Monthly Archives: December 2014

On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

…a tightly written College English 1 essay.

And not a whole heck of a lot of anything else.

Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards.  This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards.  This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed.  However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.

I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit.  In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards.  Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development.  Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing.  P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:

Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective.  I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them.  Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.”  Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays.  Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:

As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.

His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.

Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.

Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.

Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound.  The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed);  standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;”  standard 5 puts students to work to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g. the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”

I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this.  The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses.  The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools.  It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be.  For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay?  It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools?  I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.

However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important.  Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras.  It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience.  And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves.  William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy.  There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading.  Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves.  Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.

It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.

If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain.  The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.1
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.3
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 3rd grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1
With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.2
With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.3
With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption).  I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling.  I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read.  There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool.  None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read.  As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature.  I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman.  Can I have my Tolkien back, please?

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Filed under Common Core, teaching

The only thing I can think to say about the news from Peshawar

May G-d bless and keep the children, families, teachers, and citizens of Peshawar, Pakistan.

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Filed under Uncategorized

The First Rule of Ed Reform Club is: You Do Not Talk About Ed Reform Club

For years now, advocates of the “no excuses” brand of charter school have denied the obvious.  While loudly proclaiming the test scores and graduation rates of the students who remain at their schools, they have denied that their application processes combined with the harsh discipline environments that emphasize extreme conformity to extreme behavioral expectations are forms of “cream skimming” designed to drive out students less likely to burnish their reputations as “miracle factories.”  As time has gone by and evidence piled up, this has become much harder for them to deny with even a hint of honesty.  For example, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, presented the reports of an insider at the New York City department of education on the extreme attrition at most of the so-called “miracle schools”, and demographics of these schools differ greatly from their fully public neighborhood schools.  Part of this comes from charter schools using extreme in-school discipline tactics that emphasize how only a certain type of child is welcome in the school, and discipline is often coupled with overt and covert pressure for parents to transfer struggling students out.  The evidence is by now substantial that charter schools in the “no excuses” category seek different applicants to their schools via complicated procedures prior to admissions lotteries, and once students enter they quickly seek to push out students who will not fully and promptly comply with their expectations.

Defenders claim that this evidence is misrepresented.  They claim that their attrition rates are comparable to the district schools (but they fail to mention that district schools backfill any seats vacated by children who move or transfer while many of the charters do not).  They claim that their demographics are comparable to district schools (but they tend to compare themselves to entire communities instead of the specific neighborhoods in which they locate and the fully public schools in which the co-locate).  They claim demand for their kind of school environment leads to massive waiting lists, but when students do leave, somehow the waiting list students do not move into the charters in any great numbers.  For years, the supporters of these brands of charters (Success Academy, KIPP, Uncommon Schools, etc) have defended them by obfuscating the issues of cream skimming and selective attrition and by changing the subject on the very different demographics their favored schools serve.

And then there’s President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Michael Petrilli, who broke the first rule of ed reform club: he talked about ed reform club.

The New York Times ran this “Room For Debate” piece on the question of whether or not charter schools are “cherry picking” the students they want despite their supposedly “open” lotteries for admission, and, surprisingly for the New York Times in the past few years, the balance of the authors represented the balance of the evidence: yes, charter schools HAVE been pushing out large numbers of students and their “successes” need to be evaluated with that in mind.  Mr. Petrilli did not try to deny this evidence.  Instead, he embraced it, and he declared that this was by design and desirable:

Because these are schools of choice, they have many advantages, including that everyone is there voluntarily. Thus they can make their discipline codes clear to incoming families (and teachers); those who find the approach too strict can go elsewhere.

This is a good compromise to a difficult problem: Not all parents (or educators) agree on how strict is too strict. Traditional public schools that serve all comers have to find a middle ground, as best they can, which often pleases no one. Schools of choice, including charters, need not make such compromises. That’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s not too strong to say that disruption is classroom cancer. It depresses achievement and makes schools unpleasant, unsafe and unconducive to learning. We need to think long and hard about taking tools away from schools — especially schools of choice — that allow their students to flourish.

Wow.

There have been excellent responses to the ease with which Mr. Petrilli assures us that it is okay to make so-called “disruptive students” somebody else’s problem.  Blogger Sarah Blaine notes that Mr. Petrilli is essentially “writing off ‘those kids'”:

Is it really okay to openly advocate for charter school discipline policies that weed out a significant portion of the student body (without, in most cases, replacing those expelled or “counseled out” students, of course)?

Is it really okay to say that our public schools are places of compromises that please no one?

Is it really okay to imply that public schools truly are the schools of last resort, that their highest and best purpose is to serve as dumping grounds for those students who are not good enough (or malleable enough, or terrified enough, or controllable enough) to succeed in charters?

Ms. Blaine also reported that on Twitter, Mr. Petrilli asserted that fully public schools should be allowed to force out disruptive students and that those students could always end up in alternative schools:

Ms. Blaine keenly notes what allowing schools to behave this way will result in:

Presumably in an all-charter system this will mean dumping the unwanted students into low-performing charters until those charters either kick them out or are closed and a new batch of substandard charters arise to take them on. In a mixed public/charter district, this will mean dumping those kids back into the traditional public schools, further damaged by the alienation, sense of failure, and disruption that go along with getting kicked or counseled out of a charter school. But according to Petrilli, there is no need to worry about that, since bringing stability to the lives of students with anger or behavior issues is apparently not a priority. And stratification of students in publicly funded schools is apparently “a feature, not a bug.”

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog adds to this argument by pointing out just how much of a betrayal of fundamental American values Mr. Petrilli commits:

The fundamental promise of US public education is that we will educate every single child for as long as there are children in this country. The fundamental promise of modern charters, as deftly delineated by Petrilli, is we will educate the students we feel like educating for as long as it suits us to do it. That is probably the smallest promise that any culture has made to its children in the history of ever; even elite medieval schools promised to stick around till the job was done. Charters have tried to claim success by redefining success, and their new definition is tiny and unambitious.

This is also emblematic of another forgotten American promise. Modern charters are predicated on the idea that we will no longer try to fix things. They are predicated on the idea of “escaping” bad neighborhoods, bad conditions, bad poverty– which of course means we have no intention of addressing those issues. We are standing in front of a burning building with no intention of putting the fire out. We’re just going to rescue a few kids. The right kids.

Ms. Blaine and Mr. Greene do excellent jobs highlighting the amorality of Mr. Petrilli’s position and the reality of charter school practices. His position does not withstand scrutiny in other ways as well.  First, he claims that national polls show that up to a third of teachers “know someone” who left teaching because of “discipline problems” at his school, but this does not match what we know are the key issues cited by teachers who leave the profession, especially in the early years of their careers.  It is not a very high bar to say that, among all the teachers in your school, that someone left because of not being able to implement classroom management.  Meanwhile, solid research from Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers found that no student demographic characteristics are significant to young teachers’ decisions to leave teaching in high poverty schools when school culture issues are taken into account.  While how the school manages disciplinary issues certainly factors into school culture, the teachers in the Harvard study focused primarily upon principal leadership and support for teaching and the quality of their collegial relationships.  Teachers wanted and valued administrative and collegial support in disciplinary matters, but they did not cite a need to be able to expel or push out students like at “no excuses” charter schools.

And we should rightly question just how many children Mr. Petrilli thinks all public schools, fully public district schools and charter schools alike, should be able to drive away.  Mr. Petrilli says that the attrition is a “feature not a bug” and he wants to support district schools in doing the same, but the schools he is supporting have genuinely alarming rates of student disappearance.  Success Academy 1 began its first class with 73 students in 2006, but only 32 of those students made it to complete 8th grade in Spring of 2014. North Star Academy in Newark is part of the Uncommon Schools Network and likes to brag how 100% of its seniors graduate, but what they advertise less is that only half of their students who enroll in 5th grade ever make it to 12th grade.  This kind of attrition is replicated across these networks and across cities nationwide.  Keep in mind:  these are schools that are losing up to or more than half of their students who come from a lottery pool of parents and guardians who sought these school out for their children.

And how is it that schools manage to drive away this many children?  All schools have some attrition, but “no excuses” charters employ not simply discipline, but discipline that ensures large numbers of families get the message that they do not belong.  In the same “Room For Debate” page, Ms. Marilyn Anderson Rhames, a charter school teacher in Chicago, explains how she discovered the extreme discipline that effects the children she works with:

Take, for instance, one alumnae who passed all her classes in the 9th grade but was retained because she “failed behavior.” She was extroverted and a bit rebellious as my middle school student, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had broken her charter high school’s arbitrary rules (with 37 detentions), which among other things prohibit dying hair an unnatural color (say, pink or green), wearing dangling earrings instead of studs and talking in the hallway between classes. I was shocked, however, that the punishment was to hold her back, making her take the classes she had passed again to make her attitude “college ready.”….

…The principal told me that if my former student wanted an “easier” high school, someplace that doesn’t prepare kids for college, then she was free to leave. That sounded to me like “cherry-picking,” but in reverse.

If readers express little sympathy for a “rebellious” teen, then take the case of Matthew Sprowal, a Kindergarten student in Success Academy 3 in 2008.  Young Mr. Sprowal can be easily distracted and while he was never disciplined for acting out in 3 years of preschool, in S.A. 3, he was subjected to so much behavioral “correction” that by one month in he was throwing up most mornings and asking his mother if he was going to be “fired” from school.  Mr. Sprowal is hardly an isolated case, and the Success Academy chain has discipline and suspension rates far eclipsing their fully public district peers.

Since he has stated on Twitter that he believes that district schools should be allowed to discipline in ways similar to the “no excuses” charters, and he has said that “disruption is classroom cancer,” it is worth asking Mr. Petrilli just what percentage of children in fully public schools do you think should be suspended until they drop out or transfer?  What percentage of students do you think are the equivalent of carcinogens?

I will never assert that alternative schools are never an answer for some children because, as Peter Greene notes here, some of them are genuinely innovative places that work very well with the hardest to teach children (which was supposedly the original mission of charter schools).  However, if Mr. Petrilli is to be taken at his word that the disciplinary procedures and student attrition rates of the “no excuses” charters are things to be replicated at fully public district schools, he has to accept that he is saying a vastly larger percentage of children do not “deserve” to remain within the traditional schools OR the charter schools.

Finally, Mr. Petrilli’s position demonstrates a staggering lack of imagination.  In essence, he is arguing that some students are unable to or unlikely to conform rigidly to the disciplinary expectations that he deems “necessary” for serious learning, and that it isn’t just charter schools that should be able to punish and pressure them until they leave for someplace else.  He has no answer for them; he just sees them as the “carcinogens” that create the “classroom cancer” of disruption and wants them sent away from the “good kids”.

So what is left unexamined and unadvocated for?

  • Community health and nutrition programs with greater reach than current models
  • Universal, high quality pre-K
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Co-teaching models
  • Teacher mentoring and phased entry to the classroom for novices
  • Building capacity for principal leadership
  • Embedding community services such as social workers, medical, and mental health care within the school
  • School within school programs for high achievers AND special needs/at risk students
  • Fully funding federal special education legislation

“Send the trouble makers back to district schools and then to alternative schools” explores NONE of these options, all of which are more likely to extend educational opportunities than a charter school model that is predicated on refusing to accommodate even KINDERGARTEN children who do not readily adapt to extremely narrow disciplinary expectations.

Of course, these policies will cost more money than we are currently spending, and they might require that the top 1% of income earners, who have pocketed 95% of the income gains made since the 2009 recession ended, pay more in taxes.  These same 1% denizens, just 4 of whom earned more money last year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined, would much rather take their money and “invest” it in growing charter school chains that give them a return on their investments via tax credits than pay any more of it in taxes that would go to help all of our nation’s school children.

Thanks, however, to Michael Petrilli, they can no longer claim that they really care about helping all of America’s students. At best, they just want to help a handful of the neediest whose successes will make them look good.  At worst, they are cynically manipulating the problems of educating in communities with inter-generational poverty to run up a new investment bubble until they lose interest, cash in, and run off to ruin something else — maybe our public water works.

So, thank you, Mr. Petrilli for your honesty.

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Filed under charter schools, Social Justice

Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York, is stepping down from that position and will become a senior adviser to United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  While the announcement drew praise from the usual suspects who support Dr. King’s agenda of charter schools, Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations based on test scores, supporters of traditional, fully public, schools had harsh criticisms for the outgoing Commissioner. Education activist and director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson stated:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Dr. King’s problematic tenure began in May, 2011, and he swiftly moved to push through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and accompanying testing systems that his predecessor Commissioner David Steiner had committed to when Dr. King served as his Deputy Commissioner.  This editorial, appearing in the Hudson Valley paper The Journal News, summarizes Dr. King’s time as Commissioner as “tone-deaf” and characterized by his inability to listen to criticism:

Many parents and educators in this region have offered reasonable, passionate and often convincing arguments against the growing state focus on testing, data-crunching, and evaluating teachers with a formula that is easily picked apart. But King has not been willing to engage his critics. This position has enraged many and created a bizarre stare-down between the state Education Department and many school districts that are supposed to be part of the same team.

The problems with Dr. King’s governance of NYSED are multifaceted.  The EngageNY website, set up by the State Education Department as a clearinghouse of information on the Common Core State Standards and materials designed for leaders and teachers, was quickly called out for hurried and poorly designed “resources” placed on the site when it debuted.  New York Principal Carol Burris documents in this article parents who found links to inappropriate materials under “make test prep fun”, and materials posted for modules on 8th grade algebra which included links to topics that are taught in calculus.  As with many things associated with the Common Core, the rush to both develop and implement the standards has led to a “get the product out and clean it up later” mentality that is emblematic of Dr. King’s leadership and many other reformers.

Questionable materials from EngageNY might have been overlooked by many in the public, but the CCSS are tied to high stakes testing on student proficiency in the standards — and Dr. King has been moving New York at a rapid clip in that direction as well.  Predictably, those who have had close contact with the exams have noted, within the allowed parameters of a nondisclosure agreement with testing giant Pearson, how the exams are confusing and inappropriate for the age of students who have to take them, another likely effect of their being rushed to meet Dr. King’s implementation schedule.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted earlier this year in the New York Times:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

As troubling as the quality of the exams used to assess students’ “College and Career Readiness” AND their teachers’ effectiveness is, the way that the scores were deliberately (and opaquely) engineered to rate only 30% of students as proficient and highly proficient is worse.  State officials, including Dr. King, warned that the scores from the first round of CCSS aligned testing would produce dramatically lower results, but those warnings were predicated on schools not having sufficiently aligned curriculum materials yet.  However, Principal Burris provided an in-depth analysis of how the cut scores for each level of achievement were determined, and her conclusion is troubling:  Dr. King asked for a specific analysis from the College Board on SAT scores that predict “success” in first year courses at 4 year colleges and universities, and the result of that analysis was used to determine what scores on the CCSS aligned tests would be labeled as “proficient” and “highly proficient” as the committee worked through the materials with representatives from the State Education Department.  The result was that 31% of students taking the tests scored as proficient and highly proficient — and the evidence points to the conclusion that Dr. King and the SED wanted that result.

By the way — the percentage of New York residents over 25 with a BA?  32.8%Far from finding a vast educational wasteland where only a third of students succeed, the tests found the percentage of students likely to pursue higher education.

Not that Dr. King, the Regents, or anyone from the Cuomo administration was eager to explain it that way and justifying it as a good assessment system for the entire student population.  This became painfully clear when Dr. King attempted a publicity tour of town hall meetings that erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie  in Fall of last year.  While keeping his usual calm and soft-spoken demeanor in face of extensive and heated criticism, Dr. King also remained entirely impervious to the concerns of the gathered parents and other community stakeholders.  After the Poughkeepsie forum, he also changed the schedule, canceling meetings, and switched formats so he appeared with a number of other state officials — and despite claiming the goal was to listen to concerns, nothing has dissuaded Dr. King from barreling on at full speed.  In early April of this year, he told an audience at New York University that New York was on the right path and “We’re not retreating” from the combined reforms ushered in during his tenure. In the same talk, he essentially dismissed parents who were opting their children out of the testing by saying “they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”  While Dr. King’s steadfastness earned him high praise from allies like Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and reform organizations, some lawmakers in Albany noted his poor representation of his ideas and his unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas, leading to bipartisan calls for his improvement or resignation last year.  Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D. Westchester) noted:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Assemblyman Abinanti was joined in this criticism by Republican Senator Jack Collins and New York State Allies for Public Education, and they were joined in April of this year by the New York State United Teachers’ Delegate Assembly who withdrew support for New York state’s Common Core implementation, supported parents who opt their children out of state examinations, and called for Dr. King’s removal as Commissioner.

But being a failed education reform leader is a lot like being a failed hedge fund manager — others have to live with the consequences of your actions while you get a quiet send off to another lucrative position, so Dr. King is off the join Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C.

Dr. King is obviously a greatly intelligent man.  His academic accomplishments, which include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, are appropriately described as impressive as hell.  He was born in 1975 which means that he was 22 in 1997.  According to his biography, he taught for 3 years, and joined the founding leadership team for Roxbury Prep charter school, and from there moved to become Managing Director of the Uncommon School charter network, a chain on “no excuses” and extremely high attrition charter schools in various urban communities.  Dr. King was 34 years old when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and he was 36 years old when he succeeded David Steiner as Commissioner and became the daily leader for the 7000 public and private schools, the 270 private and public colleges and universities, the 7000 public libraries, the 900 museums, the 25 public broadcasting services, and all of the different licensed professions that comprise the University of the State of New York.  He had never led a fully public school as principal, and he had never been in the leadership of a public school district.

Dr. King is an excellent example of how experience and specialized knowledge matter.  He is an impressively intelligent man who clearly impressed some very important people with his intelligence and commitment to a set of ideas for education reform.  However, understanding the complexities of public education requires both special knowledge and experience.  Public school governance is a peculiar case study where a structure that looks like a typical hierarchical bureaucracy is subjected to multiple levels of democratic control and where various stakeholders have overlapping sets of both complimentary and competing interests.  These same stakeholders are not limited in their access to the organization by the rules of top down corporate management either, and they can access the different layers of authority and practice without having to go through official channels.  Governing such a structure, as any principal or superintendent knows, takes more than intelligence and knowledge; it takes leadership, political acumen, negotiating skills, and flexibility in the face of emergent needs and complications.  While these skills may be innate, all of them are honed by experience.

If Dr. King had been a superintendent of a complex school system for ten years when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner, his intelligence and knowledge may have been tempered by a proper understanding of the complexities of public education and the skills needed to leverage the various stakeholders.  Instead, he clearly had no idea how to work with those constituencies and frequently favored opacity and rigidity when implementing major changes to something both parents and teachers take incredibly personally.

With Dr. King on the way out, there is an opportunity for New York and national union leadership to leverage a difference.  The next Commissioner will be appointed by the Regents, so the next Commissioner will still be committed to CCSS, high stakes testing, VAM based teacher evaluation, and charter schools.  However, there is no need for the next Commissioner to be closed off to all stakeholders outside of the NYSED, and there is every possibility that a Commissioner with genuine school and district leadership experience will understand how to negotiate and how to adapt to changing circumstances.  A Commissioner who has led a complex school district will be more likely to understand that leveraging complex changes requires time, resources, development, and a constant process of revising plans to respond to emergent needs that are inherently unpredictable.

I have no doubt in my mind that such a leader is exactly the kind of person that Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has no interest in appointing. But a public campaign to explain the need to the state could pressure her to seek an appointee interested in her reform agenda but with the skills that would blunt it. That is far from perfect, but the current leadership in Albany precludes the perfect.

Last month, I wrote an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and to my surprise, she contacted me directly and responded on my blog.  She responded to my concerns that union leadership was so concerned with maintaining a “seat at the table” with policy makers that the union was failing to vigorously oppose and denounce damaging policies that were coming from politicians from the union’s traditional political allies:

To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

I won’t say that President Weingarten and I are seeing exactly eye to eye here, but perhaps we are on the same step ladder.  And while the union has been more clear of late in challenging the anti-public school rhetoric coming from Albany, the compromise of continuing to engage with the policy makers, of staying at the table, is a compromise that should give the NYSUT and its parent AFT some chips to cash in.  I hope that in the coming weeks, the Regents will hear clearly, forcefully, and PUBLICLY from the teachers’ strongest representatives that our state needs a Commissioner who understands public education, knows the perspectives of the communities, parents, students, and professionals who make up public schools, and is willing to make education reform an iterative process instead of a set of rigid commandments.

New York State’s 600,000 professional teachers and million of public school students deserve a Commissioner with these experiences and skills.  And we need the most powerful voices in the state to call for that in public.

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, schools, Testing, Unions

Explaining Eric Garner to My Children

Very often, I encounter people who wonder how to explain very difficult and supposedly adult matters to young children.  Readers should know that I am not an early childhood expert; mostly, I am a parent of young children whose professional work and studies for the past 21 years has significant overlap and contact with the work of experts in early childhood development.  That gives me a slight advantage, but I would not claim expertise in this subject area.  This is how my wife and I approached explaining to our very young children, Eric Garner and the problems too many of our fellow New Yorkers have with the police department.

Our first premise from a very early age has been to be honest with our children but to seek framing that is within their actual experiences.  Cultural conservatives often seem convinced that same sex relationships and families are fully beyond the understanding of young children, but that seems far more tied to their unwillingness to call such families, well, families.  This was easy for us;  my uncle and his husband are raising three of our children’s cousins, and we traveled to Vermont for their wedding.  For several years, the apartment next door to ours was home to a gay couple raising three children.  It was simple enough to explain to our children that some families have a mommy and a daddy like ours while other families have a daddy and a daddy and others have a mommy and a mommy.  Other families may have a mommy or a daddy, and others still have grandparents, aunties and uncles helping — there are all sorts of families.  When our daughter was old enough to want to know where babies come from, we added that understanding to our explanation of families.  Not so difficult.

Explaining death was actually harder.  When our daughter was almost 4, my wife’s grandmother died.  Unsure of what our daughter could comprehend on the subject, we decided that she had to know, but that we would rely upon the wisdom of Sesame Street whose production team decided to take the death of actor Will Lee to teach children about death through the eyes of Big Bird.  In the scene, the adults have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and that he could never come back.  They assured Big Bird that the other grown ups would still be there to take care of him, that they were lucky to have known and loved their friend, and when Big Bird demanded to know why things have to be this way, Gordon tells him “Because.”  We talked in terms very much like these to our daughter to explain to her that her great grandmother had just died.  At first, we were not sure if she had understood, but the next day, she took the large stuffed toy goose that her great grandmother had made for her when she was born and carried it with her for the next week.  She understood.

So there is a principle at work here — when faced with difficult situations and concepts that may be hard to comprehend even as adults, talk with very young children honestly and in terms they can comprehend within their own experiences.

The news of the past two weeks has provided another opportunity.  With protests against the grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases continuing, our children, now in early elementary school, have encountered another difficult to understand situation regarding justice and racial profiling.  Both my wife and I are contemplating whether planned marches this upcoming weekend are events we want to go to as a family (my wife already went to a protest at Foley Square on the second day of protests).  And on Sunday, I was walking the children home from having gotten haircuts when we saw this:

I fumbled a bit as I tried to explain why that small group of people were singing hymns as they walked up the sidewalk — and why there were 3 police cruisers tailing what was likely a group of Unitarians who had just gotten out of church as several religious leaders across New York City had pledged to do.  So we sat the four members of our family, myself, my wife, our older daughter, and younger son, around our dining room table to discuss the situation.  I did not keep a verbatim record, so this is from memory.

I began by asking my daughter if she remembered anything about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her MLK Day class last year.  She thought for a moment, and she told us that he had fought to change bad laws and that he wanted all people to be able to sit “at the front of the bus” so he organized people to not use the buses anymore until that changed.  We told her that she was correct, and that that was the Montgomery bus boycott which was part of a whole movement to change laws that were unfair to people.

The next part of the conversation was difficult.  Our children go to public school in New York City, and they have classmates who are African American, but while we have told them about Dr. King and his work, we never framed it as an issue of racism.  To break down their “innocence” on the existence of racism was hard to do, and I was reminded of the characters of Scout and Jem from “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming to realize that they lived in an unjust society.  I’ve always liked Atticus Finch, so I jumped in.

“Honey, what we’ve never told you is why Dr. King had to do what he did.  Have you ever noticed that some people you know have darker skin and others have lighter skin?”

They both said yes.

“The laws Dr. King fought against were ones that said that if you had dark skin, you had to sit in the back of the bus, or you could not go to the same schools as other children, or go to the same hospital, or shop at the same stores.  A lot of people back then thought that people with dark skin were bad and should not be able to live with people with light skin, and they passed laws to force people to live like that.  And a lot of people came together and fought those laws and changed them, and that’s why we honor Dr. King today — because he worked so hard to make our country a more just place.”

Our daughter asked if certain classmates of hers might have skin dark enough to be treated badly by those laws.  We told her that was probably true — but then warned her she could not talk to them about it because it was up to their families to explain this to them when they think they were ready.  We also explained that people whose ancestors came from European countries were often called “white” and that people whose ancestors came from Africa were often called “black.”  Our son was perplexed by this and held up  cup of milk and said “But THIS is white!” Pointing to his own skin, he said “This is kind of peach.”  My wife very lovingly affirmed his observation, but tried to explain that was how people talked even if it wasn’t exactly accurate.

We still had to explain the march we had just seen, however.  “Even though Dr. King changed a lot, everything isn’t all better.  Last summer, there was a man named Eric Garner — you should remember his name, kids.  He was approached by some police officers because they thought he was doing something he should not have done.”  Our kids asked what that was.  “They say he was selling cigarettes on the street, and you aren’t allowed to sell cigarettes unless you are a store, and he wasn’t allowed to do that.  The police wanted to arrest him, but they were too rough with him, they used too much force, and this is very sad, kids, but Mr. Garner died even though he wasn’t fighting the police.  And a lot of people, a lot of people, think the police should not have done that, and your mommy and daddy agree with them.”

At this point, our daughter began to look very sad, but we kept explaining.

“And just this week, it was decided that the police who were there when Mr. Garner died won’t have to have a trial in court to answer for what happened to him.  And that’s made a lot of people even more upset and angry, and they have been protesting this all over the city.”  I felt like I was stumbling, but decided to explain why this case was so difficult for so many people.  “The reason why this is all related to Dr. King is that a lot of times, some police are not very nice to the people with darker skin that they meet.  In neighborhoods were a lot of black people live, some police are too rough and stop a lot of people who are just going about their day and that’s wrong.  So people are saying that those police need to change, and that it isn’t good that a lot of people feel like they cannot trust the police.  Do you remember how we’ve always told you that if you are lost or in trouble you can go into a store or up to a police officer and ask for help?  Well, you still can, but there are a lot of parents in this city and all over the country who wonder if they can because they don’t think the police will help them.  We need that to change.”

I could tell that our daughter was wondering if any friends of hers were affected by this.  Our son was dumbfounded.  He told us that “Some police officers have dark skin. How can they treat people with dark skin badly?”

My wife affirmed his observation, and she agreed with him that it “didn’t make sense.”  She also told both of them that most police “are good people who took the job because they wanted to help people, and they do help people every day. But some of them do the wrong thing and we should not let them do that, so it is important to say something when wrong things happen.”

I also told the children that it was okay for them to still trust police, and that they should trust police and listen to them.  But at the same time they had to understand that “not everyone is going to have the same experiences that you have.  You have to know that because you live in the same city and the same country as people who really do wonder when they can trust that police will protect them.  And we should all make certain that we do whatever we can so people aren’t treated badly because of their skin color.”

Our daughter agreed and said that the mayor should do something about it.  My wife agreed with her, and explained that he was trying to do something about it.  “Did you know the mayor’s wife is black, so their children have dark skin.  The mayor was talking to the city about how he and his wife have had to talk to their children about what to do if a police officer ever treats them badly, and there are a lot of other parents in the city who have the same talk with their children.  All the protesters this week are saying it shouldn’t be that way — no parents should have to have that conversation with their children.”

So our children have their blinders to racism removed, and time will tell just how much it impacts their thinking, but we cannot pretend they are innocent of it anymore.  And while it is painful as a parent to feel obligated to do so, it is far, far more painful for the 100s of 1000s of children of color in this city who grow up not knowing if they can trust the police to protect them or to persecute them…and for their parents who have to teach them the world is thus.  We discussed it with our children so that they can begin to understand the unjust differences between their expectations in life and the expectations of their schoolmates.  We discussed it because this cartoon by Ben Sargent describes those differences far too well:

still two americas

And if our children are going to ever help change that, they need to know about it.  They can understand it.  We need to know how to talk to them about it.

Which is a lesson, as a teacher educator, I need to be more active in promoting among my own students who will some day be teachers and whose practice of good stewardship will be vital for their future students.  Thinking about their own experiences, how they differ from so many of the young people in their care, and preparing to stand up for the dignity of those students inside and outside of school?  I have read many over the years who argue this is not the job of teachers, much like many argue young children cannot understand such complex issues.  Young children can — and teachers’ defense of their students is one of the most important tasks they can undertake.  It is all vital, and it is all related.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice, Stories

Bride of VAMenstein: No Bad Idea Gets Left Behind

When I was much younger, my grandfather, a carpenter and engineer, had an expression he was fond of saying whenever we drove through a particularly poorly designed intersection or highway interchange.  He’d grunt in disgust and comment, “Whoever built this should do the world a favor.  Design ONE more and then drop dead.”

There are times when I’d like the economists who keep insisting they can design value added models of teacher effectiveness to consider following the same advice.

On November 25th, the U.S. Department of Education released newly proposed regulations for teacher preparation in the over 1200 programs that exist across the country.  The press release stated:

“It has long been clear that as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom. It’s not just something that studies show – I hear it in my conversations with teachers, principals and parents,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often, they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much for themselves. Teachers deserve better, and our students do too. This proposal, along with our other key initiatives in supporting flexibility, equity and leadership, will help get us closer to President Obama’s goal of putting a great teacher in every classroom, and especially in our high-need schools.”

This is not a new subject for research and policy speculation.  In 1984, Judith Lanier of Michigan State University contributed a comprehensive chapter on teacher education for the 3rd Handbook of Research on Teaching.  Dr. Lanier concluded that while many spoke of the importance of teacher preparation, there were no entities willing to take robust authority for making sure its many parts worked, and that its quality remained highly spotty and often quite poor.  Since then, there have been numerous proposals to change and improve teacher preparation from the Holmes Group Reports, to the Carnegie report on teacher preparation, to John Goodlad’s proposals for preparing teachers, to the original report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.  In the 30 years since Dr. Lanier wrote her chapter, there have been numerous proposals, programs, and practices that have worked upon teacher preparation in the United States.

Now it is the turn of the Data Junkies.

The DOE announcement says states will be required to report on the performance of teacher preparation programs based upon the following:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

Some of this is benign, some of it is deceptive, and some of it is rank foolishness.  The fact that Secretary Duncan’s statement specifically cited Relay “Graduate School of Education” as an example of an innovation in teacher preparation to be held up does not lead me to a great deal of confidence.  Relay, for those who do not know, is a teacher training “graduate school” that has no actual professors of education and is not attached to an institution of higher learning.  Rather, it is an alternative program housed in North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ using its own teachers to train new hires in the methods of teaching used in North Star and allowing them both to be credentialed and to “earn” graduate degrees.  Relay and its supporters defend this because the charter school has externally impressive scores on standardized tests, but those scores come, as Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, at the expense of more than half of the students who enroll at North Star – because they never make it to graduation.  North Star enrolls over 14% fewer students on free lunch than Newark Public Schools in general, less than half as many students with disabilities, and the students with disabilities at North Star are vastly more likely to be mild or low cost to the school, including no students with autism, no emotionally disturbed students, no intellectually disabled students, and no students with multiple disabilities.  Between 5th grade and 12th grade, half of students attending North Star leave the school, and 60% of African American boys leave.

Just to be clear: The Secretary of Education for the United States of America announced new teacher preparation regulations by praising the “innovation” of a “Graduate School of Education” that does no serious graduate study, has no qualified educational researchers, and that prepares its graduates to teach the methods espoused by a charter school where an African American male student only has a 40% chance of reaching his senior year of high school.

Components of these regulations are puzzling.  The DOE wants states to keep track of teacher retention rates, presumably because of the long known problem of early career teachers leaving both assignments or the profession in high numbers.  Such a requirement raises staggering logistical challenges, as states do not readily have ways to track the careers of teachers certified in their states who teach in other states, teachers who switch teaching in a public school for a position in a private or parochial school, and teachers who take up full time graduate studies — all of which are very different than leaving because of feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared.

More troubling, such data would be largely indicative of the professional cultures and environments of the schools in which teacher preparation graduates teach.  While teacher education has worked in the past three decades to provide prospective teachers with quality experiences to reduce the long recognized “reality shock” experienced by novice teachers, such work is frequently difficult, time and resource intensive, and requires significant rethinking of the relationship between universities and schools where prospective teachers are prepared.  However, significant research also exists that demonstrates that teacher turnover is deeply tied to school factors in initial job placements that are entirely outside university control.  In no place in these regulations on preparing teachers do I see anything related to how states and communities support the local schools to promote collaborative environments that support early career educators. What I do see is a potentially perverse incentive for teacher preparation programs to steer their graduates as far away from struggling schools as possible.

Worse than this provision by far, however, is the proposal to take the already invalid concept of Value Added Measures (VAM) of teacher performance and to use the VAMs of teachers to evaluate their teacher preparation programs.  A VAM is a statistical model based on student standardized test performance that takes a student’s previous year’s test scores, claims to predict how that student will perform given a year of effective teaching, and then generates the teacher’s “value added” based on how well students do based on those predictions.  The American Statistical Association issued a clearly worded statement this year detailing the problems with VAMs, citing both the lack of tests that are valid for the purpose and the very limited impact that teachers have on student variability on standardized test performance.  Research generally agrees that teachers are a very important if not the most important in school factor for students, but research also agrees whatever teachers’ impact is, standardized tests are an exceedingly poor measure of it, accounting for only 1-14% of student variability on the tests.

Despite these inherent flaws, VAMs remain highly popular with the federal DOE which has been influenced by the Gates Foundation funded “Measures of Effective Teaching” study which claims that VAMs can be used as a component of teacher evaluation.  Jesse Rothstein of University of California at Berkeley, however, notes that the data used to justify that claim is strikingly weak, and that teachers who are effective by some measures show up as ineffective by others and vice versa.  Dr. Baker of Rutgers illustrates here that teachers whose students score high in one year (called “Irreplaceables” by Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project “thought leaders”) are not all “irreplaceable” in subsequent years (and in fact most drift all over the map), making it absolutely necessary to consider that factors outside of the classroom play significant roles in student test performance. VAMs also potentially damage teachers whose students, far from being low performers, work at an accelerated curriculum that is several years past the material directly tested on the exams used to generate VAMs.  The New York Times reported in 2011 of the tribulations of Ms. Stacy Isaacson, who was universally regarded as an outstanding mathematics teacher whose students got excellent scores on state examinations and over two dozen of whom went on to New York City’s highly selective high schools, got ranked in the 7th percentile of teachers in the city by the VAM formula used that year:

NYC VAM

Ms. Isaacson’s low percentile could not be explained to her by anyone in her administration, and the fault lay at the opaque statistical formula used to rank her based on students’ tests.  Given the inherent flaws with VAMs, my explanation is as follows.  In the New York City Value Added Model, what is circled in this picture is a real number:

NYC VAMreal

Everything circled here is the result of misapplying statistical tools used to model entire national economies to a single teacher’s classrooms:

NYC VAMfake

Anyone who knows children and their development should be troubled by VAMs because in order to believe that they work with such small samples as a single teacher’s classroom, we have to believe that the VAM can adequately account for every factor outside of a teacher’s instruction that can impact how students do on a test.  Did Johnny get an Individualized Education Plan this year that finally provides support for his dyslexia?  Are Johnny’s parents reconciling after a period of separation and his home life is stabilizing?  Has Johnny’s cognitive development reached a point where he is ready for more complex learning and will outpace previous years of instruction because children do not actually develop in straight lines?  All of these are factors that can boost a teacher’s value added score without the teacher actually having done anything especially different for Johnny.  There are as many factors not directly related to a single teacher that can negatively impact a value added score.

So let’s review: Research supporting VAMs ignores its own contradictory research.  No current standardized test is sufficiently well designed for the purpose of generating VAMs. VAMs measure teacher input on student variability in standardized test scores which is as low as 1% and only as high as 14%.  Teachers whose students score in very high percentiles in one year can have students who score far differently in subsequent years. Teachers who are effective by every other measure possible can be placed in the very bottom tier of teachers using VAMs.  This is not the kind of stuff that inspires much confidence, but the federal DOE is going to push ahead anyway.

Have really terrible measures of teacher effectiveness on your hands?  Never mind!  If you are Secretary Duncan, you have Bill Gates backed research and advocacy, and seriously flawed “research” from Michelle Rhee’s pet group to tell you otherwise.  Full speed ahead.

Of course, if you are going to blatantly ignore what a growing body of genuine research tells you about your favored reforms, it stands to reason that you will double down on them and try to push them even further into the system by measuring teacher preparation programs by the VAMs their graduates generate.  There is a lesson here that Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and an entire platoon of corporate reformers seem incapable of learning, and it has to do with learning humility when beloved projects turn out to be far more complicated and fraught with failure than anticipated.

In the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein,” the badly wounded but recovering Henry Frankenstein initially renounces his creation but is forced by his former mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, to assist a project creating a “bride” for the monster.  The monster is excited by the chance to have a companion like himself, but is quickly devastated by her immediate, terrified, rejection of him and destroys himself, Henry’s laboratory, Dr. Pretorius, and the bride, proving again that the power of life and death is not a toy to be trifled with.

I could save Secretary Duncan quite a lot of trouble if he’d just ask.

Well, that didn't go as planned, did it?

Well, that didn’t go as planned, did it?

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Filed under Gates Foundation, schools, teacher learning, Testing, VAMs

What Does It Take For Justice?

For the second time in ten days, a grand jury convened to consider criminal charges in deaths of unarmed black men killed by police officers.  Last week, it was the St. Louis county grand jury that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  This week, it was a Staten Island grand jury that did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo who put Eric Garner into a choke hold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.  Mr. Garner, who suffered from asthma and diabetes, repeated that he could not breath eleven times as the Officer Pantaleo continued to hold him around the neck and other officers pressed him against the sidewalk.  He died minutes later.  The entire incident was recorded on a cell phone camera.

Protests are going on in New York City right now as I write this, and protests are planned for tomorrow.  The back to back decisions by separate grand juries to not press any criminal charges against two different police officers in deadly confrontations with unarmed black men leads me to wonder what could it possibly take for an officer today to be held accountable for unjustified force and why these events keep happening to unarmed African American men.  It reminds me of a panel discussion hosted on NPR by Michel Martin on her show “Tell Me More” following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Her panel of African American men in broadcasting and journalism all discussed “The Talk,” a very specific conversation African American parents have with their sons about behaviors they have to avoid in public in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law.  The panelists wondered what could that talk say now in the wake of Mr. Martin’s death.  I can only imagine what they would say today.

I got the news on my way home from work, and for much of the evening, I kept finding myself looking at our kids, especially our son.  I kept thinking about the experiences that they will NOT have because of their skin color, and the momentary sense of of relief at that was repeatedly overwhelmed by unspeakable sadness and welling anger at the 100s of 1000s of parents in this city who cannot ever look at their own children with the same assurance.

It is past time to admit that the “broken windows” philosophy of policing has been a failure.  Communities that did not practice it saw similar drops in crime since the 1970s, but where it has been practiced, it has led to two generations of police trained to be aggressive and confrontational in the very communities they are meant to serve.  It has led to the vast majority of people in those communities to not be able to see police as allies in keeping the peace but as antagonists who confront and harass people abide by the law.  It violates their rights.  It puts them in danger.  And it makes police work harder and more dangerous — when police are trained to treat entire communities as suspects then how can cooperation and trust ever happen?  And when police departments nearly everywhere have become increasingly militarized, how can we avoid more and more tragedies born of tactics designed for war zones?

This isn’t a problem solely of how police have been trained to work in communities with higher crime rates.  It is a problem of what we who live in communities and neighborhoods not impacted by significant crime have demanded in order to feel “safe” from crimes that we have rarely ever been subjected to.  Our politics consistently rewards candidates who vow to be ever “tougher on crime,” leading to broken windows policing, mass incarceration, and vastly disparate incarceration and sentencing by race.  This has made a lot of people in low crime communities feel “safe” at the expense of the civil rights and hope for all elsewhere. And it has allowed opportunistic politicians to make bank bragging about how their brutal methods reduced crime while blaming communities victimized by those policies for any injustices they have suffered.

We are complicit in these injustices, especially if we keep mistaking grinding communities into submission with making society safe.

I have repeatedly written in this blog that education is a hope based enterprise.  It is exceedingly difficult to help a student learn if he or she has trouble having faith in a future where that learning will be respected and rewarded.  I can only think of two things this week that might provide some lift for those hopes.  Children and their communities need to believe that their anger is both justified and that it can become productively aimed at injustice.  And those of us not directly suffering those injustices need to start rewarding a different kind of leadership than we have for over 4 decades.

And those of us who teach? It is time to think about what it truly means to be stewards of the children in our care.  Will we challenge to comfortable?  Will we raise up the afflicted?  Will we be moral?

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice

Asking Hard Questions of Our Privileges After the Ferguson Grand Jury

Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year.  The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country.  To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular.  As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges.  As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.

Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result.  Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own.  Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates.  For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual.  Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story.  That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.

A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.

Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color.  The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem.  In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful.  The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision  as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death.  Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.

Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack.  These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it.  I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions.  He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:

Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”

The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis.  While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future.  In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today.  Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death.  Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:

I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.

Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.

Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence.  The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors.  So in 2012,  NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law.  Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.  Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.

I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done.  Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:

It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege.  So when someone tells you to  “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.

It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons.  As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender.  More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice.  I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.

I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint.  It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work.  I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town.  As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump.  Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.”  His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.

Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient.  His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling.  His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic.  I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation.  But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything.  There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me.  I have been denied no professional or social advantages.  There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.

I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment.  I am a professor of education.  I am tenured.  I am a program director at my university.  In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach.  If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher.  Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.

Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school.  I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool.  I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.

None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”.  Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country.  Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged.  Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work.  Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.

If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.

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