decided:  Humans seem to have a desire to either find or create some superhuman hero who will swoop in and clean up all our messes, while we watch with relief. This "other" will even save us from ourselves.

Here is how one student put it:  "We seem to have two types of heroes.  There are those who are our permanent heroes, like firemen, policemen, soldiers, and teachers who are with us all the time, helping us out of trouble along the way, but we don't really pay attention to them because they're always doing that work.  And then we have the less permanent heroes who come in and do this awesome act one time and then go away."

They went on to discuss how we tend to put sports heroes or celebrities on a pedestal, and that our adulation of these heroes actually de-humanizes and alienates them from the larger group.  (I told you they were brilliant.)

They decided that Beowulf was one of these better-than-real-life heroes who actually ended up alone, confronting the dragon by himself--with the exception of their favorite character Wiglaf--at the end of his life. (For some reason Robin Williams comes to mind.  A man who ultimately had to face his own dragon, isolated and alone, probably in part because we kept insisting he was larger than life.)

Our public education policy for the past decade has embraced this superhero mindset.

After a decade of "education reform" it should be painfully obvious that there is no simple lever or heroic treatment that will wipe away all issues inherent in teaching our diverse student population. NCLB has failed on many fronts and set us back over ten years.

It is a fiction created by lazy and simple minded leaders--or worse, by cunning, Orwellian opportunists who selfishly now wallow in profits based on a deception.

It has also been an easy sell for the public to  embrace.  Like the students said: there's something about us that really, really wants a hero who will make it all better.  These seventeen-year-olds seem to understand the folly in that kind of wishful thinking.

Four times this summer, on four separate reading and listening occasions, I encountered leading educators using this exact phrase: "There are no magic bullets."  In each instance the person--like Richard Allington in one amazing day-long review of research around reading--was refuting the idea that we could just buy a program, plug it in, and hope to lift all of our students out of the illiteracy that plagues their forward movement.

There is, however, a better more lasting answer to the question of how to improve our education system and that is to turn to the permanent heroes who have been doing the hard, repetitive, one-on-one, down and dirty, very unromantic work of helping students one at a time: our teachers.

As two of the educators encountered over the summer stated--there is no replacement in the teaching of reading and writing than actually doing a lot of reading and writing.  And each kid needs to be met at the level where learning those skills will happen.  And, no, those computer programs do not work (tried, tested, proven a waste of dollars).

Statistics show that both of these skill-based "interventions" have been dropping over the years with less time spent on both.  In 1999 the NAEP showed a narrowing of the achievement gap in reading comprehension among high school seniors, not because the bottom came up, but because the top readers declined.  We have not moved that number at all with any of the current magic bullets.  We are stalled.

Along with the "magic bullet" phrase, another theme has emerged in my professional work: a teacher and his or her training does make a difference.  Its clear in our building what happens when effective training doesn't occur as opposed to when it does.  And it is clear what effective is.  It has been studied.  One-shot outside consultant visits are ineffective.  "Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice..." says the National Staff Development Council.

We have seen what happens when mandates and one-and-done PD scramble the messages of good instruction and the decisions made far from the classroom have to be implemented on the run. It creates a morass.  The one we are currently stuck in.

How we treat teachers -- through both compensation and ongoing, effective professional development--also makes a huge difference in advancing learning.  Because teachers who've gained real skill are choosing to leave when they can.  It is a story that is being repeated over and over.

That critical fifth year has played into many of those up-close and personal scenarios I've witnessed. Watching a novice teacher grow in confidence and ability, through the aid of veteran teachers who are short on both time and energy, generally takes well into at least the fourth year.

When a teacher leaves right as classroom skill is taking off--and the mentors can back off and begin focusing on other efforts--the process must begin again.  It is a long and very individual process and stresses those who are committed to fixing problems the old fashioned way--through hard work and persistence.

To watch a peer walk out the door, taking the training with them, is not just a disheartening, morale-deflator for those left behind, it is bad for teaching and learning.

And it is happening far too frequently.

The impetus for leaving teaching is generally a combination of the reality of the hard work coupled with a meager salary and little hope of real, substantive support-- in the form of opportunities to work with peers, time to shape curriculum, finding resources that will reach every student all day long. Couple that with a dearth of the softer components of a successful workplace that boosts the spirit of those who labor against difficult odds, and you create a "why bother?" mentality.

Time.  And money.  And respect.

There is no magic bullet.

The hope of public education lies in the development of human capital--permanent heroes who live in a grown up world.  One where superheroes don't really exist because the work is nuanced, not simplistic.  Continual learning from others in a community of learners is a necessary part of growing teachers.  Even my seniors understand that solving difficult problems isn't likely through the efforts of one superhuman.

We need to develop teachers. (Which means finding those who are good at developing teachers, paying them well to do that, and providing time to help both parties work on skill development.)

We need to pay teachers better.  Teachers are leaving because the pay SUCKS  to begin with, and doesn't get better over time.

We need to respect teachers by giving them control over their learning and their teaching.

And, yes, we can afford this.

Stop buying magic bullets and get some real work done: grow a cadre of permanent heroes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

NEA Representative Assembly and the Death of Democracy

Earlier this month I served as a first-time delegate to the NEA representative assembly.

As a fan of democracy, it was an amazing process to behold.


Over 7,000 teachers and education support personnel filled the convention hall and were all more-or-less on equal footing: permitted to enter into debate and then vote on over 100 New Business Items (NBI).

All items arise from the membership (50 members must sign on before an NBI is considered), are discussed by the membership, and then voted on by the membership.  My contribution to the five days was to shout "Aye" or "Nay" at regular intervals after huddling in caucuses to debate a stance on the upcoming items.

The annual meeting charts the funding of discretionary monies, so every item comes with a price tag. The ongoing tally is reported throughout the process so membership dues are not overspent.

I learned a lot as a first time delegate.

Democracy is complicated.  There is political wrangling throughout the whole process.  A strategy exists in getting items to the floor, getting time at the mike, asking questions for more information, moving items to debate or referring them to committee, forming caucuses to garner more support, debating on the floor, adjusting the wording of the NBIs so there's an easier price tag to swallow, etc. etc.

It was amazing.  And fascinating.  And definitely not for me--too old (it would take years to form the relationships)--too introverted--too slow in thinking.  If there's one thing I'm sure of it's that I need time to process.  This is a game for extroverted, fast-thinkers.

But in spite of my delight in the true democratic flavor of the whole event, my overriding impression of the NEA RA is:

This is going to kill us.

And by us, I mean teachers and the public schools we love.

Our "enemies" are not operating under the same rules.

Those allied against public education hold resources equal to those of small countries.  And the holders of the resources do not need to come to consensus to get what they want.  Decision making is dictatorial, or at the very least, held in the hands of an elite few.  No debating.  They can move fast. And the money has been buying access to decision makers for decades now.  We are overwhelmed.

Though most of the new business items were clearly student-centered (take that teacher-bashers who think the union is all about protecting teachers) a fair amount were actions in RE-action to the monied agenda.

We are going to lose that battle.

The democratic process is too slow--and tends to the moderate middle.  By the time the membership has moved on an issue the target has also moved, far, far down the road.

Though some alert members have been on top of the reform agenda for years, others are slow to take alarm.  It's taken three attempts for the members to agree to ask for Arne Duncan's resignation.  The majority of the membership had to see the handwriting on the wall before majority ruled. The NEA decision to call for Duncan's resignation will likely be ignored.

The very democratic process we celebrate undermines our attempts to save our other democratic ideal: the common school.

The unions (AFT and NEA) take their cues by reacting to policy, not developing and proposing an alternate policy.  Each NBI that requires funding to fend off an attack depletes resources, scatters the focus, puts us even farther behind, and turns off dues-paying members who do not see an organization that speaks for them.  The power brokers only need to wait until we we talk and vote ourselves into bankruptcy.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we are playing into their game--a waiting game.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Please stop appreciating me

This sounds crass and rude, but nothing would please me more than an end to the need for a week long festival of teacher appreciation.

Let's face it.  As a 58-year-old adult with twenty-five years of classroom experience, beginning in 1978, I do not need another piece of cake or pen that says "We love our teachers" to indicate that the work is important. In some ways the recognition is infantilizing.  The small acknowledgements are like tips given to a favorite babysitter.  We are not babysitters.

Meaningful compensation would go much further in underscoring that teacher work is a valued adult profession that benefits everyone.

We know our work is important, even if much of the country does not.  The work is so important that countless hours and dollars have been invested in the improvement of  practice, including a Master's Degree, National Board Certification, and endless work with colleagues in both face-to-face networks like the Northern Virginia Writing Project and virtual networks like the CTQ Collaboratory, Advanced Placement and English Teacher's Companion nings, as well as a host of twitter chats. Additionally, professional reading through magazines and books is a part of a daily reading diet. All of these activities are completed outside of expected work hours.

After having done other private sector work I have a basis of comparison.  Teaching is engaging, demanding, and often physically exhausting, much different from the other roles I've played in advertising, freelance writing, and radio--there I was afforded more time to do less demanding work, more freedom to set a schedule, and far less oversight.

Teaching is also vastly underpaid, particularly here in Virginia where we rank 30th in the nation for teacher compensation. (But a mere  $10,000 away from the lowest ranking state).   Returning to teaching after a part-time hiatus in advertising while raising three children, I was stunned by the amount of intellectual work teachers give away every day.  In advertising, we charged $70 an hour for much of the same work performed with students and parents multiple times in a day: proofreading, writing, creating powerpoint presentations and agendas, writing scripts, letters to clients...

In spite of having worked with literally thousands of students, expertise in delivering content to sometimes distracted, resistant, or struggling students is not recognized as a valuable skill.

It is.  Not everyone can teach.

Nancy Flanagan, of the Education Week blog Teacher in a Strange Land, and I met ten years ago when we worked together to create the graduate course "Teacher as Change Agent" for Virginia Commonwealth University.

Recently, we teamed up again to review the past decade and the changes in education revolving around Teacher Leadership.  The short answer is "not much."  Teacher Leadership has become a buzz word but is far from a reality.

What would a teacher-led profession look like?  A whole lot different from today.

First, recognized master teachers would be leading professional development, all teachers would work in true learning communities to examine student work, share instructional strategies, and allocate resources.  Teachers would both set standards and work together to evaluate student work against those standards.  Teachers would also specialize in differing roles of leadership like instructional leadership, education management, and administrative roles.

Teachers would be advisors to policy makers, create content, examine the work of other teachers, review the work of pre-service programs, all while keeping a foot firmly in the classroom.  This would mean a division of teacher time with more time away from students (like the best performing nations), and a re-imagining of the educational structure.

The real plus would be in what is gained when teachers are involved in creating and evaluating the work that they do.  Just as students gain the most when they are brought in on choice and evaluation, self-examination and collegial problem-solving lifts all boats.  This is what is already happening in the highest performing nations.

My awakening came in the Intensive Summer Institute of the National Writing Project where we were invited to make our own work the subject of inquiry.  This is where I learned, through the modeling of the institute, how to invite students into their own learning process.  It is also where the sharing of practice helped other teachers learn and grow, just as I learned from them.  It was electrifying and has kept me energized and involved in my work ever since.

The National Writing Project has found that 98% of the teachers who have gone through the Institute have stayed in education throughout their careers.  Stability in the workforce is another (cost-reducing) plus when teachers are valued for their hard won expertise in marrying theory with effective practices among students in real classrooms. This savings would be passed on in the form of increased compensation--low pay being another reason good teachers flee the classroom.

We cannot ask every teacher to relinquish time with family and rejuvenating rest and recreation to achieve the knowledge and skills needed to be highly effective.  Currently, the outliers in effective practice have gained their knowledge by building their own professional networks--going solo and working hard outside of compensated time.

We already know the conditions which create effective practice and these conditions should be job-embedded.  That means re-allocating resources so teachers have what they need most: time and access to good practices.

And that means a fight, because those who are already getting the resources will not willingly hand them over.

Personally, I would start by  repurposing the three-year, $110 million contract with Pearson by the state of Virginia.

I would gladly hand over all my free tote bags and coffee mugs for a chance at that challenge.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

In the Belly of the Oligarchy

Corporate Oligarchy, according to Wikipedia:

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities, lobbyists that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative.  Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such a the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company.  Today's multinational corporations function as corporate oligarchies with influence over democratically elected officials.

It is the testing season, and, as I have been required to do every year since we began the Standard of Learning tests in Virginia in 1995, I must sign an agreement with the state before proctoring the tests.

The School Division Personnel Test Security Agreement is enforced by Virginia Law 22.1-292.1.

Over the years the agreement has been revised.  Last year the agreement was "toughened up."

In signing, I put my livelihood at stake:

  • Agreement #1:  "Violation of test security procedures: revocation of license."  
  • And in case I didn't get it, in Agreement #2: "...if test security procedures are not followed, my license may be suspended or revoked and/or I may be assessed a civil penalty for each violation."
  • And finally I am required to squeal:  "All known or suspected violations of SOL test security shall be reported to appropriate school division personnel or to the Virginia Department of Education."  And then the contact information for informants is provided.

The agreement rankles.

Parts of it are downright insulting--"All persons are prohibited from altering, in any manner, student responses to secure SOL test items"--since it presumes a level of complicity or guilt--while also acknowledging the very high stakes surrounding these tests since adults are judged (fired, reassigned, subjected to extensive data-collection and paperwork....) by the results.

So, yeah, some might be tempted to cheat.  Go figure.

We are also advised that "All persons are prohibited from providing students with answers to secure test items, suggesting how to respond to secure test items, or influencing student responses to secure test items."

Okay.  I wouldn't do that in my classroom either, especially if I really want to know what a student knows, but once you start making rules you have to cover every possible variance (hence my problem with rule making.)

But here is where it crosses over into the level of a gag rule.

The following item on the agreement is more about protecting the intellectual property of the test maker--in this case Pearson, a multinational corporation (see oligarchy definition).

The ruling effectively shuts down any push back on whether a test item is a valid one, whether the test is testing what it purports to be testing, or whether classroom teachers can get any insight into what a student might struggle with so adjustments can be made in the classroom to better prepare the test taker.

Teachers are prohibited from:

  • "Reading or reviewing any part of a secure test (e.g. test items, answer options, passages, pictures, diagrams, charts, maps, etc.) before, during, or after the test administration."

The rules, supported by the state legislature, (see definition wherein corporations have "influence over democratically elected officials") ensure that there will be no effective oversight of the test items.

We can't read the test or we are in violation.

Our role is to merely read directions and tacitly support a tool we may not find in the best interest of our students. (But how could we know?  We can be fired for reading it.)

  • All SOL tests must be administered strictly in accordance with the instructions provided in the SOL test manuals.  This includes but is not limited to adhering to procedures for the handling, distribution and use of test materials and test manipulatives, adhering to specific requirements associated with test accommodations (e.g. read aloud accommodation, dictation to scribe, etc.), and reading all SOL test directions to students exactly as written.  SOL test directions must not be paraphrased, altered, or expanded without prior authorization from the Virginia Department of Education through the Division Director of Testing unless the Examiner's manual allows flexibility in providing specific directions.
We have been instructed to answer every student inquiry (whether it has to do with negotiating the new computerized 'enhanced testing items'--lots of clicking and dragging--or providing a condensed version of directions) with this rejoinder: "Read your test directions again and do the best you can."

That's it.

Turn on the computers.  Read the official directions.  Don't look at the test.  Face the potential of losing your license--and your income.  And have your worth as a professional measured by student outcomes on a test which essentially exists in a black box.

Something feels really unfair.

So not impressed with the "technology enhanced items."  Just bells and whistles that are a distraction from what a student knows because sometimes it's the format that trips the student up.  

For instance, on the reading test they must click on tabs to read paired passages.  Some don't see that.  (Even though even more class time is given over to teaching students how to use the tools, they don't always see it. Maybe they're stressed?)

Some students don't notice that the passage is more than a page long. Getting to the next page requires more clicking.  

Many students complain it is hard to read on the computer screen.  The reading test last year took my students FOUR HOURS, people. Think about reading long passages on a computer screen for four hours.

Many items feel like trickery.  For instance, there are items that indicate you should choose "all" the items which fit a criteria.  There is no indication of how many items one must choose.  But you must get all of them (and not too many) or  the entire question is wrong.  That is supposed to reflect "rigor." 

Seems more like a carnival game where the carny is sure to win more often than the mark.

I can learn more about my students' knowledge from a written answer.  

And you, dear taxpayer, should want me to do that.  After all I have a Master's degree and 25 years of teaching experience.  That's thousands of students, tens of thousands of written answers.  I can provide immediate feedback that extends into narrative or a long discussion rather than a disembodied number devoid of explanation.  

I actually know how to do that.  

And I know my students.  I know who is a second language learner who understands a lot of content but is lagging behind in language acquisition.  Providing a simple synonym could help them reveal their understanding.  And I know who has little experience with computers and might need assistance with technology.  And I know who has testing anxiety and could better show their knowledge in another way.  And I know who struggles with attention and could use a stretch or a stroll around the room to get refocused.

Frankly, I'm surprised there is no prison time associated with these rulings. Pearsons' $9 billion in annual revenues is at stake.  There's a lot less profit if you have to re-write the test every year.  Much easier to coerce a legislature into threatening an entire profession.

But I imagine that Pearson's Public Relations division has determined that making martyrs of public school teachers through extended jail time might turn the public against them.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Addendum: Another Meeting

Bill HJ 1has passed both houses in the Virginia Legislature.  This bill is titled "Teacher Career Ladder program; report.  Requests the Department of Education to study and make recommendations regarding the feasibility of a Teacher Career Ladder program in the Commonwealth.

This legislation had wide approval with 97 voting yes in the House with one Nay vote and a voice vote in the Senate.

What does it mean?  MORE study.  Similar to the report I heard at the meeting in 2001 mentioned in this post.

Talk, talk, talk.  No action.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stepping on Toes or Time to get Rude

My husband tells me I'm cynical.  Maybe so.

But I can't help the feeling that Arne Duncan's speech to the Teaching and Learning Conference on Friday, March 14 (after the press corps has packed up and gone home for the weekend) was designed to mollify a group of increasingly loud teachers.

He called, in effect, for a meeting where teacher leadership would be discussed.  (There.  That should keep them happy for awhile as we continue with down the road in our mission that already has wheels and full gas tank.)

And he promised money for the meetings.  (For airfare? Snacks?)

It reminded me of my first hopeful foray into teacher leadership way back in 2001.

I sat in Richmond, along with other Nationally Board Certified teachers and teachers-of-the-year and teachers-of-the-building, district, state along with other fresh-faced-Milken-gosh-we-just-love-our-underpaid-teacher-prize winners to hear an alternative career plan for successful teachers.

On the last day a statewide education committee which reported to the DOE said they had been meeting for ten years to decide what a teacher does that can be named.  They decided that there was no way to identify accomplished teaching so they had determined to......wait for it.......have some more meetings.

What?!  More meetings?  Hadn't the National Board for Professional Standards already defined the standards and evaluated teachers?  What is the next meeting for?

At the end of an exciting weekend of discussion about changes to the teaching profession, I got a sinking feeling.  Oh.  I get it.  Delay on a politically sticky wicket.  There's a lot of pushback from somewhere.  After that meeting, no more movement statewide.  It's been thirteen years.

So Duncan has called for more meetings.  A delay.  Sticky wickets (lots of $$ around the current system of evaluation and punishment.)

And then he left the Teaching and Learning meeting to urge state education leaders not to back away from testing and fudged on a question about assessing teachers by using the, still questionable, scores from the current blizzard of tests as evidence of teacher effectiveness.

But Duncan did make a comment that makes sense by acknowledging that Congress is dead in the water: change will come from outside Washington.  States will have to make the reforms needed (and he says, to support the untested experiment in the Common Core that is currently underway.)

So, only one thing left to do my teacher friends.  Waken the Sleeping Giant and be the change you want to see in the world.

No way around it.  It is time to get rude, get some sharp elbows and start making sure that accomplished, successful educators are leading the charge in your district and your state.

Don't sit down for yet ANOTHER meeting.

Stand up for what you believe in and make sure every policy maker knows that what is being done in the name of reform will ultimately improve teaching and learning for every child in the United States.


  • Universal preschool
  • Support for underserved students in the form of nutrition and health care
  • A new school day where teacher development and collaborative learning is built into the day
  • New pre-service models that involve a clinical phase
  • Identification of teacher leaders accompanied by responsibilities and income to match
  • Teachers on EVERY task force from the district to the national level
  • A transformation of teacher unions to self-regulating enterprises with the goal of improved student learning
Would you sit back and let your own child suffer through these nationwide experiments?