Monthly Archives: July 2015

Dear Senator Gillibrand: Public Schools Need Advocates, Not More Punishments

Dear Senator Gillibrand:

I am writing to you today wearing a number of different hats that I hope you will respect.  First, I am a constituent living in New York City who has been pleased to vote for you in the past.  Second, I am a life long educator, having studied education at our mutual alma mater, Dartmouth College and having taught at every level of school from junior high school to graduate school since 1993.  Third, I am a scholar of public education, having earned my doctorate in 2002 and currently serving as the director of secondary education preparation programs at Seton Hall University.  Fourth, and most importantly, I am the father of two public school students whose future education depends heavily upon the incentive systems that you and your fellow lawmakers vote upon in Washington, D.C.

I am writing to you for two reasons in particular.  As Jon Stewart noted on your recent appearance on The Daily Show, you have a reputation for working across the aisle on various issues and an ability to find common ground where few believe it exists.  I am also writing because you recently voted, along with almost all other Democrats, for Amendment 2241 to the “Every Child Achieves Act” introduced by Senators Coons, Murphy, Booker, Warren, and Durbin.  According to Senator Coons’ announcement of the amendment:

Specifically, the amendment would require state accountability systems to provide additional resources and support to local schools identified as any of the following:

  • In the bottom five percent of public schools as according to the state accountability system

  • A public high school where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time

  • Any public school where economically disadvantaged, disabled, minority, or English Language Learner students are not meeting state-set goals for achievement.

The sponsors asserted that the amendment was a “serious departure” from the No Child Left Behind accountability system as it mandated no federal consequences and left it to states to determine the interventions and consequences for schools that continue to struggle.  Despite these assurances, there remained significant reasons to oppose the amendment, reasons that nearly every member of the Democratic Caucus appeared to discount.

1. The amendment baked test and punish into the ESEA re-authorization.  While the announcement made a big deal about about states determining their accountability systems and interventions, the language of the amendment continued to emphasize test based systems and even echoed the “college and career readiness” language that is emblematic of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests.  So while the amendment may have been presented as increasing state control of education and accountability, the actual language had significant emphasis on standardized testing, student growth measures, and statewide (standardized) measure(s) “which is consistent with progress toward readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.”  Informed readers of the amendment recognize a continuation of the Common Core State Standards and annual testing with the state’s required to base their accountability upon such testing.

The emphasis on quantified measures is also present in the language requiring states to create interventions for schools in the “bottom 5 percent”.  While there is little doubt that many states have significant numbers of schools that struggle and which struggle for years at a time, the need to identify the “bottom 5 percent” each and every year is a kind of trap that means no matter how well a state manages to improve its schools, there will always be a portion of them labeled as failures in need of extra interventions.  Further, by emphasizing the quantity, the amendment would have guaranteed the further primacy of testing in accountability.

It may be well-intentioned for you and your Democratic colleagues to insist that states not neglect their most distressed schools and student populations, but it is well past time to move away from annual standardized testing.  We are almost a decade and a half in the No Child Left Behind era, and the data could not be clearer: high stakes testing and consequences do not work to substantively improve schools.  Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder brilliantly called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

2. We don’t need annual testing of all children to find the problems we know are there.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University makes it very clear that testing for accountability does not need to be a disruptive or annual affair.  Using sampling methods it is entirely possible for states to get a very accurate view of what is going on in their schools, and the insistence that we need to test everyone in every school every year, is based upon false premises of how our students are distributed and about how accurately testing can reflect upon individual classrooms.  Worse, we already know how tightly coupled test results and the demographic characteristics of a community are so that we likely do not need to test in order to know which schools are likely in need of more assistance.  My colleague, Dr. Chris Tienken of Seton Hall University, very neatly demonstrated this recently with a sophisticated regression analysis of different social capital indicators that accurately predicted test scores.

Standardized testing, then, is an endeavor that is best done is the least intrusive ways possible to keep one very broad eye on the community and to use the results to see if further, more detailed, analysis is necessary or not.  By attempting to retain them as a tool of high stakes accountability, Senate Democrats sought to maintain a lever which has failed to create significant results for an entire generation of students.

3. Resources matters — Democrats’ language on that was weak.  Just as we know that schools with high percentages of students in poverty indicate schools likely to struggle, we also know that our communities with poor families tend to have large percentages of them and lack community resources as well.  The language of the amendment called for states to identify struggling schools and to ensure “identified schools have access to resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and technology” but the federal role in assisting this remains weak even as the federal government makes requirements upon states and municipalities.  While the amendment had references to many grant programs, it lay primary responsibility with the states while leaving one of the core inequalities in American education intact: how we fund schools and distribute resources.

Local funding by property taxation is an inherently unequal form of funding, and we rely upon state aid to provide additional funding, aid that is inadequate to the task.  Consider our home state of New York.  Commissioner Elia has identified 144 schools statewide that are struggling or persistently struggling as measured by state test scores.  These include schools in Albany, Buffalo, Hempstead, Mount Vernon, New York City, Rochester, Utica, and Yonkers.  It should come as no surprise that all of these districts are on the list of our most underfunded high need school districts in the state.  Based on the state’s own, inadequate, foundational aid formula, Hempstead should be getting $6,426 per pupil MORE this year than it is getting, and such accounting trickery has been played on every district in the state for years.

If the federal government were truly interested in helping our schools by holding states accountable, it would do better to focus upon how the different 50 states raise and distribute funds to our highest needs schools.

4. Test based accountability misses the real issues.  We can test and test and test some more.  We can gather as much data from those tests as we like.  But they will never tell us the underlying reasons for the gaps in test performance among our population.  Assuming that the tests are measuring worthwhile skills and knowledge, the existence of a gap in test measured performance tells us nothing about why it exists.  At its best, testing gives us an idea of where to examine more closely, but when raising the test score become a paramount concern for schools and districts, the consequences are not inherently desirable.

Can the federal government assist states and municipalities in the pursuit of an equitable education for all?  Certainly, but it would mean shifting the focus to resources and funding and away from test scores.  For example, the federal government could finally fulfill its promise of providing 40% of the cost to implement the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act which it has never done.  The federal government could listen to its own data that suggests our nation’s schools need $197 billion in capital improvements and that a full quarter of schools with more than half of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are in either fair or poor condition.  The federal government could focus improvement efforts on questions of teacher retention in our most struggling schools which, contrary to the rhetoric of those opposing teacher tenure, is a much greater problem than teachers staying too long.

The federal government could also learn from history.  After 14 years of testing and punishment, some tiny gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can be seen, but those gains are dwarfed by the closing of the student achievement gap measured through the 1970s and into the early 1980s:13 year old math NAEP

As you can see, from 1973 until 1986, the gap between White and Black 13 year-olds in mathematics shrank by 22 percentage points, at which point it began to rise again, slowly over the next decade, then decreased slightly after the passage of NCLB but at nowhere near the rate we saw from 1978 until 1986.  What explains this?  There are, of course, many possible reasons, but one that stands out in policy is that by the early 1980s we largely abandoned efforts to integrate our schools and to integrate our communities via fair housing policies.  Since the 1980s, our communities have become even more segregated by income levels, and our schools have re-segregated as well so that today, a typical African American student in 2007 attended a school where 59% of his peers were low income, up from 43% in 1989.

For almost 4 decades we have increasingly concentrated children with very great needs within communities that struggle to provide basic services and in schools that are consistently deprived to the resources and personnel they need to give the children in their care what they need to thrive. We do not need more federal accountability measures of this.  We require action aimed at the opportunity gap.

You have a deserved reputation for fairness and for finding ways to work with colleagues when others prefer to fight.  I challenge you to research these issues and bring them to your fellow lawmakers in bipartisan fashion.  I challenge to craft a federal education policy that emphasizes support and growth over test and punish. Use federal leverage with states to make sure state aid to local schools is up to their needs.  Propose the full funding of IDEA for the first time in its history.  Challenge colleagues to invest in the capital improvement needed so our children learn in buildings that are well equipped and safe.  Find federal resources that will help urban schools with recruitment, development, and retention of teachers.

And recognize that threatening schools with standardized test results cannot overcome our society-wide abandonment of integrated schools and communities.  Our public schools need advocates in Washington, not an entire caucus ready to reassert policies that distort education’s focus and ignore the real funding needs of our children’s schools.


Daniel Katz, Ph.D.


Filed under Common Core, Funding, NCLB, politics, Testing

New York State Commissioner: “Life is One Big Test” Good, Lord, IT IS NOT

When former Florida superintendent MaryEllen Elia was selected by the New York State Board of Regents to succeed John King, Jr. as Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, I predicted that parents could expect a “pro-testing charm offensive” as one of her first orders of business.  There was certainly no chance that Ms. Elia was selected in order to diminish the role of standardized testing in the state.  One of her key accomplishments in the Hillsborough school district in Florida was securing a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a teacher evaluation system that, while including mentoring and other support mechanisms, made use of “fair and accurate measures of effective teaching” which is Gates Foundation shorthand for standardized testing.  And in fact, the system she developed did use standardized test scores for 40% of teacher evaluations.  She begins her job as Commissioner now in a state where the legislature awarded Governor Andrew Cuomo his desire to make student scores on standardized tests a full 50% of the teacher evaluation matrix.  In any fair evaluation, Commissioner Elia is an acolyte of today’s Education Reform Trifecta: Common Standards, Standardized Examinations, and Test Based Teacher/School Evaluation.

So our new Commissioner has begun the anticipated charm offensive with a visit to Sweet Home Middle School in Amherst, NY.  The Erie County school district is where Commissioner Elia began her career in 1970, and she explained to the parents, teachers, and administrators there that her office will begin a review of the Common Core State Standards, accompanying assessments, and their use in teacher evaluation. At the same time as her visit, the NYSED announced that London-based publishing giant Pearson will be replaced by Questar Assessment to create the Common Core aligned mathematics and English language arts tests to be be used next year.

Commissioner Elia was also honest enough to express her belief that testing is important and that teachers should be accountable for students’ scores:

“I am not a person who believes that children shouldn’t be tested,” she said. “Life is one big test. We have to get to the point where people are at peace with that.” (emphasis added)

“Life is one big test.  We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”


Allow me to grant our new Commissioner with a fraction of a loaf: in life, people are evaluated in all kinds of circumstance, both within school and outside of school.  I have no particular interest in sheltering people, children or otherwise, from situations where evaluation is an essential component.  Further, I believe that it is important to embrace failure as both instructive and as a legitimate tool for building problem solving and problem coping skills.  Good teachers know that assisting children through the Zone of Proximal Development is both difficult and elating, and that most students will face real struggle as they tread “the distance between” their current developmental level and “the level of potential development”.  Almost any learning task worth doing is one where students will need to risk failure if they are to truly succeed in any form of sophisticated learning, and frequently new skills and knowledge have to be developed during the completion of the task.  Education is at its best when students “fail” frequently, examine the causes of their failures, make new plans, and try again.  Without evaluation in the form of goals and instructive feedback by teachers, such experiences are much more difficult and rely upon happenstance rather than teaching.

What does any of this have to do with standardized testing?  Almost nothing at all.

There are a few times in life when performance on a standardized test has some critical impact on your future. College bound secondary students taking examinations like the SAT and the ACT (although a growing number of schools either do not use examinations or are “test flexible” when it comes to admissions). Examinations such as the GRE, the LSAT, and the MCAT for entrance to graduate or professional study.  Various examinations that lead to professional licensure (PRAXIS, various state Bar exams, the USMLE, the civil service exam).  And that’s about it.  Almost every other evaluation students or professionals are subjected to are vastly different than standardized examinations, and the skill sets involved in standardized test taking are rarely significant skills when compared to the kinds of performances that students should do to truly demonstrate their readiness in a variety of life’s personal and professional endeavors.

When well written, a standardized exam which is administered unobtrusively and with very low stakes, can be a reasonable component of monitoring a school system overall.  Value added modeling when used at school or district levels can lead us to ask important questions about what some schools or districts are doing well that might be able to be replicated and which schools and districts need further investigation and possible assistance.  And that is about it, making them an important but relatively weak tool in our school improvement kit, and they certainly do not do a good job of telling us about what individual teachers are students are capable of.  Even this “next generation” of Common Core aligned tests that testing enthusiasts promise us will test actual meaningful skills fall far short of the goal and hardly justify their enormous expense and disruptive presence.  New York teacher Julie Campbell, who describes herself as in favor of standards and not opposed to testing, recently described massive flaws in the New York examinations:

The four-point extended response question is troubling in and of itself because it instructs students to: explain how Zac Sunderland from “The Young Man and the Sea” demonstrates the ideas described in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.”  After reading both passages, one might find it difficult to argue that Zac Sunderland demonstrates the ideas found in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker” because sailing solo around the world as a teenager is a pretty outrageous risk! But the question does not allow students to evaluate Zac as a risk taker and decide whether he demonstrates the ideas in the risk taker passage. Such a question, in fact, could be a good critical thinking exercise in line with the Common Core standards! Rather students are essentially given a thesis that they must defend: they MUST prove that Zac demonstrates competency in his risk/reward analysis.

So one can hardly be surprised to find an answer like this:

 One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

Do you find this to be a valid claim? Is the downside of “dying” really outweighed by the upside, “adventure”? Is this example indicative of Zac Sunderland being a “Smart Risk Taker”? I think most reasonable people would argue against this notion and surmise that the student has a flawed understanding of risk/reward based on the passage. According to Pearson and New York State, however, this response is exemplary. It gets a 4.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that testing advocates are vastly overreaching not only on kinds of meaningful skills that they can test at the mass level, but also on what kinds of uses they can tease from the results.  Commissioner Elia might believe that “life is one big test,” but it would be an appalling outcome if people “are at peace” with standardized testing and the misuse of standardized testing as some sort of sophisticated measure of what we can and cannot do.

Embedded in the Commissioner’s comment, however, is an assumption that I find not simply out of step with facts but deeply troubling if not outright sad.  “Life is one big test.”  Commissioner Elia suggests that testing is a good metaphor for life even though the kinds of tests to which she refers have almost no bearing on the important activities in which we engage throughout life, even the ones for which we are evaluated.  In fact, the tests she references have precious little to do with how we should want students to be evaluated in school except very occasionally and for low stakes reasons.  So even if we accept that her metaphor is accurate, and I do not, these are horrible evaluations to stand by as examples of life being “one big test.”

Besides, the metaphor is incomplete and a terrible way to present our lives.  While I accept and even welcome that life comes with times of evaluation, and I fully believe that it is necessary to fail at tasks in order to learn, there are simply very many times in our lives where the evaluative functions of tests have no real place.  What are some other metaphors for life  that Commissioner Elia did not mention?

Life is an exploration.  This is not news.  Children’s earliest learning comes through exploration of their surroundings and the kind of play that enables them to do so. We take in enormous amounts of information via our senses and begin to place what we know into different categories.  While we tend to think of life as exploration being most important for very young children, it is an integral part of our lives as adolescents and adults as well.  The development of interests and avocations is not restricted to early childhood development, and if we want our children to be adept in their adult lives, we have to see to their abilities to explore new locations, new information, new interests as thoroughly as their very youngest selves did as well.

Life is an investigation.  Beyond our explorations in life are our more involved investigations where we propose, examine, and draw conclusions about the world around us.  Small children, again, are masters of this, but if we are being honest, we must admit that adults need the tools of investigation in our lives too.  There are numerous circumstances, both formal and informal, where the ability to form a hypothesis based upon observation and to devise ways to test that hypothesis matter in significant ways.  Without meaningful and rich skills of investigation much of our personal and work lives would be extremely curtailed.

Life is a demonstration and performance. Whether we are constructing our interpersonal personae for others to encounter and interact with or whether we are providing evidence our ability to integrate knowledge and skills in a meaningful set of tasks, we frequently are called upon to demonstrate and to perform for others.  In school, performance based assessments are, indeed, assessments, but they have little overlap with the traditional testing and especially tradition standardized testing with which most are familiar.  Such tasks integrate exploration and investigation with skills aimed at showing how to combine knowledge, skills, and management with multiple ways of showing what has been learned.  These are capacities that matter significantly in the work world, and they also matter in our daily lives and interactions with others.  Further, professionals have to enact the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of their fields in order to provide important services for others.  Nobody is a doctor, for example, who cannot enact diagnosis, and skilled work of all kinds requires this ability as well.  It is interesting to note that in professional tasks requiring demonstration and performance, people are often evaluated, but standardize tests are far more frequently employed as gate keeping tools rather than as actual assessments of work well done.

Life is a collaboration and negotiation.  Many people assert that life is a competition, and there are certainly times when your ability to best others is of importance.  However, if you line up the frequency of times when you are directly competing with individuals next to the frequency of times when you have to rely upon and work well with others, it is not really, forgive me, a contest.  Both our personal and professional spheres contain mountains of accumulated knowledge and experience in the form of our family, peers, and colleagues, and it is monumentally wasteful to not call upon it when faced with new situations.  When parents and teachers intervene too quickly in children’s disputes, they deny children the experience of working out their differences and negotiating compromises that facility collaborative work.  The “plays well with others” mark is not just a throw away to small children on report cards – it is actually an indicator of a skill that will only grow in significance later in life.

Commissioner Elia, life is NOT “one big test.”  Life is made up of many things, and some of those things will even be evaluated.  But almost none of them resemble the kind of test you hope people make peace with.  The sooner you understand that, the sooner you will understand why New York is still a growing home for test refusal.


Filed under Uncategorized

AFT Endorses Hillary Clinton – More than 200 Days Before the Iowa Caucuses

President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, blew up my social media feeds by announcing that the union of 1.6 million would officially endorse Hillary Clinton for President of the United States — more than 200 days before voters assemble for the Iowa Caucuses on February 1, 2016.  The news makes the American Federation of Teachers the first major labor union to weigh in with an official endorsement of any candidate for President, and the union executive board insists that it was the result of careful deliberation and consultation with members:


Suffice to say that my social media feeds lean harder to the left than most, so it is likely that the immediately negative replies that came pouring in are not precisely representative:

Some critics of the early endorsement assert that this was essentially inevitable given the long time close association between Randi Weingarten and Secretary Clinton and that Ms. Weingarten sits on the board of the pro-Clinton political action committee, Priorities USA.  For her part, Ms. Weingarten and the executive board insist that the union undertook extensive outreach to members, including meetings with candidates, town halls, surveys and the use of its “You Decide” website to reach more than “1 million members.”

While AFT members I follow on social media have complained about the sample size of the official poll (1,150 members overall with a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points; 683 Democratic primary voters with a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points), I have to admit that given proper sampling methods, such sample sizes are entirely valid, even if the relatively tiny total numbers compared to the size of the union leave many members feeling left out.  It should also be noted that the survey results are a little bit “massaged” in the official announcements.  When President Weingarten says that those polled favor Hillary Clinton by a 3 to 1 margin, that is true of Democratic primary voters only.  The survey reports that the 60% of AFT members identify as either Democrats or Independents, meaning that 40% of members are Republicans or third party supporters.  Presumably, in making the statement that AFT members back the Clinton candidacy by a 3 to 1 margin, that excludes the opinions of Republican members or of independent or third party members who lean conservative.

The same survey goes on to make a number of salient points about members’ overall positive assessment of Secretary Clinton’s chances, their likelihood to vote for her over top tier Republican rivals, and their assessment of her ability to handle major issues.  Surveyed members give Secretary Clinton an 11 to 1 edge over Senator Bernie Sanders in electability, give her a 41 point edge over Sanders in “standing up for public education,” and she holds a wider margin than Senator Sanders over possible Republican nominees such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.  The report, in fact, goes well out of its way to highlight Secretary Clinton’s margins over Senator Bernie Sanders even though former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb are all declared candidates as well.

Smart money suggests that Secretary Clinton’s path to the nomination is fairly smooth (she secured 27 of 46 Democratic Senators’ endorsements by April).  However, with more than 6 months before the first contests with actual voters, it is not unreasonable to wait for a few more months while union members learn more about the candidates.  To be certain, Senator Sanders faces a huge struggle to gain enough supporters to prevent Secretary Clinton from winning the nomination.  He is enjoying strong support already in both Iowa and New Hampshire where voters’ early attention to the race may benefit him, but his national appeal to Democratic voters may peak as the contest moves to states with large non-white populations with whom he has found little traction so far.  Of course, a year out from the Iowa Caucuses in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama  was only just gaining ground on then-Senator Hillary Clinton among African American voters, so while Senator Sanders has his work cut out for him, there is time for a few surprises.

Which goes back to how the AFT polling is being presented.  Yes, it shows Secretary Clinton with large leads on many important factors — but possibly well before many members are well informed about the candidates’ positions on issues such as public education and at a point when Secretary Clinton’s almost 25 years on the national stage lends her immediate advantages in name recognition over her rivals.  By endorsing so far ahead of the actual contests, the union risks turning some members’ attention away from the candidates’ positions and it allows Secretary Clinton to claim a mantra as the public education candidate — perhaps well before she has actually earned it.

At this point, it is easy to anticipate a question: do I think that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Chris Christie would be better public education candidates?  So let me be clear.  No.  Good Lord, no.  No.  No.  No.  However, it is 2015, and if we have learned something about politicians and public education after two terms of President George W. Bush and nearly two terms of President Barack Obama, it is this:

We don’t need a public education candidate who is simply better than a likely Republican nominee.  We need a public education candidate who is better than President Barack Obama.

In 2008, candidate Obama spoke to the National Education Association two months before the election:

“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”

We know how this has turned out.  Through the Race to the Top program and promise of waivers from NCLB punitive measures, President Obama’s Department of Education has made matters even worse by pushing for the rapid adoption of common standards before anyone could assess their quality or prepare teachers for adoption, no decrease in the emphasis on tested subjects over the rest of the curriculum, and the adoption of student growth measures in individual teacher assessment — which ignores what the research says we can fairly and effectively do with test data.  While Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is staking his political future on being the nation’s biggest enemy of public sector unions, and while former Governor Jeb Bush is a devoted member of the corporate education reform club, it is not as if the Democratic Party is bereft of leading figures whose education policies line up neatly with corporate reform’s trifecta of testing, punishment, and privatizing public schools.  From New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, prominent Democrats have been influenced by and endorsed what currently passes for reform in American education.

So it frankly isn’t enough that Secretary Clinton is “electable” and that she would be somewhat better for public education than a likely rival in the national election.  I want to know if she is going to be any better than the last 7 years of the Obama administration’s education policy led by his horrendous Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and backed by an entire chorus line of Democrats taking money from the same interests leading the charge against our public schools.

Will Hillary Clinton be better if she reaches the Oval Office?

My tea leaves are not that hopeful on the subject.  How did the hedge fund front group, Democrats for Education Reform, react to Secretary Clinton’s announcement?  With elation:

“We join Democrats and Americans around the country in celebrating Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she will seek the Presidency. Hillary Clinton has a proven track record of looking out for students—from her days as Arkansas’ First Lady when she spearheaded efforts to reform and improve the state’s public schools through to her efforts as U.S. Secretary of State to stand up for the right of every child to attend school. We are hopeful that she continues that strong record, and carries on President Obama’s legacy of promoting quality teachers and benchmarks that give every student a chance to succeed no matter their background.”

DFER does not exist as some genuine grassroots efforts by rank and file Democrats to support change in education.  It is the brainchild of hedge fund managers like Whitney Tilson who invented the group to influence elected Democrats to adopt education positions more common among Republicans:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

Financed by groups like the Walton Family Foundation, DFER and its companion organization, Education Reform Now, funnel money and influence to Democrats who in turn pledge to support standardized testing, weakening teachers’ unions, and replacing public schools with privately operated charter schools.  If they are overjoyed with Secretary Clinton’s candidacy, she has some serious outreach to classroom teachers she needs to do.

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation also notes that Secretary Clinton has deep ties to the Center for American Progress whose founder, John Podesta, is serving as the chair of her campaign.  While CAP has an overall left leaning agenda, on education it has been a predictable and reliable ally of corporate reform, pushing for the Common Core standards, emphasizing testing and attacking efforts to reduce it, and generally keeping up the drum beat of rhetoric portraying our nation’s schools as failures without any serious examination of childhood and community poverty.

Both of these examples are a bit of “guilt by association,” but if the rank and file teachers who make up a union like the AFT are going to see their leadership offer the entire union’s endorsement this early in the contest, they have a right to know what Hillary Clinton would actually do as President that is significantly better for our nation’s schools than what we have suffered for a decade and half now.

What could Secretary Clinton do, right now, that would be a beginning of the outreach that should have preceded this endorsement?

  1. Instead of playing the naif on how “politics” has gotten into the Common Core State Standards, she could recognize that they were political from the very start and promise states that they will suffer no consequences if they want to genuinely evaluate them and make informed decisions about whether or not to continue.  I believe that people of good conscience can differ on the wisdom of common standards and on the quality of these standards, but it is hard to escape the deep flaws with how they were developed and disseminated with no significant public engagement and on premises of a national crisis in education that is misleading and distracting from our appalling childhood poverty levels.  If Secretary Clinton moves the conversation in that direction, I will listen.
  2. Secretary Clinton should unequivocally call out the legal assaults on teachers’ workplace protections for what they are: billionaires (David Welch) hiring millionaires (Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown) to ruin the livelihoods of middle class teachers.  In doing so, they not only rely upon entirely false narratives about what tenure is and whether or not tenured teachers are actually a root cause of struggling schools, but also they are aiming to weaken or destroy among the last large groups of unionized, middle class professionals.  If Secretary Clinton clearly denounces these efforts and pledges to support teachers under attack (as opposed to current Education Secretary Arne Duncan who essentially praised the Vergara decision), I will listen.
  3. Secretary Clinton must call for a genuine draw down of standardized testing from its current place where it threatens to consume public education, and call efforts to tie teacher job evaluations to standardized test scores what they are — failures with no backing in legitimate research.  She should denounce Secretary Duncan’s repeated insults to parents protesting how testing is consuming their children’s schools and demonstrate that she at least understands why those parents are exercising one of the few powers they have by opting their children out of the examination, data collection, and school punishment system initiated with No Child Left Behind and made worse under Race to the Top.  If she shows that she actually understands the research on teacher evaluation and that she understands and appreciates what parents are saying, I will listen.
  4. Secretary Clinton should tell Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now (and the whole host of advocacy groups out there seeking to capture policy makers and funnel as much of our educational commons into private hands as possible) to get stuffed.  I don’t pretend that this is easy.  Candidates for the Presidency need astronomical sums of cash, and these people promise it.  But Barack Obama’s Presidency and the actions of a host of other Democratic office holders has taught public education advocates that who a politicians owes for money can matter more than the voters who elected them in the first place.  But these donors are not in public education to do good; they are in it to do right well, and if Secretary Clinton refuses to accept any more support from them after having gotten the AFT endorsement, I can promise that I will listen.


Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.


Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing