Category Archives: Funding

Truthiness and Lack of Consequences

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants his education tax credit, which critics have identified as a backdoor voucher plan for private and parochial schools, and he wants it so badly that sources in Albany are saying he is trying to entice hesitant Democrats by tying strengthened rent regulations to passage of the credit.  This is a familiar tactic for Governor Cuomo who originally tied the tax credit together with the Dream Act and whose budget negotiation stance insisted that any increase in state aid for public schools had to be connected to his test-centric teacher evaluation plans.

Now, in the waning days of the legislative session, the Governor is charging hard at Assembly Democrats who have not signed on to his plan for the education tax credit.  The complex plan, which is being advertised as a boon for schools and struggling families, is a pool of $150 million with different set asides for getting money to different constituencies.  If enacted as proposed, the bill will provide $50 million in tax credits for donors to scholarship funds for low and middle income attendees at private and parochial schools, and it provides $20 million in credits for donations to public schools.  Donors could reduce their tax liability by 75% of their donations up to a full million dollars. Under the Governor’s proposal, another pool of $70 million will be set aside for credits to families who make up to $60,000 a year to help offset tuition at private and parochial schools for a total of $500 per family.  The Governor has also proposed a pool of $10 million for teachers at fully public schools and at charter schools to make up for out of pocket expenses for classroom supplies.  The state Senate, controlled by the Republican caucus, has passed its own version of the legislation.

Tax credits are different from tax deductions.  Deductions reduce your taxable income while credits typically are a dollar for dollar reduction in your total tax liability.  So while under the old charitable tax deduction available for donations to scholarship funds, a family donating $1 million could take a maximum deduction of $22,000 on state taxes, under the new tax credit, they could reduce that tax liability by $750,000.  This basically means that for a million dollar private donation to a scholarship fund for children attending private and parochial schools, the state will pay $750,000 of that by relieving the donor of that amount of his or her tax burden.  Although proponents insist that most recipients of the scholarships will be low and middle income, the proposal allows for scholarship money to go to families making as much as $300,000 a year.  The $500 a family credit is limited to families making less than $60,000 a year, but again, as a tax credit, this is basically a direct transfer of taxpayer money to a private or parochial school.  The teacher benefit is set at $200 per teacher.

Let’s be absolutely clear: a donation of a million dollars will be subsidized by tax payers to the tune of $750,000 for scholarships that might go to people earning $300,000 annually while genuinely needy families will get a $500 coupon for tuition (which is about 1/24 the average cost of tuition at a Catholic school in the United States) and teachers will get slightly less than the cost of 10 packs of multi-colored Sharpies.

At the end of the day, no matter what it is called, the bill is a complex transfer of public money to private hands with little guarantee that genuinely helpful sums of money will ever make it to genuinely needy families.

This is the proposal aggressively pushed by a governor who is billions of dollars behind the state’s constitutional obligation to fund public schools equitably, who continues to use accounting tricks to cheat school districts out of millions of dollars owed under the already inadequate funding in the state budget, who has restricted districts from increasing revenue locally without a super-majority, and then has the nerve to blame strangled school districts for not raising test scores.

If you are public education advocate on social media, you have probably seen some of the aggressive “truthiness” that has been masquerading as grassroots advocacy on this issue.  This is from Twitter:

I find this tweet to be emblematic of the past 30 plus years of claiming you can get something for nothing from advocates who want to funnel as much of our national commons into private hands as possible.  The $20 million in tax credits for  public education purposes would fund donations for public schools covering barely 1/2 of 1% of the over FIVE BILLION in unfunded state aid to schools left from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Settlement.  And in order to get THAT, the public has to agree to tax credits that send $50 million in tax dollars to private and religious foundations and another $70 million that will go in $500 increments to private and parochial schools as “credits” that act as vouchers.  And itty bitty vouchers at that.

This is not a “tax free” way to increase spending on education, and the claim that this increases education spending without raising taxes is pure “truthiness”. This is taking a chunk of our current tax pool and divvying it up 80% into private hands.  Some of those hands may be extremely worthwhile and deserving of the generous support of their wealthy patrons.  But they are also not accountable to the same public purposes and oversight as our fully public schools, and many of them are religious organizations that are now going to be getting public funding.  By making these tax credits instead of tax deductions, Governor Cuomo has essentially crafted a proposal whose most generous subsidies amount to the very wealthy directing how their tax dollars get spent.  It is another example of political donor class writing themselves out of the rules by which everyone else lives.

Wavering Democrats in the Assembly should hold firm.  The precedent of this plan is too radical to approve.

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Filed under Funding, politics, schools

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing

Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

Back in February, I noted that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had begun to walk back his support of the Common Core State Standards.  The governor began sounding cautious notes about the implementation of the standards and about how the Obama administration has been involved in the adoption process and used funding as incentives for states to come and stay on board. These statements were directly contrary to the big, wet, sloppy kisses he gave to the standards and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the KIPP School Summit in 2013:

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

Since it is now established fact that all Republican hopefuls for the nomination in 2016 who are not named “Jeb” have to be against the Common Core, Governor Christie assured Republicans in Iowa that his administration was really concerned about the federal role in the standards:

So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.

I suppose that commission got back to Christie as he decided to blow up the education section of most newspapers by announcing that he believed New Jersey should no longer follow the Common Core State Standards.  Speaking at Burlington County College, he declared:

It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working….It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work. Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.

The Governor also announced he wants to form a group to develop “new standards right here in New Jersey,” and the news media went moderately crazy over the implications.  Observers closer to home and closer to classrooms were less impressed.  New Jersey parent Sarah Blaine noted that Governor Christie’s announcement took a swipe at the Common Core State Standards, but also pledged to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) whose annual Common Core aligned testing debuted in New Jersey this Spring with widespread complaints and approximately 50,000 opt outs.  Ms. Blaine correctly notes the contradiction that Governor Christie wants to set aside the standards, but will keep the PARCC examinations that are designed to assess student mastery of the standards, and he will keep using the examinations as part of the dreadful AchieveNJ teacher evaluation system, thus keeping both the standards and the aligned assessments central to teachers’ work in New Jersey.  She concludes:

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context….However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

Peter Greene bluntly calls Governor Christie’s move an “empty gesture”, and New Jersey
music teacher and Rutgers graduate student Mark Weber, blasted the governor for “screaming hypocrisy” in suddenly claiming to care about what teachers think and about the integrity of local control:

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn’t care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie’s sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.
My colleague, Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, was not impressed by how seriously the governor wants new, locally developed, standards given his short time frame, noting, “This is years and years of work that it takes to do this.”  So in all likelihood, New Jersey can expect “New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards” that are mostly Common Core but with a few definite and indefinite articles swapped around.
I am in complete agreement with Ms. Blaine that Chris Christie’s announcement is pure politics aimed at Republican Party caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Republican voters lead the nation in disapproval of the Common Core with perhaps three quarters having a negative opinion of the standards.  While reasons for opposing the standards are diverse, there is a strong impression that the kinds of activist voters likely to participate in the early contests represent that most extreme, and often inaccurate, ideas about what the standards do and do not do.  With Chris Christie’s public move against the standards, Jeb Bush is left alone in the Republican field.
So just to be perfectly clear, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famed “tough guy” governor who “tells it like it is,” is throwing the Common Core brand off of his campaign bus so he can appeal to this guy:

For all of his declarations that the Common Core standards are not working and that the federal role has been too intrusive, Governor Christie still spoke the language of education reformers in his original remarks:

It’s not enough for most of our students to become proficient – we want all of our students, no matter their economic status or their race or ethnicity, to acquire the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

And a look at the projected demands of employers in 15 years indicates that we will not be able to meet their needs unless we do a better job educating our children.

By 2030, it is projected that 55 percent of all new and replacement jobs will require people with a post-secondary degree. Yet in New Jersey today, only 42 percent of individuals over 25 have at least an associate degree.

Unless those numbers change – and they must change – that means that 15 years from now, nearly six out of every ten students will lack the basic requirement for a good job.

Where Governor Christie gets his numbers for how many college graduates will be needed by 2030 is unclear because projections vary from under 30% to the mid-40%, but with wages for college graduates basically stuck in place, there is little evidence in the labor market that we are short on graduates.  A more important question is why Governor Christie, like most reformers today, seems to attribute standards with an ability to make classrooms better prepare students for their future in the workforce:

And that’s where we must focus our attention – in every New Jersey classroom and home.  That’s where higher standards can be developed.

We do not want to be the first generation in our Nation’s history to leave our children less equipped and less prepared to build for themselves and their children a nation stronger and more prosperous than the one our parents gave to us.

We owe our kids the educational foundation they need to thrive, not just survive.

In reality, the connection between “quality” standards and classroom achievement looks tenuous at best. For example, Massachusetts is widely regarded as having had excellent standards prior to adopting the Common Core, and it basically was at the top of the country in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Texas, meanwhile, was also recognized as having high quality standards prior to Common Core (which the Lone Star State did not adopt), but on the 2013 NAEP, it was only above 7 other states on 8th grade reading.  If quality standards were the elixir for student success, one would expect states with high quality standards to have convergent results from community to community, and yet, there is variability across communities within states as well.  Again, we can look at Massachusetts.   In 2013, Massachusetts urban communities were 32% at or above proficient in 8th grade reading compared to 28% nationally, and suburban communities were 52% at or above proficient compared to 39% nationally.  In 2005, those scores were 25% and 51% respectively.  So – 8 years with Massachusetts’ “high quality” standards, and there was no real movement in suburban achievement and some movement in urban achievement, a mixed bag still demonstrating significant variation in communities across the state even though their standards were the same.

What accounts for this?  The simple fact that standards are not magic and, on their own, do nothing to improve education.  Nor does tying school and teacher survival to standardized assessments aligned with those standards, the other favored tool of reformers.  What improves teaching and learning is often idiosyncratic, messy, and expensive.  However, general principles apply.  Writing in 1990, David Cohen presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier”, a California mathematics teacher who enthusiastically embraced the California math reforms and sincerely believed her practice was embodying them. Cohen, however, found her teaching more frequently belied a pre-reform understanding of the content of mathematics and dressed that understanding up in activities that looked like the reforms.  What held her back?  Her own insufficient education in the new ways of understanding mathematics and teaching mathematics plus the lack of a community consistently engaged in conversation and development on the standards.  Mrs. Oublier had one necessary component to reform and to improve her teaching, her own buy in and enthusiasm, but she lacked two critical other components.

This is something that modern reformers, Governor Christie included, never seem to acknowledge.  Standards, even high quality standards, mated with perverse incentives in the form of high stakes tests, do not reform or improve teaching.  Given the incentives to narrow the curriculum and to teach to the test, they can actually actively make matters worse.  When written clearly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, standards can, ideally, offer teachers end goal benchmarks from which they can “backwards design” instruction to take students from where they are to where they are going (hat tip the recently and too soon departed Grant Wiggins).

But on their own, they do not matter at all.  Teachers need to have genuine buy in, schools needs to be appropriately resourced with materials and meaningful professional development, and teachers need to work within genuinely collaborative learning communities where they and their colleagues are consistently engaged in what it means to teach and to improve teaching.  This cannot be done on the cheap by subjecting teachers and their students to stakes which make a standardized test the most important objective in the system.

And since we can pretty much guarantee that Governor Christie is not going to provide New Jersey schools with genuine respect and new resources, it will not matter if this Common Core backtrack of his results in genuinely new set of standards, a re-adoption of New Jersey’s previous standards, or simply a slap and dash rebranding of Common Core standards with a new name.  The Magical Mystery Standards that improve teaching and learning without a massive, lengthy, and expensive effort do school improvement the right way will never be written.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Common Core, Funding, PARCC, politics

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You have been a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States since April of this year. While your campaign for the nomination is quite new, many in the press treat your eventual victory as fait accompli, and have turned their attention to the growing Smorgasbord of candidates on the Republican side of the contest. Given the nature of Presidential politics today, this is probably good news for you as potential rivals for the Oval Office will now spend months of news cycles savaging each other and weakening the eventual Republican nominee.

It also gives you time to hone positions and messages while the national press endlessly opines on which Republican can win over the Tea Party and major donors simultaneously. I have a few modest proposals on education.

You enter this contest with some disadvantages on national education policy.  Having been a national figure for nearly a quarter century, you have spoken often, and often quite well, on the promise of public education and how we should support it.  However, your public career is also closely associated with neoliberal influences within the Democratic Party, and in education policy, that influence is typified by the John Podesta founded Center for American Progress which is a proponent of standards, standardized testing, evaluating teachers via standardized tests, expanding charter schools that take public money but are privately managed, and eliminating or significantly changing teacher workplace protections. Lately, a number of people have been circulating the 18 page missive you were sent in 1992 by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy which details a comprehensive and far more centrally controlled vision of education with now familiar emphasis on standards creating a “seamless system of unending skill development.”  Dubbed the “Dear Hillary” letter, Mr. Tucker’s vision is seen by many as a precursor of the current system of education “reform” which uses standards and testing to reduce variance among states, constantly talks about “college and career readiness” and making students meet nationally derived standards, holds teachers “accountable” to all students meeting standards, and reduces traditional governance and union influence to create “choice”.

Whether or not Mr. Tucker’s letter actually began the process to the 2015 school reform landscape or not isn’t germane to the fact that many connect his letter to you and ascribe its agenda to your candidacy.  This may be quite unfair, but it is also a reality in the national school reform debate into which you have entered as a candidate.  You must understand the degree to which we face a crisis in confidence among teachers and parents that has been growing for the past 14 years and which shows no signs of dying down by the general election campaign next year.  After years of struggling with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers had hoped that President Obama’s campaign rhetoric would result in recognition that unrealistic expectations and heavy emphasis on test-based accountability had damaged schools and teaching.  Instead, the new administration used the promise of funding and of waivers from NCLB’s most punishing provisions to rush the Common Core standards into adoption across the country and, far from reducing the influence of standardized, to use tests to evaluate teachers.  At the same time, a coordinated effort is underway across the country to challenge teachers’ workplace protections and to use campaign donations to influence politicians to join the fight against teachers’ unions and against traditional public schools.

Madame Secretary, you enter the campaign for the Presidency at a time when teacher morale has dropped precipitously, with those saying they are “highly satisfied” at work falling by 30 percentage points in the last six years.  The federal role in education will play a part in the upcoming election, and an unusual mix of our body politic opposes various aspects of that role for various reasons.  It would be a grievous mistake on your part to misread the criticism as solely the work of right wing activists or, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, the province of suburbanite mothers offended by the notion that their children are not brilliant. Among those opposed to or concerned with the past decade and a half of education reform are scholars warning that key elements of the reform agenda have little basis in research, parental and advocacy groups concerned about the detrimental influence of reform on curriculum, schools, and children, and a slowly increasing presence in civil rights and community justice groups recognizing that reform is tearing the heart out of communities and threatening equity without involving stakeholders in the process at all.

Your path to the nomination and to the Presidency probably does not require you to listen to these constituencies because deeply connected and extremely influential donors are tied to the reform movement, but your ability, if elected, to hit a “reset” button on our national education debate and to set a course forward that honors all stakeholders in our national education commons does require it. With respect, I would like to offer my own set of priorities for you to consider as you seek office, and I promise that it is briefer than Mr. Tucker’s.

Let states stay or go from the Common Core State Standards as they see fit.  Recently, you spoke with some dismay about how a “bipartisan” agreement to raise educational standards has now become political.  That take on the CCSS situation assumes that there was nothing political about the standards to begin with, and there I must disagree.  It is true that the National Governors Association agreed to take on the proposal to write a set of common standards and did so without falling along typical party lines.  But there are several aspects about the CCSS that were political from the very beginning and which are not made apolitical simply because they were not partisan.  First, the assumption that American education is in deep crisis and that we are “falling behind” other nations is a deeply political assumption that rests on a significant cherry picking of the available data and by concentrating on the worst possible reading of that data.  The “failure narrative” has been a central player in our education debate since the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk in 1983, but its underlying assumptions have been problematic from the beginning.  David Berliner and Gene Glass make it clear that the failure narrative is a deliberate lie that proposes that our entire school system is in crisis when when we have very specific problems with some of our schools and those problems are tightly coupled with concentrated poverty in communities.  The premise that we MUST have common standards if we are to not “fall behind” other nations is a premise steeped in a political agenda to require a massive change in how we administer one of the core institutions of our democracy.

Further, while the organizations that initiated the CCSS may have cut across political lines, politics at the federal level was essential to having 43 states and the District of Columbia adopt them.  When the Obama administration came into office, the CCSS project, already enjoying massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, received boosts from the Race to the Top program and offers of waivers from certain NCLB provisions.  How far would the Common Core State Standards have gone without these federal enticements? We will never know, but it is safe to assume that their adoption was given considerable velocity by these incentives which is staggering when you realize that the standards were proposed, allegedly researched, written, signed off on by various committees, and adopted in over 40 states in less than 4 years.  Advertising and political campaigns move that quickly — careful, deliberate, research-based overhauls to K-12 standards in English and mathematics do not, especially if they follow widely accepted processes for including a wide array of stakeholders and maximizing transparency.

How free are states to leave the the “state led” Common Core effort?  That’s an open question. Virginia, for example, never adopted the CCSS, and they have an NCLB waiver from Secretary Duncan’s DOE.  Washington state, however, lost its waiver for not being quick enough to implement another element of education reform — adding student growth on standardized tests to its teacher evaluation system.  How would the current USDOE respond to a state trying to back out of the Common Core?  I do not know, but I do know that if the standards have actual educative value, and many people sincerely believe that they do, then the federal leverage that has been used to put them in place, needs to be removed so that proponents and opponents can have the open and honest debate about common standards that never took place.  States should develop plans for careful implementation and development if they want to stay on board, and time must be given for the development of quality material aligned with the standards.  And states should be feel free to drop the CCSS and take a “wait and see” approach to study how other states’ implementation efforts are going.

But if you, as a candidate, like what you see in the Common Core, then your best way to get them unpoliticized is to recognize the politics that went into their development and adoption, and to give states absolute assurance that they can take their time in making them work or abandon them without consequence.

Reject teacher evaluations based upon student growth models.  The appeal of student growth models is obvious.  Using student testing data, growth models promise to free teacher evaluation from excessive subjectivity and local politics by using sophisticated statistical tools to isolate teachers’ input into the variation among student scores and properly rank teachers by their effectiveness.  Such a tool promises to leverage the power of data into making certain adults are accountable for the most crucial work of school — helping students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

Value added models (VAMs) and other related growth models are simply not up to the task of taking a snapshot of student performance in one year of school, completely isolating the teacher impact upon test scores, and producing a stable and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.  The research body on this is growing and crystal clear: we should not be doing this, and by doing this we are only making it impossible for a teacher with an eye for survival to not teach to the test.

Despite this, Secretary Duncan has not only continued to support growth measures in teacher evaluation, he has proposed measuring the “effectiveness” of teacher preparation programs by the value added measures of their graduates.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a revised teacher evaluation system where half of teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to standardized test scores.

If you want to restore balance and sanity to the education reform debate, you will pledge to appoint a Department of Education that backs off of growth measures and actually listens to the evidence that we do not have either the tests or the statistical tools to make this work, and that the consequences in the form of narrowed curricula and increasing the pressure associated with testing are unacceptable.

Praise innovation in education — but only from people telling the truth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the Noble Charter School network for having found the “secret sauce” for improving academic performance — based on the schools’ test scores.  It turns out that an ingredient in that sauce is a system of cash fines for even small infractions to its strict disciplinary code, a practice that landed one unemployed single mother with a bill for $3000.

When the idea of a charter schools was first proposed to provide a system of small and innovative schools who would work with the most difficult children and feed their ideas to the system as a whole, it is doubtful that anyone expected schools that would turn its disciplinary code into a revenue stream, but the charter sector is sadly rife with schools claiming superior results while engaging in deceptive practices.  The “no excuses” brand of charters, to which Noble belongs, is especially guilty of this as they continuously compare their test scores to fully public schools in their districts, but then take their population of students, already skimmed via complex application processes for their lotteries, and further trim them with practices aimed at driving away students whose needs they refuse to accommodate.  Matthew Sprowal of New York City found this out when he won a lottery seat at Eva Mokowitz’s Success Academy but was quickly subjected to disciplinary practices that had the Kindergartener regularly throwing up and asking his mother if he would be “fired” from school.  His is not an isolated case in the network that is known for extremely strict discipline and an emphasis on test preparation that can overwhelm the rest of the curriculum.  They are hardly alone in this.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University took a humorous look at the Uncommon Network school in Newark, New Jersey, North Star Academy, and he found that their claims of getting superior results from the same population of children as the district is completely deceptive.  It turns out that North Star has many fewer students who qualify for free lunch, they have half the population of students with disabilities and those they have are almost all low cost – with zero students with autism, emotional disturbance, or cognitive disabilities.  Even more shocking are the indications that those numbers may not simply represent a population that entered the lottery for admission, but it may be the result of selective attrition.  Historically, 50% of North Star student cohorts leave the school between 5th and 12th grade, and that goes up to 60% for African American boys in the school.

You must remember that these are students whose families sought out the school in the first place.

While a few advocates of the no excuses brand of schools admit that this kind of attrition is a feature rather than a bug, the general response from the sector is denial and silence.  This is not innovation.  It is a) the conflation of test scores with actual achievement and learning; b) the use of unethical disciplinary practices to induce an already self selected population to further self select; c) a distorted curriculum emphasizing test scores and specific training for standardized test.  It is likely that many of the surviving students do get a good education overall, but their school leaders should not try to favorably compare themselves to district schools, especially when their model of schooling requires them to have full public schools where students they drive away end up.  For an added insight, consider how KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg struggled to find an adequate reason why he doesn’t send his own children to the school network that he established.

With over 6000 charter schools across the country, I am sure your campaign can find ones that genuinely innovate on behalf of children who have not been well served by their district schools and which take seriously the idea that charter schools are there to demonstrate innovative practices. (Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has noted Making Waves and University of Texas Elementary as examples). Those schools do not have massive public relations campaigns, but if you are looking to praise schools outside the mainstream system, you should find them, and avoid the “no excuses” brands that routinely lie about their practices and the meaning of their results.

Money matters.  Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to opine that money is not an issue in New York State because of the size of the education budget.  That’s easy for him to say as his term in office has been an ongoing assault on state aid to education and a steadfast refusal to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Settlement settlement from 2007.  Governor Cuomo, who has never proposed an education budget that comes close to finding the still missing education aid, put in a cap on property taxes that limits municipalities from increasing local revenue, and continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to remove promised aid to localities to the tune of nearly $3.1 million per district per year.  The resulting financial shenanigans leave many districts shorted thousands of dollars per pupil per year below the state’s already inadequate and unequal funding promises.

While the federal government funds only a small percent of local educational expenditures, there are promises you can make that will help districts cope with the fact that we fund education in this country by local property values and this takes a significant toll upon school districts with higher concentrations of poverty and devalued property. For example, when the federal government passed P.L. 94-142 in 1975, Congress promised that it would provide money that would cover 40% of the costs to districts for giving full services to children with disabilities.  Districts, schools, and teachers rose to that challenge and the percentage of children receiving special education services rose from 4.3% of students in the 1960s to 11.4% in 1989.  Congress did not, and it has never funded the federal disability law above 20% of costs to districts.

Our schools are estimated to need over $197 billion in infrastructure repairs and investments according to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, and that figure is estimated at over $254 billion by the American Federation of Teachers.  The federal government provides grants for schools that offer wraparound services, a continuum of community based services frequently lacking in communities with deep poverty.  Such grants could be expanded and more funding added to Title I in order to support such schools and the efforts they undertake for our least served students.  Schools need additional funding to work on class size reductions which have strong support as means to improve academic achievement especially among disadvantaged students.  In fact, most changes that would significantly improve education for the disadvantaged students in our schools require funding increases, but most state are still funding education below 2008 levels.

President Obama used promises of federal funding to wedge in highly distorting education policies.  You should promise education funding to build capacity and growth.

Your money matters too.  In an age when unprecedented money is flowing into politics at every level, it is hard for any candidate to expressly shut off any source of cash, but if you want to be a candidate for public education and the children served by it, you must.  Consider the case of “Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)” and its companion organization “Education Reform Now (ERN).”  While these organizations influence and donate to Democratic candidates for office, both their funding and their intent are not rooted in the Democratic Party.  One of DFER’s principal founders is hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, who described the rationale for his group’s name this way:

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

DFER and ERN receive massive financial support from a cast of characters who are not traditional backers of Democrats: The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield.  The causes they support include Koch funded campaigns against unions, vouchers, and privatization of education via the growth of privately managed charter school chains. If you want to see the influence of this kind of funding, look no further than Andrew Cuomo, who has gotten over $65,000 from ERN since 2010 and whose devotion to the cycle of using test scores as the only measure that matters, labeling schools as failing, closing schools, and turning them over to privately managed charters is without equal. This is hardly isolated to DFER,as a range of organizations funded by billionaires seek heavy influence over educational policy in New York. This fundamentally anti-democratic campaign by the hedge fund sector is not based on philanthropy as advertised as they have been figuring out ways to monetize support for charter schools for some time now, and this phenomenon is rampant in the charter sector nationwide.  Other aspects of today’s reforms generate massive revenue streams for publishing and testing giants like Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch himself called K-12 education a “$500 billion sector…that is waiting desperately to be transformed…” by technology.

These potential donors to your campaign are not in education reform because they primarily want to do good.  They are in it because they want to do well, and if you take their cash, you will be as bought and as compromised as Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanual, and President Obama.  You are perhaps better situated than any candidate in memory to forgo any single source of funding in favor of taking a stand.

Stand with our teachers. While the emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers with testing threatens our national teaching corps, a parallel campaign exists to remove teachers of the job protections and make it vastly easy to fire them at will. This campaign relies upon misunderstanding of what tenure is and expressly misrepresents the facts to the national media.  Worse, it thoroughly misses a far greater problem in our schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students.  Far from being staffed with stereotypically jaded veterans uninterested in doing their jobs, our schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers when compared to the suburban counterparts. Research shows that young teachers who leave such schools most frequently cite aspects of their working conditions – lack of support from administration, insufficient resources, no time to collaborate with co-workers – as the reasons why they leave.

Removing tenure from those teachers does absolutely nothing to stabilize the faculty in our most difficult schools, and it largely guarantees that such schools will continue to have a temporary workforce whose members never reach their full effectiveness on the job.  Further, removal of tenure protection disallows teachers who need to confront their administration on behalf of their students from doing so; it destroys teachers’ abilities to act as good stewards of their students.

Somehow, these facts do not stop the likes of Campbell Brown from framing the anti-tenure campaign as being for the “rights of students,” but the only logical conclusion from the misplaced effort is that they want teaching to become a far more temporary “career” than it currently is.  Teachers, having their effectiveness rated by invalid statistical measures, will be much more easily fired without the protections of tenure.  A perpetually young and more easily replaced teaching workforce will be both cheaper and easier to manage — a model embraced by the no excuses charter schools favored by many in today’s reform effort.  That breaking teachers’ union protections would also mean breaking the last large middle class unions in the country cannot be a coincidence either.

This is no way to build a profession based upon expertise and a sense of efficacy on behalf of our children.  Do not mince words on this.  Stand with our teachers.

It’s still the economy. Today’s education reform rhetoric calls upon us to adopt massively disruptive changes to how we deliver instruction, how we manage and administer public education for the entire country, and how we conceive of teaching as a profession.  The rationale given for this is very attractive, but it is entirely deceptive.  While reformers are correct that millions of American children, mostly minority, attend schools with low achievement records as measured by standardized tests, and that a great many of those children will not have realistic opportunities to pursue higher education and escape inter-generational poverty, reformers place nearly the entire requirement to lift those children upon their public schools and teachers. The reality is that while an education is likely to play a part in any personal narrative of financial success in America, there have to be genuine economic opportunities on the other side of that education for that narrative to come to fruition.

In 2015, this does not look likely without fundamental realignments in our economic and taxation policies that today’s reformers, backed and financed by billionaires, are loathe to discuss.  For most of the past 30 years, our nation’s workers have increased their productivity and created vast amounts of wealth without seeing any significant increases in their own wages.  The skewing of gains in wealth is so severe that the top 10% of earners currently make more than half of all the wages earned in the country. Will more college graduates make more opportunity?  That seems doubtful when you take into account that the wage benefit for going to college has increased only because wages for those with no college degree have collapsed since the early 1980s.  Even in the much touted STEM fields, entry level wages for qualified college graduates have remained flat for more than a decade.  If there is a significant skills shortage in the American workforce, basic labor economics cannot detect it.  I’ve argued this for several years, and this observation was recently affirmed by Paul Krugman at The New York Times:

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Our workforce today has more education than at any point in American history, but if that is still not enough, the labor market has apparently abandoned fundamental supply and demand.

Now one thing is absolutely clear on the education side of the equation.  Opportunity to gain a strong basic education and to pursue higher education is not equitably distributed, mostly to the detriment of minority children and the rural poor.  Further, education will play a likely role in those children’s success, but we cannot refuse to change anything about our economic assumptions and call upon schools to do all of the lifting out of poverty for children and families, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking rapidly even as the population’s total education has increased. Your campaign can call for improvement to primary and secondary education, it can address soaring costs for higher education, and it can demand more from our nation’s teachers.  However, if it makes these demands absent any serious examination of our structural inequalities that prevent significant economic opportunities from reaching the vast majority of our children, then it will simply be more of what we have seen since 1983: dire rhetoric, false premises, testing, punishment, turning our public schools over to private operators and to a hidden investor class making money off of the system.

The next time the Whitney Tilsons of our education debate approach you for support of their programs in return for campaign cash, demand to know what they will promise to do to actually be “job creators” whose workers do not require public assistance simply to survive.  Demand to know what investments in our decaying infrastructure they will support via higher taxes on themselves.  Demand to know how they will compensate their workers for the increasing profitability of their ventures that depends upon labor.  Demand to know how they will support an economy that provides actual mobility for the rest of society rather than simply supporting their Gilded Age lifestyles. Demand to know how they will support the right of labor to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the decline of which accounts for up to a third of our increasing inequality.

I know many teachers, faculty, and school administrators who are willing to do their part for a better and more equitable future for our nation’s youth.  It is time for a national candidate to demand that education reform’s financial backers, who are reaping gains by privatizing our schools, do the same.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, schools, Social Justice

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

This week, our teacher preparation program welcomes the graduates of the Class of 2015 as our teacher colleagues.  These accomplished young teachers are joining the profession at a time of great challenges, but it is also at a time of great opportunities, and having worked with them closely for the past four years, I am convinced that they will do well with those opportunities.  These young people are intelligent; they are dedicated; they are talented; and they are prepared.  It has been an immense pleasure to see their professional journeys.

It would be a disservice to them to downplay the challenges they face as new members of the profession.  Today’s graduates were mostly born in 1993 which means that they were in third grade when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 mandated annual standardized testing for all children in all grades between three and eight and once again in high school.  They went through their formative elementary and secondary education as the high stakes attached to mandated testing was squeezing the curriculum into a narrower box with less art, music, social studies, and science.  While the impacts of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, and PARCC and SBAC testing did not influence their education, they have done their clinical internships and student teaching within schools and with cooperating teachers who have had to grapple with these issues as well as the growing movement of parents who are denying schools the right to administer standardized tests to their children.

Now they leave their university preparation to enter teaching just as these matters are fully breaking upon our schools.  The CCSS are implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  Mass standardized examinations aligned with the standards are now implemented in dozens of states, and they promise to find many fewer students proficient in mathematics and English than just a year ago.  States that won Race to the Top grants or were granted NCLB waivers from the USDOE are using growth measures based on standardized testing to evaluate teachers, despite the fact that the sum of research on growth measures demonstrates that they are unstable, unreliable, and have standard errors so large that even with 10 years of data, a teacher still has more than a 10% chance of being mislabeled.

If these challenges were not hard enough, the confluence of hastily implemented and ill-conceived policies comes amidst a rhetorical turn against teachers as the major culprits behind students whose test scores do not rise.  Today’s reform environment lavishes transformational power upon education, but it simultaneously measures that transformation via crudely designed standardized tests and then blames allegedly incompetent teachers when literally nothing else is done to improve the lives or communities of students who struggle.  A coordinated effort is underway to first assess teachers via standardized test results and then to remove any workplace protections teacher have to make it easier to fire them at will.  It is little wonder that the percentage of teachers who say they are highly satisfied on the job has dropped 30 percentage points to its lowest in a generation.

A distressing side effect of this environment are the number of more experienced teachers who appear ready to discourage our new colleagues from either entering the field altogether or from bothering to have hope on the job.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation reminds us that this is a distressing and unethical practice, and he points out the specific work of the activists in the Young Teachers Collective who are directly asking their experienced colleagues to stop discouraging them.

I hope to G-d that my proud young graduates side with the activists at YTC.  We need them very badly.

Unlike Baby Boomers and my fellow Gen Xers who indulge in annual, graduation week denigration of the Millennials for their supposed faults, I am a fan of this generation.  Having worked closely with them for years now, I find this report on their outstanding and community oriented values to be absolutely correct.  Young adults today are more diverse than their predecessors, more open to diversity than any generation in history, better educated than anyone gives them credit for, and more desirous of being good parents and good neighbors than of the aggrandizement of self typified by generations who modeled our lives after Gordon Gekko.

So let me build on Peter’s plea for people to not be jerks to young teachers, and to add my own plea: young teachers, we need you.  We need you because you have been well-prepared.  We need you because if you do not stay we will have wasted the earned experience and skills you will gain in your first decade on the job, and that will harm future students.  We also need you because of those same values that typify your generation and which will serve as a tremendous asset to protect and preserve truly public education.

But if that is going to happen, we also need you to buck some typical trends in teaching and schooling.  It is very typical for teachers to simply keep their heads low, close the door, and wait for the current political tides to shift.  That is unlikely to work today; people are getting rich messing around with our schools, and they see our nation’s commitment to education for all as a $780 billion honeypot to monetize.  The good news in the midst of this is that the people still back our public schools, and while many have bought the relentless narrative that our schools writ large are failing, parents overwhelmingly support the schools their children attend.  You can generally count on the support of your students’ parents.

We need you, therefore, to be confident in that support and to help lend a voice, early in your careers, for certain truths that can reach the public only if they are amplified by many voices:

We need you to remind people that school and teachers cannot do it all alone.  Education is a likely component of most success stories in our country, but education did not play its role in those successes alone.  Education reform talks about education as key to overcoming poverty, but it spends very little time talking about how the advantage gap is overcome by much more than “grit” and “no excuses.”  We certainly see few reformers admit the severe funding gaps between our richest and poorest schools, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has openly scoffed that funding has any role to play in educational inequities.

But even beyond that issue, there is a question about the central premise of education reform today; namely, if all students acquired more and better education, would they be able to leap over poverty in their careers?  The evidence for this is unclear because even though college degree holders greatly out earn non degree holders, that gap has grown because of cratering wages for less education rather than growing wages for more:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Increasing numbers of college degree holders will not magically create more middle class households unless the number of jobs genuinely requiring college education increase as well.  Education reformers who tout the power of standards and testing to prepare students who are “college and career ready” would do well to ask their billionaire backers to support middle class economics and actually be “job creators” if they really believe education will overcome poverty.  It won’t without fundamental changes in economic opportunity on the other side of education.

We need young teachers to speak up for fundamental truths about their children in communities of poverty. Grit and no excuses make for great bumper stickers and they can produce test practice mills that result in test scores.  But truly standing up for children is more than sloganeering and shutting down schools whose children are hungry and live in communities with few genuine opportunities.  The reality is that in many of our urban communities, black and brown children go to schools with inexperienced teachers, limited services, crumbling facilities, and over crowded classrooms and then go home to neighborhoods that have been in economic decline for decades.  None of the favored reforms today are doing anything to alleviate those conditions, and many of them are making them actively worse.

We need young teachers in such communities to have the bravery of Marylin Zuniga who has lost her job teaching third graders for a series of events based on her desire to embrace both action and compassion.  Ms. Zuniga had her students read and discuss a quote about justice from Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted of murdering a police officer in a 1981 trial that drew strong questions about the fairness of the trial and of the appeals court from Amnesty International.  Later in the year, Ms. Zuniga allowed her students to write get well letters to Mr. Abu-Jamal when she told them he was sick and they wanted to write to him.  While Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case stirs very strong emotion, especially among law enforcement, it is important to consider what Ms. Zuniga was doing with her students, most of whom are children of color in a poor neighborhood: she asked them to consider the legitimate voice of a black man in prison whose case raises difficult questions about the justice system, and on their own, the children showed and exercised compassion.  For young people whose lives are already disrupted by family members in trouble with the criminal justice system, this is a lesson with risks that are worth exploring.  And many in her community rushed to support her even though they were unsuccessful.

If we truly care about the children in poverty in our schools, we need more teachers willing to take such risks and to affirm their students’ desires to see humanity in everyone.  We need them to assert and to affirm their values of inclusiveness and human dignity even if it means taking a risk. Many decried Ms. Zuniga’s actions, but those who knew her the best affirmed the extraordinary stewardship she exercised for children who are already struggling.

We need young teachers to stand together.  There are many forces trying to fragment teachers from working together for their students’ true interests.  There are AstroTurf groups like “Educators 4 Excellence” who take large sums of money to act like a genuine grassroots group but whose pledge includes supporting discredited teacher evaluation methods favored by union busting corporate donors.  There is the “Education Post” headed by Peter Cunningham, formerly of the Obama Administration, and funded with millions of dollars from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation to make a “better conversation” but mostly to pay people to respond to criticisms of education reform as if they have grassroots support.

So when I plead with young teachers to “stand together” I do not just mean to join your union and be active (although, yes, I do mean that too).  I also mean to do what your generation does better than any of us — maintain close and genuine bonds across distance via technology and to forge naturally occurring and completely authentic communities to support each other and to support your students.  Talk to each other.  Share ideas.  Plan.  Respond in the public sphere.  Magnify your voices.  Make stories of public school success go viral.  You have something that corporate reformers can never replicate:  you have authenticity.  Use it.

So, Class of 2015, welcome to our profession.  I am honored that you are my colleagues.  Please stay.  Please lead.

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Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, Opt Out, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Have We Wasted Over a Decade?

A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system.  While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act.  That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students.  Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools.  All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.

But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983?  Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question.   The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR).  While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater.  In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive.  Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher.  At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time.  United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.  Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children.  PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.

The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education IndicatorsThe report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes.  In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours.  Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries.  Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.

These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.  We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development.  These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.

One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.

This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences.  However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves.  With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.

This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse.  Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

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

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

This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed.  Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation.  The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none.  We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.

If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what?  First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist  185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.

Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring.  What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?

  • What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
  • What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
  • What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
  • What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
  • What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?

By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing).  It is time to stop.  It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.

Morpheus

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Data, Funding, NCLB, Pearson, politics, Social Justice, Testing

Dear Opt Out: Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Property Values??

USA Today ran a story last week from the Journal News of Westchester County about the growing Opt Out movement.  The article was fairly mild in tone, cited numbers about the unprecedented size of the current testing boycott, and gave time to proponents of the testing mandates and the information generated by the tests.  One quote, however, really stood out from out the rest.  It was from Nicole Brisbane, the New York state director for “Democrats for Education Reform,” who said:

“Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs. How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn’t clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data. “

Wow.

For those who are not in the know, DFER is an organization that is not actually made up of grassroots Democrats working for education reform so much as it is a front group for very large, mainly conservative, donors to influence Democratic politicians to support what passes for education “reform” these days.  While DFER has certainly influenced a number of Democratic politicians by funneling campaign contributions made possible by DFER’s funding sources (The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield, etc), it’s stated purpose is to change the positions of Democrats on questions like charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores to those more likely found in the Republican Party.

Whitney Tilson, the billionaire hedge fund manager at the heart of DFER, was actually quite upfront about this:

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

So DFER is not REALLY “Democrats for Education Reform” so much as it is “Billionaires For Education Reform Bribing Democrats to Wreck Public Education,” but BFERBDWPE is hard to make look snappy on a flyer.  That is, however, exactly how NY Governor Andrew Cuomo got to be the poster child for destroying public schools from the Democratic Party side of things.

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog was especially insightful in his take on Ms. Brisbane’s bizarre set of priorities:

But at least we have a great new reason that all students need to take those tests– without them, the Betters would have one less badge of their Betterness. Testing will help us put Those People in their place. Don’t let your class down! Don’t let the property values drop! Get in there and take a test for the team.

Yup — the NY State Director for the hedge funded political bribery outfit PAC most devoted to high stakes testing essentially told parents in the suburbs to have their children lie back, close their eyes, and think of Scarsdale.  Especially their property values.

While that “reasoning,” and I use the term loosely, is bizarre enough, I’d like to take it just a little bit further.  Ms. Brisbane is, of course, correct that the value of property in a community has links to the perceived quality of the schools in that community.  Towns with school systems that have reputations for excellence and with high percentages of students moving on to desirable colleges do see increases in assessed property values.  Of course, this phenomenon predates not only the Common Aligned state examinations, it predates the entire period of test based accountability introduced with No Child Left Behind.  One has to wonder how the parents of Scarsdale could have ever known anything about their community’s schools before they got the state issued two page report that includes no item analysis whatsoever?

It is interesting that Ms. Brisbane chose Scarsdale as her example, given its long standing reputation as one of the wealthiest communities in the country.  However, you do not have to take my word for that.  The United States Census Bureau curates census data by community, so we can look directly at some key indicators for Scarsdale.  The Village of Scarsdale is 82.7% white compared with NY state which is 65.7% white, and it is 13% Asian with African American and Hispanic populations of 1.5% and 3.9% respectively.  Scarsdale’s population of people speaking a language other than English at home is actually closer to the state average than it’s racial make up with 21.5% of the population.

A staggering 85.7% of the population over 25 has at least a bachelors degree compared with a state average of 33.2%.  Per capita income is $109,044 and household income is $233,311 compared to the state averages of $32,382 and $58,003 respectively.  In NY state, the median value of a home is $288,200, and while the table does not have a specific median value in Scarsdale, the footnote says that it is over $1 million.  Scarsdale’s population living below the poverty level is 1.7% compared to a state average of 15.3%.

A family considering sending its children to Scarsdale schools will likely know something about the village’s school system just because they can afford to live there in the first place. I should also be clear:  I do not believe that someone living in Scarsdale is living there so that he does not have to live with people who are poor or minority.  However, the fact that he can afford to live there means that he does not live with very many people who are poor or minority by default.

Ms. Brisbane, however, wanted to know how parents in Scarsdale will COMPARE themselves to other communities, even in Westchester county.  Fair enough.  Westchester has had historic problems with integrating lower income and minority families within the county, so let’s look at the nearby city of Mt. Vernon next.  Mt. Vernon is 63.4% African American and 14.3% Hispanic.  23.1% of people over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and the percentage of people over 25 years of age with a bachelor’s degree is below the state average at 26.4%.  Per capita income is $27,454 and household income is $49,328. While the median home price is $392,300, only 37.7% of the population are home owners. 16% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Demographic information from the New York State Education Department shows some stark contrasts that match or actually amplify the census data.  Scarsdale High School is 89% white or Asian while only 1% of the school is of Limited English Proficiency and there are so few economically disadvantaged students that the data is suppressed to prevent them (him? her?) from being personally identified.  Mt. Vernon High School is 79% African American and 17% Hispanic, higher than the averages for the city overall.  While only 4% of the school is LEP, 65% of the students in the school are economically disadvantaged, meaning their family qualifies for public assistance programs such as free and reduced price lunch. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch at 185% of the federal poverty level or $44,863.

The same NYSED web site reports school data on student graduation rates and on the Regents exam.  (Yes, Ms. Brisbane, I am relying on a test-based comparison, using a long established EXIT examination used in the state of New York that predates the additional annual testing required by NCLB.  I will admit that your hypothetical home owner or potential buyer would have some interest in how certain school performance markers compare in different communities — I am also pointing out that these markers already exist).  In Scarsdale, graduation rates are essentially 100%, and the percentage of students who earned 75 or higher on the English Regents exam and scored 80 or higher on a math Regents examination was 81% in 2014; the state average was 38%.  In Mt. Vernon, the 2014 graduation rate was 47%, down from 54% the prior year.  In 2014, only 3% of the graduating cohort reached the English and math scores of 75 and 80 or higher, down from 8% the prior year.  Interestingly, Scarsdale’s very small African American and Hispanic populations do not score as high as their white and Asian classmates on the Regents examination with only 60% of African American and 65% of Hispanic students reaching the “aspirational” levels.

It is worth noting that I began by looking at the race and income characteristics of these communities, but since the negative impacts of poverty on educational outcomes is well known, the fact that Mt. Vernon has a school population that is much poorer than Scarsdale’s means the diminished graduation outcomes are not unexpected.  In fact, it mirrors a national phenomenon that finds when there are greater concentrations of students in poverty, testable outcomes are much lower than in communities with few students in poverty.

poverty stupid

This is where education reform advocates like to accuse their critics of fatalism and saying that there is “nothing we can do” to get better educational outcomes for children in impoverished communities.  I will agree with the premise that geographic location and income level should not be seen as determinative, and the comparison between Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon should not be taken to mean the graduation rates and diminished achievement data in Mt. Vernon should be acceptable.  However, the point of this blog is to demonstrate that there is quite a lot of data available with which one can compare Scarsdale and another community in Westchester County, and that such data has been available for many years before the Common Core aligned examinations came along.  There is, in fact, very little that these tests will tell us in community by community comparison that we do not already know.

There is something that we do know, however, and it is something that Governor Cuomo continues to do far too little to address.  Namely, the Mt. Vernon school district was shorted almost $2300 per student in state foundational school aid in the 2014-2015 school year.  So while it is all nice and well that Ms. Brisbane and her bosses at BFERBDWPE want to be able to tell a tale of communities whose homes are made more valuable by student test scores, there is another tale they fail to acknowledge: that of schools populated with students in poverty whose budgets have been repeatedly starved.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brisbane’s Scarsdale parents can take comfort in the knowledge that six residents in the Class of 2013 alone got into Harvard University.  They could have found that out without the Common Core tests too.

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Filed under Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Social Justice, Testing

What if We Really Cared About Teacher Preparation?

Abstract

Efforts to reform teacher education in recent years have focused on demands for higher quality candidates and indicators of rigorous preparation without careful consideration of the total policy environment in which such preparation must take place.  In the era of test based accountability, efforts to recruit, prepare and induct qualified and passionate new teachers are severely hampered by contradictory and high stakes priorities enacted by state level policy makers.  In this article, I locate the different policy pressures that make thoughtful and effective teacher preparation less likely and explain what teacher preparation would look like if we took a systemic and developmental approach to teacher education that recognized how teachers learn.  Policy makers need to understand the interconnected nature of their decisions and offer policies aimed at support and growth of teachers at all experience levels and at development of capacity in universities, schools, school districts, and state offices.

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It is, of course, easy to criticize the reform plans for teacher education that are in various stages of implementation in New Jersey.  Most proposed changes exist either as evidence-free assertions that “more is better” or as potentially defensible proposals whose consequences remain unexamined.  Perhaps most importantly, they exist in tandem with other policies in both teacher preparation and education in general that seem to contradict their central premises of attracting only the best students to teacher preparation and holding them to rigorous professional standards.  Demonstrating those contradictions is an exercise that lends itself to sarcastic wit and to taking potshots at those in authority, a two for one deal that is difficult to resist.

More daunting, however, is putting forth a positive vision of what teacher preparation ought to look like if we accept the premise that all involved would favor seeing passionate and able young teachers take to our classrooms after being strongly prepared to meet the challenges of teaching.  One does not have to seek out the poorly supported declarations of agenda-driven, self-appointed “teacher quality” watchdogs to find negative assessments of teacher preparation; they are deeply embedded in the popular culture which frequently asserts that teachers are “born” rather than made.  These assertions are expertly addressed here by David Berliner, past president of the American Educational Research Association.  However, it is important to note that a belief in teaching as a craft whose knowledge cannot be learned outside of experience is common among teachers themselves and strongly related to teacher education’s continued struggles to provide meaningful contexts for practice prior to teaching (and the reality that no controlled practice environment is fully sufficient to represent full time teaching under any circumstances).

Those of us who labor in good conscience for the preparation of tomorrow’s teachers need to articulate visions of that preparation focused upon the needs of teachers and their students.  My goal here is to detail concerns and priorities that should exist at three different stages of teachers’ professional preparation: recruitment, preparation, and induction.

Recruitment

Becoming a teacher is unlike training to join most other professions in no small part due to our apparent familiarity with teaching and teachers.  Dan Lortie, in his landmark 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, observed that a typical student spends 13,000 hours observing teachers teaching during the course of a K-12 education.  That is a remarkable level of familiarity that does not exist for professions like law, psychology, medical doctors, or nurses, and, as Lortie notes, it takes place in fairly close quarters and frequently develops interpersonal relationships as well.  A strong theme among people seeking to become teachers is a desire for continuity in the experience of school; having enjoyed school themselves and having developed meaningful relationships with teachers during the long “Apprenticeship of Observation,” many teachers enter the profession desiring not to begin anew, but rather to continue.  While the apprenticeship is lengthy, it can also be deceptive because, as Lortie notes, the student’s vantage point is substantially different from the teacher’s, and it does not lend itself to viewing teaching via pedagogy and the goal-setting orientation that drives teachers’ decision making. Regardless of the limitations of student perspectives, they do matter for future teachers, many of whom seek a teaching career based upon those perceptions and the personal value derived from them.

If future teachers develop deep seated beliefs about teachers and teaching during their prolonged experience in school, we should want that experience to convey a powerful vision of meaningful learning upon them.  Our current policy environment of “test and punish” which was instituted under the No Child Left Behind act and placed into overdrive with Race to the Top has resulted in a more narrow curriculum focused upon tested subjects and a deep decline in teacher satisfaction with their jobs.  Between 2008 and 20012, teachers who are “very satisfied” on the job declined from 62 percent to 39 percent, a 25 year low, and the percentage of teachers who report that they are “under great stress” several days each week rose to 51%. A curtailed curriculum and dissatisfied teachers who cite lack of time for professional development and collaboration with their colleagues are not ingredients for P-12 schools that will nurture the next generation of teachers.  In fact, recent evidence from the United States Department of Education shows enrollment in teacher preparation programs, including alternate route programs, dropping 10% overall nationwide with several state, such as California where applicants for teacher preparation shrunk by 53%, showing steep declines.

Policy makers need to pay especially close attention to the working conditions of teachers not merely because those conditions impact teacher satisfaction and student learning, but also because it impacts the building of professional commitment by future teachers. The idea of future teachers building their commitment throughout their long apprenticeship in P-12 education is related to the concept of teaching as vocational work, a concept that has been unwisely disregarded in this era of high stakes accountability via measurement.  David Hansen of the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote in 1994 that teachers develop a sense of their work as vocational through dispositions and through their tight connection to the very specific social context of teaching and enacting teaching.  Hansen writes that seeing teaching as a vocation…

…suggests that the person regards teaching as more than simply a choice among the array of jobs available in society.  It may even mean for such a person that there is something false about describing the desire to teach as a choice at all.  An individual who is strongly inclined toward teaching seems to be a person who is not debating whether to teach but rather is contemplating how or under what circumstances to do so.  He or she may be considering teaching in schools, in institutions of higher education, or in one of the many other social setting – from military bases to visitors’ centers – in which teaching can occur.  But it may be years before such a person takes action.  He or she may work for a long time in other lines of endeavor – business, law, parenting, the medical field – before the right conditions materialize.  This posture in fact describes may persons who are entering teaching today. To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.  (pp. 266-267)

We would do well to remember this concept for several critical reasons.  If we want young people or career switchers to become teachers, we have to accept the variety of reasons why people make the decision to teach.  Lortie’s observation that many teachers seek continuity with an experience they themselves found desirable reminds us to enable working conditions that foster teacher satisfaction, student learning, and a positive disposition towards teaching among future teachers. Excessive test preparation, teachers without time to collaborate positively with colleagues, and general stress among teachers and students act as disincentives for otherwise interested students to consider teaching and may distort vocational aspirations.

It also should caution us about the type of person who becomes interested in teaching under such circumstances, as Lortie also noted that the desire to continue in school also contributed to teacher conservatism, the impulse to replicate existing practices.  Hansen’s vocational framework deepens this dilemma because for a person to act upon a sense of vocation in a particular field there must be a field where the individual’s desire to serve and to contribute can be enacted.  Jobs incentives such as pay and benefits matter, but they will be insufficient if a potential teacher sees a field dominated by distorting policy initiatives that focus work upon aspects that detract from the sense of motivating purpose.  When accountability ceases to be a monitoring activity that reflects upon teacher effectiveness and becomes a goal in and of itself as it has in test-based accountability, we risk undermining the critical sense of self which motivates students to become teachers.

In addition to attending to the school climate that shapes potential teachers and the sense of vocation they develop prior to teacher education, policy makers need to consider what they are looking for as requirements for prospective teachers.  Many policies are aimed at driving up the academic qualifications of students seeking to become teachers, and a frequently cited “fact” about why this is important is because high performing Finland supposedly only accepts the “top 10%” of students to become teachers. While it is true that only 10% of applicants for spots in teacher training programs are accepted at Finnish universities, it is not exactly true that they are all the “top 10%”.  In fact, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and visiting professor at Harvard University, Finland’s teacher preparation programs seek applicants from across the academic spectrum in attendance at university, and they do this because “…successful education systems are more concerned about finding the right people to become career-long educators” and because the best students are not always the best teachers.  It is actually likely that students who have at least some experience struggling in school will be far more receptive to the need to differentiate their teaching and will know from experience that students can need a variety of supports in order to succeed with challenging material.  State policy makers and university based teacher preparation should look far beneath simple test scores to identify prospective teachers with genuine commitment and passion for teaching and learning.

Preparation

Situated between 13,000 hours of being a student in teachers’ classrooms and entering a profession of millions of fellow teachers are four, short, years for undergraduate teacher preparation.  Consider Lortie’s warnings about teacher sentiments.  If the long apprenticeship of observation leads prospective teachers to strong ideas about what teaching is, but those ideas cannot encompass all of the real work that makes teaching happen, and if the desire for continuity with previous school experiences leads teachers to conservatism by favoring smaller scale changes, if any, then a four year undergraduate teacher preparation experience is a necessary step to help prospective teachers enlarge not only their knowledge and teaching repertoire, but also to enlarge their vision of what teaching and learning actually are.  It stands in stark contrast to alternative pathways into teaching that rely upon teachers training on the job and without space and time to fully embrace what their work means.

Consider Maxine Greene’s warning in her 1978 essay Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality where she writes about teachers without self knowledge encountering the school system:

The problem is that, confronted with structural and political pressures, many teachers (even effectual ones) cope by becoming merely efficient, by functioning compliantly—like Kafkaesque clerks. There are many who protect themselves by remaining basically uninvolved; there are many who are so bored, so lacking in expectancy, they no longer care. I doubt that many teachers deliberately choose to act as accomplices in a system they themselves understand to be inequitable; but feelings of powerlessness, coupled with indifference, may permit the so-called “hidden curriculum” to be communicated uncritically to students. Alienated teachers, out of touch with their own existential reality, may contribute to the distancing and even to the manipulating that presumably take place in many schools….Looking back, recapturing their stories, teachers can recover their own standpoints on the social world. Reminded of the importance of biographical situation and the ways in which it conditions perspective, they may be able to understand the provisional character of their knowing, of all knowing. They may come to see that, like other living beings, they could only discern profiles, aspects of the world.

Greene’s argument points to a vital role for undergraduate teacher preparation in coaxing future teachers to understand themselves and others not merely for self reflection but also to understand that all knowledge is provisional and to value the perspectives their own students will bring with them, greatly expanding the possibilities of their own teaching. Andy Hargreaves argues that while Lortie and his successors have presented “conservatism” as a professional trait, it is actually best regarded as a “social and political ideology and power relationship,” so change “must first be needed, wanted and acknowledged” if any of the characteristics inhibiting change in teaching are to diminish.  Like Greene’s analysis, this is intensely personal and not an endeavor likely to be completed without significant time and space to challenge deeply rooted assumptions about how teachers teach and how students learn, especially students whose lives do not reflect the experiences of our mostly white, mostly middle class, teaching corps.

Gary Fenstermacher expands upon John Goodlad’s concept of teaching as practicing “stewardship” to include “a deep and thorough understanding of the nature and purpose of formal education in a free society.”   Learning to teach, then, requires a genuine commitment on the part of programs and participants to explore dispositions that allow prospective teachers to see their work not only as a continuation of their own school experience, but also as a set of experiences with potential transformative power for both their students and society.  Teacher education that does not lay that gauntlet at our students’ feet risks thoughtless replication instead of empowering improvement.

Undergraduate preparation is also an important, and sheltered, environment in which future teachers develop professional knowledge and repertoires to use in the classroom.  While popular sentiment, as mentioned previously, suggests that teachers only “know” what their students learn, that sentiment is uninformed by what it takes to transform content into something pedagogically powerful that lasts for students.  I actually sympathize with teachers who groan when someone comes along with a new “best way” to teach that is typically a repackaging of long-known ideas into a new textbook and professional development workshop series.  On the other hand, behind a lot of academic rhetoric are critically important concepts for teachers that can be effective frameworks for practice.  Linda Darling-Hammond notes that significant research demonstrates routes to teaching that lack significant pedagogical training and student teaching result in teachers who only have generic teaching skills of limited range.

Darling Hammond, however, cautions university programs against complacency, especially in critical aspects of preparation such as developing deep content and pedagogical knowledge as well as closely tying university and school based preparation together.  Many programs have extended preparation time, and a growing number of university based teacher preparation programs have expended the time and resources to develop school based partnerships where prospective teachers gain richer opportunities to practice what they are learning in environments that encourage them to learn from those experiences.  It is worth noting that when done well, such partnerships go far beyond developing teachers who can consistently check off the right ticky boxes on the Danielson framework.  Darling Hammond notes that the most promising teacher preparation practices “envision the professional teacher as one who learns from teaching rather than one who has finished learning how to teach…”  We are, in fact, talking about a stance towards professionalism as beginning with strong skills and continuously learning and developing rather than simply achieving specific point ranges on a rubric.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser characterized the central tasks of teacher preparation as “analyzing beliefs and forming new visions, developing subject matter knowledge for teaching, developing understanding of learners and learning, developing a beginning repertoire, and developing the tools to study teaching.”  To accomplish such tasks, teacher preparation programs need “conceptual coherence” meaning programs need to be organized around central principles that inform the structure, content, and assessment of courses and experiences and sequences them so that prospective teachers have the best possible chances to develop their abilities.  Articulating a conceptual vision is not simply slapping a “mission statement” on a website, then; rather, it is a core set of beliefs guiding decision making and how evidence is used for program development.

Programs also need “purposeful, integrated field experiences.”  This critical component to teacher preparation allows prospective teachers to gain practical experience applying their growing knowledge and teaching repertoire, and it allows them to test teaching theories in supported environments.  Feiman-Nemser notes that promising programs include a variety of activities for prospective teachers in the field that prompt them to think critically about their experience so that the traditional divide between theory and practice is lessened.  Kenneth Zeichner writes that the traditional disconnect can be diminished by programs creating “hybrid spaces” where the expertise and knowledge held by teachers is given equal footing with the academic knowledge housed at university campuses.  He further notes that a growing body of research demonstrates that teacher preparation programs that coordinate course activities and assignments with “carefully mentored” field experiences better prepare teachers who are able to “successfully enact complex teaching practices.”

Undergraduate programs further need to pay “attention to teachers as learners.”  Programs have to prompt their students to challenge and extend their existing assumptions about teaching and learning, and they have to actively help them challenge those assumptions “in response to students’ changing knowledge, skills, and beliefs.”  As Feiman-Nemser points out, this is not merely a disposition to be fostered in prospective teachers, but also it is one that should be modeled by program faculty who engage in teaching methods they expect of their students.  Such preparation to teach and to learn from teaching serves the interests of program graduates’ future students, and it gives the graduates skills they will need to make best use of their need to learn and develop when they enter the profession full time.

It should be noted that elements such as these in teacher preparation require more than program faculty who are conscious of these elements and conscientious about the need to make certain all teacher candidates enjoy preparation guided by these principles.  Elements of this work are entirely within the control of teacher education programs, and, notably, state level policies on the qualifications of teacher candidates have very little impact upon them except to narrow the pipeline of potential future teachers.  However, other elements depend heavily upon state and local policies, and they can be negatively impacted by them.  Zeichner notes that the kind of clinical work that is necessary for teacher education to be effective is still rarely valued at research universities, and that faculty who take the time and effort to foster genuine two-way ties with practicing teachers suffer detrimental consequences to their careers.  Further, in a time of continued cuts to state support for higher education, it is exceptionally hard for university programs to build and scale the kinds of meaningful partnerships in local schools needed to prepare prospective teachers.  If we expect teacher education to provide excellent preparation, policy makers need to facilitate the necessary elements of that preparation.

Also, we need policy makers to consider the environment that they are pushing into our public schools.  Teaching is a time consuming and demanding profession even under ideal circumstances; increased demands upon teachers with no changes in their other work requirements serves as a disincentive to accept novices in their classrooms.  The impacts of state policies on teachers is no small matter.  In New Jersey, all teachers have to submit Student Growth Objectives as part of their annual evaluation, and while the early explanation of SGOs suggested a potentially valuable process of self examination with the support of administrators, the reality is a time consuming mess for which teachers have received little training and even less time.  Page 16 of the state distributed SGO Guidebook is a textbook case of instructing people to create meaningless tables that resemble statistical analysis but bear absolutely no resemblance to statistics done with any integrity.  Teachers in subjects that are tested in the PARCC consortium exams are also evaluated using Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) which have some advantage over value added models by being relatively stable but which are also statistically correlated with the percentage of children in poverty.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers sarcastically and correctly questions the validity of SGPs since they only seem to work if we assume that, somehow, the only truly effective teachers in the state of New Jersey ended up in wealthy school districts.

Given the demands to produce laborious yet meaningless statistical analyses of themselves and given the use of questionable measures of their teaching effectiveness via student test scores, it is perhaps miraculous that any teachers at all agree to work with inexperienced undergraduates in field placements and in student teaching.  However, we might all legitimately ask policy makers what conditions they envision enabling truly deep and risky work with novices in public schools?  Are teachers enabled with the time and support to mentor?  Are principals and other administrators given the chance to be instructional leaders who foster collaboration and professional growth?  Are there incentives and funding necessary to develop actual two-way collaboration between universities and schools?

Induction

The early career phase and its steep learning curve seems more and more like an abandoned concept in today’s policy environment, yet it remains critically important.  A simple reality is that regardless of the quality of teacher preparation, there is only just so much that can be done prior to actually teaching.  It is not that high quality programs do not prepare teachers more able to take on their full time responsibilities; it is that the mediated and supported environment of teacher education and mentored field experiences cannot fully replicate the reality of full time classroom teaching with the full range of both instructional responsibilities and demands to acculturate to a new school and community.  Teachers have been, traditionally, placed into their first classroom on the exact same footing as their experienced peers and expected to perform with only those supports either in place or absent from the schools in which they work.

This is no small matter because, far from the “crisis” of tenured teachers resting on their laurels as portrayed by anti-union activists like Campbell Brown, our schools face a far more serious problem with excessive turn over and the early exit of young teachers from the profession.  Richard Ingersoll demonstrates that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon and a substantial factor in the need for new teachers each year.  Additional research by Dr. Ingersoll for the Alliance for Excellent Education calculates that the movement of teachers from one school to another and the replacement of teachers who leave the profession entirely costs upwards of $2.2 billion each year.  Dr. Helen Ladd of Duke University reports that in 2008, more than a quarter of our nation’s teachers had five years of experience or less, and that concentrations of teachers with limited experience are found in schools serving underprivileged children.  This is especially problematic given that teachers gain in effectiveness very rapidly in the early career with a general leveling off after 15 years of experience;  Dr. Ladd’s research found that teachers with that level of experience are generally twice as effective as teachers with only two years in the classroom.  Experienced teachers provide schools and students with other advantages as well, but the general point should be clear:  we can increase requirements on teacher preparation and upon graduates of teacher preparation all we want, but if the systemic ignoring of the early teaching career continues, those changes will yield nothing.

Researchers from Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers have found that working conditions are the strongest predictor of why teachers leave a given school or the profession.  Among the school climate elements that impact teacher turnover are the level of trust and support apparent in administration, higher levels of order denoted by matters like student absenteeism and respect, and collegiality in the form of strong support and rapport among teachers.  Further, the researchers note that while policy makers can try to impact these aspects of the school environment, they are unlikely to succeed without careful attention to capacity building in the schools and in the district and state offices that seek positive change.  For example, expanded and positive collegial interaction requires serious consideration of teaching schedules and administrative duties, so that they can focus upon planning and collaboration with colleagues and curriculum experts, practices that are implemented in higher performing countries.  This is not work that can be accomplished on the cheap by rewriting regulations; it needs funding and direct support.

While such initiatives would benefit teachers across the experience levels, special attention should be paid to teachers in the early stage of their career.  Before test based accountability dominated the school landscape, we had good evidence that school culture and climate mattered significantly for the success and retention of new teachers.  According to Susan M. Kardos and associates, schools that were characterized as having “integrated” professional cultures had a blend of experience levels among teachers and new teachers found high levels of support and sustain collaboration across experience levels that was supported by administrators.  In such schools, new teachers were not expected to be polished veterans and found serious efforts taken to provide them with appropriate mentors and to regard them as learning and developing colleagues.  Making such environments work requires shared norms that are supported by administrators who work to provide the time and space necessary for productive collaboration across different experience levels of teachers with an expressed goal of improving teaching and learning.

While inspired leadership can build such environments, policy makers can assist by taking the induction period seriously and by seeing that mentoring of new teachers is not a haphazard add on to teachers’ existing work.  Feiman-Nemser makes clear that induction of new teachers will happen whether or not it is designed by policy because regardless of the quality of their preparation, new teachers must undertake the following tasks in their early career: gaining local knowledge of students, curriculum, and school context, designing responsive curriculum and instruction, enacting a beginning repertoire in purposeful ways, creating a classroom learning community, developing a professional identity, and learning in and from practice.  While quality teacher preparation can lay the groundwork for all of these tasks, they must be implemented within a specific school and community context for a new teacher to be successful, and that process can either be left to chance or policy can seek to increase the number of fruitful contexts for induction so novices are not left to rely upon luck for their specific needs to be recognized and addressed.

Formalizing induction can take different approaches, and policy makers need to carefully consider how they wish to support the matter.  Feiman-Nemser observes that promising induction policies seek mentors for new teachers who are appropriate given the context and people involved and allow reduced teaching loads so that novices and mentors can actually collaborate.  Strong induction programs also allow for novice development over a period of time, so policy should not confine mentoring and support to just the first year of teaching.  Mentors provide genuine and constructive feedback aimed at improving novice practice, and schools and districts provide regular development specific to the needs of novice teachers.  Effective mentoring and induction also embraces the dual role of assistance and assessment of novices, so mentors cannot simply confine themselves to a cheer leading role; their practice has to come with tools and dispositions aimed at improving novice teaching.  Just as we recognize that the very best students are not always destined to become the very best teachers, we recognize that the very best teachers are not always well-suited for mentoring.  Novices need “caring and competent mentors” who are well prepared for their role and given training to understand how to teach teachers.  Under ideal circumstances, the mentoring process is two way as mentor teachers, in the process of supporting and teaching novices, sharpen their abilities to observe, analyze, collaborate, assess, coach and other skills important to their improvement of teachers and schools.

It must be noted again that such work and policy does not come without cost.  Schools and districts coping with decreased state spending on education, are unlikely to afford resource and personnel intensive policies on their own.  If districts can find additional funding, it seems likely they will use it to make up for cuts to programs previously supported by the state (In New Jersey, for example, over 11,000 vulnerable students lost access to after school programs between the hours of 3 and 6pm in the 2011 budget cuts).  However, if policy makers are serious about the need for high quality teachers, and if they see the threats to teacher quality and student learning inherent in early career turnover, then they must consider legitimate efforts to create early career induction and mentoring within integrated professional cultures as the norm rather than as lucky exceptions.

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Policy makers have to consider the kinds of school environments their efforts have developed.  Just as teacher stress and job dissatisfaction are serious impediments to recruiting prospective teachers to the field, and just as evaluation requirements that force teachers to create meaningless reports of their teaching and to increase the amount of time spent on test preparation stand in the way of experienced teachers opening their classrooms to novices, those same policies are inherent barriers to instituting deliberate policies of mentoring and induction.  Test based accountability and evaluation tasks with little inherent legitimacy but high time commitments are distorting elements in today’s schools.  They absorb time and priority from even the very best teachers in our schools, and they given nothing of value in return.  Worse, they serve as a disincentive for teachers who would be genuinely accomplished mentors of preservice and early career teachers to even consider taking on the role.

Policy needs a serious realignment to consider what practices can be instituted that would shift accountability from a test and punish focus and into a support and growth focus when it comes to teacher quality.  Recruitment of students into teacher preparation can only happen in an environment when the actual rewards of teaching are evident.  Most teachers would be unlikely to turn down an offer of better salaries across the board, but by overwhelming margins, teachers want to be able to work for the best of their students and they want more time and resources to do that well.  Current policies in most jurisdictions simply pile more work on teachers with fewer resources and demand growth in test scores as the main indicator of success.

Higher demands on teacher education are not made in a vacuum.  It may be defensible to seek higher entrance requirements into teacher education and to call for more work in the field by teacher candidates, but the development of genuinely quality partnerships between schools and universities is resource and time intensive work that is difficult to accomplish simply by fiat from state capitols.  Capacity must be built at all levels of the system, and resources in the form of money and development time have to be built into the changes for work to be genuinely meaningful.  Further, experienced teachers, even those disposed to mentoring, cannot be fairly expected to participate in increased responsibilities for teacher education under current circumstances.

In the era of test based accountability, little attention has been given to the needs of novice teachers during their induction period, and that has continued the long standing and increasingly unsustainable churn in early career teaching.  Our schools lose both money and valuable experience as the unique needs in induction remain met only by haphazard circumstance rather than by a systemic focus on novices as learners, colleagues as mentors, and teachers as growing throughout their careers.  While school climate cannot be commanded from afar, policy makers ignore the circumstances that they incentivize at the peril of both teachers and students.  Induction of novice teachers will happen whether we attend to it or not, and failing to do so in any systemic way perpetuates the current “system” that has no focus or operating principles.

Becoming a teacher is frequently a lengthy journey.  Our future teachers are in our public schools right now forming their earliest, and sometimes most enduring, ideals about what purposes are served by public education and what the work of teaching and learning entails.  This time period is absolutely essential to the formation of their sense of vocation and commitment to the best ideals of education.  Entry into teacher preparation, in many senses, begins with the first desire to be like a child’s favorite teacher, but the path laid before that prospective teacher is one within the influence of policy.  If we want that path to be both effective and purposeful, then we need to understand it and use policy to enable its best possibilities.

References:

Alexander, F. (2014, April 21). What Teachers Really Want. The WashingtoN Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/21/what-teachers-really-want/

Alliance for Excellent Education (2014). On the path to equity: Improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers. Washington, DC: Mariana Haynes.

Baker, B. (2014, January 30). An Update on New Jersey’s SGPs: Year 2 – Still not valid! Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/an-update-on-new-jerseys-sgps-year-2-still-not-valid/

Berliner, D. (2000). A Personal Response to Those Who Bash Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(5), 358-371.

Cawelti, G. (2006). The Side Effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership, 64(3), 64-68.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). How Teacher Education Matters. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(3), 166-173.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2013, June 18). Why The NCTQ Teacher Prep Rating Are Nonsense. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/18/why-the-nctq-teacher-prep-ratings-are-nonsense/

Day, T. (2005). Teachers’ Craft Knowledge: A Constant in Times of Change? Irish Educational Studies, 24(1), 21-30.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From Preparation to Practice: Designing a Continuum to Strengthen and Sustain Teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1013-1055.

Fenstermacher, G.D. (1999). Teaching on both sides of the classroom door. In K.A. Sirotnik & R. Soder (Eds.), The beat of a different drummer: Essays on educational renewal in honor of John Goodlad (pp. 186-196). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Greene, M. (1978). Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality. Teachers College Record, 80(1), 22-35. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=1080

Hadley Dunn, A. (2014, August 3). Fact-Checking Campbell Brown: What she said, what research really shows. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/03/fact-checking-campbell-brown-what-she-said-what-research-really-shows/

Hansen, D. (1994). Teaching and the Sense of Vocation. Educational Theory, 44(3), 259-275.

Hargreaves, A. (2009). Presentism, Conservatism, and Individualism: The Legacy of Dan Lortie’s “Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study” Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), 143-155.

Ingersoll, R. (2001). Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 499-534.

Johnson, N., Oliff, P., & Williams, E. (2011, February 9). Update on State Budget Cuts. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=1214

Kardos, S., Moore Johnson, S., Peske, H., Kauffman, D., & Liu, E. (2001). Counting of Colleagues: New Teachers Encounter the Professional Cultures of Their Schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(2), 250-290.

Katz, D. (2015, March 27). Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession? Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://danielskatz.net/2015/03/27/does-anyone-in-education-reform-care-if-teaching-is-a-profession/.

Ladd, H. (2013, November 24). How Do We Stop the Revolving Door of New Teachers? Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/get-schooled/2013/nov/24/how-do-we-stop-revolving-door-new-teachers/

Leachman, M., & Mai, C. (2014, May 20). Most State Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4011

Lortie, D. (2002). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McGuire, K. (2015, February 23). As veteran teachers face more time demands, placing student teachers becomes more difficult. Star Tribune. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.startribune.com/local/west/293771361.html

MetLife, Inc. (2013). The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership. New York, NY: Harris Interaction. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf.

Moore Johnson, S., Kraft, M., & Papay, J. (2012). How Context Matters in High Needs Schools: The Effects of Teachers’ Working Conditions on Their Professional Satisfaction and Their Students’ Achievement. Teachers College Record, 114(10), 1-39. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=16685.

Ravitch, D. (2014, March 24). How New Jersey is Trying to Break its Teachers. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/28/teacher-how-new-jersey-is-trying-to-break-its-teachers/

Sahlberg, P. (2015, March 31). Q: What Makes Finnish Teachers So Special? A: It’s Not Brains. The Guardian. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/finnish-teachers-special-train-teach

Sawchuck, S. (2014, October 21). Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment Numbers. Edweek. Retrieved April 19, 2015 from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09enroll.h34.html.

Simon, N., Moore Johnson, S. (2013). Teacher Turnover in High Poverty Schools: What We Know and Can Do. (Working Paper: Project on the Next Generation of Teachers). Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1231814.files//Teacher%20Turnover%20in%20High-Poverty%20Schools.pdf.

Taylor, A. (2011, December 14). 26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/finland-education-school-2011-12#teachers-are-selected-from-the-top-10-of-graduates-19

Zeichner, K. (2010). Rethinking the Connections Between Campus Courses and Field Experiences in College- And University-Based Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 89-99.

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Filed under Funding, NCLB, politics, schools, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Who Will be NYSED’s “Outside Evaluators”?

As more details emerge from the budget agreement hammered out between Assembly and Senate leadership and Governor Andrew Cuomo, more questions seem to need urgent answers.  The Governor got many of the education items that he wanted, especially regarding tenure and teacher evaluations.  His original proposal called for 50% of teacher evaluations to come from standardized testing, 35% from an “outside evaluator,” and only 15% from school principals.  All three of these elements are in the budget framework and potentially the budget bills being debated as the deadline looms, but the final weight of the different items will depend upon work done by the New York State Education Department between now and June 30th.  Regardless of the final weight given to these items, no teacher in the state will be found to be more than “developing” if the test score component is “ineffective,” and all teachers will be evaluated with an outside observer’s input.  Any district that does not submit and receive approval of an evaluation plan using these guidelines will get no increase in state aid for the coming year.

The outside observer component was of special interest to Governor Cuomo who called the current evaluations (that he fought to implement originally) “baloney” and who apparently does not trust that school principals are capable of evaluating their teachers.  Taken out of context, the idea of an additional set of eyes observing teachers using some kind of common metric is intriguing.  Kind of like giving every newborn child in the country a pony.  You like the idea until you start thinking about how it could possibly work.  In the end you realize that the most predictable result is that a lot of people are going to end up with pony poop in their kitchens.

Capital New York reports this morning that a few more details are emerging on the teacher evaluation system:

There will be two required observations, from a teacher’s principal or administrator and an “independent” evaluator, who could be a principal, administrator or “highly effective” teacher from another school or district. As Cuomo originally proposed, a college professor or retired educator could also serve as the independent evaluator. A peer observation will be optional.

The logistics of this will likely prove very daunting.  Who, exactly, will be the “outside evaluators” for all of the schools in New York State?  According to the governor and law makers, they will be a hodge podge of administrators, “highly effective” teachers, college professors, or retirees.  This, at least, is a more qualified proposed group than Pearson Corporation’s essay scorers who were recruited in part by advertising on Craig’s List, but what is the scale of this endeavor?

Classroom observations are currently done by school principals and other related district administrators who are already employed by districts to do a full range of duties, not just teacher evaluations.  There are 4,530 public schools across all of the school districts in New York State (not including charters), and 203,457 classroom teachers who work in those schools (not including paraprofessionals, etc.).  That means that in any given year, roughly 4500 principals are doing some or all of the observations for all of the teachers in their buildings.  This includes scheduling a classroom visit, doing the observation with appropriate notes, optimally having a pre and post observation discussion with the observed teacher, and writing up the evaluation report using the current scoring band system.  Now that work will have to be duplicated over 200,000 times by the outside evaluators who will be approved to observe and to evaluate teachers in the state.

So who will we get to do this?

Will school principals do this for teachers outside their districts? I have my doubts.  Principals are very busy people with a heavy load of time intensive and often politically sensitive work to accomplish.  If a principal is already observing and evaluating all teachers in his or her building, how much time will that person have to travel to other districts and replicate that work for a school system that does not employ him or her full time?

Will “highly effective” teachers do this for teachers outside their own districts?  First, the proposed system is not designed to find very many teachers “highly effective” to begin with, so this will be a limited pool that may change from year to year.  Second, it is highly doubtful that many teachers, regardless of skill level, will line up to undertake this role outside of their own schools.  There is some precedent for experienced and highly regarded teachers taking a role to assist and review peers within their own schools and districts, but such programs are costly and usually require release time from classroom teaching.  Will many of New York’s “highly effective” classroom teachers take on travel and cost their districts substitute teacher costs so they can travel outside of district to evaluate other teachers?  I would not hold my breath waiting for that.

Will college professors do this in addition to their scholarly and teaching pursuits?  For that matter, how many professors are actually qualified to do such work in the state?  The NYSED website says that over 100 university based undergraduate and graduate programs in the state lead to teacher certification, so there may, in fact, be qualified faculty in the state to take on some of the load.  However, recall that roughly 4500 school principals or assistant administrators are responsible for ALL of the teacher evaluations for over 203,000 classroom teachers.  Very few university faculty will likely consider taking on even a partial load of teacher evaluations if it inhibits their ability to teach on campus and to conduct research in their fields.  If the state were considering fostering many more deep university and school district partnerships it might be plausible to use faculty for some of this work, but it is highly unlikely if the call is simply for faculty to take on additional responsibilities that do not serve their professional goals.

Will retired teachers agree to do this work?  I do not know.  Maybe, but I kind of doubt it under current circumstances.  A retired teacher would likely not be qualified to evaluate too many teachers in a single school if it meant observing outside of his or her certification area.  As a teacher education program director, I know many retired teachers who have been willing to give of their time and wisdom to supervise our student teachers.  They do it because they love teaching and want to help mentor new young people into the profession.  Will Governor Cuomo and the NYSED be able to find large numbers of retired teachers who want to do work aimed at REMOVING many more teachers?  I have my doubts.

This will also be an expensive proposition.  Doing all of teacher evaluation twice every year will require a workforce large enough to do that portion of administrators’ work each and every year.  We will need a workforce of at least 1100 evaluators doing at least one evaluation a day during the school year to observe and evaluate every classroom teacher in the state (and, of course, every school day is not a day available for observations), and that assumes a nice, evenly distributed available pool of evaluators matched to teachers.  Unless there is a line item in the budget to pay for all of them, then it will likely be up to the districts to hire evaluators and pay them for their time and travel.  So which art or music teacher will your district have to cut this year to pay for the outside evaluators?

Come to think of it, the pony idea might be more feasible.  And cleaner.

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Filed under Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, teaching, Testing

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week.  Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk.  And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework.  An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.

Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic.  The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings.  In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days.  Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November.  According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:

  • Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
  • Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years.  A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
  • The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.

These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores.  In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.

This is not a plan to strengthen teaching.  This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.

The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:

  1. Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers.  This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
  2. The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
  3. Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking.  Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
  4. Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.

What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany?  For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation.  If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings.  Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education.  The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.

Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State?  Support.  Meaningful professional development and education.  Mentoring and induction proposals.  While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter.  The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school.  Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.  Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.

That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.

New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page.  Members of the Senate can be found here.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here.  Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, teacher learning, teaching, Testing