Monthly Archives: October 2014

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:


This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:


And in this image, I circle everything else:


Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.


Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Teachers: They’re Not Piñatas

Another week, another plateful of teacher bashing in the popular press.

First, Time Magazine introduced its November 3rd cover story on the campaign to eliminate teacher tenure via litigation with a provocative cover picturing a judge’s gavel poised to smash an apple and a sub-headline repeating the inaccurate mantra that it is “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”  Teachers across the country were outraged, and strongly written responses to the cover came from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association.  The AFT is gathering signatures for a petition demanding that Time magazine apologize for the cover, but no sooner than responses to the Time cover began than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his education agenda in a second term in Albany would be to break the “public monopoly” of schooling in the Empire State by even more test based assessments of teacher performance and even greater charter school favoritism from his office.  As the dust settles from that shot across the bow of New York’s 600,000 unionized teachers, Frank Bruni of the New York Times (and personal friend of anti-tenure activist Campbell Brown) dove back into the issue of teacher quality, a topic he has opined on previously with an extraordinarily one-sided perspective. Today, he gave entirely uncritical space to former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein who is hawking his own book claiming that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle” and saying that the teacher workforce will improve if we recruit teachers with higher test scores, limit or remove workplace protections, and offer pay for performance, which in Klein’s world is always measured in standardized test scores.  Absent in the “discussion”?  Any mention of the persistence of poverty in our most struggling school systems, and any plan for society taking full responsibility for helping to alleviate it — instead, it all rests on teachers and schools.

Today’s education reformers seem to think that our nation’s teachers are like piñatas.  If you just keep hitting them long enough and hard enough, something wonderful and sweet and that will delight children will come pouring out.

Mr. Bruni thinks teachers are being closed-minded towards the likes of Mr. Klein and Ms. Brown. He dismissively portrays their reaction to the Time Magazine cover as evidence of teachers reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any criticism, and he actually claims that people like Klein want to partner with teachers — even while advocating taking away their workplace protections.  That teachers are finally speaking up loudly should not be taken by Mr. Bruni as some sudden intransigence on the part of a profession that wants to keep cushy perks, but rather it should be seen as the final straw exasperation of a profession that has been under constant attack since the early 1980s, probably longer.

Teaching has always had the potential to be contentious which is one of the reasons why tenure protections matter.  Teachers are responsible for, as author, scholar, and activist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children,” a task that comes with enormous professional and moral obligations.  Practicing that responsibility potentially puts teachers at odds with parental, administrative, and community priorities, and it can require that teachers take unpopular stances on behalf of their students.  However, the current wave of reforms had their genesis with the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk” which declared our current school system so unsuited for the task of educating our children that it would be considered an “act of war” for a foreign power to have imposed it upon us.  The constant refrain of school failure has hardly relented ever since, and it has gone into overdrive in its current iteration of test based accountability since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its lunatic cousin Race to the Top.  Since 2001, the standards and testing environment have merged to become test-based accountability for teachers, and since the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, states have been heavily incentivized to adopted teacher evaluations based upon standardized testing.

While pressure on teachers has increased, funding and resources have decreased.  State contributions to K-12 education account for roughly 44% of all spending, but most states still fund schools below the levels that they did before the Great Recession.  Because of the housing crisis which prompted the recession, local revenue in the form of property taxes have also declined, putting a further pinch on school budgets.  In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo and the Assembly have used accounting tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment to trim school aid by BILLIONS of dollars while enacting property tax caps that prevent localities from making up any shortfalls.  Meanwhile, teacher pay has lost substantial ground with comparable workers with the wage gap growing by 13.4% between 1979 and 2006 and most of that loss happening between 1996 and 2006 as the age of test-based accountability started cranking up.

And now, after decades of declaring our schools to be failure factories, after a decade and half of warped accountability measures, and after six years of being told to do far more with far less even though their real world wages have declined, along come some technology billionaires who think the thing that is really wrong with school is the fact that tenured teachers have due process rights before they can be fired?  They recruit telegenic personalities to lead litigation against teachers’ workplace protections (likely because their previous media hero is tainted by scandals and failure) and to do the interview rounds making claims that do not stand up to fact checking and research.

Meanwhile, serial misleaders like Joel Klein, whose claims about his record as NYC Schools Chancellor fail to stand up to real scrutiny, are out there claiming that all we need are great teachers and children’s lives can be turned around.  We don’t have to worry that we’ve cut nutrition programs for the neediest even though nutrition in the first three years of life can have profound effects for a person’s entire life.  We don’t have to worry that our economy is losing large portions of its lower middle class to wage insecurity, effectively sawing rungs off of the ladder of opportunity.  We don’t have to worry about the long known impacts of poverty on children or on how it is deeply concentrated in specific communities whose schools serve high poverty populations.

We don’t have to do any of that, say the Kleins, the Rhees, the Browns, and the Brunis of the world.  We just have to keep whacking away at teachers until the great teaching comes spilling out and children can jump up the ladder towards economic security without a single billionaire being asked to pay a cent more in taxes.

Frank Bruni pays about 27 words with of lip service towards supporting teachers and paying them more, but then immediately follows it with saying teachers should see the likes of Joel Klein as someone who wants to “team up” with them.  After so many years of being continuously blamed for failings our society refuses to discuss and absolutely refuses to address, the only thing astonishing about recently voiced teacher frustration is that it has taken so long to hear it.

Teachers are not piñatas.


Filed under Funding, Media, politics, schools

Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
Establish and maintain a formal style.
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.


Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Filed under Common Core, Data, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

New York Gubernatorial Election 2014 – When The Other Guy Winning Isn’t The Worst Thing I Can Think Of

Barring some titanic shift in the likely voting population in the next 15 days, Governor Andrew Cuomo will be reelected to a second term in office.  Governor Cuomo leads his Republican challenger, Rob Astorino, by an average of 54% to 30% with Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins hovering below 10%.  This polling is not recent as races that have already been called do not get constant polling, but barring all undecideds breaking for Mr. Astorino and a significant portion of Hawkins and Cuomo voters “defecting” for the Republican, Mr. Cuomo is all but guaranteed reelection.

This is a galling situation for a governor who has campaigned in a manner that has utterly disdained political engagement with the public and with his rivals.  Despite having raised a $40 million campaign war chest, Mr. Cuomo has barely campaigned at all.  His choice to all but ignore challenger Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law School professor and expert on corruption, did not merely mean he refrained from any debates, but also he physically ignored her presence from less than four feet away:

Erica Orden of The Wall Street Journal asked Governor Cuomo if he had spoken with Ms. Teachout at the parade:

Governor Cuomo defeated Ms. Teachout in the primary, but she made a surprising showing of 35% with Democratic primary voters despite having less than $250,000 and practically no name recognition among voters.  One might have hoped that Governor Cuomo would take a surprisingly strong challenge as a message that voters want him to be more accountable, but the Governor’s dismissive attitude towards engaging in public discussion of his record in unscripted formats remains.  He has agreed to but one debate before the election, and he will have no debate where he and Mr. Astorino have the stage by themselves.  This means that voters will go to the polls in November never having seen the Governor debate a main challenger, either in the primary or the general election, one on one.  Voters in New York are more likely to see Andrew Cuomo promoting his new autobiography than they are likely to see him take the podium to discuss election issues with his rivals.

In addition to this being a shameful and arrogant slap to the role of voters in evaluating candidates for high office, Mr. Cuomo has quite a lot that he should have to answer before audiences of voters and the media.  In 2013, the Governor created the Moreland Commission to independently investigate corruption in Albany, supposedly making good on his promise to tackle the “deficit of trust” that existed between the government and the people of New York.  After less than a year of continuous interference from the Governor’s office whenever the commission got too close to his allies,  Governor Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission.  Moreland’s birth announcement promised New Yorkers that “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.”  Governor Cuomo stated upon disbanding the commission that “It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it’s mine. It is controlled by me.”  Despite the incredibly corrupt manner in which the Governor’s office interfered with a supposedly independent investigation into corruption, the New York electorate, while broadly accepting that it was wrong, has barely budged in its voting intentions based on the controversy.

This is tragic for New York, not only because it all but assures that Governor Cuomo can glide to reelection, but also because it indicates that voters are unwilling to factor such blatant corruption into our voting calculus.  Political scientists Dr. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Dr. Benjamin Page of Northwestern recently published a study indicating that the American political system does not fully reflect that of a democracy.  Instead they note that an elite cadre of economically powerful individuals and institutions wield the fruits of increasing income inequality to leverage policy regardless of the will of the general voting public. The New York Times’ current magazine issue has a lengthy  exposé on how billionaires, on both sides of the political divide, are wielding their financial power to become “their own political parties.”  The power of such influence on policy is supremely evident in Governor Cuomo’s tenure, especially in his taxation and education policies.

For example, Governor Cuomo does not merely support charter schools in New York. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to reign in their expansion after years of rubber stamp approval from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo not only voiced his support, but also he played a direct role in orchestrating an Albany rally on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was seeking support for his efforts to make universal pre-kindergarten happen in the city.  The Governor then went on and negotiated a state budget that specifically forbids the city from charging charter schools rent.  While New York voters are not opposed to charter schools overall, it is important to note two largely hidden facts in this debate.  The first is that the charter sector which got such direct support from the governor still enrolls only a small portion of New York State and New York City students.  New York City’s approximately 83,200 charter school students represent less than 8% of all New York City public school students,  and given the sector’s penchant for winnowing out students who might be more difficult to teach or whose disabilities might lead to lower test scores, there is a built in limit even to their willingness to serve all students, no matter how much they cover themselves in grandiose promises.

Second, the Governor’s direct hand in engineering both the rally and state budget was not precisely random or driven by pure policy.  There was money, a lot of it, at issue.  As of January, 2014, supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain alone, had donated over $400,000 to Governor Cuomo’s campaign, and Ms. Moskowitz’s own PAC had sent him $65,000.  In recent years, Wall Street money has been pouring into the charter school sector, and it has done so in no small part because money managers have figured how to use the tax code to turn charter school investments into a reliable stream of guaranteed money.  Beyond just the charter school segment, venture firms generally see America’s 750 billion a year expenditures on public education as the last public “honey pot” that they can try to monetize for private purposes.

So New Yorkers, there is your Governor: taking 100s of 1000s of dollars from the supporters of just ONE charter school chain, and jury rigging the state budget so that its investors can continue to secure more public money into entirely private hands.  And he has done this while simultaneously choking school districts across the state of critical state aid to the tune of $3-4 billion a YEAR in New York City alone.  This is the man we are poised to send back to the Governor’s Mansion for another 4 years.  No wonder students from Middletown High School in Orange County produced the following video:

Typical political wisdom at this point sighs, shrugs its shoulders, and laments that the “other guy” is even worse just before it either stays home and doesn’t vote or holds its nose to pull the lever for the incumbent.  In this case, the most viable “other guy” is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.  New York Republicans have done a better job in selecting a candidate than they did in 2010 when they picked the entirely appalling Carl Paladino, but there are still substantive areas where Mr. Astorino is an unacceptable choice.  Mr. Astorino opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, despite his campaign assuring voters that he will not pursue substantive changes to existing state law.  Mr. Astorino has promised to withdraw New York from the Common Core State Standards and reduce the use of standardized tests for teacher and student evaluations if elected, but his education plan also calls for vouchers that can be used to send students to private or charter schools, which does nothing to slow down the transfer of public education money into private hands.

On the other hand, I cannot say that Albany with a Governor Astorino would be that much worse than one under a reelected Governor Cuomo.  Mr. Astorino is likely correct that he could do little in Albany to chip away at social issues where he is out of touch with New York voters, although that is not to say that he could do nothing at all.  It is also true that Governor Cuomo’s socially progressive accomplishments, while actually substantive, are not precisely areas where he took political risks. In 2011, New York support for same sex marriage was comfortably above 50% while opposition hovered around 35%.  Accomplishing same sex marriage in New York was a major victory for marriage equality, but the Governor did not risk his standing with voters to make it happen.  It worth noting that despite governing a state with a 27%  Democratic Party advantage in the electorate, the most progressive thing that Governor Cuomo has accomplished beyond marriage equality is hurting Sean Hannity’s feelings.

An Astorino victory could have two very positive outcomes.  First, it would signal to politicians seeking the Democratic nomination in races that they ignore liberal voters and kowtow to the entrenched money system that plagues our body politic at their peril.  As a liberal Democrat, I can tolerate elected officials more centrist than I am, but I cannot tolerate politicians who sell out the public good at the behest of billionaire donors with little regard for our state and national Commons.  Second, an Astorino victory could possibly embolden Democrats in Albany to do more than lay prostrate at the feet of the Governor’s office.  Andrew Cuomo is no doubt a brilliant political operator even if he is without his father’s rhetorical gifts.  What he has in abundance, however, is a willingness to threaten and place statewide Democrats in fear of angering him.  Is it possible that Assembly Democrats might see a Republican governor as an opportunity to advocate for their constituents instead of meekly to line up in fear of a governor who controls their party’s apparatus?  Possibly.  Is it likely?  I have no idea, but the exercise is worth considering.

With all of that said, will I pull the lever for Rob Astorino?  No, I will not.  If the Republican were within actual striking distance of Andrew Cuomo, I might consider the possibility of voting strategically, but since he is not, I intend to vote for the candidate who most represents my values, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins.  It is possible that this makes me a part of the problem since my disdain for Governor Cuomo’s corruption will not lead me to vote for his most viable opponent in this race.  However, there are alternative fixes that need to be considered in future election cycles.

Money is buying policy.  There can be no doubt about that, but the officials who are bought when it comes to policy still have to stand for elections, and money does not always win at the polls.  Our corrupted government could be subjected to a slow and steady cleansing if politicians who consistently let themselves be bribed for the purpose of making policy were faced with robust and moderately financed challenges that more closely represent the wills of the voters.  Zephyr Teachout, with practically no campaign financing, an opponent and media that ignored her, and little name recognition, garnered 35% of the primary vote.  Imagine what a campaign with more time and even modestly raised financing from small donors (or – gasp! – fully public campaign funding) could have accomplished, but also it would take an electorate that is finally incensed about the state’s government swimming in what amount to endless bribes.

Further, labor unions, especially teacher’s unions, should take a much more principled stand in endorsements for candidates, especially on issues that directly effect teachers, schools, and students.  Playing along to have a seat at the table is no longer viable, and the New York State United Teachers union demonstrated this in the summer by refusing to endorse Andrew Cuomo for reelection.  It would have been better to have endorsed Zephyr Teachout, but this was a step in the right direction.  However, it needs to go further.  Unfortunately, the Connecticut Education Association has offered endorsement and campaign literature in support of Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, whose education policies have been a reflection of Andrew Cuomo’s, even seeking to change the state school aid formula in a way that would cut state funding from districts like Hartford and New Haven.  Although Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has announced that she will not run against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel as she recovers from cancer,  Mayor Emanuel only has a quarter of Chicagoans on his side on school issues, and he should face a robust challenge for the office. It is past time for unions to worry less about access to corrupted politicians and to help elect politicians who will put children and their teachers and schools ahead of the interests of billionaire profiteers.

It is at this point that some anti-union activists will scoff at the idea of cleaning up the corruption of money in politics with the assistance of unions.  After all, unions do spend money, often a lot of it, on political races, and unions collect large sums of cash from the dues of their memberships.  While true, this misses several important distinctions between union influence on politics and that of entirely private individuals.  Unions have monetary resources at their disposal, but they also have operating expenses, sometimes on behalf of memberships that number from the 1000s to the 100s of 1000s to the millions.  All of their cash cannot in practice flow into politics, while the personal wealth of a Michael Bloomberg or a David Koch stays in his bank account until it is donated.  Second, despite attempts to portray the situation otherwise, union political spending is being dwarfed by the flood of money from so-called “dark money” sources, and you have to ignore that spending to place unions at the top.  Unions regulated by the NLRB have to disclose all of their outside payments, but no such requirements exist for shell organizations set up to funnel undisclosed money into the system.  Regardless, Koch brother money alone in 2012 spent on PAC, individual candidates, and outside groups is estimated at over $400 million, which outstrips the top ten labor unions combined.  And that only reports money spent through foundations and nonprofits.  If recent patterns in spending are replicated this year, the 2014 election cycle may potentially reach as much as just under $1 BILLION in dark money.

To be sure, a reformed political system that brings the corruption of spending to bay will take a toll on union spending, but for the sake of their members and the students that they serve, the AFT and NEA must send notice that they will no longer trade a seat at the table for politicians who insist on trading their campaign contributions for sending billions of dollars of public education money into the hands of profiteers.

If voters listened, we might gain some of our democracy back — and our public education as well.



Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Funding, Media, politics, Unions

Common Core Reading – What You See is What You’ll Likely Get

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is concerned about reading instruction in the Common Core State Standards.  More specifically, he is concerned that the standards will be perceived as demanding exclusivity of close reading in the classroom which will lead  to damage both to the standards and to reading achievement.  Mr. Pondiscio does not seem to hold the criticisms of the standards in much esteem, but he is sensitive to the potential for close reading to be overused in classrooms trying to align themselves with the CCSS English Language Arts standards.  Teachers who try to use the standards to stamp out students’ prior knowledge, experiences and preferences are on a fool’s errand.  Mr Pondiscio writes:

In a recent piece on RealClearEducation, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham rightly takes exception to a common interpretation of close reading. “We will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.” Says Willingham, “That seems crazy to me.”

It doesn’t just seem crazy. It is crazy. It’s impossible not to bring your prior knowledge to reading. It’s like being told, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” It’s suddenly hard to think of anything else.

Writing is not interpretive dance. When authors commit words to paper, they do so expressly to create associations in the reader’s mind. As Willingham notes, “Writers count on their audience to bring knowledge to bear on the text.” Students may lack background knowledge to fully appreciate a work of literature or an historical document. But it does no good whatsoever to keep them in a state of ignorance on purpose, let alone make a virtue of it. If teachers are being told that close reading means telling students to disregard all their prior knowledge, they’re being given bad advice.

Now let me state very clearly, that Mr. Pondiscio is quite correct on this (although I am unsure about the interpretive dance metaphor).  It is impossible to read without reliance on prior knowledge, personal experience, and personal preferences.  Literacy is a rich and often unpredictable interplay between the reader and the text, and within classroom settings, a range of other readers and a teacher mediator.  When a reader approaches a text, the ensuing transaction incorporates the reader’s knowledge of genre, audience, and textual features, the reader’s knowledge of other texts, the reader’s knowledge of society, culture, and history, the reader’s experiences in the world, the reader’s aesthetics preferences, and the reader’s sense of an author’s purpose in having written.  Further, readers do not merely set about the task of understanding and interpreting a text.  Readers create personal relationships with texts of widely various qualities.  Does my daughter see qualities of herself in Hermione Granger?  Does she fear for Harry Potter’s safety as he breaks the school rules trying to help his friends?  Does she empathize with Ron Weasley’s insecurities as he compares himself to others?  The answers to these questions (largely affirmative, by the way) impact not only how she understands the story, but also it impacts how she responds emotionally to it.

So yes, students will have to bring a variety of resources to their reading in a Common Core aligned curriculum just as all readers do with or without a curriculum.

But I am afraid that the standards, despite Mr. Pondiscio’s assurances that they do not intend this, provide so little room for anything other than close, textual reading that far too few classes will find the space and time to make reading more than exercises in close reading.  I have written on this at length before, and I stand by the concerns I laid out last month.  As written, the CCSS ELA standards purpose reading literature towards the textual analysis skills necessary for writing a successful piece of literary criticism in a college level English class, and then the standards backwards engineer that goal all the way to Kindergarten.  While this goal is not bad on its own, it is the exclusive goal embodied in the standards.  From grade 12 to Kindergarten, students are set about the read closely and to determine meaning from the text with no overt recognition of what resources students bring to their reading or to what purposes one might read other than to pry meaning from the text.  While I believe that Mr. Pondiscio is correct that reading so narrowly is impossible for lay readers, I cannot find overt room for readers to bring to bear all of their knowledge and dispositions to texts within the standards.  Mr. Pondiscio is concerned that an over emphasis on close, textual reading will harm the standards and will harm reading achievement.  I am concerned that such an over emphasis is baked right into the standards themselves.

Interestingly enough, the likelihood that the standards were written to embody a single perspective on literary analysis was one that I postulated based upon what I know about the standards’ chief architect, David Coleman and his likely literary interests based upon how the standards turned out.  This was, inadvertently, confirmed by Michael Petrilli, President of the Fordham Institute, in a Twitter discussion with New York Principal Carol Burris:

On their own, however, this narrow perspective would merely mean that the CCSS ELA standards are woefully narrow in how they envision students’ reading, but that would not necessitate the dreaded “over emphasis” on textual reading without attention to experience, culture or history.

However, the Common Core State Standards did not come to classrooms on their own.  They were super glued to a set of accountability measures and incentives that take the form of Common Core aligned mass standardized testing and teacher evaluations tied to students’ yearly progress in those tests.  Setting aside questions about the developmental appropriateness of the early grade standards and tests (of which there are many), the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) provides sample questions of reading items at different grade levels, and they are, unsurprisingly, aligned with the standards’ intense focus on digging through a text for specific evidence of meaning contained within the text itself.  Left to its own devices, even the PARCC examinations would be a lengthy exercise in testing a relatively narrow band of reading skills that most middle and high schoolers will find uninteresting.  However, when coupled with value added measures of teacher effectiveness and when coupled to the tests and the accompanying drops in student proficiency, teachers have legitimate and compelling reasons to focus their instruction on the skills validated by the tests.

The Common Core reading standards have two powerful problems from the perspective of teaching children to appreciate a rich and multifaceted approach to reading, enjoying, and interpreting texts.  The first is the tightly delineated null curriculum embedded in the reading standards.  What is left out of the standards is powerful precisely because they make absolutely no mention of them, and because they repeatedly draw readers back to close textual reading in standard after standard.  A teacher conversant in literacy theories (not to mention literary critical perspectives less dependent on restricting oneself to the text) has no choice but to notice this absence and to conclude the standards privilege training students to be literary critics first.

Most English teachers that I know have something of a subversive side to them, and I fully expect that they will go beyond the strictures of the CCSS when possible.  “When possible” is a giant question mark, however, given the Sword of Damocles that accompanies the standards and aligned testing: value-added models of teacher effectiveness.  When rated as ineffective, a teacher can be denied promotion and tenure or can be removed from teaching regardless of tenure.  Given that even the American Statistical Association has warned that VAMs are unreliable and that teacher input explains only a small percentage of student variability on tests, the time that teachers may feel free to go beyond the standards’ narrowness could easily be “never.”  Even working with advanced students is not necessarily a guarantee of a favorable VAM assessment as was demonstrated by the experiences of Carolyn Abbott in New York City, whose gifted seventh and eighth grade math students got standardized test scores that labeled her as the LEAST effective teacher in New York City in 2011, even though all of her students who took the Regents Integrated Algebra exam, a high school level examination, in January of that year passed, a third of those passing with 100%.

Reading well and with passion, anywhere, requires everything that Mr. Pondiscio notes, and more.  However, if he wants to save the Common Core reading standards, he needs to do more than advocate for not forgetting everything that goes into genuine reading.  He needs to advocate that the standards be permanently decoupled from the toxic mix of testing and teacher evaluations that take their inherently narrow focus and demand that teachers produce students who can perform within that focus — or else.


Filed under Common Core, Pearson, Testing, VAMs

So, Governor Cuomo, about those proficiency levels….

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a stir among education observers recently by commenting on the need for future changes to the New York state teacher evaluation system.  The Governor is quoted in The Buffalo News:

Cuomo said he sees value in the teacher rankings, but said critics who question how 94 percent of the state’s teachers can be “highly effective” or “effective” have a valid point.

“I’m excited that we started,” Cuomo said of the teacher evaluation system put into effect during the 2012-13 school year. “And I think once we start to study it and learn it and refine it – because there’s no doubt it needs refinement, not everybody can get an ‘A,’ it can’t be – I think it’s going to be a very valuable tool.”

But he conceded the system might need more scrutiny.

Critics of the teacher evaluations have pointed out the wide gap between the 94 percent of teachers who were rated “effective” or “highly effective” and the number of students failing to do well on state tests and in other measures of student success.

State law required school districts to negotiate with teacher and principal unions to create evaluation systems within certain state requirements, including using student performance on state tests as one measure of how well a teacher is performing.

“The way we’ve done it the first few years is they’re negotiated locally. There is no statewide negotiation,” Cuomo said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News. “Each district negotiates it’s own criteria within certain mandates. So the suggestion was the way they negotiated it may be too loose because everyone’s doing well, and I think that’s a valid question.”

While some education bloggers speculate that this means Governor Cuomo will join an aggressive campaign to push out more experienced teachers in his second term, I am more interested in the mentality that the Governor is demonstrating here.  It is one that assumes that if 30% of New York students are being rated as “proficient” and “highly proficient” on the new, Common Core aligned, tests, then it is impossible that 94% of New York teachers are rated as “effective” and “highly effective” even though the new evaluation system makes generous use of value added measures of teacher performance utilizing test scores.  It is a mentality that is shared by Campbell Brown and others seeking to eliminate teachers’ due process rights via ending teacher tenure.  In fact, this is almost precisely what Ms. Brown said when she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show earlier this year.  Mercedes Schneider, a teacher, author, and blogger from Louisiana provided this transcript:

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

This same viewpoint was central to Eva Moskowitz’s recent advertising blitz to expand charter schools in New York City for the alleged benefit of an estimated 143,000 students she claims are trapped in “failing schools.”  The key information supporting that claim?  A “report” from the charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” that claims at a quarter of New York City schools only 10% of students “pass” the state exams.  The Daily News reported this as students failing to read and do math at “grade level” like Ms. Brown did, and others repeatedly say that the students do not “pass” their exams.

The examinations, however, say no such thing.

It is important to recall that the examinations are aligned with the Common Core State Standards which invoke the language of “College and Career Readiness.”  In fact, New York’s Common Core testing consortium is PARCC, which stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”  New York has been administering exams aligned with the new standards for two years now, and students are assessed as “highly proficient,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “not proficient” on a 1-4 point scale.  The result of the examinations has not been exceptional according to many observers, including the Governor.  In the 2012-13 school year, the first year of the new examinations, student proficiency levels dropped from 55% overall for English Language Arts to 31% and remained there in the 2013-2014 school year.  In mathematics, a proficiency level of 65% in 2011-2012 dropped to 31% in 2012-2013 and rose slightly last year to 36%.  The numbers are even lower for students who belong to ethnic minorities or who are from economically disadvantaged families.  African American students plunged from a 37% proficiency level in English to 16% in the first year of examinations, and Hispanic students fell from 40% to 18% with students from poor families tracking closely to these numbers.

However, these percentages are absent context if we do not understand how “proficient” is determined, and that determination was plainly designed to get percentages like this.  Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from South Side High School, makes it very clear that Commissioner John King set the cut scores at different levels of proficiency based on data designed to reflect SAT scores that are loosely correlated with “successful” completion of freshman level college English and mathematics courses.  Although the use of the SAT is dubious and the definitions of “success” in college level courses arbitrary, it was no surprise that the proficiency levels of the new exams closely tracked the target SAT levels.  As Principal Burris notes:

After coming up with three scores — 540 in math, 560 in reading and 530 in writing– the College Board determined the percentage of New York students who achieved those SAT scores. Those percentages were used to “inform” the cut score setting committee.  As the committee went through questions, according to member Dr. Baldassarre-Hopkins, the SED helpers said,  “If you put your bookmark on page X for level 3 [passing], it would be aligned with these data [referring to the college readiness data],” thus nudging the cut score where they wanted it to be.

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that since the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying examinations ARE supposed to be tied to “college and career readiness” that there is nothing conceptually wrong with the examinations themselves producing much lower proficiency levels than previous exams.  Certainly, it is worth a vigorous discussion in public about what the exams are supposed to reflect and whether or not we want the criteria to be aimed at the population of New York students likely to go on to post-secondary education.  Just to make this more interesting:  the percentage of New York state residents over the age of 25 in possession of a bachelor’s degree?  32.8%.   So Commissioner King’s cut scores discovered roughly the population of the state likely to continue into higher education.

One thing should be very clear from this:  Levels 3 and 4 in the Common Core aligned examinations do NOT, have not, and will not align with “grade level” performance at ANY level of the New York school system (unless you want to argue that most NY residents without a BA graduated high school BELOW grade level), and if you have been talking as if they do, you need to stop.  Yesterday.

It is also possible to argue that our nation requires more college educated citizens in order to properly serve the needs of a 21st century economy.  Certainly, Professor Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University believes so, and he believes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that only 27% of the jobs in the economy will require a BA by 2022 is “frighteningly low.”  Professor Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce believe that by 2020, the economy will require 35% of the workforce will require a BA or higher.  This argument is predicated, in part, on the existence of a “college wage premium” that has grown in recent decades because employers are paying graduates with college degrees a higher wage than their non-college educated peers.  While the college wage premium is real and has grown since the late 1970s, the conclusions from Georgetown are not universally accepted.  To begin with, over 98% of job gains between 2007 and 2011 were made by those with advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s.  Additionally, large numbers of today’s graduates with a bachelor’s are being hired into jobs that traditionally do not require a full four years of college, and while Georgetown’s study found that demand for college educated workers outstripped supply, the college wage premium they cite as evidence has been stuck for ten yearsBased on data from Pew Social trends, it is evident that much of the benefit of going to college is made up of the collapsing wages for non-college graduates rather than intense market competition for those with college degrees into jobs that require them:


Suffice to say, this is still an issue that is subject to appropriately vigorous debate, and it is unlikely we can look at the current number of college educated New Yorkers and say with certainty that it is sufficient or insufficient.

Another argument aims at a much harder nut to crack: the persistent imbalance in college attendance and completion by students who are ethnic minorities and who grow up in poverty.  Even with the newly designed examinations, white and Asian students far outperformed other cohorts of students, demonstrating something else that we know: while the number of minority students in higher education has been rising from the mid-1970’s until today, white students still make up 61% of American college students.  Hispanic students currently represent 14% of college students, and African American students make up 15%.  While these numbers roughly approximate these groups’ percentages in the general population of Generation Y, they do not reflect how decreased opportunities for higher education concentrate in urban, predominantly minority, communities. While that is a conversation and debate we ought to be having, past experience with Governor Cuomo suggests that he would steer the conversation towards more charter schools, even though the charter school segment as a whole did no better than the rest of the education system on the new exams.  The Governor certainly is not eager to discuss how his budgets have forced schools to work with dwindling resources, and he has continued to use what were originally designed as emergency budget measures to keep the state’s ledgers balanced without tax increases — on the backs of poor and rural schools.  So while it would be worthwhile to discuss how to extend genuine educational opportunity to more and more students, especially those in districts afflicted with urban and rural poverty, there is really no indication at all that Governor Cuomo is interested in a full-throated debate on the topic.

Instead, he wants to revisit the state’s teacher evaluation system because he believes that with state examination results like we have seen in recent years, many more teachers must be incompetent than the current system detects.

In the classic film “Casablanca,” Captain Louis Renault is ordered by his German overseer to close Rick’s American Cafe on any grounds he can find.  Captain Renault, played by the incomparable Claude Rains, closes the cafe on the grounds that he is “shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here” — immediately before he is handed his winnings for the evening.  Governor Cuomo wants us to believe that we must get even tougher on teachers in New York because of state exam results that a) reflect what we already know about the likely college bound population of New York students and b) that are the direct result of his commissioner pegging proficiency levels to college performance.

I am not sure what his “winnings” are in this act of hypocrisy, but he doesn’t rise to Claude Rains’ level of charm in performance.


Filed under Common Core, politics, Social Justice

What Education “Reformers” Do Not Understand About Teaching and Learning

It is often hard to understand the disconnect that seems to exist between the belief of prominent figures in education reform and the reality of teaching in America’s classrooms.  For example, at the end of September, Politico published an interview with self appointed education reformer Bill Gates, whose documented support for the Common Core State Standards, mass high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to testing and charter schools has greatly influenced the reform landscape of the past decade.  Gates, perhaps taking part in the efforts of reformers to have a “new conversation” to save the Common Core, treads familiar territory for himself in this interview.  Previously, he called upon teachers to defend the Common Core by appealing to its obvious utility and comparing it to industry standardization:

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. “To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful,” he said.

He sounds off on similar themes in the Politico article, stating, ““Should Georgia have a different railroad width than anybody else? Should they teach multiplication in a different way? Oh, that’s brilliant. Who came up with that idea?”  Let me pause for a moment and give the technology mogul his due.  In industry, he is correct that standardized platforms for, say, delivering useful electricity from a wall socket, help spur technological innovations that make consumers’ lives better.  However, let me also state that the question of how to teach a child multiplication or how to read is vastly more complicated and has infinitely more variables than the question of how to attach an electric motor to a hand blender.

And besides, as teacher and blogger Peter Green notes, Gates simply does not understand the parameters of his metaphor and why it does not apply to teaching and learning.  Green writes:

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that’s a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there’s no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done– sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

Green’s point here should be crystal clear to anyone who is either connected to schooling or willing to think like those involved:  standards in education have to pay far more attention to the quality and impact of the standards than the standard of railroad gauges or electrical outlets have to because while a rail car can run along a track whatever size it is or a blender can draw electricity from an outlet regardless of its organization, a bad standard, if incentivized coercively enough will flow into instructional materials, teacher planning and assessments.  At the end of that journey, it will still be a bad standard regardless of standardization.

But even good standards are not guaranteed to leverage change in the classroom unless they are approached in manners that offer genuine support, collaboration and authentic buy in from the teachers involved in implementing them.  David Cohen, writing 24 years ago about efforts to enact mathematics reforms, presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier” in which he demonstrated that even with a teacher who was sincerely enthusiastic about teaching students to understand rather than to recite mathematics, her lack of fully understanding the conceptual changes to mathematics and her lack of a community of teachers continually working on their understanding led her to very questionable “reform” of her teaching.  Change was a three-legged stool, and with only one leg, her enthusiasm, Mrs. O was unable to really change.  The Common Core  so enthusiastically embraced by Bill Gates has the exact same problem on steroids.  Rushed in development and implementation, the standards are hardly uniformly excellent, supporting materials, similarly rushed, often confuse more than assist teachers, students, and parents in understanding expectations, and teachers have had no choice but to “buy in” to the reforms as states were required to use tests aligned with common standards if they wanted to drink at the trough of Race to the Top.  Nothing about this enterprise has demonstrated the least understanding of what it means to teach and to learn to teach.

In some ways, however, this is not a surprise.  Few of the current proponents of education reform have any classroom experience, and their knowledge of teaching and learning comes from their experiences as students in K-12 education.  Over a 13 year primary and secondary education, that translates to roughly 15,000 hours spent watching teachers teach.  No other college educated profession is so visible to the public as teachers are, and after so much time spent in the company of teachers teaching, vast swaths of the public think that they know what it is that teachers do.  Dan Lortie, in his seminal 1975 book “Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study,” dubbed this the “apprenticeship of observation,” which is largely responsible for the preconceived notions about teachers and teaching that most prospective teachers bring to their preparation.  These notions, while sincerely held and personally important to future teachers, are often simplistic and owe their formation to the narrow view of teaching one can glean simply by observing its most public performances in the classroom.  Development of content mastery, knowledge of students and their individual and collective needs as learners, a richly differentiated pedagogical repertoire that assists in transforming content into something that prompts learning, effectively managing the classroom learning environment, a reflective disposition that considers quantitative and qualitative input about how well students have learned and adjusts plans accordingly — none of that is truly visible to those who sit on the student side of the classroom except in how it is enacted in 40-60 minute long performances.

Untangling those visions of teaching and learning is one of the most interesting and difficult tasks of teacher education.  Even though much of what my students have learned from their time in K-12 school is superficial, quite a lot of it is deeply precious to them.  It is built upon the experience of working with beloved and respected teachers, and it comes from their own genuine enthusiasm for the experiences they had with content in those classrooms.  Our work in teacher education has to involve respecting that, helping students deconstruct their experiences so that they can see the craft involved in teaching, and prompting them to build upon rather than to destroy the visions with which they arrive.  I love this work, but I also recognize how difficult it can be for my students to make that journey in their time with us.  For starters, I do not have 15,000 hours in which to help them critically reflect upon their time in school, build more powerful visions of teaching and learning and teach them the pedagogical knowledge they need to enact those visions.  I have 30 credit hours, four field internships and student teaching.  Nested between the apprenticeship of observation and a, hopefully, long career teaching, university teacher education is necessarily a time when we demand a lot of prospective teachers so that they may best assist their future students.  Their journey to “the other side of the desk” is complex and packed.

It is a journey that Bill Gates has never taken himself, and I think it contributes to his almost entirely mechanistic approach to education reform: make everyone use the same thing, force compliance from teachers through assessment, wait for “innovation” to flow into the classroom via third party vendors all developing products for the same standards, and assume that everyone will get a high quality product at the end of the process.  Even if his assumptions are correct, teachers, and their learning, are left out of the process.  If learning to teach is a complex and iterative process involving close examination of preexisting ideas and critical evaluation of oneself, then learning to teach a reformed set of standards is not any less complex.  Consider again David Cohen’s lessons from Mrs. Oublier: even a teacher enthusiastic about the vision of teaching and learning embodied in a new set of standards needs far more than her enthusiasm and a new set of curriculum materials, and without a complete and robust effort to relearn how she saw mathematics and a community working together to help each other in that task, she fell far short.

This is not an implementation issue, so much as it is a perspective issue.  In the Politico interview, Gates talks about how standardizing teaching of multiplication across states is as obvious as standardizing railroads, and he calls standardization of learning at each grade level merely a “technocratic issue.”  He speaks admiringly of Asian countries that have “nice, thin textbooks,” and he calls the previous education landscape a “cacophony” simply because states had various standards.  And he also says that the standards mean that all students will be taught on what they will be tested, and “we should have great curriculum material.”  This harkens back to his previously quoted March call for teachers to “defend the core” where he promised standardization would lead to better materials.  Again, the teachers and teacher learning are missing from this process.

And that is because Bill Gates has never taught nor has he ever embarked upon the journey from student to teacher.

Despite having undertaken the task of reforming American education, Bill Gates does not understand the least thing about what it takes to become a teacher, nor does he understand the least thing about promoting teacher learning throughout the teaching career.  His reform choices and the elements that he continuously talks up as “reform” make the most sense if he thinks of teaching as the enactment of materials in the classroom, without sufficient comprehension of the long process of learning to teach that only begins with observations and assumptions gleaned from lengthy contact with teachers in classrooms.  These are assumptions about practice and how to bring about meaningful and positive change that no ed reformer would presume to make about the practice of doctors or attorneys, but they make it about teachers and learning.

And it is a big part of the reason why their enterprise is faltering.  You cannot reform what you do not understand.


Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, schools

Success Academy’s Incredible Hypocrisy

Eva Moskowitz wants to continue to expand her Success Academy chain of “no excuses” charter schools, but is concerned that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will not automatically and enthusiastically endorse her plans as was customary under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Following the model of her successful Albany rally last Spring that led to a state budget forcing New York City to pay rent for all charter schools, charter enthusiasts plan a rally for Thursday, October 2nd in Foley Square at 9am which they are dubbing “Don’t Steal Possible”.  I have seen organizers on social media promise as many as 10,000 attendees, many of whom I presume will be Success Academy teachers and students who, like the weekday rally in Albany, will be given time off from a scheduled school day to provide appropriate optics for the event.

“Don’t Steal Possible” refers to network supporters claiming that they are pleading with the de Blasio administration to not “steal” opportunities from NYC’s most struggling students who want to attend a charter school, especially a Success Academy charter school, where their success is “possible.”  Supporters have taken to Twitter with #DontStealPossible (as have detractors)  and both individuals and organizations, including Ms. Moskowitz herself, have repeated similar talking points about how their mission is driven for NYC kids “trapped” in failing schools:

The 143,000 kids that they repeatedly mention refers to a “report” from charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” that cited 371 DOE schools where student performance on the 2013 state examinations did not pass 10% being labeled as proficient.  The purpose of the rally and of Ms. Moskowitz’s expansion plans is to offer “possible” to all of those students so that they can “escape” from their failed schools.

They really have some nerve.

There are many things galling about using the students at 371 New York City schools that serve mostly impoverished minority families as optics for a plan to expand the Success Academy chain, often into neighborhoods that are not strugglingFirst, the article in the Daily News misrepresents the results of those state examinations, probably willfully.  These were the first examinations to align with the new Common Core standards, and they caused an extreme collapse of scores across the entire state.  Further, the examinations are not pegged to grade level skills in reading and mathematics. Period.  End of discussion.  “Proficient” in the new examinations is not a synonym for “grade level,” and anyone who mixes up those terms is misinformed or a liar.  Carol Burris, Principal at South Side High School, explains very clearly how the cut scores were set:

State Education Commissioner John King asked the College Board to “replicate research” to determine what PSAT and SAT scores predict first-year success in four-year colleges. The College Board was asked to correlate SAT scores with college grades to create probabilities of college success. You can read the report here.

Keep in mind that research shows that the SAT’s predictive power is only 22 percent. High school grades are a far better predictor of college success. The lack of validity of scores, without the context of grades, was not taken into consideration.

The New York study chose the following “probabilities” as the definition of college success:

* English Language Arts:  a 75 percent probability of obtaining a B- or better in a first-year college English course in a four-year college.

* Math: a 60 percent  probability of obtaining a C+ or better in a first-year math course in a four-year college….

….When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

Argue, if you must, that the new proficiency standard is the appropriate way to set up how the exams are assessed.  But don’t call it “grade level” or “passing.”  They are neither of those things, nor were they designed to be those things.

Second, Ms. Moskowitz and her supporters are pleading, they say, on behalf of those “143,000 kids,” but there is no evidence from the work of her school network so far that Ms. Moskowitz would accommodate anywhere near all of those students even if her schools had enough seats.  First off, a lottery system, while in theory neutral, already skims from a student population by requiring parents and guardians who are informed enough about the system to actually apply in the first place.  Further, once students enroll in the Success Academy network, they are subject to attrition rates and rates of discipline that far outstrip the comparable DOE schools.  Success Academy 1 had an attrition rate greater than 50% since its opening school year in 2006-2007, and the network sends clear messages to parents that they do not want struggling kids in their schools.  The result, as demonstrated by Bruce Baker of Rutgers, is that Success Academies enroll far fewer students who are coming from high poverty homes, are English language learners, or have special education needs:


Success Academy wants you to believe that they are rallying so that nobody will “Steal Possible” from the students in New York City’s most struggling public schools, but all the data available about their past and current practices suggests that even if many of those students did win lottery seats in a Success Academy, many of them would be pushed out of the school.  Those children are being used to improve the appeal of Ms. Moskowitz’s expansion plans even though probably none of them will be present at tomorrow’s rally.  After all, they have school to attend, and no NYC principal is allowed to dismiss an entire school’s worth of children to a rally to pressure the mayor and Albany.

Third, if this was really a movement to tell the public and officials to “Don’t Steal Possible,” then one would assume that there would be causes involved that aided all of our city’s children, not just the ones that win charter lottery seats and are then allowed to stay at those charters.  Again from Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers, Albany has manipulated its base state funding formula in ways that have shorted New York City somewhere between $3-4000 a YEAR per CHILD below previous calculations of state aid.  That amounts to $3-4 BILLION in state aid ANNUALLY that Albany has kept from reaching New York City.  Across the entire state of New York, the Gap Elimination Adjustment has deprived the average school district of $3.1 MILLION annually, and Governor Cuomo aggressively pursued and got a property tax cap so that districts cannot choose to make up the lost money locally.  Consider how much “possible” has absolutely been stolen from public schools in New York City and across the state by these policies, and then ask if Families for Excellent Schools and Success Academy’s wealthy backers in the financial industry will rally to change them.  The answer is, of course they won’t.  Those same donors and Ms. Moskowitz’s own PAC have donated generously to Andrew Cuomo’s campaign.

And this is the hypocrisy.  Ms. Moskowitz is going to excuse her teachers and students from a day of school to rally in alleged support of all of those kids she claims are “trapped” in “failing” DOE schools, and there is no doubt that an unacceptable number of our most vulnerable students are indeed in schools that struggle.  But there is NO evidence that Ms. Moskowitz wants all or even a bare majority of those students in HER schools.  There IS plenty of evidence that the most vulnerable children to reach a Success Academy find it very difficult to remain there, and there is incontrovertible evidence that Ms. Moskowitz and her financial backers support the reelection of a Governor who has choked schools of money for his entire first term in office.

“Don’t Steal Possible”?


UPDATE:  Courtesy of Mindy Rosier, a special education teacher in a co-located school, the Success Academy in her building has changed their normal Wednesday half-day to today, and the school is providing buses that met at 7:30am to take people to Foley Square.  The event is being billed as a “parent rally,” but with school at half day for the event, there is little doubt that many children will be accompanying them:

SA change of calendar SA bus


Filed under charter schools, Funding, politics, Social Justice