Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leaving no Multiple Choice Footprint Behind

Friday, before the memorial weekend holiday, my students posted their "Footprints" outside our room.
My co-teacher had taught the poem "Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and invited them to write for a few minutes about what they hoped they would be leaving behind as their own "footprint in the sands of time." Then he read their visions aloud, without naming names, to the entire group.
The class reacted with spontaneous applause. There were sighs. Exclamations of "I agree!" or "Oh, that's sweet."
The class decided that the messages were so inspiring that they wanted to share them with the school, so they went up on the wall outside of our class, "walking" down the hallway in a footprint graphic I quickly located and printed for them so they could revise and post their footprint the next day.
The lesson was on poetry, and we also learned the literary terms for the upcoming reading test. But that was just the smallest part. The biggest part, reflecting on what they hope their life will mean to others, will not be tested on June 10.
This sort of decision-making - quickly shifting a lesson based on student behaviors - goes on all the time. It is teaching based on affect - helping students learn through personal connections to the material.
What is wrong with testing?
I test my students regularly. I need to know what they learned, what they still have to learn, or what mis-conceptions they have. I assess my students daily through a variety of means - sometimes just by looking over their shoulder, sometimes through questioning, sometimes in the letters we write back and forth, sometimes more formally through a quiz or essay.
I also teach them how to assess themselves. They set goals for themselves and match their goals against their achievements. They even have to write about it at the end of the course in a Change paper.
And then there's the "TESTS" provided by an outside authority, asking questions I do not prepare, choosing reading my students have a hard time caring about, distilling all their thinking and questioning down into four multiple choice answers often devised in language that flummoxes them, and providing results that aren't particularly helpful in reaching their goals or even in gaining the skills they need to know NOW.
For example, I have remediated ESL students for our reading test. It is an exercise in frustration for all of us. Most of the ESL students who struggle with the reading tests do not have cognitive issues. They are quite bright and adaptable. But they do have language issues.
Example: In reviewing an ESL students' answers to a test, we looked at a poem. She had the main idea question wrong. When I asked her if she knew what the poem was about she said: "I knew the poem was about fall, but I could not find the answer [in the multiple choice selections]" So she took a wild guess. Of course the answer WAS there. One of the choices was autumn, an English word she did not know. In a simple one-minute conversation I had assessed my student's reading comprehension in an oral interchange. She had understood what she read.
This is just a small example of being constrained to the test. I have many more (just try to teach a literary allusion to a newcomer. The vast cultural literacy required for the one answer would take a half-hour to explain. I know. I've done it. It is an exercise in futility since I have no way of prediciting what literary allusion my students will be asked to respond to since I DID NOT MAKE THE TEST and do not know what they will be asked.
How can I prepare them?
Is this fair?
Our school is in danger of falling into the realm of failing schools. The stakes are getting higher. The distraction of preparing students for these tests consumes more and more instructional time.
It will only get worse if teachers are assessed on how well students do on these assessments.
Imagine beginning of the year benchmark tests, mid-year predictor tests, final high stakes tests in every year of a student's life. Ugh. It might just make a student want to drop out.

There are better ways to teach children and to identify effective teachers.
Join the conversation at Teachers Letters to Obama. The month of June will feature discussions and webinars focused on this and other issues. We are determined to get our voices heard and affect policy for the better. Please join the discussions here.Teachers' Letters is not just for teachers. It is a grassroots site for anyone who wants to make America's schools the seedbed for the innovative thinkers and active citizens of tomorrow.
Find out other reasons why testing is not the answer to reform. Visit Anthony Cody, Marsha Ratzel, Renee Moore, Nancy Flanagan, Chuck Olynyk, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, to find out what else is missing in the testing mania. And see David Cohen's brilliant satirical piece on testing from last month.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dialing for Duncan

Following our truncated, technology-challenged call on Monday, the phone rang in California and Kansas on Tuesday afternoon. At the other end of the line was Arne Duncan.

Anthony Cody in California and Marsha Ratzel in Kansas were receiving a follow up from Duncan. He wanted to hear what they didn't have the opportunity to say. Marsha had just finished an intense day in front of sixth graders anxious for the last day of school this Friday and spent 15 minutes in dialogue (at least half the time we had as a group on Monday)
Visit their blogs to see exactly how those conversations progressed.
And progressed is the key word.
There may be opportunities to pick up where we were cut off.
That is our focus right now. What are the next steps?
It appears that this question is back on the table.
While we all regroup, I urge you not to cut yourself off from these discussions. The teachers at the other end of the line represent the entire geographic spectrum of the United States.
And we are all on a similar page (perhaps with minor divisions on the details.) The twelve cover the gamut from Special Education to Advanced Placement.
From Alaska (Bob Williams) to Florida (Rian Fike).
Five are in the battle weary California (Anthony Cody, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Eleana Aguilar, Sandee Palmquist, and Chuck Olynyk). They are facing massive layoffs and closures.
The middle section of the country is well represented by Renee Moore in the equity starved Mississippi), Nancy Flanagan (Michigan), and the passionate, bold, persistent Marsha Ratzel in Kansas.

We represent only teachers.
We are looking only for an opportunity to be heard before the accusations of failure and the firings go up another notch.
We want to be the reform we can see so clearly that has a real potential to lift up the children of the nation and quite possibly set the entire country on a new path.
You may be needed in the near future.
There may be time to pass the baton on to other classroom teachers. Get ready for the pass.
Because your voice may be needed if we are to influence changes in the law that will affect our professional lives for a very long time.
Educate yourself. Join Teachers' Letters for Obama on facebook and check in regularly. Teachers are posting their hopes and dreams for a program that makes sense for children.
Yep. You've got a homework assignment.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Chat with Duncan

It was over too fast.
No, it really was.
Over. Too. fast.
Nine teachers of the original twelve were able to make it in on the phone dialogue with Arne Duncan at 5:30 p.m. eastern time. Well, actually it was 5:34, but who's counting?
We were. We each had about two minutes of suggestions for the Blueprint.
As it turned out only four of us were able to speak.
First we had a little semantic issue. We were invited to ask questions but came only prepared with suggestions - hoping to spur a discussion.
After Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Marsha Ratzel spoke to the issue of College and Career Readiness, where I could only hear her third word because of the feedback and echoes (feedback and echoes? really? when you can Skype halfway round the world?) I spoke - on behalf of Renee Moore and Jane Fung who were unable to join us. Renee was traveling - again on behalf of teachers - and Jane was working with her kindergartners.
We do have day jobs.

Here is the Renee, Jane, Mary portion of the Teacher Blueprint for improved schools:

We need great teachers in every classroom and an effective force of teacher leaders to guide and inspire them. Uniform teacher quality is not just a matter of redistributing a few excellent teachers, but rather maximizing the professional potential of all gifted and dedicated educators. The talent is there, but we have underused the expertise and drive of much of the current teaching force.

The Blueprint is unnecessarily vague on defining teaching effectiveness. Stating the goal, “readiness,” does not describe nor prove support of the possible processes to achieve readiness. Some programs already exist that have been proven to help develop teachers and leaders of excellence, such as National Writing Project and National Board Certification. Both of these programs, with proven, positive results for student achievement, were initiated, designed, and are currently sustained by classroom practitioners, all prior to endorsement by national programs. Given the latitude to design and implement reform, teachers can affect real change. Yet some of these same programs are slated for Federal funding cuts. This sends a very mixed message: our goal is continuous improvement of instruction, but we're unwilling to pay for it.

It is also paradoxical to insist on excellence in teaching on the one hand while encouraging short-term, quick fixes to our teaching shortages on the other. Alternative preparation programs provide minimal, insufficient preparation for the complex 
work of teaching, particularly teaching in high-needs settings which requires
even more advanced pedagogical skills.

A well-trained teacher helps to create better prepared students. Therefore, we suggest the following: one way the teaching profession can be enhanced is by creating more Federal scholarships for pre-service teachers in certified programs, including promising urban and rural teacher residency programs. In addition, expanding funding for programs such as Teacher Quality Partnerships and improved training and collaboration time for existing staff in struggling schools could erase years of punitive measures and build a community of excellence in our most difficult schools. Developing and keeping effective teachers in 
high needs schools will also require policymakers to address the great inequity in working conditions for teachers and the great inequity in learning conditions for students in those schools.

Without great teachers: continuously supported, trained, dedicated teachers, our students cannot fulfill the goals of the Blueprint or live up to their potential. A great teacher is not an isolated figure who has magically appeared with those skills--great teachers learned how to be effective, and all teachers can improve. Truly exceptional teachers, those who are capable of reaching out to lift up our students from our most high-needs settings, need the support of a great administration behind them.

Sandee Palmquist was followed by Elena Aguilar and both were able to address "Diverse Learners."
But then. That was about it.
No opportunity for Anthony Cody,and Chuck Olynyk to speak to "Safe and Successful Schools" or Bob Williams, Nancy Flanagan, and Rian Fike, to speak to a "Complete Education" and "Fostering Innovation."
My compatriots will be posting what they were both able or unable to say.

Link to all of them for a complete read of our message from the Teacher Letters to Obama group. And comment. And share with your colleagues.

There are 3 million teachers in America and most of us have the summer free -- especially since needed summer programs for our youth have been axed across the nation. Read up. Pay attention. Make your voice heard.

And keep up with any developments by joining the Facebook page Teachers' Letters to Obama.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Duncan opens the door...

..a crack.
My good friend and colleague Anthony Cody, from California where the teacher fires for education reform are burning brightly, has used social networking to garner a voice for teachers in the restructuring of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Duncan has agreed to listen to the Teacher Letters to Obama group. If you haven't joined this group and you care about education, you need to do it now.
The teacher voices twelve will conference on Monday evening. Stay tuned.
Read through the responses Anthony posted when he surveyed his TLO teachers to find out what was uppermost on their minds.
Granted, there is a lot of anger in the responses, but much of it is warranted.
Teachers have been beaten mercilessly by the media (see Newsweek's Why we must Fire all the Bad Teachers) while working increasingly long days, for less and less pay, without a voice in reform decisions often being made from afar. In addition, whatever ills are in our social network wash up at the schoolhouse door and only teachers are being asked to be held accountable for these inequities.
I interpret the teacher anger as an outpouring of the feeling that they have wasted eight years of students' lives with inferior practices (and in the life of a child, that's the whole enchilada) while being held hostage (and accountable) to a reform package they did not endorse.
The loud voices come from our unwillingness to squander another eight years in the lives of millions of more children on narrow, unproductive goals.

But beyond complaints, we do have solutions.
We have been waiting to be asked.
Anthony has insisted that we be heard.

Monday, May 24, the teachers will offer a few suggestions.

Thank you Anthony for positioning the megaphone.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


This Wednesday I have the opportunity to testify before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies of the House Appropriations Committee. (How would you like having to write that every time you tell somebody where you work?)
My testimony will relate the impact of the National Writing Project on my work as a classroom teacher. Arne Duncan's Blueprint for Education Reform proposes to eliminate funding for this national network of teachers.
I have one minute.
One minute to describe how learning from other teachers has been the most powerful, transformative experience of my professional life.
One minute to defend a program that has built a network of professionals and kept 98% of them in education, working for children throughout their careers.
One minute to express how writing in a classroom can deepen and personalize learning for all students at all levels in all subject areas.
One minute to express how working with my colleagues has meant time well spent for the thousands of students who have benefitted from confident, well-informed teachers.
One minute.
What would you say about your own best professional experience if you only had one minute?