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.