Friday, December 30, 2011

Dear NEA,

I have a New Year's Resolution for you:  Man-up.

That's what my students would say.  That's much of what your membership seems to be saying. And that's what I implore you to do.

I have been a teacher since 1978 and an NEA member for almost as long.  But the fact of the matter is that, as I improved in my abilities to teach through an association with other professional organizations (the National Writing Project, The National Council of Teachers of English), the NEA became less and less important in my professional life.  I came to think of my membership as an insurance policy: a fall back in case I ever found myself battling against the district that employed me which, it was clear, would treat me like a freelancer and leave me twisting in the legal winds should anything go awry in my teaching life.  (And there are so many things.....)

The NEA has done nothing to change that view over the years.  I hear from my organization almost weekly, but only to excite my interest in an NEA MasterCard, an NEA low-interest loan, an NEA home-owner's insurance policy.  The monthly newsletter NEA Today goes largely unread. Most of the teaching tips or online resources have come to me months before in online communities where my professional development continues.

Ten years ago I shouted at the NEA as I read the Sunday editorials.  It was clear that the "Texas Miracle,"  discredited as a fraud even as the Rod Paige plan was being marketed wholesale to the nation, was going to visit a classroom very dear to me: my classroom.  And so it was.  But where was my 3.5 million teacher-strong union on this plan that flew in the face of all the research we know about motivating, engaging and helping students toward a better life?


So here I am.  Ten years out speaking in a little-ole' backwater blog.  Wish I had the backing of a large education group.

Here's what I know about the union from the ground:

  • We are under attack, and sometimes deservedly so.  We need to lead the reform issue from a moral high ground.  By leap-frogging over our detractors we can create a profession where our clients - the children we teach - are at the center of everything we do. I want what Mark Simon suggests:  "Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher's perspective." (Thanks Steve Owens.)
  • I can't convince young teachers to join.  They don't get it. We are losing them and a whole generation who will not seek teaching as a viable career. In this way, if the union is not destroyed outright by the current "reformers" it will die a slow death of attrition.  And so will teaching.  What will be left in its wake?  A predatory, privatized patchwork of questionable ethics.
  • On the largest issues we are defensive.  Not a good position.  We need to lead.  The more involved in policy I've become the more amazed I am by the alphabet-soup of disparate education associations all speaking similarly on the same issues but undercutting each other's message by being too many, too small.  Pull it together.   We need a single, very large, credible megaphone if we are to combat the billionaire's boys club.  That means leading from effective practice first.  It will raise our collective voice above the fray of profit-making plans.
  • I did two years as a union rep in my building.  Much of what went on in the local was about next year's raise.  We didn't even address the "slave clause" in my contract which describes my work as "anything necessary for the smooth running of the school."  Pretty vague description of teaching and learning.  I wanted to argue for a better definition of my role and practice.

Here is what I mean by Manning UP:

Assume the responsibility for improving education and take on the role of Educator-in-Chief.  We know what conditions are needed for good teaching.  It's time to put our effort, our money, and our mouths where our hearts are: demand what has already been proven best for the children of the next generation by demanding the training, induction, and working conditions that allows good teaching to flourish. Do it on OUR terms, from the position of Effective Teaching, not a corporate manual.  The plan has already been outlined in the Commission report Transforming Teaching.*

Embrace the report.

It has already been heralded as a ray of hope in an education wasteland.

We need to lead. After all, America invented public education.  It's time we  re-invent public education for the 21st Century.  It will mean hard work, embracing change, speaking out about what really works, and even arguing amongst ourselves and conducting ongoing research, but I volunteer to marry my effective teaching chops with your organizational chops to create a robust profession.

Do it.  Or it will continue to be done unto us.

Three and half million people moving in the same direction has to effect some sort of change.

*Disclaimer: I served on the Commission.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

Today is the traditional British holiday reserved after Christmas to celebrate the servants--those stalwart workers who keep the manor house running, make the holiday go smoothly, and generally make life much more enjoyable for the upper classes.

The "box" in Boxing Day refers to the the vehicle for enclosing the gift for the servants (and not for the fisticuffs I imagined when I first heard the term.)

I say we co-opt this day and turn it into an American celebration of public servants, those handmaidens to government and the collective good who make our lives run much more smoothly.

So, cheers, to the guy who came by two days before Christmas and collected the remaining leaves on our street. Their duties were delayed by the extensive cleanup needed after the surprise Halloween snowstorm that brought down limbs and trees all over town.  They cleaned that up too.

To the firefighters who show up night and day to correct our wrongs.  To the police who patrol our streets in the dead of night.  The snowplow operators who go out in the worst of the weather.  To the mail carriers, the emergency technicians, the road and bridge builders.  To all the invisible workers who keep everything humming.

And, of course, to teachers, who make every other occupation possible.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Teachers Leading their Profession

Today the NEA released the report of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching and the NEA responsed to the recommendations of the 21 teachers from across the nation.  I was privileged to be one of those 21 teachers appointed to the Commission for the past year.  We first convened on December 10, 2010 and our charge was to define effective teaching and imagine a teacher-led profession that would result in a true reform of our nation's schools.

You can read the report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learninghere.  The recommendations are comprehensive and include changing expectations in teacher preparation, induction, and providing a career ladder where accomplished teachers can take on differentiated roles that would lead to changes in schools across the nation, all monitored and evaluated by teachers themselves.

In her remarks, the Commission Chair Maddie Fennel, a fourth-grade teacher from Omaha, Nebraska said the following:

We must make clear to the public, in both our words and our actions, that student learning is at the center of everything we do. Our vision is of a profession that clearly and visibly puts student learning at its core and guarantees that students acquire the critical thinking ability, ingenuity, and citizenship skills they will need to thrive as 21st century citizens. The schools we envision develop students’ academic knowledge, critical thinking, and innovation skills, while also attending to their overall well-being. Our vision for the teaching profession rests on three guiding principles:  1. Student learning is at the center of everything a teacher does.   2. Teachers take primary responsibility for student learning.         3. Effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal.
We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students. 
I can assure you that changing the landscape to ensure success for all of our children, along with a schooling system that ensures the well-being of every child was at the fore of every discussion.  We were always aware that our nation cannot stand on the status quo and that the real road to reform will rely on strong, effective teachers in every classroom.

The NEA's response to the report is to initiate a Three-Point Plan for Reform which includes raising the bar for entrance into the profession,  using teachers to ensure that great teachers are serving our children, and providing union leadership to transform the profession into a teacher-owned profession.

The Commission report did not stop with recommendations to the NEA.  There are suggestions for pre-service providers, policymakers, and the teachers themselves.

The NEA's response is a start.  But the teachers themselves must support and work toward the ownership of our profession--and much of realizing that vision will not be easy.

The Commission has provided the opening for claiming our profession.  Now it is up to us to take on the hard work ahead.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

Yesterday, flipping channels to see if there was a Virginia Tech game on I could listen to as I baked, I happened on the halftime of the SEC championship game. (You can tell I am a tepid football fan.  There was a Tech game, but I missed it.)

They were just about to begin the huge halftime event: a Dr. Pepper Tuition Scholarship contest.  At stake? $100,000 in tuition money.  Apparently they do this every year.  Who knew?  I didn't.

Here is how the contest works: You enter with a video.  This year's winner expressed her love for Dr. Pepper before launching into an explanation of her goals and her lack of ability to provide tuition money.  Then the finalists come to the championship game and are pitted against each other in a football tossing contest.  The one who can throw the most passes into the hole (isn't this just a mega-cornhole contest?) wins the whole she-bang: $100,000 devoted to tuition payments.

To be fair, in a search of their website, it appears that Dr. Pepper gives away a lot of scholarship money.  But the video, and a love of the product is de-rigeur for winners.

When she won, she completely broke down, barely able to express her appreciation for the opportunity to pursue her education--clearly a relief to an issue where she has struggled.  It was hard to turn away.  As a piece of entertainment, it was riveting.  Who knows what happened to the loser.  We never saw her.

It sickened me.

I know it is America and we believe in pullin' yourself up by your bootstraps, winners and losers, the power of physical prowess, fate, chance, rags-to-riches, but come on.  Since when is throwing 13 footballs through a hole the necessary pre-requisite to gaining an education?

This whole spectacle reminded me of the desperate dancers in the depression-era movie They Shoot Horses Don't They?  The dance marathon in the movie depicted lots of down-on-their-luck participants dancing till they dropped in hopes of winning a prize that stood between them and utter destruction.

So what's wrong with giving away tuition money through an entertaining contest?  Let me count the ways.

  • The girl is clearly bright.  Why isn't school possible for her and anyone else who has worked hard and plans to give back?  It used to be.  I remember.  At one time there were several states that offered free tuition to students who had maintained their grades....and wanted to go to college.
  • The contestants must prove their love of Dr. Pepper.  Dr. Pepper has conscripted free testimonials from desperate kids.
  • My students already suck down too many soft drinks.  Many have diabetes.  And so forth...
  • Why does it take $100,000 to go to school?  (It does.  I have colleagues who still owe $50,000 or more as they start their careers--earning just enough to scrape by month-to-month.)
  • The winner throws a football.  Yay.  Football reigns.
  • We are entertained by someone's need.
  • A mega corporation holds sway over people's fate.  Hmmmm.....
I never liked Queen for a Day either.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Early Childhood Development in Real Time

I was a stay-at-home mom for twelve years and still consider myself lucky to have had the time for this important work, especially when so many must work full-time and raise children simultaneously in order to afford a house, food, etc.  Raising children is hard work.  The need for consistency is what wears most parents out since children are always testing the fence line.

I still consider my time away from teaching as an intensive course in Early Childhood Development.  It lasted twenty-four-hours-a-day for twelve years.  As a teacher, I found my own children's development fascinating--particularly language acquisition.

Now I have the chance to observe the next generation of children up close and personal: my three (soon to be four) grandchildren.  Here is what I am learning in real time.

Most Important Lesson of All: standardization in education seems like a really stupid idea after spending any amount of time around kids.  They show up in the world with totally different sets of priorities and motivations.  Our one-size-fits-all education system seems hopelessly out of date.

For instance, grandson number one is highly physical.  He literally throws himself at the world, leaping off of steps, climbing anything that is handy, shouting "Bam! Bam!"--his chosen expletive when he is either frustrated or successful. At two he can independently use all of the playground equipment he can reach, including hanging upside down from monkey bars. He runs and kicks a ball.  He manipulates objects, builds and destroys in nanoseconds, and goes full tilt until he collapses from exhaustion.  After all of that dashing around, it is possilble to convince him to sit in a lap and listen to a story.  Thanks to his mother who has made reading a daily end-of-day routine, this boy will probably excel at both sports and school.  But I'm thinking the long days in a desk are not going to be easy for him.

Granddaughter number one is thoughtful, orderly and reticent.  She does not warm to strangers and even takes many minutes to acclimate to familiar places, including her grandparents' house where she spent the first six months of her life.  She loves books and often removes herself from a room crowded with adults to read quietly (in the way that a three-year old reads: turning pages and reciting what she remembers).  She has spent many long periods pulling blankets and towels out of our cedar chest and arranging them in neat squares on the floor.  Similarly she likes grouping objects, putting small objects inside of bags and other containers and carrying them around.  All of these activities seem to please her in some way. When she found one of my ubiquitous journals and a marker, she began to make a "list" (deftly picking up the marker with her left hand and writing right to left) with a line for every person named (mommy, daddy, Marnie, Pee-Paw). When she ran out of names, she thought for a moment and then began to name things she likes (popcorn).  She'll certainly be a reader, but does the strong interest in patterns show a mind for math?

As I watch the two of them and their obviously varied strengths and tendencies I can't help wondering: how do you design a school that capitalizes on their separate potentials?  How can we use student autonomy and natural curiosity to catapult learning to where it matches the growth in knowledge and technology we face in the coming decades?

Interestingly, both grandchildren love the ipad we have stocked with books and games.  (They fight over it.)  Both seem to enjoy the mastery they have over choosing activities and switching back and forth between games, puzzles and stories.  Manipulating virtual objects with a finger is highly engaging, as most adults can probably testify.

Both of them like to bake, decorate, and "eat" a cake (in CakeDoodle) and paint in Art Set.  The grandson prefers Thomas the Train Engine for his story, puzzle, and matching game fix.  Granddaughter tends toward the Disney book where she can dress up a variety of Princesses.  They both think the game of tossing tires with "Mater" from Car Story is the funniest thing they've ever seen.  I fail to grasp the joke, but they think its a hoot.  Maybe it's the sound effects.

Watching children this way makes me think that teachers should be developing skills and knowledge in order to set the next, appropriate learning tool or activity in front of a child.  In this view of education, teachers would be adept "kid watchers" who are extremely knowledgeable about a variety of teaching strategies that all aim for the same objective, or leapfrog over objectives, to match the student's current need.  It has been said elsewhere: we need an Independent Education Plan for everybody.

I'm betting that my two, bright grandchildren will show up in kindergarten already reading- or close to it - given their rich upbringing.  In the current system, that might mean three long years before something new and exciting is introduced.

We need to work on this.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fake Writing

This week Jay Matthews of the Washington Post drew attention to the problem of teaching writing in our public schools.

It's awful.  That's the consensus.

His argument was sparked by a commentary earlier in the week by Paula Stacy in Education Week where she bemoans the lifeless writing products which pass for good thinking when students arrive in colleges and universities.

She's right, you know.  In the main, writing instruction, when it is addressed at all, is horrible.

If you ever had to evaluate a raft of these so-called papers, you too would bemoan the state of writing in the United States.  The papers are wooden, lifeless, replete with errors, and simplistic in their thinking.

In short, they follow the process steps outlined in various formulas (like the dreaded five-paragraph essay).  Teaching formulaic writing is similar to teaching dance by pasting the silhouette of footprints on a dance floor and asking the dancer to follow the prescribed steps in some semblance of a rhythm.

And we all know what that looks like: rhythmically-challenged white guy trying to boogie.

Having read my fair share of five-paragraph essays, it's clear an instructor barely has to read in order to make an assessment since the path the student is taking is telegraphed in the thesis statement.  No surprises.  No turns of thought.  Just scan down the page and see if paragraph one matches their first point, with some evidence; paragraph two should follow suit, and so forth, until arriving at a conclusion that restates the thesis (again, dear idiot reader, in case the point isn't clear yet through mindless repetition).

Poor Montaigne.  How he must roll over in his grave.  His "essai"--meaning attempt at understanding, often without a neat conclusion, sometimes even with more questions than answers--has come to this: all problems solved in three easy steps.

Writing has long been a neglected art in all of formal education.  Why?  There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost is the lack of attention and time spent understanding the craft of writing or using writing the way it is intended--as a tool for further learning.

The inattention to writing has been perpetuated for generations.

Poor writing instructors teach the next generation what they were taught and those hapless students grow up to teach the next class and so forth.  And now districts can buy all the easy answers in a box, hand them out to teachers, ask them to spend an hour or two on writing twice a semester and feel smug in having resolved the writing problem.  (Starting to see the danger in the "three solutions to every problem" thinking we've structured for ourselves?)

Teachers, like most of the adult population, are insecure in their own writing (having either hated it, been chastised for poor spelling, commas, what have you, or convinced that writers spring fully formed from the mind of Zeus and cannot be shaped by instruction.)

There is one group that has championed good instruction in writing for more than 30 years: The National Writing Project. This, one of the true academic communities in existence today--modeling learning through inquiry even beyond the level of most academic communities in our universities--brings teachers together to share best practice in both teaching and using writing.

In its often-heralded capstone professional learning program -- the Intensive Summer Institute-- the National Writing Project insists that teachers write, for themselves but also for their students.  When the teachers return to their schools after the institute, they are often the oddball down the hall who is doing something weird with their kids--and getting results.

Teacher Consultants trained through the Writing Project write with and in front of their students modeling the messy, recursive process of composing a thought into the clearest expression possible.  From invention to publishable quality piece, writing project teachers show their students where an idea comes from, how it is developed, how an audience shapes a message, how writing helps clarify thinking, and that anyone can be a writer--one who makes meaning from experience.  Most TCs look for real-world writing opportunities for students, journal regularly, give students latitude in choosing topics, and infuse writing into every subject area.

The problem with writing in our schools is that it is treated as a separate discipline, when it should be a part of every subject.  The irony in today's current instruction is that we assume that a child can sit down and produce a piece of writing that reflects their thinking without having been provided ample opportunity to first think independently.

Writing should inform every subject with students writing to themselves first. Even a kindergartner can ask "What do I already know about the changing seasons?"  Students can collect their own data: What did I see on the way to school today that helps me understand how the earth rotates around the sun?  What questions do I have about how the world works?  What are my strengths?  How do I know when I'm competent?  What have I done that I am proud of?  How did I do that?

These are real questions of inquiry that students can wrestle with in their own language and are a necessary step in learning any subject. Writing is a separate form of thinking wherein the writer comes to know his or her own mind.  It is a necessary step in understanding and retaining experience.  It is a record of where the mind has been.  Oddly, after composing a true inquiry, the writer, rather than the reader, is the one who knows the subject best.

And, when used in this context, writing ISN'T about correctness.  It is about thinking.

Our kids write poorly because they are asked to write what they do not know.  And adults who have survived this method of formulaic composition do the same--and then act accordingly--finding repetitive, simplistic answers to weighty and complex problems.  We cannot afford to perpetuate three-answer-group-think in a world with increasingly complex, global problems.

By the way--The National Writing Project-- probably the most under leveraged tool for improving instruction in our nation's school, repeatedly held up as the gold standard for professional development, and among the cheapest (the budget for the entire nation was only 22 million) was cut from the Department of Education budget last year.

Oh, well.  That leaves 22 million more for multiple-choice testing.

At least those tests give you four choices instead of three.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking it slow

I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.  Henry David Thoreau

 I walk to school.  Not every day, but most.  I drive only when an appointment after school means being somewhere at a distance in a big hurry.  Rain, snow, mud, they do not dissuade. 

Thirty-five years ago, when I began to jog for exercise, I learned to appreciate changing weather.  Forging ahead is only a matter of dress.  Prepare for the weather, and you will not be at odds.  The job I secretly covet is mail carrier—those foot soldiers who realize a daily hike in every condition.

Lately, I have walked to school, then home, then back to school in the evening for musical rehearsals, then home again in the dark.

Be jealous. 

I walk more than half a mile, in the dark, through a friendly neighborhood where I know who lives in most houses. 

And now it is fall, the best of seasons.  In the dark walk home, the wind rustles dried leaves, the last of crickets and locusts still sing, the scent of fresh mown lawns transports me to every Saturday of a long ago childhood, dogs bark, and an occasional walker appears in the gloom.

Traffic is a far off hum somewhere down below this hillock in the Shenandoah Valley.  There are stars beyond the streetlights and, these days, some wood smoke in the chill.

When I first transferred to this neighborhood school, the world simultaneously contracted and expanded.

After a month of walking I realized that I had not even ventured to the other side of town. On a short errand I felt awkward at the wheel of my abandoned sedan.  And yet, in that month I had not felt confined. Instead I had discovered another world in the six blocks surrounding my home.

An unremarkable tree on the corner emerged from the fog one morning, every needle bearing a drop of dew.  Remarkable.  Once I helped a box turtle climb the curb.  Earlier I was halted by a humongous caterpillar the size of my palm.  This stranger had an other worldly quality and awakened a childish sense of awe.

The clouds are never the same.  Sometimes they are swollen and leaden with rain, another day just a yellow smear across a hazy sky, then pushed out completely by the greedy azure, or simple jagged lines of crystals scratched halfway to the clear blue.

I just have to remember to look up and not at my feet.  This morning, when I remembered to lift my eyes, I was startled by a glowing guava, all pinks and golds and purple, stretching across the eastern Blue Ridge.

Sometimes, when I get to school, the beauty of the literature I have taught and read my whole life resonates in the memory of a recent twelve-minute stroll.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.                                               Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, October 23, 2011

NCLB bill leaves committee

Tom Harkin recently proposed a bill to rewrite the ESEA legislation, publicly known as No Child Left Behind.  This week it came out of committee with significant compromises.

Thank goodness.

The original bill, in my opinion, was an effort by Harkin to legitimize the power grab by the education arm of the Obama administration.

(Here's where things get confusing for me.  I am a staunch Democrat but find myself agreeing with Republicans on this go round. Even Rand Paul's speech to the committee had me nodding my head.  But Paul is a "less government is good government" kind of guy.)

In reaction to Congress's inability to take action on anything in the past two years, Duncan unilaterally agreed to release states from their accountability to AYP--and the unreachable goal of 100% pass rates by 2014--in return for state agreements that would hold teachers accountable for student scores.

In my opinion, that was a power grab--skipping over Congress and creating law independently.

Harkin's bill essentially reinforced Duncan's proposal:  States could waive AYP if they instituted a huge, bulky plan to track and measure teacher effectiveness--even though the tools proposed to measure teacher effectiveness are basically unproven or non-existent.

Harkin also mandated the same sanctions Duncan proposes for the bottom 5% of low-performing schools  (Won't there always be a bottom 5%?  Just sayin') which means closing, restructuring, or turning poor performing schools into charters.  Another set of strategies that have little statistical support for improving schools.

The good news about the bill is that the "teacher effectiveness" portion has been stripped.  Which means students will not be subjected to more testing just to see if their teachers are doing their jobs.  From the New York Times:
But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who had long criticized Congress for failing to rewrite the law, on Friday criticized the Harkin-Enzi bill, saying it compromises too much, particularly on teacher evaluations and student-achievement goals. “There are huge — significant problems with the current draft,” he said. “Though there are some things in this that I consider positive, others are quite concerning.”

Rand Paul argues that the Department of Education needs to be scaled back and that states and localities need to resume local control.  He advocates involving educators in the reform.

Stay tuned.  The revisions to NCLB may not see the light of day yet.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Show me the money...

This week the New York Times published a story that Pearson's Non-Profit organization is running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service by providing junkets to top state education officials who Pearson also--coincidentally--works closely with in business relationships.

Though the state officials emphasize that the trips are educational--talking to other educators in countries such as Rio de Janerio, London, Singapore, Helsinki--they also spend time conversing with Pearson executives in the profit-making arm of the business.

Tax officials indicate that this is the same relationship that sunk convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Regardless of the implications, we have a bit of a peek into the industry.  The NYT reports:
Illinois is paying Pearson $138 million to administer the state’s standardized testing program; Virginia is paying $110 million and Kentucky $57 million. All three of their commissioners have attended the conferences.
Wow.  That's a lot of samolies.  I always said that education pays big.  Just not for teachers.

Here is another snippet from the article:

Pearson is eager to sell practically any product a state or local school district would want to buy, including prepackaged curriculums, textbooks and programs to turn around low-performing schools.

What a gig.

First you write the test, then you provide the textbook that is aligned with the test.  Then you train the teachers to teach the textbook that aligns with the tests, then you sell the software that tracks the test scores and 'grades' the teachers, then you.....

I've taught in public schools for 23 years.  I make, after all that time and experience, (masters degree, national board certification) $55,000.

Guess what I'm trained to do:  Create assessments, create learning experiences aligned with my assessments (and these are often teachable moments pulled right from current events or other timely events that resonate with the adolescents sitting right in front of me.  Much more timely and engaging, often, than what is provided in a textbook) score the assessments, evaluate the students, and report learning to parents.

But why trust me when you can get a trip to Helsinki and some glitzy software?

I find it endlessly ironic that a testing company would send educators to Helsinki (Finland, don't you know) where the education system tests their students infrequently and has spent their resources training, and then trusting, their teachers.

The last textbook review I was part of was a circus of bells and whistles.  The textbook companies came to our meetings and practically fell over each other trying to up the ante on what they would 'give' us if we chose their textbooks.  Remember now, that I teach English and most of what we need is reading material.  And much of that reading material has been in the public domain for quite some time.

For teachers, the big prize--offered finally after weeks of a hard sell-- was a free flash drive thrown on the pile of online and blackline ancillary materials (most of which sit on a shelf and which, I was told when I worked in advertising, is just smoke to get the buyer to think they are getting something extra).

Jokingly, I told the department chair that we should hold out for a free cruise for the whole department.

I don't think I was that far off.

Can we agree, yet, that money is a big problem here?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Teacher Effectiveness Measures - What's the problem?

Below are the remarks I was privileged to share before a full room on the VCU campus in Richmond on Saturday, October 1. The topic was "Merit Pay and Teacher Evaluation."  

   I have been a teacher since 1978, and have been in the classroom since the beginning of No Child Left Behind.  Even prior to that, when the Standards of Learning first went into effect in Virginia, I commented to my colleagues that we already knew who was behind and did not need a measuring tool for that.  But removing our ability to evaluate our own students through outside testing was the first step in a campaign to de-professionalize every teacher in America and a clear signal that we would no longer be trusted to perform our jobs.
  What we need, and have needed for the past thirty or more years, are the tools, resources, professional training, and time to educate all children to high levels of performance.  Recently, the lion’s share of resources have been spent in “raising test scores” and not in improving effective practice.  And for that reason, I consider the past decade a complete stagnation, and in some places a reversal, of what teaching professionals consider best practice.
   I would like to state clearly that I am opposed to any merit pay system that is attached to student achievement connected to testing.  There are a number of reasons for my opposition, but the primary one is that it will fundamentally distort the relationship between the teacher and student in potentially damaging ways.
   We should not tie an adult’s livelihood to the performance of vulnerable children.  This immediately shifts our view of our work.  Suddenly children become potential commodities to be exploited or weak performers to be avoided.  This is fundamentally dangerous.  Those who need us most will be least served.
   As the stakes connected to testing have been increasingly raised over the years of NCLB there has been a steady increase in cheating scandals.  We can be assured that these scandals will find their way into individual classrooms and have a profound effect on student learning if teacher performance is measured against these narrow tools.
   The current plan in Virginia, to tie teacher evaluation to student growth causes me a great deal of concern.  To begin with, I do not understand what tools will be used to measure this growth and how they will be untangled from all the factors that affect student achievement.
   To my knowledge there is no reliable tool available for measuring a teacher’s effectiveness within a school year.  The psychometricians have repeatedly argued that Value Added Measures are extremely unreliable.  In addition, the experts clearly state that current criterion referenced tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness and is a misuse of their purpose.  In their own words these tools are “highly unstable” and correlate well only to the students in the classroom and not to the work of the teacher in the classroom.  And yet, federal, and now state, policy is being formulated around what amounts to a huge experiment in defining our work.
   One thing that is clear from the Race to the Top plan, which holds all teachers accountable and uses standardized tests as a large percentage of that measuring tool, is that taxpayer dollars will be diverted from the classroom to create and monitor the testing.  This is certain to build more of the downward pressure on teachers that has already proven to have a limited effect on student achievement . It will create a top-heavy bureaucracy that adds nothing to the quality of instruction and student learning.   It is, however, certain to benefit the test makers and the huge testing industry that has thrived during the last decade and has even continued to show rocketing profits in spite of the current economic downturn.
   It has already begun.  In my small district a testing program was purchased over the summer to begin tracking student reading levels, potentially as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Again, a tool never designed for this purpose.  If we are to track “teacher effectiveness” in every subject and grade, there will need to be more tools, some of which are yet to be brought into existence. Imagine what a juggernaut of testing all of our students, even the youngest will face.  Concurrently, our district has had a reduction in force, no salary increases, and cuts to professional development over the past four years.
   Over the past ten years, a the domain of a classroom teacher—evaluating student achievement—has  been “outsourced” to testing companies that produce measurements that are removed in both time and distance from the classroom and are limited in their effectiveness to improve instruction.  Testing programs have systematically stripped teachers of our decision-making abilities while simultaneously holding us accountable for the less-than stellar results. Teachers are frustrated with the decisions made at a distance that ultimately underserve student needs in the classroom.
   Teachers should not be the subjects of experiments in effective teaching.  Teachers must be partners in the study of effective practice.  Studies of effective practice should ultimately result in improved practice, not managerial, personnel decision-making. Is the real goal of the measurement process to pressure school administrators into removing some teachers?  If so, are they also not being trusted to do their jobs?
   We should be celebrating and sharing teacher knowledge, not creating an adversarial relationship with our students and our colleagues as this program promises to do.  Studying our own work, sharing best practice, and developing local, formative assessments will benefit every child and restore teachers to their role as coach, guide and evaluator.
   The current argument to measure teaching effectiveness is, in my opinion, a distraction from what needs to be done to reform our public schools that will create and maintain a robust teaching force ready to prepare our young people for an uncertain but rapidly changing future.

Other panelists were: Kitty Boitnott, President, Virginia Education Association; Tichi Pinkney Eppes of the Greater Richmond Education Reform Alliance; Stephanie Hooks of Richmond Public Schools; Martin Reardon, VCU Education Professor; and Gabriel Reich, VCU Education Professor. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Trusting Kids to Assume Responsibility for Learning

What happens when you give students the opportunity to choose a direction for their own reading and writing?

Amazing things, apparently.

My students are currently involved in their own reading during Reading Workshop in Academic English 11 (most would call this General English).  The class of 26 students is a mix of abilities.  Though there are many who are performing at the post high school level some are as low as a fourth grade reading level. 

All have chosen books that might surprise those who feel students will not set a high bar for their own performance.

Here is a selection of books that are currently being read and written about in English 11:

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

The Hunger Games series.  (This has been extremely popular in the past two years.  One student, and English language learner, has zoomed through all three in just three weeks of reading and has just begun a fourth book.)

The Inferno by Dante

A non-fiction book on the Civil War.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

And numerous young adult romances and coming of age tales.

In general, when given the latitude and a purpose for reading (our stated goal is growing dendrites—i.e. getting smarter—building  vocabulary, focusing on text for longer and longer periods of time, and developing a love of reading) students choose books that are both challenging and generally right on target for their ability level.

Students converse about their books in weekly letters to me and the co-teacher in the room.  We ask them to discuss their books by noticing what the author is doing.  In the weekly letter they tell us:

  • What is the setting?  How does this limit the characters in their actions or behaviors?
  • Does your author use any of the following?  Provide an example from the book of:         
    • imagery
    • flashbacks
    • figurative language
  • How does the author capture and keep your interest from the beginning?
  • How would you rate this book?
  • How did your prediction compare to the ending of the book?
  • Would you recommend the book to others?  Who would like to read this and why?

In just 20 minutes of class time daily, students are able to read a minimum of four books a semester in addition to the titles we learn together.  Their selections, listed above, indicate that most students know what they want to learn. 

Sometimes we need to get out of their way, and let them go for it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Controlling my own work...

Lately I've been making a mental list of the number of variables that are out of my control when it comes to creating a learning environment for my students.

Next year the state of Virginia will base forty percent of a teacher's evaluation on measures of student growth.  Though it is not clear yet what those measures will be, the state board of education has already said that 20% of the student growth measure must come from the high stakes tests.  Since I teach two courses that have high stakes tests at the end--the end of course reading and writing tests students must pass to get a valid diploma and the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition test students sit for to earn college credit--I know those scores will factor in.

Here are the things within the school year and school day that teachers have no control over, and yet are very important to how well or poorly we are able to teach.

Time:  The biggest factor.  Here are the ways in which the time spent with students can impact instruction.

  • What time of day the class will be offered. (End of the day classes are very different from first-thing in the morning classes.)
  • How much time we have together.  Though I should have my students for 90 minutes and 90 days that is never true.  Students are frequently released early for sporting events, cutting into the last class of the day. There are assemblies/picture-day/pull-outs for various reasons.  Weather events: snow, storm, electrical failure.  (Two years ago we lost nine consecutive instructional days to snow.  The AP test was still held on the same day.  Thankfully, the state test was moved back.)
  • My time:  Many duties and expectations cut in to the time to plan, evaluate work, or confer with students.  For example, since the start of the year, weekends have been spent catching up on duties that are not instructional in nature: learning new software, collecting data, or preparing required reports.
Class make-up:
  • The number of students who sit in a class is not selected by the instructor.  Nearly every teacher in the nation faces larger classes than in past years due to staff cuts.  This impacts teacher time (see above) because it simply takes longer to evaluate student work.  That means less time for planning, conferring (sleeping, eating...).  Even though classes are swelling, no one has taken any work away from the classroom teacher (see above non-instructional duties.)
  • The teacher's schedule is set by others.  This can mean multiple courses to prepare for ("preps")--or only one course taught repeatedly (one "prep").  Again, this can stretch a teacher or not.
  • Mix of students.  Teachers do not control scheduling so must play the hand they are dealt.   That may mean students who do not interact well together for a variety of reasons, or a large load of high needs students.
  • The yearly schedule.  Those of us who teach in semester blocks only have students for a little over three months.  Will we be expected to show a year's growth in this amount of time?  After fourteen years of working with ninth-graders, I know they are very different people in September than the more mature people they grow into by April. The second semester AP class gets five less weeks of instruction prior to the test.  This factor is not in the teacher's control.
  • No matter the ability of the student, the curriculum is the same.  Though we strive to differentiate in the classroom, the tests are the same for everyone.  So....?  
  • Out in four: Another gem of the NCLB law that is in effect, all students must graduate "on time" ready or not.  This pressures schools and teachers to pass students along.  Their readiness to meet the standards and curriculum means teachers may be starting out far behind.  There is no apparent irony in expecting teachers to differentiate while expecting students to cross the finish line at the same time?
This list does not include any of the variables that a student brings into the classroom.  These are just the work-related ones that occur within a building.  Is it any wonder teachers are crying foul?

Accountability for student growth should be borne by an entire system and community.

Whatever happened to "it takes a village?"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Playing the game of Life...


On the long drive back from the beach this month, I played Life on the cellphone app my daughter handed to me.

"It's fun.  Try it."

It had been a good 20 years since I played the face-to-face board game when the kids were young. Back then the term "face-to-face" didn't even delineate a choice.  All games were played face-to-face, even the ubiquitous video games.  (My marker for the digital world is 1982, the year my son was born, and we bought an Apple. The first one. With the blinking cursor and the green text.)

The premise of the game is simple: whoever retires with the most money wins.

Though the spinner was fun, even responding to some finesse with touch, and the street level view of the moving pieces was engaging, I found myself more and more angered as I progressed through my "life."

Everything was measured in money.

Birth of a child: receive $5000 in gifts from friends.  ($5000?  Really?  No joy? No fulfillment?  Just $5000 bucks?  A lousy measure of what the birth of my children meant to my husband and I.  It was a hollow reward.)

College earned the player a lot more money right after graduation. The game choice I made - to go into entertainment - didn't pay well at all--but I picked it because it sounded like fun.

In the real game of life, my college years never really resulted in a big pile of money, but they were exciting and fulfilling.  Choosing liberal arts changed me, changed my view of the world, and opened my awareness to a thirst for knowledge that has never abated.  I'm not sure what dollar value I would place on that.

The game went on like that, with the milestones of a rich and varied life reduced to a dollar figure.  I could hardly stand it.  It seemed a little too real, a little too much like our current lives.

Numbers rule our lives here in America.  Rich people are somehow better than poor.  Those with high SAT scores are more valuable than those without.  Wall Street has to hit the numbers. School districts, teachers, students .. all are driven by the numbers.  But for every number, especially the ones my students 'earn', there is a whole story left untold.

Our focus on money and measurement has created a spiritual and cultural wasteland.  Playing "who makes the most, scores the highest" is an unsustainable vision.  It is simplistic, simple-minded and a poor substitute for the richness of human experience. In addition, there can really only be one winner at that game.  It feels as though the piling up of wins would topple over from the sheer pressure to get more, more, more.

But it is something a businessman understands completely. And the business pros are winning at shifting this game into education.

My invisible, virtual opponent won the game.  She retired before me and continued to play the numbers.  She had taken an option out on the number "9" and it paid off several times, earning her well over a million dollars as she basked in retirement while I continued to limp along with my two-year degree. (I went back to school.)

She was divorced (big payout) and ended the game with only one child--no grandchildren.

I imagine her as a bitter, old woman in a toney retirement home sipping martinis, playing backgammon, and yelling at the TV.

As for me, I lived a long, happy life in my log-cabin surrounded by a pile of messy, disorganized grandchildren.

Guess I lose.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nailing the coffin lid shut

Our district is still in our pre-school week, and for the first time in my professional career we have received an unusual message from our superiors: Please Speak Up.  Specifically about all the good that public educators do for the community.

Historically teachers are reluctant to speak publicly about education issues, especially local issues.  We fear retribution and are also, and rightly so, requested to avoid revealing a political stance since we have a huge influence on shaping minds.

Though the suggestion is a welcome one to me, a trained journalist with a near religious adherence to the right to free speech, it is indicative of just how much of a threat we face in the public education system.

The fact is that we are in the last battle of a long war on a basic pillar of a functioning democracy: our public schooling system.  The foot soldiers are being rallied.

It may be too late.

We should have been marshaled about ten years ago.  Anyone who read the NCLB law could see it as a cleverly disguised method to discredit every school in the country. (For the uninitiated, the goal has always been a 100% pass rate by every student on every test by 2014.  This was never possible.)

Even Senator Edward Kennedy, a long time champion of the disenfranchised, was duped into supporting the law, more evidence for how clever the opposition has been at disguising their true motives.  They have known the ultimate goal from the beginning and have maintained a straight public face while chuckling to themselves in private.

Screaming headlines of "FAILED SCHOOLS" have rolled across every town and community throughout this August.  Couple that with the campaign to silence and discredit teachers that began in earnest in 2010 with the release of Waiting for Superman, that was accelerated by Oprah Winfrey and the media,  and has continued apace with loud arguments against tenure, and the field has been effectively cleared.

Teachers must begin every conversation now by justifying their work, their integrity, their adherence to excellence, an explanation of why we need to retain experienced teachers, how we use our time during the school year, why a summer off is defensible, how many hours are spent grading and receiving additional education, and on and on.

It's a pretty long conversation to have in the check out line.

If you think the fight has been fair, think again.  Using a fair measuring stick has never been the agenda. (See NCLB law for support.)

The goal of providing an excellent education is a canard.  

The real goal has been the privatization of public education.

Another goal is the re-segregation of schools, if not on racial lines then certainly on lines of privilege.

A third goal is to de-professionalize teaching.  When private agencies take over they will not want to have to pay a living wage.  It's more profitable to hire a revolving door of young "teachers" at $10.00 an hour to turn on the computer or recite the scripted lesson plans.  (I ache when young--and naive--teachers defend the loss of due-process by saying something simplistic like "If you do your job well, you should never have to worry about being fired."  Ah, so young and trusting.  You don't have to be fired if you are worked to death, or harassed to death.  You'll just leave and retreat to a job with less stress--like air-traffic controller.)

That will be "teaching" for the masses.

Those who can afford an education that develops critical thinking, creativity, lifelong learning can buy it for their progeny.

Welcome to a return of the feudal system with the new liege lords and serfs in corporate fiefdoms.

Is it too late?  Ask the Florida (Flori-DUH) teacher qutoed below who is now being evaluated by a system that garnerd Race to the Top dollars from our current administration:

50% of ALL high school teachers' ratings will be based on 9th/10th grade FCAT math/reading scores. So even if you teach science to 12th graders, 50% of your rating for "merit pay" a rating that gets published online to the public will be based on something you DON'T EVEN TEACH. And of course, basing pay on these kinds of tests is absurd to begin with.
Even a child can tell you that's not fair.

The camel is entirely inside the tent if our own Secretary of Education thinks this is a worthy way to encourage the best and the brightest to pursue a career in teaching.

But, then again, that's not the point.  And it never was.

The de-formers do not play fair and have consistently written the laws to their own advantage.

Can you hear the hammering?  There is only one nail left to go in.

Better push back, and hard.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I thought I knew TFA but...

Teach for America (TFA) sounded like a good idea the first time I heard about it.  Get the best and brightest into hard-to-staff classrooms and hope their experiences stick and then "the best" will make a career out of helping our neediest children.

It is appealing in the same way the selfless programs of the "Peace Corps" and "Americorps" from the Kennedy era of asking what can we do for our country appealed to my sense of humanity.

But in practice TFA has left much to be desired.  After extensive reading, it's clear the revolving door of TFA recruits damages students in urban areas, destroys the community of a school, and has a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' agenda to change education policy by quickly moving TFA recruits into positions of power (a la Michelle Rhee, the highest profile TFA recruit to date.)

But after attending the TFA workshop "Why Teach For America (TFA) Must Change: Properly Training New Teachers for the Rigors of Teaching" at the SOS Conference on Friday, July 29, I believe that some of what TFA does should be called educational malpractice at best and criminal at worst.

The leaders of the panel were David Green of Fordham University, currently a mentor to TFA recruits in the Bronx; Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri of the College of Ed at Northern Arizona University and author of Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher; Janet Grossback Mayer, a Bronx teacher who has taught for an amazing 51 years in the Bronx; Lawrence Mayer, an award winning Biology teacher and New York City principal; and two former TFA recruits John Bilby and John Williamson (in 2010).

Both of the recruits "failed" in TFA, leaving long before their two-year expected stint was up.  Both felt inadequately prepared for the classrooms they entered.  John Williamson, for instance, was trained to teach secondary mathematics but was moved into three different elementary grade level classes in three different schools in his first two months on the job.


In addition to that, Williamson indicated that he was required to meet regularly in the evenings with a donor, who was purportedly mentoring him.  The advice offered by the high-powered businessman had little validity for the work in the urban classroom, but apparently made the donor feel good about his donation.  Williamson found the required meetings a drain on the time needed to prepare for students. By his own admission he was just one page ahead of the students in his class.

Both recruits indicated that the five-week training in the summer was much like boot camp. Absences, even for legitimate illness (Williamson came down with strep throat) were strongly discouraged.

All TFA's were expected to stick to scripted lessons to prepare students for testing as well as scripts for maintaining control in the classroom.  They were to move ahead to polynomials even if the kids couldn't subtract negative numbers.

A favorite classroom management tool "I'm going to count backwards from four and I want you quiet when I get to one" was laughably inadequate with students who are street-smart, having to negotiate bus schedules, gang territory and other hazards just to get to school.

Mentors who worked with TFAers offered engaging alternatives for classroom management that the novices embraced. But when mentors returned to the classroom, the recruits were back to the scripts because "that is what the TFA management wants."

And about that management.  The five-week summer training sessions are often run by other TFAs with as much as, wait for it, an entire year of experience before they begin to train the next group.


But beyond that, TFA seems to also be involved in activities I would call criminal.  Among them:

  • Placing minimally trained young adults with inadequate training in with special needs populations.  (One young woman was beaten severely when left by herself with high-needs students.)
  • Brokering contracts with districts to guarantee that 20% of their workforce will be filled by TFA recruits, even if it means firing experienced teachers to do so.***(See Barbara Torre Veltri's clarification on this point in the Comments.)
  • Getting a waiver from the Dept. of Ed. for the highly qualified stipulation.  Then, when that was challenged in court, slipping in legislation during the budget cuts this spring that changed the law so TFA recruits can continue to wear the highly qualified label.
  • Moving recruits around at will.  Training them for one subject or grade level, then arbitrarily moving the teacher into another area (as was Williamson's experience.) 
As I listened to the litany, I was outraged.  It seemed clear that TFA was interested solely in their own image and did not care a whit for the students subjected to the program. (There was evidence in their own literature about "hitting numbers" that had little to do with instruction.  One of the numbers they are proud of is the number still in Ed.  Unfortunately, the part of education they are in is shaping policy.  Not good.)

All without being held accountable?

The second grade that Williamson took over before December had already had numerous adults at the head of the class before him and was, unsurprisingly, in chaos.  What has happened to those kids?

Many of the panelists argued that TFA needed to be reformed.  But when the floor was opened to discussion, the young man at right (Sorry for pic quality. Snapped with iphone.) made a passionate argument that "TFA is the devil"  and "I say burn it down."

He was a student in New Orleans when the city was hit by Katrina.  Many of his teachers, some who had Ph.Ds according to the young man, were replaced by TFA recruits.

He argued they failed to connect to the inner city minority students and that resulted in confusion among the student body.  The impromptu speaker had earned the nickname of "Grandpa" because he had filled in where the other adults had failed.  He repeated several times that "New Orleans is dying and nobody cares."

Not even those who advertise that they do care.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Matt Damon: A+

Videos are surfacing from the SOS March of interviews with Matt Damon as he awaited his opportunity to speak at the rally held July 30 on the ellipse in humid, 100 degree weather.

Damon is impressive.  Apparently he has been paying close attention to the issue, no doubt in part because his mother is a successful professor of Early Childhood Education.  Regardless, he calls the current reform "punitive" and carrying an "intrinsic paternalism."

In any case, Damon is articulate, informed, concerned, and sometimes angry about what he is witnessing.  He makes it clear that he feels the children are being cheated and won't be prepared to be the problem-solvers and critical thinkers we will need to solve the next generation's problems.

Another video, created by Reason tv, has been making the rounds because of Damon's smack-down of the reporter who posted an SOS March video of a montage of guerilla-warfare interviews with a variety of participants.  In all of the interviews, the 'reporter's' bias was evident in the questioning.  Reason tv is apparently a libertarian outlet created by Drew Carey, the comedian.  I will not reproduce that video here.  It has been seen in multiple venues but drew the ire of Lawrence O'Donnell on his show Tuesday night.

In addition to understanding the issues with 'pay-for-performance' and high-stakes testing, Damon is aware that the participants in the march included the leading thinkers in education.  He argues that they should be included in reform plans and that even he, a successful businessman, has no expertise or right to create education policy.  (In another clip from this interview, not included here, Damon says that he should be paying more in taxes and neither he, nor anyone he knows, created jobs with the tax break they received.)

Thank you Matt Damon for using your star-power to help educators gain a voice in the current debate.  And thank you too, for 'getting it' and taking the risk to stand with those who stand for those who cannot speak: the children of America's tomorrow.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

SOS March: Finally a voice

I did not cry during Matt Damon's impassioned speech to the teachers just before we stepped off for the march around the White House, although it was touching to see a son speak on behalf of his mother and the teachers who shaped him.

But it was overwhelming to hear, after a year of relentless teacher bashing in the media, that "millions of people have your back" and "We love you.  We support you."

I will say I almost cried.

The emotion rose not from grief but from relief.  It was kind of like hearing a doctor say "You're not crazy.  The symptoms you are describing have a real cause."

If you need this boost now, click over and watch Matt's speech for yourself.  It will recharge you for the hard work to come in behalf of children in the ensuing year.  Damon has frequently credited his public school teachers for his successes.

Yesterday's rally on the ellipse was hot, not only from the temperature but from the speakers.
Probably the biggest rouser of emotion came from John Kuhn, the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District.  He told the crowd to wear their badge of "failure" with dignity and pride because it meant that we were teaching the children nobody else wanted.

Jonothan Kozol also spoke with passion as he lamented the destruction of Martin Luther King's dream to provide opportunity, not test scores, to all our children--and to see them learning, working, and living in the world side-by-side. The past decade of NCLB has done more to segregate schools and kids than Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Those who feel the march is just a call to maintain the status-quo needed to be there to hear the real frustrations in living through a reform which has shifted education farther and farther from good teaching and a rich curriculum for student learning.

We do not want the status-quo.

We want reform that happens in classrooms with real children every day.

Gaining a voice in the process is the first step.  A first step that was taken yesterday.

During the actual march it was empowering to walk with teachers who were speaking with one voice.
Here are chants repeated on the march around the White House.  I was embedded in a delegation of Wisconsin teachers who have learned peaceful protest the hard way this winter.  They modeled for the rest of us:
Show me what democracy looks like.  This is what democracy looks like.
Bankers got bailed out.  Schools got sold out.
Hey, hey.  Ho, ho. Arne Duncan has got to go.
Save our Schools.
Whose schools?  Our Schools.
Whose house? Our house!  (when we were in front of Lafayette Park and the White House)

At least we knew we were heard for one day in the nation's capitol.

The march is just a start.  Please find your voice.

As Diane Ravitch has repeated over and over as she has moved across the nation to engage teachers to rise up against the corporate "billionaire boys' club:"  

"We are many.  They are few."

Begin to follow #sosmovement on your twitter.  Get active.  Speak out.  

The tide is turning.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Soccer, Horatio Alger, and the feds

Lately we've been getting a modern-day equivalent of the Horatio Alger myth in public discourse: if we all just worked a little harder, a little longer, we'd be successful.  It's the "pull yourself up by your bootstrap" view of the world.  In schools this has been ratcheted up.  

The honors student is well aware of how many items must be on the resume (volunteer work, club presidencies, multiple AP classes, etc. etc.) in order to get into the top schools in hopes of securing a fruitful career.  For students who struggle there is more drill-and-kill, longer days, more homework.  Teachers are being told to just work harder, longer in order to see success with students - longer days, larger classes (less pay)--all part of the new reform. 

The Alger story has long been used to victimize the victim: it implies that the American Dream is in within everyone's reach.  You just have to work hard enough--not just two minimum wage jobs but three.  If you haven't succeeded then you have no one to blame but yourself.

But even Alger admitted at the time (our last Gilded Age) that the "modern age did not guarantee success through hard work alone; there had to be some providential assistance as well."

Enter the Women's soccer team. A week ago the American team shocked the world by advancing to the finals of the World Soccer cup.  In an interview with four of the players, Rachel Maddow asked them what advice they would give to countries who haven't fielded successful teams.

Their answer was to invest in their youth programs.  You know, provide some "providential assistance."
Women's teams have been performing at the top of the world in recent years because the promise of Title IX has come into its own.

This federal legislation made sure that women were offered the same opportunities as men on the athletic playing filed.  For every dollar spent on men's programs in public institutions an equal amount should be spent on the women.

The difference between the programs of my childhood and those of today is stark.  We could be cheerleaders and play half-court basketball in gym.  Today a girl can choose from among several sports a season, and the top players compete just as aggressively as the men.  The spillover from athletics shows up in self-confidence, health, access to education, and improved leadership abilities.  

And on the world stage, the American women dominate and we all celebrate: winners again.

The role of the federal government should be to assure that those who have the least are given a leg up to reach their full potential, not a punishment for failing to be born into a privileged class.

We need a public schooling system that does the same: provides the same quality education for all children regardless of their station in life. That is a role the Federal government can fulfill.

We did it for soccer.  We could do it for education.

Save Our Schools March demand number one: Equitable funding for all public school communities.  See you July 30 for the march.

Friday, July 22, 2011

ALEC exposed....on education too.

This is so important, I will let it stand alone. Julie Underwood is the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin - Madison
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council and is the driving force behind the massive attacks on collective bargaining, public schools, access to voting, and other initiatives happening concurrently nationwide.
For access to the legislation the group has written and made available to the state representatives the group supported, visit the website ALEC exposed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The NYT Disappoints

Today's editorial in The New York Times, "Are They Learning?," comments on the cheating scandal in Atlanta. It is the most disappointing commentary I've read in some time.

It is disappointing because of the simplistic, wrong-headed conclusion the editors express.

It proves just how little the pundits are paying attention to what has been going on in our public schools. And if they aren't paying attention, who is?

It is disappointing because NYT has bought the arguments sold to the public and the media by very powerful special interest groups.

It is disappointing in the extreme because the editors do not blame the testing culture for the rampant cheating that has gone on.  Testing, in their eyes, is OK.  In their words: "It's the cheats who need to go, not the tests."

The editorial underscores that regular classroom teachers have an even smaller voice than ever as we Race to the Top of a Mountain of Testing and Test Scores.  Will no one ever listen to those who live in the landscape?

To answer the paper's question in a word: "No."  Our children are not learning.

Classroom teachers have been decrying the death of learning for the past ten years, and now the NYT and all the rest have come down on the wrong side:  Keep the tests.  Punish the adults.

I can fully understand how teachers can be pressured into changing scores.  We are at the bottom of a very long hierarchy, and doing what we're told is communicated in many, many ways.

Teachers are encouraged to "get along" and "be team players."   If teachers are not fired outright, their professional lives can be made a living hell.  Many good teachers have already been driven from the classroom.

In the current climate the numbers of reports and plans required by administration have multiplied to the point of exhausting teachers outside of the classroom, while demanding ever more in the classroom. We often suffer through the demands with our hands tied, neither controlling district nor school-wide decision making.

In the testing culture, teaching professionals have been systematically de-professionalized.  Districts have scripted instruction, set pacing guides that include regular testing windows, cannabilized instruction time for testing schedules, and pulled students--the well-known "bubble kids"--to remediate, remediate, remediate.

Large scale meetings have routinely focused on the numbers and have often resorted to humiliating whole groups of teachers.  ("Stand up if you are in a school that did not make AYP."   "What are you going to do this year to wipe that 'L' for 'Loser' off your forehead?"  These are sadly real comments heard in real meetings.)

For the thousandth time, yes, we need accountability.  But it needs to be non-invasive, low-stress, and less frequent then the "test every child every year in every subject" being pushed by the current Department of Education.  The NAEP that the Times calls impervious to tampering is a fine example of how we can routinely measure progress in our schools.

Here's a news flash: kids do not progress in a linear fashion.  Sometimes they regress, circle around, and then leap forward.   (Ask your tennis pro.  He'll tell you the same thing about athletes.)  We can't keep pushing kids through an education extruder.  It won't work.  They won't learn that way.  They aren't learning that way.

On the other hand, adults learn very quickly that if we need high pass rates to keep our jobs, then high pass rates will be had--learning be damned.

We need reform, and it needs to look like this: Take all that testing money and invest it in teachers.

While we've pushed tests for the last ten years we have done nothing to ensure that we have well-trained, effective adults in the classroom.  Ironically, we have gone in the opposite direction, letting any and all take a stab at teaching.  (TFA, Troops to Teachers, Career-switchers, long-term subs, etc.)

In the age when we are learning more daily about the brain and how brain-friendly strategies can improve learning for all, we are throwing open the doors and letting those with even less training take on the complex problems of helping our growing numbers of impoverished children succeed.  And, unsurprisingly, the less-trained teacher is fleeing even faster than the career teacher.

The Times is wrong.  We don't need better tests, better accountability, or better laws.

We need an army of well-trained teachers.

If the Times is this far off the mark, good luck convincing the public that better teachers not better tests are what our children need.

Please March.