Monthly Archives: December 2015

What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice

Imagine, for a moment, you are a teacher predominantly of students of color.  Now imagine that one of your students’ siblings is a 12 year old playing in a public park with a toy pellet gun when police, responding to a caller who said that the gun was “probably”fake, pull their cruiser within feet of the child, jump out before the car even stops, and shoot him in the stomach within two seconds.  Or perhaps your student’s father was shopping in a Walmart where he picked up a BB gun from the store shelves, and police officers approached him and shot him without giving him any time at all to respond – despite the fact that what he was carrying was a toy from the store’s own shelves.  Or perhaps your student’s aunt or older sister is driving long distance to begin a job at her alma mater in Texas when she is pulled over for a very minor traffic violation, and during the stop, the officer becomes increasingly hostile to her legitimate questions, threatens her with his taser, violently throws her to the ground and arrests her without ever explaining why – and she is found dead in her jail cell in an alleged suicide that not one of her friends and family believes.

And now imagine that in not one of these cases is a single person even required to stand trial for deaths of young black people simply minding their own business.

Of course, these tragedies – and the infuriating aftermaths that send a chilling message about how black lives can be cut down on the slightest or imagined provocation by state actors with no fear of consequence – do not have to be directly connected to your students’ lives.  All they need to do is watch these events unfold in the news and wonder if it will ever be someone they know and love.  Or they can reflect on their own experiences with discrimination and the gradual toll it takes on their psyche.  The reality is that if you are a teacher of students of color in America, these events impact the children in your care, possibly more deeply than you have ever known.

Very talented authors with far more authentic ties to these experiences of racism and the horrendous messages we send to young people of color have written on the what these outcomes feel like and the dire sense that our society is inherently hostile to black bodies.  Charles Blow’s words upon the death of Tamir Rice are searing.  Brittany Cooper astutely points out how the system does not value black lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his teen aged son (in an article adapted from his book) about the reality of life for black people to this day:

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.

But perhaps most important, and most difficult, is the need for teachers to admit our own culpability in an oppressive social system and to join our students and their communities in actively opposing it.  School is, for better or worse, a social institution, funded and shaped by our collective aspirations – and by our numerous failings.  If our police departments openly engage in racial profiling and use selective enforcement of the law as a revenue stream, and if politically popular policies of mass incarceration leave millions of mostly black and Hispanic men unable to find work, and if the water minority children in cities like Flint drink can be replaced with toxic sources to save money, and if the right to vote itself is subject to constant and organized obstruction aimed at diffusing the impact of minority voting, can we really absolve our schools and ourselves from any responsibility for the injustices that impact so many of our students?

Individually, teachers may bear little responsibility for the school to prison pipeline and the different policies that quickly consign students to low expectations and betrayal of their right to an equitable education – although there can be no honest denial that many teachers either willingly or unthinkingly support questionable and actively harmful disciplinary practices in their schools.  But both individually and collectively, teachers can lend their voices to the public discourse on education and demand that the chief architects of school’s role in devaluing of young people of color be called out.  We can speak out against the deliberate and chronic underfunding of schools for our most vulnerable children.  We can oppose the constant threats of school closures that disproportionately impact black and Hispanic children.  We can demand to know why schools with high proportions of black and Hispanic children are most likely to have police officers who increasingly treat school disciplinary matters like law enforcement on the street.  We can argue for smaller class sizes, improved physical plants, and the replacement of rigid zero tolerance discipline with restorative justice practices.  We can call out politicians and school officials who ignore that schools cannot afford libraries or librarians and have to cut their art and music programs.

In short, we can demand, loudly and continuously, that all of our students have the schools that the most privileged in society take for granted.  For three decades now, we have replaced calls for equity and justice in schools with calls for accountability and consequences in much the same way that we have made policing and our prisons rougher and more concerned with numbers than with justice.  Those policies have failed us as a nation, and they have been catastrophic for our most vulnerable children.  Millions of children are told that the only choices they have are between chronically underfunded and decaying zoned schools or a privately operated charter school that may work to push them out of the school or whose discipline policies favor total control of behavior rather than fostering leadership. This horrendous dichotomy cannot be the best a society with 17 trillion dollar GDP can deliver.  If it is so, it is because we choose to let it be so.

Schools themselves cannot transform society, but if millions of public school teachers can demand the tools and resources we need to truly transform schools into models of social justice that fully affirm the lives of students, perhaps we can lead the way for the rest of our critical institutions.  Perhaps we can gain the moral authority to demand it.

We owe it to the children to try.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

When you are a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States, slight turns of phrase carry more weight than they do for ordinary citizens.  Former Senator and Secretary of State and front runner for the Democratic Party nomination for President Hillary Clinton is no exception.  For example, charter school advocates took multiple turns on the fainting couch when Secretary Clinton made the entirely accurate observation that many of our “high flying” charter schools do not have the same student characteristics as district schools.  For a candidate who has deep and lasting ties to organizations favoring today’s education reform and personal connections to figures like Eli Broad who are advancing plans to rapidly and massively increase charter schools, it was quite an observation which did not go unnoticed by charter advocates – or by supporters of public education.

More recently, Secretary Clinton gave public education advocates pause when, on the campaign trail in Iowa and in the midst of a larger talk about schools, she said,  “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, you know, that may not be good for the kids.”

Her comment set off a flurry of responses, mostly negative, from numerous sources for several reasons.  First, the question of schools doing “better than average” raised eyebrows as determining average performance means adding all schools’ together and then dividing the by the number of schools — in the case of K-12 public education, that’s well over 98,000 schools, a substantial portion of which would have to be “below average” because that’s how math works. Some have posed that her comment meant half of all schools would be open to being closed, but that would only be fully true if the target was “median.” Further, no matter how well schools do, there will, by definition, always be those who are “below average.”  Conceptually, it is entirely possible for every school in the country to be doing exceptionally well for all children, and there were still be schools that are below the average.

Also of concern is the implication that schools should be closed, which is one of the central tools of today’s education reform that seeks to label, pressure, and ultimately close schools using standardized test based metrics.  Secretary Clinton almost casually mentioned one of the core aspects of education reform as practiced in the United States,  indicative of how normalized the concept is even with the growing understanding that market disruption in education ends up hurting the children it claims to help, especially black and Latino children who bear the brunt of school closure as policy.  While the federal government has only a peripheral role in policy choices like this, it has played a significant role in encouraging, incentivizing, and funding the expansion of charter schools which can establish themselves in closed schools.  Secretary Clinton’s remarks carried the specter of this continuing during a Clinton administration.

So it is hardly surprising that her campaign was treated to swift and pointed remarks:

First, the good news:  The context of Secretary Clinton’s remarks were in a talk about supporting public schools in Iowa, specifically schools widely regarded as doing a good job but in danger because of Iowa’s particular budgeting laws.  Senior Spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained that Secretary Clinton was speaking against Iowa’s Governor starving rural school districts with shrinking tax bases and that her career was “a commitment to fixing struggling schools, not shutting them down.”  It is undeniable that her short comment about “below average” schools came in the context of remarks that were broadly supportive of public schools struggling in the face of policies that unfairly deny them necessary resources:

And so for the life of me, I don’t understand why your state government — and I know Governor Brandstad vetoed the money that would’ve come to help this school, and it was a bipartisan agreement. Y’know those are hard to come by these days. You had a bipartisan agreement in your legislature for more one-time student funding to help deal with some of the financial challenges that districts like this one have.

And Governor Brandstad vetoed it. Yet at the same time you have these laws which require if you have a deficit you may not be able to be a school district. It doesn’t make sense to me. When you- When you- Something is not broke, don’t break it. Right?

And this school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better-than-average job. Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.  If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids. But when you have a district that is doing a good job, it seems kinda counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.

The full talk is longer than an hour if even more context is needed:

For the sake of argument, I can also accept that “below average” was meant as a clumsy proxy for “not good.”  That’s an acceptable colloquial use, and I do not personally believe that Secretary Clinton would mean below the mathematical definition of average; she’s far too intelligent to not know what it means.  Secretary Clinton absolutely did not mean that we should seek to close nearly half the schools in the country, as was almost gleefully reported in a variety of right wing media outlets (who in their normal daily business, it should be noted for irony’s sake, are all too happy to bash public schools full of unionized teachers).

Of course, there is also bad news.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation very astutely observed that the context does not exactly absolve Secretary Clinton:

Clinton used “below average” as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what “below average” really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what’s going on in education reform. If she doesn’t understand that, she doesn’t understand some of the most fundamental problems we’re facing.

Clinton’s glib use of “wouldn’t keep any school open” shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in “closing” a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she’s glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.

This is essentially correct in my opinion, and, as mentioned above, it indicates just how normalized the current language of accountability and threats to schools is without our political landscape.  Schools are measured as successes and failures using distant measurements that are absent any locally understood input, and then they are threatened until those measures rise – or the school is closed and frequently turned over to a private operator with absolutely no accountability to local democratic institutions.  Secretary Clinton may have been, to her credit, talking about the insanity of a state government financially starving local schools, but she signaled that the essential framework of No Child Left Behind is still alive and well in our political discourse.  Given that the new Every Student Succeeds Acts simultaneously maintains annual testing and leaves significant aspects of using that data in school accountability to the states, the tone from Washington will still matter for how the states pursue the law’s requirements.

This reflects a lasting concern among scholars and advocates for public education that in the 32 years since A Nation At Risk was published and in the almost 15 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the call for accountability in our education system has been entirely unidirectional – with schools and teachers called upon to lift students and communities from poverty and inequality while the rest of society is called upon to do exactly nothing.  David Berliner wrote about this issue a decade ago as NCLB was coming into full force:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

The severity of this problem in many of our communities cannot be overstated.  Consider Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada.  According to the Nevada DOE, Whitney is a “two star” school out of a possible five stars with only 40 points out of 100 on the state’s accountability scale in the academic year ending in 2012.  Data for subgroups, such as children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English, show lower performance at Whitney than for similar children statewide, and Whitney’s overall test based performance and growth measured by tests is much lower than state averages.

Using these external measures we would have to concede that Whitney Elementary is “below average” for academics both in the mathematical sense and in the colloquial sense.  Is that the bottom line, however?  Is this a school that, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “may not be good for the kids”?

I ask because I learned about this school via a story on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, where co-host Celeste Headlee investigated the trying circumstances of America’s working poor and homeless families in the run up to the 2012 election.  Her reporting took her to Las Vegas to a family whose children attend Whitney.  I recommend reading this transcript with a box of tissues nearby:

Headlee: Rick’s kids go to the Whitney School where half of the kids are homeless.  At the Whitney, the school provides meals not just for the school day but for the weekend as well.  Kim Butterfield is a teaching assistant at Whitney.  She says her students are clearly hungry and desperate.

Butterfield: I work in the cafeteria for lunch duty, and a lot of times I would see children putting ketchup packets in their pockets, lots of them, to take home for – what they do is put a little water in them to make ketchup soup.  And just noticing the kids were very hungry, all the time.

Headlee: Without those free school meals many of these kids would not have anything to eat.  Instead of talking about TV shows or music or Facebook, these kids talk about food and how it feels to be hungry.

Child: We don’t have any dinner at home. It’s already happened five times.

Headlee: How does that feel?

Child: Well, it felt kind of weird because it felt like I was kind of getting dizzy one time.

Headlee: And like Rick’s kids, the rest of the students at the Whitney also worry about their families. Eight year old Steven says he tries hard in class, but he can’t stop thinking about his pregnant mother.

Steven:  We don’t have enough money to get the food for the baby. I feel really sad for it, so that’s why mother thinks we’re going to give it to adoption.  But I’m not sure if it costs money and the good thing about it is my mother gets to choose who it is.

Headlee: Another student, Leslie, is six but without the bubbling energy we often associate with first graders. In hushed tones, Leslie describes  what appeared on her dinner table one night.

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

Headlee: Eating rats? Is that something that happens – a lot or it happened just once?

Leslie: Once.

Headlee: Once.  Was that because she ran out of food?  Yeah. How did that make you feel?

Leslie: Sad.

 

Sherrie Gahn, Principal at Whitney, explained what occupies her students’ minds that distracts from their academics:  “The dream here is that these children will be on the same level playing field as any other child in America. We know that doesn’t happen because they are in such survival mode and they can’t possibly learn because they are not thinking about learning. They are thinking about their shoes hurting or where they are going to go to sleep at night or if they are going to have a place to sleep at night or their tummies are grumbling.”

Let’s be frank:  Whitney is obviously an extreme example of the kinds of schools where students come from struggling families and communities.  However, because of our outsized child poverty rate where 45% of children live in families that are either in or near poverty and because of our high rates of income segregation, there are a staggering number of schools classified as “high poverty” by the federal government, meaning that more than 75% of students are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program.  In the 2007-2008 school year, there were 16,122 such public elementary and secondary schools in America, 18% of all public K-12 public schools.  While the children at Whitney are in exceptionally dire straights, there many thousands of schools whose students’ families are only a few paychecks from joining them.

With that in mind, I dare anyone to look at a school that is literally all that is standing between its children and daily hunger and call it a failure – or even “below average”.  Go on.  Try.

Berliner’s concept of “two-way accountability” is absolutely essential here.  The teachers and administrators at most of our most poverty stricken schools want what is best for their children.  But for decades, they have labored in a policy environment that demands that they lift those children from poverty while the rest of society accepts zero responsibility for the policies that have ravaged their communities.  Our child poverty rate is not natural law.  In many ways it is a choice that could be addressed by policy as other nations have done.

If Secretary Clinton wants to talk about education in terms that evoke accountability, I challenge her to only do so when similarly challenging our society and our economy to be equally accountable for opportunity and for providing the resources needed for equitable opportunity to become our norm.  I challenge her to talk about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  I challenge her to talk about the estimated $197 billion in capital improvements needed in our school facilities just to get all schools to “good” condition.  I challenge her to call for full wrap around services in all “high poverty” schools and to increase Title I funding available to schools serving poor children in general.  In short, I challenge her to change the conversation on accountability to one reflected in the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

She was right on that.  She should take up that challenge now.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, Hillary Clinton, Media, NCLB, politics, Social Justice

Advice For My Students: DON’T “Teach for America”

As Fall semester slides into exams, most of my senior students turn their attention to full time student teaching.  They also begin to think very seriously about how to enter the job market for new teachers beginning their careers in the Fall.  It can be a harrowing time.  In addition to being responsible for teaching a full load of students full time and engaging in deep capstone projects based on that teaching, they have to plan how they will seek out and apply for jobs.  Adulthood and difficult choices lie directly on the other side of the most challenging work they have ever done.  I certainly cannot find fault if any of them approach it all with at least some trepidation mingled with their excitement.

So it is unsurprising that I occasionally have students who apply for and are selected to join Teach For America.  Their reasons are varied.  TFA publicly espouses many values that are congruent with my students’ sense of vocationalism in service of their future students.  TFA offers to take the confusion out of the job application process by helping them find a classroom somewhere they may have never considered on their own.  TFA carries with it an aura of selectivity and prestige, and certainly by this point in its history, the organization has connections and influence among the powerful in education policy.

However, I have advice for my students regarding applying for or accepting a position with Teach For America: Don’t do it.

I don’t come to this advice lightly, and while I respect that my students might be excited to join an organization that says it is dedicated to getting young and talented people into classrooms with our most needy students, there is literally nothing positive that Teach For America offers my students that they cannot do for themselves.  And what they package with those positives is entirely negative for our profession.  There are a number of truths about TFA that my students should consider before seeking an application.

First, Teach For America needs you far more than you need them.  TFA may be influential, and the competitive nature of their system may seem prestigious, but my students do not need Teacher For America anywhere nearly as much as TFA needs them.  Anyone willing to join TFA is making two positive commitments: 1) I will go anywhere and 2) I will teach students from vulnerable families and communities.  Well, if you are willing to do that, and you hold a valid teaching certificate, there are precious few barriers keeping you from doing just that on your own.  Many states practice reciprocal certification with other states, and in other cases, fairly minor additional requirements are all that is necessary.  For already credentialed teachers, TFA is just a middleman that makes the process of finding a job in another state less stressful, but it is hardly necessary.  I know a great many of my students are deeply committed to working with students in poverty, and I applaud them for that.  They don’t need TFA.

On the other hand, TFA does need them, or, perhaps more accurately, TFA looks better every time a fully qualified, licensed teacher joins their corps.  My students who have joined TFA arrived vastly more prepared and ready to teach than most other corps members.  They have studied child psychology, education law, general methods of teaching and content specific methods, evaluation, classroom management, and they have completed full subject majors in the content they intend to teach.  Teachers who graduate from my program also have spent 100s of hours in experienced teachers’ classrooms where they have worked one on one with students, led classroom activities, shadowed teachers’ lesson plans, and planned and taught guest lessons – all before their full time student teaching began.  Our entire program is premised on the belief that learning to teach requires careful and thoughtful entry into the classroom using ideas and skills learned from both college faculty and from practicing teachers, and it is premised on thoughtfully planned experiences in classrooms that are crucial at every stage of learning to teach.  My graduates have also completed capstone projects working closely with our faculty examining the evidence of how their teaching has promoted student learning – and they have done so using substantive evidence rather than standardized test scores.  Further, they have passed difficult examinations of their content knowledge as required by the state of New Jersey, they have maintained GPAs well above their college peers, and all of their programs of study are subject to demanding accreditation requirements.

Compare that to Teach For America’s perspective that all new teachers really need is a great attitude and a summer training institute.  While all first year teachers, even those who are exceptionally well prepared, will find the experience more than the sum of their preparation, it is without question that TFA corps members who have actually studied to become teachers are vastly more ready than their counterparts who have not.

My students also benefit TFA in another manner: they all intend to stay classroom teachers.  This isn’t something they suddenly decided to do.  This isn’t a means for them to “give back” on their way to something else.  This is a career they have been thinking about since they were much younger and to which they have dedicated their entire time in college to entering.  TFA likes to claim that a huge percentage of their corps members “stay in education,” but they use marketing language to paper over the issue.  Consider:

TFA claim 1

TFA also claims that “the most common profession for TFA alumni” is teaching.  These are cleverly stated, but hardly as impressive as TFA wants you to believe.  The first claim is worded to encourage you to believe that up to 80% of TFA alumni are working directly in schools, especially in low-income schools, but it obviously means no such thing and can mean something entirely unexpected if the definition of working “in education” is treated very loosely.  Finish TFA, go to law school, and end up working with education “foundations” or fake grassroots and advocacy organizations pushing various elements of today’s testocracy and that easily slots in with TFA’s claim.  Whether “the most common profession” of former corps members being teaching is impressive or not depends entirely on how many other professions are counted and how large a percentage stay in teaching as a career.  50% teaching out of 20 professions total would be far more impressive than, say, 15% of 20 professions.  The language TFA selects is precisely chosen to obfuscate those distinctions.

Survey research conducted with Dr. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has better news for TFA in this regard than many critics might expect, but hardly great news compared to traditionally prepared and hired teachers.  The study, conducted with TFA cohorts beginning  2000, 2001, and 2002 found that 60.5% taught in K-12 beyond their initial 2 year commitment, and 35.5% taught more than four years with 27.8% still teaching in their fifth year.  43.6% of TFA members continued teaching at their initial school past two years, but that number dropped to 14.8% at the end of four years.  Traditionally prepared education majors made up only 3.34% of corps members surveyed, but 71.3% of them taught longer than four years – well more than double of other corps members.

While not a significant portion of corps members, traditionally prepared teachers placed by TFA help bolster their image by being far more ready to teach than their modal corps members and by staying in teaching for far longer.  So when my students join TFA, they get help finding a job they could have found for themselves, and their preparation and career aspirations help TFA look better.

Second, Teach For America will challenge my students’ beliefs about quality education….but not in a good way.  Teach For America likes to claim that they do not favor charter schools over fully public schools in their placements:

TFA claim 2

This means that basically a third of corps members get placed in charter schools – which doesn’t sound like a preference until you look at the numbers.  There are just over 6000 charter schools in the country, enrolling roughly 2.3 million students.  That’s roughly 4.6% of the public schools in the country, and charter schools are only 10% or more of public schools in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.  According to the Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools account for 30% or more of schools in only 12 districts nationwide, and there are 147 districts in the country where charter schools comprise 10% or more of the K-12 enrollment in the district.  There are over 14,000 public school districts in the United States.  The nation’s largest school district, New York City, only enrolls 7% of its students in charters while Los Angeles enrolls 21% and Chicago 14%.

So, sure, Teach For America does not favor charter schools – until you look at how its placements in charters vastly outstrips the percentage of schools that are charters nationwide or the percentage of students in our three largest cities who are enrolled in charters.

And the charter sector as a whole should give my students pause.  I always tell my students to look very closely at the schools that offer them jobs to see if the school climate and leadership align with their own values, and that goes double for charter schools which are privately managed, rarely unionized, and whose leadership remains opaque to any scrutiny.  With 6000 charter schools in the country, I will not categorically tell my students to never work in one, but they have to be on the lookout for schools engaging in outright financial fraud,  schools whose real estate and management arrangements actively harm/steal from the communities that host them, and school chains that boast high test scores but also engage in disciplinary practices that violate everything my students have learned about caring for all children.  In New York City, TFA has a strong relationship with Success Academy, a controversial “no excuses” charter chain that has extremely high test scores, but whose academic culture is high pressure to the point of demeaning children and whose disciplinary practices routinely result in suspension of Kindergarten children.

My students have been taught to fulfill a promise that all children deserve an equitable opportunity to learn, not that the only children who deserve to be in school are the ones who can quickly conform to an exercise in extreme behavior modification.  But TFA has a significant preference for working with schools that do just that and then brag that they are “closing the achievement gap.”  That should worry any professional educator’s sense of ethics.

Teach For America’s own record of helping its own corps members is open to question as well.  A growing number of TFA “alumni” are publicly sharing their stories of how the organization failed them and their students. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State Sacramento shares the story of his former student who, against his advice, joined Teach For America and was placed in a “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) charter school:

I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager.  Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me….
Shame has a terrible place in this organization.  I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members.  Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members.  The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.”  Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course.  Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

My students understand that having a robust support and collegial system is crucial for good teaching, both for novices and experienced teachers, and this is validated by research demonstrating that schools with “integrated” professional cultures do the best at serving the needs of teachers at all experience levels.  It is unconscionable that TFA would take college graduates with no training in education and leave them with both minimal preparation and entirely inadequate support systems.  Worse, many former corps members explain that TFA substitutes what amounts to a cartoonish version of “grit” for actual professional learning, support, and development.

TFA appears frighteningly unconcerned with the school conditions and philosophies where they place corps members, plainly favoring working with schools engaged in practices that do not affirm educational equity.  Further, TFA fails to provide what is critical for the development of good teaching and expert teachers, preferring shallow mantras over the complex and uncertain work of professional learning.  My students are vastly more qualified than most corps members, but they should know that TFA will not help them grow further in any careful or deliberate manner.

Third, Teach For America denigrates our profession, ultimately harming children in the process.  Recently, the Center For American Progress announced its campaign called “Teach Strong” based on nine principles that are supposed to “modernize and elevate” the profession of teaching.  The campaign so far has some very strange bedfellows.  Both national teacher unions have signed on as well the as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, an organization of the nation’s  accredited university-based teacher preparation programs.  Teach for America is also a partner as well as the fairly odious “National Council of Teacher Quality,” a self-appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” whose signature “study” of teacher preparation quality was conducted by reading online course catalog materials.  Seated at the table with some allies but also with organizations long connected to the research on learning to teach and tasked with helping to improve and “elevate” teaching as a profession, one might think that TFA would take a good hard look at their own contribution.  Having signed on to a program whose stated principles include “reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates” and “provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration, and development” one might assume that Teacher For America would be willing to reconceptualize their own “preparation” of corps members with nothing more than summer training institute and demonstrably uneven and inadequate support systems once they enter the classroom.

You would think that, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, TFA’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, told The Washington Post that they see no need to change their training program, saying, “We do great, very rigorous pre-training work.”

It has been clear for some time that TFA is on the side of teacher professionalism that honestly does not care if teaching is a lifelong profession.  Consider their obvious favoritism for urban charter schools, which frequently welcome unlicensed, short term, teachers who are easily molded into the school’s way of operating without any pesky baggage like existing pedagogical knowledge or classroom experience.  TFA’s perspective on this is well summed up by their founder, Wendy Kopp, who opined, “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers….The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

What Ms. Kopp is describing is not teacher growth and development as familiar to those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children, and I doubt that even former corps members who remained teachers would agree with her.  She is describing school models that have such narrow behavioral expectations for both students and teachers that “development” is a matter of drilling people into a single, precise, way of going about business, and the preference for barely trained TFA recruits makes absolute sense because they are more easily molded.  This is closely tied to TFA’s continued insistence that its training model is up to the task of preparing young people with no teaching experience and no undergraduate teacher training for work in schools with our nation’s most vulnerable children.  The model is painfully inadequate as career teacher and former TFA corps member Gary Rubinstein has repeatedly noted in his blogging.  More recently, the Network for Public Education has hosted stories from TFA alumni highlighting their lack of preparation for the often complex classroom situations into which they were placed and the lack of continued support needed to help them and their students thrive.  Nothing about the stories host there or in the “preparation” paradigm practiced by TFA does much of anything to “elevate” our profession.

TFA likes to boast about their alumni who are leaders in education, and to be sure, there’s a long list of such alumni who have occupied influential and highly visible positions from which they have wielded power over our public schools.  Sadly, as Gary Rubinstein also observed, a great deal of that influence has been entirely negative:

….these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools….

….TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

TFA’s brand of education “leaders” are at the forefront of closing neighborhood schools in favor of opaque charters, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and breaking teacher unions.  In this school of thought, there are no problems in education of vulnerable children that require increased resources and the dedication of experienced professionals.  Rather, all that are needed are energetic but easily replaceable novices, a “no excuses” attitude, and school management that is relieved of any open and democratic accountability.  This runs counter to everything we know about our most successful schools.  Experienced teachers are more effective than novicesMoney and resources matter in educational opportunity and outcomes.  Wealthier districts have greater rates of teacher retention, significant levels of parental and community involvement and oversight – and higher test scores.  If TFA and its alumni leaders truly cared about righting the inequities in our public education system, they would demand that teachers and students in high poverty districts have equitable situations with their peers in wealthy districts.  Instead of denigrating teachers for failing to be comic book heroes, they could shine a clear light on the insanity of calling on teachers to fix some of the greatest injustices in our society armed with nothing more than youthful energy and attitude.

However, there is no sign that TFA or its enablers in board rooms, school districts, and legislative bodies across the country have the least interest in doing so.  It is past time for young people to stop lining up to “Teach For America,” and there is no reason that my students – who have earned the title of professional teacher through years of hard work – should ever join them.  I work with amazing and talented young people, many of whom are passionate about working with our schools’ most at risk children.  They can do that brilliantly, and more effectively, without Teach For America.

 

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Funding, politics, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

New York Times Editorial Board on Annual Testing: “PREECCCIIOOOUUUUSSS!”

The Editorial Board of The New York Times is a reliable source of pro-education reform articles, and yesterday they published their take on the potential new testing environment that will be ushered in if the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) is passed and signed into law.  The Board was relieved that earlier drafts which “seemed poised to weaken…its protections for impoverished children” were changed in the final legislation and urged its passage by the Senate.  What “protections” for our most vulnerable children were at stake?

Annual standardized testing of all children.

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The Board acknowledged flaws with how No Child Left Behind labeled and sanctioned schools, noting that testing well beyond federally required exams proliferated as states and school districts administered diagnostic and practice exams lest they fail to prepare students for the examination with potentially dire consequences.  They also correctly noted that the backlash against testing is justified – even if they only tangentially admit the central role of federal policy across two administrations in getting us to this point.  However, they also celebrated the preservation of annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and they approved of maintaining the requirement that schools must test 95% of all students and called it a discouragement to the opt-out movement.

The Editorial Board treads familiar, almost entirely mythological, ground with their defense of annual testing of all students:  Once upon a time, the federal government “kept doling out education money to the states no matter how abysmally their school systems performed,” and the requirement for mass standardized testing was “to make sure that students in all districts were making progress and that poor and minority students were being educated.”  This mythology is summarized by the Board’s concern that previous ESSA drafts “would have allowed state to end annual testing altogether, which would leave the country no way of knowing whether students are learning anything or not.” (emphasis added)

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This is, as usual, a staggering lack of imagination, and an insistence upon maintaining annual tests because of properties they do not possess.  Only testing every child in every grade level lets us know if children are learning.  Only testing every child in every grade allows us to hold districts and schools and teachers accountable.  If we do not test every child in every grade, then historically disadvantaged populations will be allowed to sink even further and the promise of equal opportunity will be lost.

Such statements might have been viable in 2001 when the NCLB legislation was passed with bipartisan support, but after nearly a decade and a half, there is no evidence to be found that test based accountability is telling us anything we did not already know from other means, nor is there evidence that the children whose plights provided NCLB’s rationale are prospering. To be honest, at this point in our policy cycle, it takes a love of annual standardized testing similar to Smeagol’s love of the One Ring to be blinded as to how thoroughly it has failed to improve our schools.  Consider the latest round of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress.  NAEP, dubbed “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a set of standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in 4th grade, 8th grade, and high school from all states every other year, and it is the only consistent measurement of student knowledge across 4 decades of administration.  The 2015 results were released this Fall, and they do not speak well of test-based accountability and its impact on the “achievement gap” between majority and minority children:

NCLB Era Reading Gap

If we mark the NLCB era from the 2002 test administration, then we have to conclude that, in the 8th grade reading NAEP, the gap in scores between white and black students has closed a grand total of one point.  The 4th grade gap has closed a more generous four points in the same time.  In mathematics, the NCLB era has seen a score gap in both 4th and 8th grade close all of three points.

One might suppose, given the enormous importance of annual testing of all students imagined by The Times and other testing advocates, that we must surely see far worse in data from previous eras, and to be certain, the period from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s saw distressing increases in test measured gaps before they stabilized prior to NCLB.  However, before the late 1980s, there was another picture altogether:

NAEP Reading13 year old math NAEP

In both reading and mathematics for 8th graders, 1973 through 1988 saw sharp decreases in the measured achievement gaps, closing by 21 and 22 points respectively.  While no single factor can wholly account for this, it is hardly surprising that the substantial progress towards educational equality began to erode as our nation abandoned policies of active integration and fair housing during the Reagan administration and as courts with larger conservative majorities released school districts from oversight with integration in mind.  The reality is that integration is a key improvement strategy for our nation’s most at risk students, and national policy has largely abandoned it in favor of first the standards based accountability policies of the late 1980s and the 1990s and then the test and punish policies of the NCLB era.  With soaring inequality impacting the majority of Americans and our communities and with our collective abandonment of integrated, mixed-income housing contributing to the highest levels of income segregation in the post-War period, why do we need to test every child in every grade in every year to learn that the trends which have negatively impacted almost all Americans and their communities have also impacted our schools?

The Times‘ Editorial Board betrays a staggering lack of imagination when they insist that we must test annually to know “whether students (are) learning anything or not.”  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University argues cogently that if the purpose is to use standardized test data to monitor schools and school systems, you do not need to test every child every year at all; that can be accomplished by testing samples of students every couple of years.  Further, if your goal is to know if individual students are progressing in their learning then there are far more important tools that could be used by teachers in formative assessments without any stakes attached that could inform them and parents far more effectively than a mass standardized test whose results come back well into the following school year.

It is also entirely possible to hold schools and teachers accountable without our mass testing ritual and all of the distortions it causes to genuine learning.  Grade span testing or semi-annual of student samples would give state and federal officials sufficient data to know when a closer look at a district or school is warranted (although, just like with annual testing, it does not remotely explain what will be found when looking).  There are nearly infinite alternative measures of schools such as graduation rates, suspension rates, teacher retention and turnover, teacher qualifications, class sizes, post graduation reports, student engagement, parental engagement, parent satisfaction surveys.  Every one of these items – and many others – is a way of understanding what is happening inside of a school, and while ESSA allows states to design accountability systems that use them, the role of testing data will still remain grossly outsized.  We also have alternative models of accountability that involve both community stakeholders and teachers themselves such as the local accountability and funding formula efforts in California and peer review systems that already have substantial success where they have been employed.  Robust models of teacher accountability exist, and they emphasize the role of teachers as professionals capable of engaging in substantive understanding of their own work and the role of evaluation in supporting teachers as its primary goal.

There is a limited role that standardized test data can play in a comprehensive system of school monitoring, development, and accountability, but it must play a small role at best in coordination with a system that is premised on support and development.  However, no school accountability system, regardless of premise, is capable of turning around a 40 year long, society spanning, trend towards inequality and segregation. That requires far more than clinging to annual, mass, standardized testing as our most vital means of giving every child access to an equitable education, and if The Times and other testing advocates really cannot see past that, then they are not merely shortsighted; they are clinging to damaging and delusional policies.  A bit like our, poor, deluded Smeagol and his final cry of “Precious!”

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The last supporter of annual testing?

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Media, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, standards, Testing

Preparing for the Post-NCLB World

Barring substantial shifts in the political landscape, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has just come out of the conference committee.  If passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before the end of the year.  This will officially usher us into the post No Child Left Behind era, and, as is typical with legislation nowadays, there is something in the final product to frustrate and worry pretty much everyone.  While ESSA represents tangible improvements over the widely hated NCLB, there are worrisome elements in it and a great deal of larger and more fundamental aspects are handed over to the states where we can probably expect prolonged fights over implementation.

Nineteenth Century lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe noted, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  He probably had something like the agonizing and lengthy wrangling over rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in mind when he said it, especially this final stretch when lawmakers will vote on a 1000 page long conference bill they have not read thoroughly.  And, indeed, it seems some choice bits got chopped up and inserted into this final version, notably a chance for private financial interests to make money on public education dollars.

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Consider language for Title I, Part D for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent, and at risk, section 1424 allowing funds to go to “pay for success initiatives,” and similar language in Title IV, Part A.  ESSA defines a “pay for success initiative” as a “performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector.”  The gist is that private entities can put up money as a loan for a public program and if they save money in the process of being more effective or more efficient than the public sector, they can keep a portion of the money saved. This is the kind of creative use of private philanthropy and financing that is supposed to incentivize deep pocketed entities to do good – and end up doing right well in the process.

Goldman Sachs experimented with the model in Utah by financing preschool for 595 additional children in a well regarded program, 110 of whom were expected to need special education services. After a year in the Goldman sponsored intervention, only 1 student entering Kindergarten was found to need those services, and the financial giant will now be paid $2500 per pupil per grade without special education services until students reach sixth grade when the amount of money will go down. That’ll come to $1.9 million dollars on top of the original money loaned and paid back.

Fred Klonsky, a retired Chicago teacher and current blogger, is highly skeptical both of the payments back to Goldman and of the claim that 109 students out of 110 were no longer in need of special education services after a year in preschool.  I have to admit that I share that skepticism and certainly think that social impact bond financing allowed in ESSA will require very vigilant monitoring to make certain outfits like Goldman Sachs are not creating perverse incentives to simply overlook a need and “save” money.  They are a largely unproven vehicle for creating social change, although some are organized to minimize risk for private capital while giving them a lucrative upside.  It isn’t hard to imagine who lobbied to get that language inserted into the Title I and Title IV changes then.

For that matter, as Mercedes Schneider notes in her first assessment of the bill, charter schools get a big, wet kiss, and there are grants that read as friendly to Teach for America’s role in “teacher preparation”.

So – sausage.

That said, there are many changes to the current education landscape contained in ESSA, many of them positive.  The Badass Teachers Association has a solid look of the good and the far less than good in the bill.  On the troubling side, ESL students are potentially labeled using very crude means, encouragement of merit pay, misplaced confidence in adaptive assessments and misgivings that “individualized instruction” will lead to more time in front of screens rather than with teachers, and, of greatest concern, continuation of NCLB’s requirement of annual testing of every child each year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school and it caps alternate assessments for disabled students.  However, ESSA spins much more authority for accountability and assessments to the states, includes mechanisms to improve teacher workplace conditions, prohibits the federal DOE from interfering in state laws regarding parents opting children out of state assessments, and there are positive developments for homeless children, impact aid, Native American education, state innovation and local flexibility.

Most notable, however, are the repeated smack downs of the federal Department of Education and clear prohibitions on the Secretary of Education taking an active role in shaping state policies regarding standards, assessments, and accountability systems.  Consider this from Title VIII, section 8526:

No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction developed and implemented to meet the requirements of this Act (including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or any assessment, instructional content, or curriculum aligned to such standards), nor shall anything in this Act be construed to authorize such officer or employee to do so.

I believe that when historians write the story of the Test and Punish Era of public school reform, this language will be noted as the “Take A Seat, Arne” Act of 2015.

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Education Week noted a week ago that “accountability hawks” were already unhappy with the information coming out of the conference committee.  Sandy Kress, an original designer of NCLB, worried that states were going to be allowed to create accountability systems not based on student learning.  Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, worries that states will give in to inertia and not push for improvements for their most at risk students.  Meanwhile, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals applauded the available framework, noting the removal of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements and “unworkable” school turnaround models.  The National Governors Association announced full approval for the conference bill, saying that it “restored the balance” between Washington, D.C. and the states.

So – is NCLB well and truly dead?

Not exactly, no.

While some of the worst provisions of NCLB have finally had a stake driven into their hearts, the states are still required to test and the create accountability systems, so the upshot is that making sure both those tests and the systems are fair and based upon what schools and children need will now have to be done state by state.  Monty Neill of FairTest notes that this will not be a simple matter: States still have to rank schools largely on test scores, there is ambiguity on how “additional indicators” for English Language Learners will be weighted compared to test scores, states have to identify the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores and intervene with measures designed by the state.  In other words: whether or not schools find themselves under a test and punish regime or in a monitoring and support system will largely depend upon how states treat their newly reclaimed authority.

There is no reason to believe that the advocates of test and punish will pack up shop now that the Secretary of Education has been severely limited.  After all, federal help was useful for the spread of the Common Core State Standards, the testing consortia, and the adoption of growth measures in teacher evaluation, but it was hardly to only entity to help.  Both the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers were on board with the Common Core State Standards and the shared assessments.  The Gates Foundation is certainly active in state and local education policy, using grants and other leverage to push through favored policies. Powerful private interests have financial stakes in declaring public schools failures and turning them over to private management.  They give lavishly to their allies in state government.  Think about governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – advocates of our fully public schools have our work cut out for us.

So – roll up your sleeves wherever you live and work.  This has only just started.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, ESSA, Gates Foundation, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, politics, standards, Testing, VAMs