Category Archives: classrooms

Who’s Afraid of Professional Teachers?

New York’s charter school sector, apparently.

Politico reports that the charter sector has potentially won a much desired prize: permission to “certify” their own teachers.  The SUNY Charter Institute, which grants charters and oversees some of the state’s most influential charter networks, released proposed regulations that would make it far easier for charter schools to meet requirements that they have certified teachers on their faculty by allowing them to bypass traditionally prepared teachers and create their own programs leading to certification.  Under the proposed regulations, individuals with a bachelor’s degree will be able to be certified with only 30 hours of coursework:

30 hours

And 100 hours of classroom practice under the supervision of an “experienced teacher”:

100 hours

100hoursb

It is important to lay this out clearly.  The New York charter sector has long worried that requirements that they have a minimum number of certified teachers on staff were becoming difficult to meet.  So now, in a flurry of deal making to get mayoral control extended, they are potentially going to be able to bypass the requirement altogether.  SUNY will allow charter schools to hire teachers without certification and then to “certify” them with coursework amounting to only 30 hours of instruction.  For comparison’s sake, a SINGLE 3 credit college course traditionally includes 30 hours of instruction.  On top of that, candidates for “certification” will need 100 hours of field experience under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher.  The proposed regulation defines “experienced” as a certified teacher.  It also defines “experienced” as a teacher who has completed a charter school program approved by the SUNY Institute, an UNCERTIFIED teacher with three year of “satisfactory” experience, or a teacher who completes Teach For America or a similar program.  This is what will  pass for teacher certification in New York’s “high performing” charter schools: 1 college course and 100 classroom hours under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher who might be no more than a just finished Teach For America corps member.  Better still, “instructors” in the program might hold a master’s degree in education or a “related field,” might be certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program and at least 3 years experience, but might just be an uncertified teacher with 3 years experience and a “track record of success based on student outcomes (read: annual test scores),” or might be a school administrator – who in many charter schools are under 30.  Candidates in the charter programs will also take required workshops on mandatory reporting of child abuse, on violence prevention, and on harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

sheldon-throwspapers

As a matter of comparison, it is worth looking at the New York State Education Department’s certification requirements for new teachers.  In order to get an initial certificate through a traditional teacher preparation program as an elementary school teacher for grades 1-6, a prospective teacher at any of the institutions on this list must complete an NYSED registered program that has been determined to contain the “studies required” to become a teacher, must be recommended to NYSED by that program, must pass the state certification exam, must pass the state content specialty exam for elementary teachers, must pass the externally evaluated performance assessment called edTPA, must take workshops on the Dignity for All Students Act, and pass a criminal background check based on their fingerprints.

And what does that preparation in an NYSED registered program look like?  City University New York – Hunter College has a program for childhood education in urban settings, and candidates in it must complete 34 credits in theory and methods across either 6 or 4 semesters.   Before reaching student teaching, candidates are placed in the field in three different semesters for a total of 225 hours in experiences that are closely aligned with their coursework and meant to guide them into greater and greater responsibility.  Student teaching is a five day a week experience for a full school day across the entire final semester in conjunction with a seminar course dedicated to the experience.

This is an example of what it takes to earn an initial certification in the state of New York.  And under current rules, charter schools can have no more than 15 uncertified teachers on faculty or have more than 30% of their faculty uncertified, whichever number is lower.  Consider that — Success Academy and other “high performing” networks authorized by SUNY would be able to bypass all of that preparation and experience represented by traditionally prepared teachers in favor of using their own teachers with extremely limited experience to “certify” new hires who have no experience whatsoever.  This is not a pathway for teachers who are professionals empowered with knowledge and experience to make the best decisions for their students, but it is a highly efficient pathway to train people with no experience and relevant knowledge into a system based upon tight behavioral controls and scripted lessons that leads to predictable results:

Further, this system almost certainly appeals to charter school chains who rely upon a rapidly turning over cohort of new teachers, some of whom stay if they adapt quickly to the in-house system, but most of whom eventually leave teaching altogether.  Shortening teacher preparation into 30 instructional hours and 100 classroom hours certainly makes it easier for these schools to recycle teachers at a rapid clip while not having to worry about regulations requiring them to retain teachers whose preparation experiences make them far more likely to want to stay in the profession – and whose accumulated coursework and classroom experiences may give them ideas of their own about how teaching and learning happen that might contradict the in-house model.  If teaching students to become “little test taking machines” does not require deep knowledge, meaningful experiences, and professional discernment, then it really does not matter if preparation to teach requires less time than obtaining a cosmetology license.

Condemnations of the proposed regulatory changes were quick.  The State Board of Regents issued a quick statement of concern, noting that  “The Board of Regents and State Education Department are focused on ensuring that strong and effective teachers with the proper training, experience and credentials are educating New York’s children in every public school – including charter schools. SUNY’s teacher certification proposal is cause for concern in maintaining this expectation.”  United University Professions, the union representing, ironically, faculty at all SUNY campuses was more forceful stating:

SUNY claims its proposed charter school teacher certification regulations “link certification to programs that have demonstrated student success and do not require teachers to complete a set of steps, tests and tasks not designed for teachers embedded in a high-quality school.” SUNY would also establish “certain parameters and requirements for charter schools that wish to operate alternative teacher preparation programs.”

“SUNY appears to be saying that schools that hire teachers who complete college teacher preparation programs and meet the state’s teacher certification standards are not high quality schools. That’s ridiculous and it undermines all the work that’s been done in our state to strengthen teacher preparation and improve the teacher certification exams and process,” said Jamie Dangler, UUP’s vice president for academics and a member of the state’s edTPA Task Force.

The New York Post gushed about the proposed regulations, claiming that it will allow experienced professionals such as engineers and lawyers to become teachers, but once you look at the pathway and the “need” it is filling, one has to seriously wonder how many experienced engineers are itching to switch careers this way?  What SUNY is really doing here is setting up charter schools, which primarily operate within urban school systems, to a lot of African American and Hispanic parents not to worry if their children’s teachers are highly educated, tested, professionals – training them to focus on test preparation above everything else just isn’t that difficult anyway.

Ironically, the regulations may very well help charter schools in the short term while creating massive problems for themselves later on.  Jersey Jazzman explains this situation very well. The draft regulations strongly imply that the certification is not transferable beyond other charter schools authorized by SUNY.  That means that teachers certified this way will not have a way to take their early career experience to public schools in New York – or anywhere else for that matter – and be considered a certified teacher.  As Jazzman points out, this is a way for charter schools to rig the labor market because they are having greater difficulty convincing certified teachers to join them, so that helps them have enough “certified” teachers without attracting ones from traditional programs.  But this will eventually put them into a bind by closing off their ability to “free ride” the public system by taking up the least expensive years of a teaching career while district schools pay experienced teachers more – even if they come over from charters.  That’s not possible with this regulation since charter school “certified” teachers will have no pathway into public school classrooms, so either charters will have to cough up better benefits and working conditions…or they will end up right back where they started with staffing shortages.

At the end of the day, the people who will suffer the most will be the families and children in New York’s SUNY authorized charter schools.  They currently know that a substantial portion of their schools’ faculty have earned certification through programs, that while not perfect by any means, emphasize knowledge, experience, and practice.  Now these schools, who largely serve urban students, will be increasingly staffed by faculty with even less experience and knowledge and who are chosen more for their capacity to be molded into the kind of people who have no qualms about turning 8 year olds into “little test taking machines.”

If the SUNY Board of Trustees is really saying that this is acceptable for anyone’s children, they should take a good long look in a mirror before voting this Fall…and then maybe send their own kids to a classroom like that.

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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, classrooms, Eva Moskowitz, New York Board of Regents, politics, racism, standards, Success Academy, teacher professsionalism

Why Are Education Activists Walking to Albany?

For more than a week, a small but determined group of public school advocates, have undertaken an ambitious and heartfelt journey: a walk of 150 miles from New York City to Albany to deliver a message.  That message?  Pay up.  After ten years of delays, excuses, cuts, and broken promises, it is past time for lawmakers and the governor to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that was decided in 2006.  That landmark ruling, itself the result of 13 years of advocacy and litigation, found that the state was failing its obligation to provide schools with the resources they needed for all children to have a “sound basic education.”  Between 2007 and 2009, the state worked out a new foundational aid formula and committed to increasing school aid across the state by 5.5 billion dollars a year.

Today, Albany remains $3.9 billion short of that goal.  Every year.  Ten years after the court ruled that increased aid was necessary.  So activists are walking from the steps of Tweed Courthouse in New York City to Albany to deliver the bill:

Albany has not always been so stubbornly unwilling to pay the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) settlement.  In fact, immediately after the settlement, Albany rewrote the aid formula and began to phase in the additional money, increasing state aid to schools by 2.3 billion dollars.  Unfortunately, twin crises for education in the Empire State struck nearly simultaneously.  The first was the Great Recession which narrowed state tax revenues and threw the budget out of balance.  This was unavoidable given the nature of the fiscal crisis across the entire country.  The second crisis was the election of Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2010.  This was probably avoidable although it was an open question at the time about just how horrible the governor would be.

Beginning with Governor Cuomo’s predecessor, Governor David Patterson, New York embarked on a two year budget overhaul aimed at reducing state spending by $5 billion in only two years without considering tax increases.  State aid to education took an immediate hit both in the total amount allocated and in the form of an accounting gimmick called the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  Using the GEA, Albany could announce a school aid budget but then take some of that money back from communities if state revenues were too low.  According to the New York State School Boards Association, by the 2014 school year, this policy, continued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, had cost the state’s schools over $8.5 billion of total aid, or more than $3 million per district per year.  Additionally,  Governor Cuomo pushed through a property tax cap early in his first term that has squeezed districts from the other side,  limiting the revenue they can raise locally.  While state aid to school has crept up over time, it was only in this year’s budget address that he suggested ending the GEA by increasing state aid over a two year window.  The effect of that is apparently a wash – ending the continued poaching of school aid to plug the rest of the budget but making no actual progress towards meeting CFE obligations.

While the Patterson budgets may have cut out of response to an acute crisis (although the refusal to consider tax increases may have made that crisis worse), Andrew Cuomo has no such excuse and hasn’t for years.  He simply prefers keeping taxes low over paying for the educational outcomes he demands from teachers and schools.  He also prefers to keep promised aid in reserve to demand policy concessions on education during the budget process even though education policy in New York resides with the Board of Regents.  In his 2015 budget address, he promised an increase in state aid of over a billion dollars – but only if his absolutely dreadful test and punish teacher evaluation priorities were enacted within the budget.  It appears that to Andrew Cuomo, the CFE settlement is not an agreement reached in court and legislated by the Assembly and Senate; rather, it is a lever that he can use to push through major changes in education policy without having to use proper channels.

Worse still, Governor Cuomo is a proponent of one of the worst habits among executives and legislators who are more interested in cutting spending than in quality education.  Call it “enoughism” if you will.  According to this point of view, if a governor or lawmaker can point to a nominally large amount of money, he can say that it is evident that we spend “enough” because the amount of money is, again, large. Cuomo made this very clear in 2014 when he said, “We spend more than any other state in the country.  It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it – and the results.”

The attraction of this reasoning is obvious.  States spend nominally large sums on public education.  If you are having trouble keeping your budget in balance and have ruled out increased taxes, trimming that sum is a tremendous temptation.  Further, the number is likely to be large enough to impress constituents.  The 2016 budget recommendations from the Cuomo administration called for $24.22 billion in school aid.  In anybody’s personal experience that is a tremendous amount of money, and it averages out to $9,131 per K-12 student in the state.  Once you add on local revenue and various federal sources for education, and you get a statewide average above $19,000 per student each year.

Is that enough?

The answer to that question is dependent not upon the amount spent, as Governor Cuomo insists, but upon what needs to be spent to meet the requirement of a quality education for every child- which is an entirely different question.  Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has been consistent and clear on this in New York: 1) New York’s estimate on the need was lowballed and then underfunded; 2) New York’s school financing system is inequitable; 3) This has had tangible detrimental impacts, especially in small cities upstate; 4) These detrimental impacts have fed into an accountability system that punishes districts already struggling.  In fact, Dr. Baker found that most of the districts consistently criticized by the governor for poor performance are also the most underfunded districts.

It isn’t enough to simply look at large numbers and declare that they are “enough” by virtue of being large.  You have to identify the actual cost of doing the work properly and evaluate your spending from that starting point.

Dr. Baker’s analysis is technical, but it is unlikely that any New York parents of school aged children have not noticed the struggles in their districts. $3 million a year in GEA funding cuts compounded over 7 years alone is a huge impact even without accounting for the missing foundational aid.  In some New York City schools, parents are asked to raise funds so their schools can hire reading intervention specialists.  Some schools might be able to use Federal Title I funds for such essential personnel, but there is no guarantee, and besides, literacy is a core academic mission of K-12 schooling.  It is fairly obvious that when any school has to fund raise for reading teachers that basic funding is inadequate and that a rich program including the arts and languages and science will suffer.  This is a story that is replicated daily across the Empire State, and especially in schools where parents cannot possibly raise half a million dollars in a single year.

Governor Cuomo’s office has called the 150 mile walk to Albany a “stunt.” It is anything but.  It is a reminder that our elected officials in Albany have had ten years to fulfill a promise to New York’s children. Enough is enough.

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Filed under classrooms, Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, Social Justice

New Jersey <3's PARCC

Garden State teachers and students returned to school this month to find that both the state board of education and department of education have declared undying love and devotion to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  The decisions, made when presumably fewer people were looking, first enshrined the controversial assessments as the sole standardized exam accepted to meet graduation requirements for New Jersey high school students beginning in 2021, and for extra measure the state tripled the weight that those exams will play in teacher evaluations beginning this year.  It was a very busy summer for questionable examinations and discredited evaluations.

New Jersey has long required students to pass either a basic competency test or one of a range of tests used in the college application process in order to graduate, allowing students to assemble a portfolio of grades and other materials if an adequate test score is not recorded after attempting the exams.  This layered approach to a testing requirement made sense when applied to the entirety of the state.  After all, the requirement is to find a minimum level of competency required to graduate, so the logical option would be to give students different ways of demonstrating that competency and being certain that you are looking for what can be reasonably expected for students graduating from the state’s 586 school districts.  Moreover, it is a nod to simple reality:  high school students do not, as a whole, care a lot about proficiency exams administered as part of state accountability systems, although students with college ambitions have plenty of reasons to care about SAT, ACT, or advanced placement exams that carry actual personal consequences.  Washington D.C.’s Wilson High School saw this very phenomenon this year where students openly admitted that they skipped or ignored the PARCC exams to focus on advanced placement tests scheduled for the following week.

New Jersey will have none of that now.  By making PARCC the sole examination allowed for graduation, the state is telling all high school students they must take the state’s accountability exam seriously or face the possibility of not graduating.  It is also aiming directly at New Jersey’s Opt Out movement which, while not the same force across the Hudson in New York, still boasted tens of 1000s of students refusing PARCC with 15% of 11th graders refusing the exams in 2015.  That option will be vastly more problematic beginning in 2021, and parents who considered opting out in younger grades could easily be intimidated into not making that decision.  New Jersey’s rationale for making PARCC the sole manner for meeting graduation requirements seems aimed primarily at forcing reluctant students and families to take PARCC seriously.  As policy, this is a lot of stick with very little carrot.

It might also be illegal.  Sarah Blaine, an education activist, blogger, and attorney, wrote cogently back in May that the new regulations seem to contradict the law they intend to implement.  The state is required to administer a test for all students in 11th grade, and that test must “measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.”  Ms. Blaine notes that the 10th grade ELA test will not be given to all 11th graders statewide by definition.  Further, she correctly notes that the content in the Algebra I test is taken by many New Jersey students as early as junior high school, leaving them in the ridiculous position of securing their “minimum” competency in math before they have even enrolled in high school.

Ms. Blaine was also correct when she noted that the state testing requirement only allows the state to deny a diploma to a student who does not meet the minimum basic skills — and the PARCC exam is, by design, not a measure of those skills at the 4 and 5 cut score levels.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  whatever else PARCC aims to measure, it is obvious from both available content and the results themselves that it is not an examination of grade level basic competenceNew Jersey boasted some significant improvements from the 2015 PARCC administration in 2016 (some of which might be explained by increased participation); the percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 on the 10th grade ELA exam was 44.4% compared to 36.6% in 2015, and the percentage of students scoring that on the Algebra I exam was 41.2% compared to 35% in 2015.  These gains are significant but would still leave more than half of New Jersey high school students ineligible to graduate.  Commissioner Hespe claims “Those are areas we know we have work to do,” but given that PARCC in 2015 pretty closely matched New Jersey’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

…and given that NAEP proficiency levels are not meant to measure minimum grade level expectations, the Commissioner can promise to work all he wants…he’s working with an examination whose proficiency levels are looking for and labeling advanced students.  We can have a very fruitful and important conversation about the unequal distribution of students scoring at those levels and about the unequal distributions of educational opportunity in the state – but not while threatening to withhold high school diplomas simply because students are not getting straight As.

Increasing the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores from 10% to 30% was always a threat waiting in the wings, but it remains a giant blunder of an idea.  New Jersey decreased its Student Growth Percentile (SGP) component in deference to the newness of PARCC in the Garden State, but increased familiarity with the exam does not mean that the bulk of the evidence is in favor of using growth measures to evaluate teachers.  If you like the expression “arbitrary and capricious,” you will enjoy the next 3-5 years in New Jersey as the state tries to fend off lawsuits from teachers inappropriately labeled as ineffective due to SGPs and as it tries (and likely fails) to explain why SGPs that more effectively measure student characteristics than teacher effectiveness should be used in evaluating teachers.  Fans of legal briefs should be popping the popcorn sometime next Spring.

Predicting the future is not exactly easy.  New Jersey’s $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC has two years left, by which time Governor Chris Christie will no longer be in Trenton.  For that matter, PARCC’s long term health is legitimately in question.  The consortium web site no longer boasts a map of states using the exam on its homepage because in 2011, they were able to boast of 25 participating states that “collectively educate more than 31 million public K-12 students in the United States, over 60% of all students enrolled in the nation’s public schools.”  In the 2015-2016 school year, they had “eight fully participating states” and now offer a “tiered approach” for non-participating states to access PARCC content.  I’m not taking bets on PARCC dying any time soon, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone place similar bets on it surviving either.

One prediction is pretty simple, however.  In New Jersey, PARCC will become a de facto curriculum and disrupt even more children’s education.  We have seen this over and over again in the No Child Left Behind era, and while the new federal education law grants states more flexibility on how they use accountability testing, New Jersey has chosen to double down on the test and punish policies of the past 15 years.  School children in New Jersey, especially those in struggling districts, will get less science, less social studies, less art and music, and our youngest children will get a lot less play – and far more test preparation.   The Class of 2021 will begin ninth grade algebra in a little less than a year, and a substantial percentage of those taking the course will find out that they do not qualify to graduate after only one year of high school and will scramble to repeat the exam (at whose expense?) or assemble other evidence of their “basic competence” for the Commissioner to review.  The state DOE will take certain districts to the wood shed for plummeting graduation rates, and various parent coalitions will sue over the use of a test that violates the letter and spirit of the law as a graduation requirement.  My bet for the next few years in New Jersey?

fasten-your-seatbelts-o

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, ESSA, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, standards, Testing, VAMs

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

The Price of “Success”

At the end of 2014, the rapidly expanding Success Academy charter school network in New York City announced they would hire an in house ethnographer.  At the time, the network had 9,400 students in grades K-9 across 32 schools and had plans for further expansion.  The job description for the opening read:

“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”

At the time, seeking a genuine social scientist to truly study the network gained high praise from representatives of the charter sector in public education such as Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who said the move was unique among charter schools across the nation.

The post was filled by Dr. Roy Germano who got to work in early 2015, examining the culture of Success Academy and seeking potential research questions to help the network focus, as they said, on things they’d “never thought to ask.”  Dr. Germano’s early work appeared to center on the high pressure and test-score centered professional culture of the charter school network, and the potential consequences that might have for teacher and administrator behavior.  According to documents that were obtained by PoliticoNewYork, Dr. Germano used his early investigations to write a proposal for a study of possible cheating by teachers within the network in response to the organization’s incentive structure.  Dr. Germano had no conclusive proof of cheating, but his interest stemmed from various examples teachers explained to him in interviews of colleagues correcting student work or suggesting that they “rethink” their answers, and to parallels he drew between Success’ high stakes environment and the Atlanta Public Schools where widespread cheating on standardized examinations eventually surfaced.  Dr. Germano further noted that “there are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

The research proposal and reasons for the concern rocked the higher administration at Success Academy to its core, and immediately resulted in a top to bottom self examination of incentives and practices that might negatively impact teaching and learning within the network.  Principals were directed to give Dr. Germano full access to faculty and students and to begin a careful process of reviewing how they support teachers in fostering genuine student learning where high test scores are the outcome of an ethical and deeply enriched school environment.  The reward and career advancement structure at the network was immediately scrutinized to determine what changes could be made to be absolutely sure that rewards and bonuses do not incentivize questionable practices, and the policy of publicly stack ranking teachers based on student test scores came under question as well.  Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz recently announced that she is “eagerly awaiting” the results of Dr. Germano’s research and learning what the network can do to continuously improve.

Ha, ha – just kidding.  She totally banned him from the schools, fired him, and wrote nasty memos about him to the staff.

Dr. Germano, who now works as a research professor at New York University, was apparently required to write a follow up report in which he noted: “I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report…I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’”  He also noted in that follow up, “Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews.” Spokesperson Stefan Friedman told Politico: “As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation…Any suggestion that we utilized these methods — or anything untoward — on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”

Dr. Germano’s proposed research was submitted to Success in May of 2015.  By August, he was dismissed after having been forbidden to visit schools.  With such a severe reaction and so quick a dismissal, Mr. Friedman’s assertion that Success Academy “conducted a thorough investigation” is plainly laughable.  So much for asking questions.

Dr. Germano’s questions actually come as no surprise to those who have watched Success Academy closely, nor does his prompt dismissal after actually doing the job for which he was supposedly hired.  The pressure cooker atmosphere and singular focus on standardized test results has been evident at the rapidly growing network since at least 2010, when Success Academy’s Paul Fucaloro openly told New York Magazine that his program turned their students “into little test taking machines,” and he actually said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” blaming bad parenting for most special needs students.  In the same article, other sources says that students who do not bend to the Success Academy method were counseled out and that founder Eva Moskowitz told the staff that “Success Academy is not a social service agency.”

A year later, The New York Times ran a story on the subtle and direct ways that the network tries to rid itself of students who do not quickly and completely comply.  The story described the experiences of Kevin Sprowal who, mere weeks into his Kindergarten year, was throwing up most mornings before school because of the constant and increasing punishments.  Recently, a series of news stories have placed further emphasis on the high pressure environment in the network.  In April of 2015, Kate Taylor ran a story in The New York Times highlighting both the very high test score results and the extreme pressure environment within Success Academy – including an incentive system for students that include publicly shaming students with low test scores.  On October 12th, veteran education reporter John Merrow did an extended segment on the PBS Newshour on the use of out of school suspensions at Success Academy – for children as young as Kindergarten:

Eva Moskowitz retaliated by lobbing a lengthy complaint against Mr. Merrow at PBS and by publishing a response that included federally protected information identifying the disciplinary record of a former Success Academy student who appeared on camera.  This earned her a cease and desist order and a formal complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education.

Before October was over, The New York Times ran another story on Success Academy – this time, a “got to go list” was leaked from Success Academy in Fort Green, Brooklyn.  In addition to the shocking targeting of specific students, other sources confirmed practices across the network such as not sending automatic re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and a network attorney calling one student leaving “a big win for us”.  Ms. Moskowitz responded with a press conference calling the “got to go list” an aberration – and with an email to staff declaring the bad press the result of media “conspiracy theories.”  Ms. Moskowitz then took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal in an editorial piece claiming that the only real “secret” to Success Academy is imitating the teaching of Paul Fucaloro:

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

Ms. Moskowitz wanted her readers to infer that all Success Academy has done is simply scale up the teaching methods of one man into a system of nearly 3 dozen schools and roughly 10,000 students.

But if that is the case, the public had to wonder just what kind of person Ms. Moskowitz chose to clone across her entire staff when a video of one of the network’s “exemplar teachers” surfaced.  In the video, a calm and passive Success Academy student has trouble following her teacher’s instructions and is treated to having her work paper ripped in half in front of her classmates, being sent to the “calm down chair,” and berate in angry tones.  The video was not an accident: the assistant teacher was specifically keeping her cell phone ready in order to catch an example of just that kind of behavior because she had seen it so often.  In what is now her typical fashion, Eva Moskowitz lashed out at the press for the story, calling her critics haters and bullies.

This is a long record of employing not merely high standards, but also of employing extreme high pressure and of tolerating plainly unethical practices from teachers and administrators so long as the bottom line – very high standardized test scores – remains intact.  Dr. Germano’s questions were entirely appropriate as the beginning of a research program within Success Academy precisely because the bottom line at the network is entirely tangled up with test scores first and the means to get those scores second. If it means suspending Kindergarten children repeatedly until the submit to total control of their behavior, so be it.  If it means conspiring to pressure certain families to leave the school, so be it.  If it means humiliating a little girl in front of her peers so she learns that mistakes are never tolerated, so be it.  Dr. Germano’s original proposal stated the central problem at Success Academy perfectly: “There are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”

Incentives matter. And organizational values are completely intertwined with what is measured and rewarded.  The is well known in the business world, even though companies from Enron to General Motors do not always learn from it.  The lesson from Success Academy is that when a school is entirely obsessed with high standardized test scores and when it is removed from nearly every system of public accountability available, it can get those test scores – but at an extremely high cost to anyone who does not serve that end.  Perhaps overt, organized, cheating is not a problem at Success Academy (yet), but the organizational incentives for it exist from the very top all the way down to their youngest students.

Dr. Germano tried to warn them, but nobody at Success Academy seems capable of listening.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Media, Social Justice, Success Academy

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Can Teachers Talk About Opt Out?

New York City teachers Jia Lee, Lauren Cohen, and Kristin Taylor risked disciplinary action recently to speak with NBC news about their opposition to the state testing system and their support of the Opt Out movement.

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This was no small act on their part because the NYC DOE has sent multiple signals that it does not tolerate classroom teachers speaking against the tests which have been occupying schools’ time and attention this month.  District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop stated her belief that any teacher encouraging opt outs was engaging in political speech and that such acts were not permissible for teachers speaking as teachers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that teachers are free to speak as private citizens but not to speak as “representatives of the department,” and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea.”  None of these figures have specified what possible consequences could befall teachers for speaking in favor of opt out and against the state standardized tests – but the ambiguous statements alone are sufficient to deter many city teachers from speaking their mind.  Add in the history of “gag orders” that prevent teachers from discussing the contents of the examinations – even as professionals seeking to improve tests after they have been used – and speaking to the media as these teachers did is an act of exceptional bravery.

Walking the line between teacher and “private citizen” is exceptionally ambiguous.  Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms. Taylor were all identified as New York City teachers by the reporter in the story, but does that automatically make them not private citizens?  Most members of our society are not required to hide their professions when speaking on political matters within the public sphere, and in many communities, teachers’ identities are well known to parents, making the distinction between their professional and private selves far less distinct.  Furthermore, as professionals in a school system governed by different political systems, teachers have legitimate observations and, yes, criticism to make about policies that impact their work and, therefore, their students.  Simply saying teachers cannot be “political” as teachers is plainly too simplistic.

However, this cannot be only a matter of saying teachers have free speech rights in their role as teachers.  There are legal and legitimate limitations on what teachers can say. For example, federal law protects the privacy of students’ academic records and while a teacher can discuss a child’s performance with both parents and involved professionals in pursuit of helping that child, the law prevents that same teacher from discussing the child’s academic record outside of that context.  Teachers also possess academic freedom within the classroom, but that is not well defined, subject to significant limitations and considerations of the interests of school boards, communities, parents, and children.  Generally, teachers have to balance their rights with their significant responsibilities within the classroom, including their responsibility to the adopted curriculum in a district.

Outside of the classroom, teachers also have limits on what they can say and for good reasons.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a teacher who claimed her free speech rights were violated when she was fired for keeping a public blog full of insults about students and parents in her school.  This is fundamentally different than writing about politics or using a public forum like letters to the editor to speak about “matters of public concern” as a citizen — her speech gave parents legitimate reasons to demand that she not teach their children.  The Washington branch of the ACLU maintains a page with various examples of speech scenarios in which a teacher may or may not be protected from job consequences, and the examples demonstrate that teachers often have additional constraints on their speech related to their ability to perform their responsibilities.  On the other hand, purely political speech, even related to education issues, can be strongly protected outside of the classroom.

Consider the case of Boston long term substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman who testified at a Boston City Council meeting against the expense of maintaining a Junior ROTC program in the city and advocating what he believed was a better use of those funds – and who was screamed at by the head of Boston English High School and essentially blacklisted from working there.  While that case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the city, the implication is clear enough:  Mr. Herman was entirely within his rights to speak in the public sphere on a matter of public concern.  A staff attorney for the ACLU made this obvious:  “Teachers are entitled to political opinions just like everyone else…We need them to feel free to share those opinions with public and elected officials, outside the school, without fear of losing their jobs for doing so. Jeff Herman had a right to speak out at City Hall about Boston spending over a million dollars on JROTC…”

This would seem to neatly point towards a general right for teachers to speak critically of standardized testing and in favor of opt out as long as they do not suggest that they are speaking for district and school administrations in the process.  While teachers are obligated to teach the adopted curriculum of the school and to participate in duties such as test administration, critiques of both the curriculum and testing are matters of public concern.  Administrators can probably restrict teachers from proactively soliciting opt outs on the school grounds, but they would be beyond bounds to restrict teachers from speaking elsewhere – even if their audience knows that they are teachers. Further, if asked by parents about the tests, it is very plausible that teachers have the right to offer an informed and critical perspective. Grumbling from Tweed Courthouse notwithstanding, Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms Taylor should be secure in their advocacy and their speaking with reporters.

But perhaps this should not merely be a matter of whether or not teachers disciplined for speaking against testing could win a civil rights suit.  Perhaps this needs to be framed as a matter of professionalism and professional judgement because while teachers have responsibilities and rights in the performance of their work, they also have professional obligations and norms that define what it means to be a teacher.  Among those is the need to speak up when children are being ill served or harmed by what is going on within school.  John Goodlad referred to practicing “good moral stewardship of schools” and this principle is as important to teaching as “do no harm” is for medicine or being a zealous advocate is for law.  Teachers are given an awesome and sacred trust – the intellectual, social, and emotional well being and growth of other people’s children.  Speaking out when that trust is in jeopardy is not simply a question of Constitutional rights.  It is a moral obligation.

Do teachers have good reason for concern about how these tests impact their stewardship?   New York City teacher Katie Lapham certainly makes a compelling case:

The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

NYSED claims they removed time limits from the test in order to remove performance pressure from very young children, but there are documented cases of this actually matter the exams worse for students.  A Brooklyn teacher blogging anonymously notes:

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

New York City education advocate Leonie Haimson reported on numerous items of test content that she was able to glean from various sources.  They included a sixth grade test including a 17th century poem often studied in college, obscure vocabulary in the 8th grade exam, disturbing product placements within reading passages, and missing prep pages without adequate instructions on how to assist students.

Beyond these specific examples, teachers can be rightly concerned about the entire environment within which these exams take place.  Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, testing and test preparation have become more and more ends unto themselves instead of quiet background monitoring of the school system.  We have spent more than a decade now in a policy cycle based upon “test-label-punish” without considering how to give schools teaching our most vulnerable students the resources and supports needed to do right by those children, their families, and communities.  And we have very, very little to show for it except a narrowing curriculum in communities across the country and a crushing increase of academic work at younger and younger ages despite the abject harm it inflicts upon children who need play to learn and to be healthy.  Practicing “good stewardship” as a professional teacher clearly embraces openly objecting to these harmful practices.

Ms. Lee told NBC, ““Parents should definitely opt out. Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”  She went on to call herself a “conscientious objector.”

She is also a true professional, guarding the well being of the children entrusted to her.

 

 

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Filed under classrooms, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher professsionalism, Testing

Chris Christie Calls Mandatory Recess Bill “Stupid”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took time out of his busy schedule as a failing Presidential candidate this week to veto a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of recess for all New Jersey schoolchildren between Kindergarten and 5th grade.  Speaking with Fox News, the Governor said that “part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.”  He also characterized the bill as “crazy government run amok” and mischaracterized it as requiring outdoor recess regardless of the weather conditions; the actual language of the bill expressed a preference for outdoor recess when possible.  Governor Christie further berated the legislators who passed the bill by saying, “With all the other problems we have to deal with, my Legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?”

I think we need to clarify some points:

Collaborating with private donors to transform the city of Newark’s school system in an unproven experiment, turning the city schools over to an inept and defensive administrator who planned to close schools that were meeting their improvement goals and sending families across the city whether they wanted to go or not?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

A $108 MILLION contract with the Pearson Corporation to provide an unproven and disruptive state assessment system whose results were thoroughly misrepresented by the state’s highest education appointee?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Granting a “graduate school of education” that is primarily a collaboration of charter school networks training their own teachers in the “no excuses” methods the sole contract to provide continuing education for teachers in the state’s largest city while increasing the requirements for traditional teacher preparation programs?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Ramming through a major overhaul of the state’s pension fund, refusing to actually pay the state’s agreed upon contribution, but giving management of those funds to politically connected Wall Street firms who jacked up the fees to over $600 million a YEAR?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

“Crazy government run amok” is making certain that state education law requires that very young children get a daily chance to play outside while they are in school.

picard

Governor Christie’s mocking of the legislature for spending time on something so frivolous is also sorely misplaced.  Far from being unimportant, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called recess “crucial” and cites tangible benefits of regularly scheduled play for children attending school:

Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.

Restrictions or even loss of recess time is a national phenomenon, and the New Jersey law would have protected students from districts who felt the pressure to spend more time on academics and test preparation from stealing that time from recess — and yes, this has happened in New Jersey.  Far from being something that the state’s lawmakers should not have bothered with, protecting children from well-intentioned but ultimately damaging policies is absolutely something that needed to be done.  Mounting evidence suggests that this generation of schoolchildren are being pushed into more and more academic focus at younger and younger ages to their detriment. Even children as young as Pre-Kindergarten are losing play based learning that is developmentally appropriate and actually crucial to their long term social and academic well-being.  Writing in The Atlantic, Erika Chistakis notes:

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

This isn’t complicated.  This isn’t disputable.  Children need play.  Very young children cannot learn without opportunities to play.  The only flaw with the New Jersey legislation Governor Christie vetoed is that it doesn’t go far enough to protect our youngest school children from misguided efforts to increase their academic “performance” by denying them what they need to thrive.  Our children need recess.  They also need more play oriented learning premised on discovery and social interaction, and they need far less emphasis on tasks that look “rigorous” to adults but which stifle their development and steal time from genuine learning.

Governor Christie isn’t merely wrong; he is cruelly wrong.  The “stupid” thing is the steady chipping away of what our children need.  Perhaps the Governor could remember that as he is trying to score points with primary voters who are not interested in his candidacy.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, child development, Chris Christie, classrooms, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Pearson, politics, Testing

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

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.”  The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys:

giphy

I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.

Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes.  Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon.  According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:

I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:

Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.

Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools.  Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.

wheels

This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts.  First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate.   Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical.  Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school.  As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff.  Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history.  The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.

Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.

Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself.  New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain  and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.”  Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Times earlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress.  Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher.  Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration).  Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.”  Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds.  Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual.  This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.

Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data.  Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career.  Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students.  Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either.  However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy.  Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:

SA1 Data

Two items are of note here.  First, the pattern of student attrition is curious.  Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental.  It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools.  This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time.  The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change.  Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.

The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions.  NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline.  In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%.  These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:

PS149 Data

Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow.  However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years.  Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.

What does this mean?  The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences, including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year.  The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.

By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch?  5%.   Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.

None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute.  Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising.  Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:

Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.

“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.”  Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching.  Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them.  But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.

You are engaging in a pathology.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching