Category Archives: Media

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

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

While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

The Truthiness of Campbell Brown

Former news anchor turned education reform advocate Campbell Brown has established herself as one of the more aggressive public personalities arguing against teacher unions and in favor of school privatization.  After leaving CNN in 2010, Ms. Brown reemerged as an antagonist of teacher unions, taking to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York City’s United Federation of Teachers of protecting teachers accused of sexual misconduct.  It was a devastating line of attack against a favorite target of would be education reformers – a well-funded and politically connected labor union favoring its membership over ethics.

Of course, it wasn’t really true.  Curiously, Ms. Brown seemed entirely unaware of the actual requirements in the UFT contact in effect at the time of her accusations.  This information was made crystal clear when Ms. Brown tried to publicly back UFT President Michael Mulgrew into a corner on the issue – and got seriously dressed down for her misrepresentation of the union’s position and actions:

Mr. Mulgrew: “We have made sure that on an allegation, a single allegation, a teacher must be removed.  If the principal wants the teacher removed, or the administrator, they must be removed from any contact with children. They then have a 30 day investigation period. If they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety, any sexual impropriety, the administrating officer has no choice but to fire him. And those are the things that we put into our contract – that they must be fired if they are found guilty of any sexual impropriety. So I know you like to say things in certain ways, but I have found many of your allegations to be misleading.  So I am very proud of the fact that we take very seriously that on a single allegation – a child can say it in a flippant moment — that that teacher will be removed from any contact with a student, and if they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety – any – there is no discretion: they must be fired.  And that is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown: “So to clarify…”

Mr. Mulgrew: “That is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown also came under fire for failing to disclose, as is typical in ethical journalism, her family connections to education reform and, specifically, anti-union education reform.  Her husband is Dan Senor, who was a figure in the Bush administration serving as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and at the time of Ms. Brown’s relaunching of herself as an education advocate, he was an adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign and a board member of Students First, New York – the Empire State branch of Michelle Rhee’s anti-union organization.  Ms. Brown decided her best reply was to be snarky about the entire question of ethical journalism.

Ms. Brown returned to bring Vergara vs. The State of California style lawsuits against teacher tenure in New York and other locales, funneling dark money donations into her new organization “Partners for Educational Justice”.  The new campaign came with a fresh round of publicity and interviews where she tried to make her case to the public.  These were, charitably, as fact challenged as her previous efforts to paint the UFT as an organization dedicated to protecting sexual predators.  According the Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Ms. Brown was wrong on almost every relevant point of fact, misrepresenting the staffing challenges faced by urban school districts (they have trouble retaining experienced teachers rather than being plagued by incompetent ones with tenure), arguing that teachers must be bad in urban districts because standardized test scores are low (in reality, teachers are important but no research solidly ties quality of teaching to standardized test results), and citing wildly out of date information on how long it takes to remove a tenured teacher from the classroom (177 days is not 830 days no matter how often that talking point is repeated).

Shortly after launching her lawsuit, Ms. Brown also started her education “news” website called the “The74,” which oddly sounds like a nightclub but is supposed to “represent” the roughly 74 million Americans under the age of 18 in the country.  The website is expected to operate on a budget of $4 million annually, and is funded by donors such as  Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and Jonathan Sackler who serves on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund — all reliable sources of charter school support.  From that platform, she has been billing herself as a viable host for education issues in the current election cycle, hosting a Republican candidate discussion in August last year – and blaming the national teacher unions for the fact that no Democratic candidates agreed to appear at a similar forum later in the Fall.  Jersey Jazzman demonstrated the long list of entirely viable reasons why Democrats might not want to participate in what would obviously have been an anti-union, pro-privatization event hosted by a media figure whose relationship with facts has been sketchy.  But blaming unions is sort of a reflex for Ms. Brown by now.

Most recently, Ms. Brown took to  Slate with a video giving “advice” for the next President of the United States.  In it, she said that two thirds of American eighth graders “cannot read or do math at grade level.”  In response, Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, demonstrated that her facts were inaccurate in an exchange on Twitter:

Former Principal and current head of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris, explained the depth of Ms. Brown’s error in The Washington Post.  During the exchange on Twitter, Ms. Brown admitted that her “source” for the claim about American students’ grade level skills came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) where, yes, roughly one third of American 8th graders meet the cut scores for “proficient” and “advanced” with two thirds at “basic” or  below.  As Burris notes, NAEP does not consider “proficient” to be synonymous with “grade level” skills and expectations.  In fact, if you read the description of “basic” performance in the 8th grade reading NAEP, you will see a description of competent if not outstanding reading ability:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. They should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text. Students performing at this level should also be able to state judgments and give some support about content and presentation of content.

To set up the NAEP proficiency as an appropriate grade level benchmark as Ms. Brown does is to entirely muddy the discussion and debate about how our schools are doing.  Such sleight of hand techniques seem deliberate and designed to paint a misleading portrait of our schools for reasons that have little to do with improving them for most children.  Regardless of motives, one thing is completely clear: anyone trying to portray NAEP results – or PARCC and SBAC results for that matter – as an established proxy for what grade level expectations should be in our schools is either seriously misinformed or a liar.

Carol Burris spoke very cogently about why this matters beyond the question of truthfulness as well:

If you set an unreasonable cut score on state tests and pressure teachers and kids to meet it, it can work against student learning, especially for students who struggle.  Sizeable numbers of kids will learn less than they might if the instructional pace and content were developmentally appropriate and well sequenced.  This is especially true in the younger grades. You can always differentiate instruction if you need to for the kids who excel, but if you hold struggling learners to a standard they cannot meet, frustration, not learning, happens.  Inappropriately difficult standards also promote drilling for the test, adult cheating and the narrowing of the curriculum as explained in this Politico New York report on the test-driven, Success Academy Charter Schools.

Despite the important arguments and issues of genuine substance, Ms. Brown seems determined to not learn about the education policies she has inserted herself into as both an advocate and an arbitrator. Given an opportunity to respond directly on her statements about student achievement, Ms. Brown offered perhaps the most childish and taunting string of non-sequiturs I have seen since I last taught 7th grade.  She called the reaction to her use of “grade level” “histrionic,” misused the expression “begs the question,” taunted “is that all you’ve got?”to her critics, declared that public education advocates have “lost” on charter schools, tenure, and “special protections” for abusive teachers,  and said the reaction “screams desperation.”  She declared that any “reasonable person or parent” knew what she meant by her statement.  She declared that she was subject to personal sexist attacks.  She claimed critics were “feigning outrage” over her misuse of terminology and facts because they “profit off the system’s failure.”  And for good measure, she compared New York University Professor Diane Ravitch with Donald Trump.

And your mother, I guess.

Ms. Brown’s self assurance is a bit odd here.  The charter sector may be growing, but so is awareness of the scandals growing from scant oversight of finances and practices.  Anti-union forces may have won the first round of Vergara v. California trying to sue tenure out of existence, but they lost the appeal.  Ms. Brown’s comment about “special protections you want for abusive teachers” is literally just blather since she didn’t have her facts correct when she started the argument.

More interesting, however, is the complete absence of an actual argument.  Ms. Brown grudgingly acknowledges that her specific language was incorrect, but she denies that anyone was really impacted at all by it.  Mostly, she just insinuates that her critics are losers and complains about the tone of their comments to her.  To be sure, she has received some personal, even heated, criticism in the course of these debates (although before equating Dr. Diane Ravitch’s occasional criticisms of her to what Donald Trump unleashes on his critics, she might want to consult the record).   These issues, however, are of national importance, and Ms. Brown has a repeated and enthusiastic habit of getting critical facts dead wrong on issues that impact 3 million professional teachers and their 50 million students.  From her assertion that the UFT happily protects child molesters to her statements about tenure to her claims about the percentage of American children reading and doing math at grade level, she is consistently and damagingly wrong.

Perhaps the actual facts are inconvenient for her cause, but smug snarkiness when called out for substituting “truthiness” for truth is hardly an argument.

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Filed under Media, politics, Unions

The Price of “Success”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Appreciate Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

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

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

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

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

It’s just that simple.

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

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

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

A private employee serves one master — the company.

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

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

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

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

Why We Need the “Public” in Public Education

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School, improved and energized, as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization. Two reasons sustain this position. In the first place, there is a universality in its operation, which can be affirmed of no other institution whatever. If administered in the spirit of justice and conciliation, all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences. And, in the second place, the materials upon which it operates are so pliant and ductile as to be susceptible of assuming a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator.

– Horace Mann, Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848

It is perhaps difficult to remember, in 2016, that the original purposes of the American common school movement lay in ideals about the public good as well as goals for individual advancement.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, politicians and policy makers have emphasized accountability as the primary goal of school law with an increasing emphasis on accountability for individual student outcomes.  Often supported by parents who saw the purpose of their children’s education in the accumulation of credentials, accountability as a framework for school success gives special importance to whether or not schools boost students’ seeking to improve their financial and social situations.  School is doing its job, we are told, in those places where the enterprise of personal advancement works as anticipated, and school is a failure when too many students remain locked generation by generation in the same economic circumstances as their parents.

The appeal of this is understandable, but it is also perilous.  David Labaree of Stanford University warned in 1997 that our concept of school’s purpose was already significantly out of balance.  Arguing that the rise of standards and accountability emphasized social efficiency goals for the labor force, Labaree also noted the significant rise of social mobility  for individuals as a key goal for public education:

Instead, the main threat comes from the growing dominance of the social mobility goal over the others. Although this goal (in coalition with the democratic equality goal) has been a major factor in motivating a progressive politics of education over the years, the increasing hegemony of the mobility goal and its narrow consumer-based approach to education have led to the reconceptualization of education as a purely private good.

We are now, in the late 1990s, experiencing the sobering consequences of this ideological shift. We find credentialism triumphing over learning in our schools, with a commodified form of education winning an edge over useful substance. We find public schools under attack, not just because they are deemed ineffective but also because they are public. After all, if education is indeed a private good, then the next step (according to the influential right wing in today’s educational politics) is to withdraw public control entirely and move toward a fully privatized system of education.

We are almost twenty years later and these forces have been driving education policy for most of that time.  Accountability measures set up under No Child Left Behind demanded that schools show consistent progress in increasing students’ standardized test scores, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Program moved accountability down to the individual classroom level – with the expectation that teachers would oversee constant student growth absent any other considerations.  Advocates of the Common Core State Standards wrapped themselves in the language of social efficiency by constantly emphasizing American competitiveness in the international economy and in the language of social mobility by claiming the standards would lead all students to become ready for “college and careers”.  Meanwhile, Common Core aligned testing systems have promised American parents that score reportscan  inform them whether or not their individual children are “on track” for college and career readiness, and no less a figure than former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that our educational goal should be to be “able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not…'”

As Labaree noted, there is nothing wrong, per se, in the goals of social efficiency and social mobility.  They have, in various instantiations, been significant forces in American public education and provided legitimate rationales for our national investment in universal, compulsory education.  We have long called upon schools to provide the economy with workers prepared for the ages in which they lived, and our constant expansion of education’s reach is at least partially premised on the belief that all children, regardless of circumstances, should have an equal chance to succeed in school and therefore achieve economically.  In his Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Horace Mann stated:

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery. I do not here mean that it so elevates the moral nature as to make men disdain and abhor the oppression of their fellow-men. This idea pertains to another of its attributes. But I mean that it gives each man the independence and the means, by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor.

Mann embraced the power of education not merely to fairly distribute existing wealth, but also to create new wealth, adding both individuals and the nation itself.  However, Mann’s vision of the developing common school did not end with these purposes, and, as the opening quote demonstrates, he devoted great significance for the role of a public school system in promoting the very values necessary for the health and vitality of a democracy.  The common school ideally welcomes all the children of a community, creating a truly shared space without regard to economic and social stratification, and Mann recognized that children could be greatly influenced at a very young age by their education.  By educating those normally considered outcast by society – described in Mann’s 19th century language “in teaching the blind, and the deaf and dumb, in kindling the latent spark of intelligence that lurks in an idiot’s mind, and in the more holy work of reforming abandoned and outcast children” – society can save itself “against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, the woes of want and the wickedness of waste.”

Further, Mann envisioned a strong role for education in preparing all citizens to both embrace and cherish their franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

The contrasts with preparing children for jobs and for individual advancement are obvious and critical.  The “public” in public education refers to truly public purposes not merely to sources of funding, and those purposes are related to foundational aspirations of the American Republic.  Public education must be pluralistic by welcoming the children of all community members within its reach.  Public education must be equitable in assuring all children in attendance are provided with what they need to learn.  Public education must support a healthy and vigorous democracy by educating all in our system of government and promoting our admiration of the voting franchise.  It is absolutely and shamefully true that our public schools, like our society, have frequently failed these ideals.  School and society enforced a legal apartheid system for generations, and when the legal edifices of segregation fell, people with means fled integration.  Our system of school funding frequently betrays equity by leaving communities with low property values struggling to meet the needs of their students.  However, it is also true that our schools have steadily grown more inclusive over time, mirroring the slow but usually consistent progress of our society.

Mann was keenly aware that the democratic mission of school could be perilous.  After lengthy discussion of the keys problems that politics and political controversy could visit upon schools, leading to withdrawal of public support, Mann proposes a largely common sense position for schools in the civic curriculum:

Surely, between these extremes, there must be a medium not difficult to be found. And is not this the middle course, which all sensible and judicious men, all patriots, and all genuine republicans, must approve?–namely, that those articles in the creed of republicanism, which are accepted by all, believed in by all, and which form the common basis of our political faith, shall be taught to all. But when the teacher, in the course of his lessons or lectures on the fundamental law, arrives at a controverted text, he is either to read it without comment or remark; or, at most, he is only to say that the passage is the subject of disputation, and that the schoolroom is neither the tribunal to adjudicate, nor the forum to discuss it.

Mann’s proposal is for a studied neutrality that should be familiar to many teachers of civics.  In a modern classroom, teachers are frequently called upon to be moderators of contentious political topics rather than to be advocates, and by declining to take sides while ideally allowing open and full discussion, teachers can avoid exerting undue influence on matters of political conscience.  This is certainly a sensible position given the role teachers must take upon being fair and politically inclusive, and it is not hard to understand that in most situations, it is necessary for teachers to approach politics with caution and neutrality.

Under most situations.  But not under all situations.

There are times when situations in politics do not merely involve passionate partisan division,  but actually call into question values such as pluralism, equity, and democracy that are essential for truly public education.  There was no virtue, for example, for school and school leaders to treat Bull Connor as merely another citizen who held a passionate opinion.  Connor’s vicious racism and willingness to use violence to defend White Supremacy had a constituency, but no ethical validity.  So while school leaders in his time may have risked some of the political chaos that Horace Mann feared, speaking and, yes, teaching against Connor would have been the correct stance in defense of the values that make education public.

We are witnessing something akin to Bull Connor play out in the nomination contest for the Presidency of the Republican Party.  As hard as it is to imagine, the nomination for President of the United States is plausibly within reach of real estate developer Donald Trump who has run a campaign based upon plans to mass deport over 11 million people within two year, unleashing havoc upon the entire country and likely requiring a network of concentration camps to hold people being “processed,” a blanket ban upon over a billion people in the world from entering the country based on their religion, promises that he can force a sovereign nation to pay us billions of dollars to build a wall on their border, promises to make torture legal, has promised to order the military to commit war crimes, relishes the idea of setting off a global trade war, doesn’t possess even a casual relationship with truth, happily repeats racist mythology about African Americans and crime and about Muslims and September 11, is a lifelong misogynist, finds it unusually difficult to turn down the support of avowed White Supremacists, at a minimum flirts with fascist imagery and ideasis obsessed with “strong leaders” even when they are autocratic thugs, and, temporarily, turned the Presidential race into a conversation about this size of his penis.

If it is possible to be worse than the candidate’s avowed policies, many among his supporters come close.  While all of Donald Trump’s supporters are not racists, some of the worst racists in the country have identified his positions and rhetoric as their own. Consider white supremacist Matthew Heimbach, who was caught on camera in early march violently pushing and shoving an African American woman as she was ejected from a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky.  In fact, Trump supporters have a history of violently reacting the presence of protestors, even ones being entirely peaceful.  Despite his weak denials, the candidate has long encouraged and incited violence, expressing his desire to beat protestors and his promises to pay legal bills for supporters who engage in violence.  And just to make things even better, a group of Trump’s supporters have started organizing themselves to “expose” “plots” to disrupt campaign events and to use social media to encourage rally attendees to identify specific people at Mr. Trump’s rallies. Because in the past century, devotees of strongman ideology organizing to intimidate others has never gone horribly wrong.

While American politics possesses many backwaters that are, at a minimum, distressing, this campaign goes well beyond them in its reach if not in its ugliness.  If Donald Trump wins the nomination of the Republican Party, then one of our two historic great parties will have endorsed a platform of exclusion and violence that has energized and emboldened some of the very worst people in our nation.  Consider the implications: a political party that issued the Emancipation Proclamation under Abraham Lincoln, that forcibly integrated public schools over the violent objections of White Supremacists under Dwight Eisenhower, and that expanded educational opportunity to children with disabilities under Gerald Ford will put up for President a man whose major policy proposals center on narrowing America.  At its core, the Trump campaign is against pluralism and inclusion – and it is willing to employ violent rhetoric that stirs up actual violence in its pursuit.

This is far beyond mere partisan politics, for it threatens the very values that make public education possible. There is no “public” in public education if we do not, even with our manifest flaws, strive towards greater pluralism and greater equity within those schools, and how can we strive towards those goals if our electorate rejects them for the highest office in the land – and tacitly endorses Trump’s racism, sexism, nativism, and affection for strongman rhetoric and violence?  The normal political season role for schools and for teachers is to arbitrate among competing ideals for the future of our democracy, but a normal political season does not typically feature a campaign that actually threatens the core values needed to have a democracy.  Schools and, especially, school leaders cannot be on the sidelines under circumstances where vast portions of the public are actually threatened. Truly public education cannot be silent this time.

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

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

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

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

The Inequalities Are Still Savage

Twenty-five years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol published what remains one of the most important examinations of educational inequity ever printed, Savage InequalitiesThe book is a direct and searing look at how districts serving urban minority children suffered from segregation, inequitable funding, and crumbling facilities while serving student populations suffering the worst deprivations of poverty.  It is a story of malign neglect where school funding based upon the value of a community’s property compounds the economic and environmental violence inflicted upon helpless children.  Kozol criss-crossed the country from East St. Louis, Illinois to New York City, to Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, examining schools and speaking with the students in them.  What he reported should have shaken America to its core.  Consider the following from East St. Louis:

East St. Louis – which the local press refers to as an “inner city without an outer city” – has some of the sickest children in America.  Of the 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city’s health director are the sewage running in streets, air that has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, unemployment.  Hospital care is deficient too.  There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis….Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions.  Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it.  They go to school with it.

Later in the chapter on East St. Louis, a 14 year-old girl spoke about the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and startled Mr. Kozol by calling the reading of “I Have a Dream” perfunctory.  She explained her thinking: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King.  The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.  Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

In the years since Jonathan Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities, great changes have happened in the U.S. economy.  Our Gross Domestic Product has grown, in chained 2009 dollars, from $8.9 trillion to $15.9 trillion.  Internet use has become almost universal as has mobile cellular use.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened 1990 at 2810.2, and it closed 2015 above 17,000. In 1987, Forbes magazine published a list of 140 international billionaires, 44 of whom lived in the U.S. By 2012, that list swelled to 1,226 – 425 of them living in America.  With such incredible increases in wealth and life changing technologies, one would assume that it would be hard to replicate Mr. Kozol’s exegesis on inequality in America.

But one would be wrong.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the federal government estimated that 53% of the nation’s school buildings needed repairs, renovations, or modernization at an estimated cost of $197 billion.  It has long been known that adverse building conditions have discernible impact on student achievement and on teacher morale and effectiveness.  60% of schools serving communities where 75% or more of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch needed such repairs compared with 48% of schools where 35% of students qualify.

Poverty in the United States dropped from a high of 22.4% of the population in the late 1950s to its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973, but in 1980 it began to rise again, reaching 15.3% in 1993 when it began to decline until the year 2000. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate sits at 14.8% where it has stayed roughly unchanged since the end of the Great Recession. Poverty’s reach is not distributed evenly in society with African American and Hispanic citizens living below the poverty line at rates twice as high as White and Asian Americans.  21.1% of children aged 18 and younger live in poverty.  Of the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States’ child poverty level is only surpassed by 5 nations.  In the time since the publication of Savage Inequalities and today, whatever progress that has been made in reducing poverty in the United States has regressed considerably.

Family income has lost ground it gained in the past 25 years as well.  In 1990, median household income was $52,623, and it rose to $57,843 in 1999; in 2014, it was $53,657. In 1986, the average starting wage for a person with BA was $44,770, but by 2013, it had only risen to $45,500 while average starting wages for workers with no college fell from $30,525 to only $28,000.  The stagnation and lost ground of large swaths of American families manifests in health outcomes.  While the top quintiles of income earners have gained years of life expectancy since 1980, the lowest quintiles have remained unchanged for men and have actually declined for poor women.  The United States has a staggering imprisonment rate of 698 per 100,000 population – outpacing Rwanda, Russia, and China – leaving millions of citizens with dismal employment prospects and no ability to vote.

These figures would be stunning enough in their stark detail, but recent, horrifying examples, make it clear that the tragic personal situations that were detailed a quarter of a century ago by Jonathan Kozol still haunt us.  Consider the unmitigated disaster still being uncovered in Flint, Michigan.  The city, after years of cutbacks, was placed under a state appointed emergency manager in 2011 who had the power to appeal local decisions and make cost cutting a primary goal.  That manager, Darnell Earley, blames the Flint City Council for switching from the Detroit water system, supplied by Lake Huron, to the Flint River (as a temporary source until a new system came online), but members of the council flatly deny this and local reporting cannot find reference to using Flint River water in council resolutions.  However the switch was made, the result has been a calamity. In order to use the heavily polluted river water, it had to be treated, but as soon as the water came on line, residents complained about the color, smell, and taste of the water despite assurances from Mr. Earley’s office that it was safe to drink.  For 18 months, Flint residents could see the problems with their water with their own eyes, but hidden from view was a worse danger: the treated water was corrosive and leaching metals, including lead, from the aging pipes in Flint.  It took a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, to uncover the depth of the matter – with parents complaining about hair loss and rashes in their families, she pulled lead level records and found rates had doubled or tripled.

Lead poisoning’s impacts are life long .  There is no cure.

The circular firing squad of local and state officials blaming others for the crisis is on full display, but that does not change the fact that serious problems with Flint’s water were evident within months of the switch.  By October of 2014, General Motors reached an agreement to switch water sources because the water from the Flint River was too corrosive to use in their engine manufacturing facility.  GM’s water change came at a cost of $400,000 a year and had the approval of the emergency manager – even though the water continued to be piped into resident’s homes.  Flint officials and the state appointed manager knew in October, 2014 that the water every person in Flint was drinking, including all of its children, was unfit for use in a factoryBy summer, 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech University had confirmed that lead particulate levels in Flint drinking water was far beyond safe levels, some samples containing a mind-boggling 2000 parts per billion.  Despite this, the city was not reconnected to Lake Huron sourced water until October, and the now corroded pipes continue to leach toxic metals into the city’s drinking water.

Mr. Earley is now the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, and teachers there are staging a series of sick outs to protest deplorable conditions in many of their buildings.  Just how deplorable? Mushrooms have been found growing on walls in Vernor Elementary School:

DPS mushrooms

At Spain Elementary School, the gymnasium is unusable due to buckled floors, leaking ceilings, and mold growth:

DPS Decayed Floor

In a demonstration of supreme self unawareness, Mr. Earley held a press conference to denounce the teachers’ actions, and a Saginaw lawmaker called upon the state education authorities to sanction Detroit’s teachers.

The reality here is both frightening and harsh, but there is a simple truth at the heart of it.  If the citizens of Flint have been poisoned by their own water supply and if the children of Detroit attend schools that are decaying and full of mold and mushrooms it is because we have let it be so.  The United States of America has never been collectively wealthier at any time in its history, but our commitment to the well being of all of us has not been this low since before the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – and the distribution of wealth has not been this unequal since before the Great Depression.  We look at the total money spent on education and declare that it is “a lot” of money without bothering to ask what needs to spent to make certain that every child comes from a safe and healthy community and has a safe and healthy school to attend.  That this question is not on the lips of every candidate for the Presidency is a stunning indictment of our current social order.

We must remember: our current situation is a choice, one made at the expense of our future.  A society that pumps $4.8 billion in corporate subsidies to oil companies alone does not have to poison its children.  A consumer culture that literally wastes $11.8 billion a year on bottled water can fund new school construction.  A nation that tolerates a weapon program that is 7 years behind schedule and $167 billion over budget does not have to tolerate a single child going to a school that jeopardizes her health.  Our politicians would prefer to blame teachers than to demand that their donors give a fraction more.

The inequalities are still savage.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, Funding, Media, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headlee: How does that feel?

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

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

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

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

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

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

Leslie: Once.

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

Leslie: Sad.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Annual standardized testing of all children.

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

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

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

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

NCLB Era Reading Gap

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

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

NAEP Reading13 year old math NAEP

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

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

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

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

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The last supporter of annual testing?

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