Category Archives: Stories

Welcoming a New Cohort of Future Teachers

Yesterday, my program got an early chance to meet members of our incoming Class of 2018.  I had a series of hand outs with critical planning information for their next four years, but more important than reading to them action items that they can read for themselves, I and my colleagues wanted them to get to know each other and begin to see each other as people who can be relied upon.  This is not only good for them as they enter a four year program together, but also it is good for their future practice in schools.  Teachers who collaborate and seek out ideas from a variety of trusted people are more able to seek solutions to questions about teaching than teachers who close the door of their classrooms and try to not be seen.  It also helps our incoming students start to see how people with different backgrounds and reasons for being in a school can quickly come together to collaborate and learn about each other.

These new future teachers are entering their university preparation for teaching at a difficult time.  The Common Core State Standards movement was sweeping along as fait accompli until questions about its quality, purposes and the speed of implementation have hit mainstream.  New mass high stakes testing is still scheduled to roll out over the next few school years, but it is meeting with increasing teacher and parental resistance.  Communities across the country will soon see their students, teachers and school assessed by those exams, and teachers will face potential career consequences based on value added modeling of their teaching using test data.  These policies are not being tested carefully in small settings; they are being rolled out simultaneously in classrooms affecting 10s of millions of students.  Mass disruption is the order of the day.

Teaching as a profession is under higher scrutiny.  “Reformers” such as Michelle Rhee have advocated for years that the solution to nearly every problem facing education is to fire “ineffective” teachers and to use test scores to determine teacher effectiveness.  To accomplish this, they not only needed mass testing, they also needed to diminish teachers’ workplace protections and that has meant stripping away traditional union rights.  Court cases like the recently (and controversially) decided Vergara case are likely to increase in number. At the same time, traditional teacher education is coming under attack via the partisan think tank National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ) which has taken it upon itself to “rank” all teacher preparation programs in the country.

The contradictions of the self-styled education reformers are evident and troubling.  They have pushed for complicated standards and testing regimens at a time when states and school districts around the country are cutting budgets and personnel.  They have demanded that teachers be held to higher standards of performance using measures of their performance that experts in statistics say are poorly designed for that purpose.  They have demanded that teachers work with fewer protections for their employment while dramatically raising their stakes of their work.  The same “reformers” who bemoan the quality of university based teacher education are enthusiastic backers of Teach for America’s five week training model and of charter schools which are contemplating setting up their own teacher training “graduate schools” that resemble computer delivered workplace training rather than a serious professional education.

And yet, we still are able to welcome a group of young people enthusiastic about becoming teachers and eager to take up the challenges of learning to teach.

Young people have historically been attracted to teaching as a profession for various reasons.  In the early decades of the Common School movement, teaching was seen as an appropriate occupation for young, educated women until they found husbands and had children of their own.  For some portions of the teacher population, teaching was a way for a first college educated generation to take a place in a middle class profession with a reasonable salary and benefits.  As more white, middle and upper middle class women have sought careers in previously restricted fields like law and medicine, more minorities have taken up teaching (although proportions still lag behind the percentage of students who are minorities).

There are, however, reasons that teachers teach which go well beyond labor economics.  Decade after decade, talented young people seek out careers as teachers for reasons that are best labeled as affective, meaning they speak not to rational calculations of risk and reward, but that they speak to rewards that defy measurement.  Since 1975, researchers have repeated affirmed Dan Lortie’s observation that teachers rely upon “psychic rewards” rather than extrinsic compensation for affirmation of their purposes in school.   Ask a teacher about the greatest satisfactions of teaching, and you will almost certainly hear about how making a difference in child’s life matters or a specific instance of reaching a particular student with a lesson that made difficult content interesting and exciting.  Teachers consistently report that they revel in the ability to connect with students academically and personally and that a “good class” provides personal and professional satisfaction (just as a “bad class” provides personal and professional angst).  There is no external measurement of this, but it is a major part of the difference between a teacher who is happy on the job and one who is not.

Similarly, teachers tend to be people who found at least some enjoyment from school and wish to impart some of that experience to their own students.  Lortie referred to this characteristic as “continuity” meaning that teachers generally wish to continue experiencing that which was pleasant in their own education.  This can take many forms, and it should not be construed to mean that all teachers wish to be uncritical of schools and schooling.  In my years as a teacher educator, every student I have taught can point to an example of someone that he or she does NOT want to be, but the powerful visions of teaching come from those teachers they wish to emulate.  It takes time to dig down into what it actually was that made those great teachers exceptional (most of my students rely initially upon affect), but once understood, that former teacher is an even more powerful role model.

The reality is that the new class of future teachers I greeted yesterday began their teacher education many years ago when the narrative of their own education began.  That narrative is wrapped up in a 15,000 hours of time spent in classrooms from Kindergarten to 12th grade and involves all of the work done as students and impressions of work done by teachers.  Much of what they learn from this “apprenticeship of observation” is facile, and it takes a lot of hard work being introduced to the teacher’s side of the desk to understand what it means to academically and socially manage the workings of a classroom.  However, this narrative is still very precious because it contains the initial commitment a future teacher makes to her or his future students.  Without that narrative, they would not want to teach in the first place.  It is here that words like “vocation” become equally if not more important than words like “profession” when discussing how teachers learn to teach.

It is, therefore, vitally important that we keep our eyes not merely on what schools and classrooms achieve on standardized tests, but also we keep our eyes focused squarely on what kinds of places schools and classrooms are and what kinds of experiences teachers can craft for the children entrusted to them.  I know of no truly dedicated teacher who is afraid of using some data as a tool to both analyze and communicate about her or his work.  But I know many people who are rightly concerned that we have spent far too much time in the past ten year using data from high stakes standardized tests in ways that reach far beyond their utility.  I know people who are concerned that we have incentivized administrators and teachers to value test performance over genuine learning.  I know people who are concerned that the risk taking and uncertainty that accompanies real teaching is becoming too risky for teachers who are evaluated as if they are producing manufactured goods tested within tight tolerances.  I share those concerns.

We do not need to simply demand more of our teachers; we need to demand more of ourselves and of our vision for a public education.  Schools need to be places where uncertainty, risk taking and messing around with ideas is both encouraged and instructive.  Teachers need to be able to inspire their students to create meaning rather than merely fill in bubble sheets because the narrative of schooling and learning that we create for those students today does not just impact how they learn, it impacts how those among them who wish to teach will envision the role of a teacher.  How many powerful examples of passionate commitment to students, content and learning will those students encounter and incorporate into their constructs of the work and craft of teaching?  How many of them will see intangible rewards for teaching that offset the difficulty of the job and inspire them to share their love of learning with the generations that follow them?

The next generation of teachers is in our public schools right now.  We owe it to them and to the 100s of millions of students they will teach to envision schools as places of joy and passion.

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Filed under politics, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

A Conversation With My Oldest Child

The older of our two children initiated this conversation with me last week.  As a follow up to Father’s Day, it seemed appropriate:

“I never really understood the purpose of homework.”

“Well, sweetie, some people think that it helps you practice what you’ve learned.”

“Well, why can’t we practice in school?”

“Some people think it helps you remember better if you do it at home.”

“That’s so not true.”

“Maybe, but it is true that when you are older you will have to do some things on your own in order to be ready for school and the next lessons.”

“So why can’t we wait until high school?”

“Some people think that’s when homework should begin. I think it probably makes sense to wait until at least 5th grade.”

“Yeah. You should tell Ms. H*** that.”

“I think I should probably let your principal do her job herself.”

I have to confess that there is something both poignant and a bit tragic in this conversation.  It is very important to my wife and I that we offer support to the teachers and school our children attend, but it is also important to tell the truth to them as best as is appropriate for their very young ages.  The truth is that I have complained (my wife might say ranted) about homework policies since our children began in New York City public schools because I can think of no actual developmental advantage at all to beginning homework in KINDERGARTEN.  While there is some lively debate among childhood development experts about when to begin and how much homework is appropriate (some suggest it is never appropriate), I know of no research that suggests 20 minutes of seat time an evening does much of anything.  And I can think of a number of reasons why it is counter productive.

For some children, this is not an exceptionally big deal.  They enjoy worksheets.  They have unusual focus.  They are also outliers.  My older child is a bit of a homework resister, has a mind that enjoys wandering and making up stories about just about anything.  Things get very creative, but they do not get speedy.  Seat time at home, unsurprisingly, stretches out regardless of the approach we take as parents, and in the spirit of telling the truth, I personally struggle with offering a cheerful and enthusiastic “Let’s finish your homework!” in contrast to “Let’s play with some Lego!”  Playing with Lego offers a child a chance to practice decision making, planning, eye hand coordination.  It invites experimentation and revision.  It offers a chance to interweave narrative into the process of building.  When done with another person, it requires compromise and negotiation.  In pretty much every conceivable way, 30 minutes of such play is vastly more enriching for a young child than 30 minutes of worksheets.

Even though I am not an early childhood development expert, I think that, if asked, I could in short order create a “homework” program for early grades that requires that parents and children sit down twice a week and the children use work that they’ve done in school to explain to parents what they have been learning.  The idea behind that would be to foster greater awareness among parents of what their children’s teachers are doing and reinforce the message to families that an education is a partnership.  And I’d leave it at that at least through all of elementary school because children need unstructured, free play.  This is not even up for argument as the research is very clear.  Unstructured play is a vital component of growing up, and it nourishes a range of skills that children need if they are going to be competent adults who know how to think creatively, problem solve, make decisions and work cooperatively.  A bucket of Legos, a box of costume clothes, a set of Matchbox cars, paint and paper — all of these represent genuine opportunities to stretch and enrich the mind.

And we are, more and more, taking them away from children.  An elementary school student who spends 8:15am to 3:15pm in school, who then goes to music, dance or sports classes every day of the week and then comes home to seat work is an eight year-old whose entire day is filled with activities that others have chosen for her.  They may be fun and interesting, and the people with whom she comes in contact may all be outstanding at what they do.  And there isn’t a real consensus among experts about where the line between “healthy enrichment” and “neurosis prone stress case with no planning skills” exists (hint: it is going to be different for every child).  But those caveats do not diminish the importance of “down time” without structure or goals.

And when homework becomes an accepted norm in early elementary school, we’ve just bitten another chunk out of available time for play.

This wound, by the way, is almost entirely self-inflicted.  While we are hearing occasional stories about elementary schools curtailing recess so their students can prepared to take their “College and Career Readiness” tests as part of the Common Core reforms, it would be disingenuous to suggest that middle class parents have not be hurtling along this path of less and less free time for their children for some time now.  David Labaree of Stanford University has written extensively about the pitfalls of “credentialism” in education.  The idea is that when parents assess that the purpose of school is for their children to gain the credentials necessary for them to move up an increasingly competitive ladder of educational and then economic rewards, the pressure increases to do anything that differentiates their children from their peers — who are viewed more and more as competitors rather than playmates.  We don’t just see this in after school activities.  We see it in endlessly seeking things in school that will “look good” on a college application, including looking for a portrait of a school community that will send out the message that everything is “rigorous” and appropriately time consuming.  Does it matter if the school’s curriculum is really teaching planning and problem solving skills, so long as people nod their heads approvingly that all of the honors students have hours of homework a night that is squeezed in between school newspaper, orchestra, at least one sport and a bedtime that doesn’t allow a healthy 8 hours a night?  We used to point in horror at that stereotypical Little League Father who screamed at coaches for not playing their kids enough — it turns out they were trend setters among parents of college bound children.

All of which loops back for me to my conversation with my child.  I think the teachers that I have met so far understand all of this, but they are part of a system whose most involved stakeholders have demanded more and more the appearance of rigor without understanding that the substance of learning in both formal and informal settings is a lot more messy than an ledger sheet.  We don’t need to eliminate these things from our children’s lives, but we most assuredly need to seek better balances.  And we need to rethink our values.  Growing up and becoming a capable adult requires time, and that time cannot just be packed if we really expect our children to learn from it.


Filed under schools, Stories

Who is more important? Pearson? Or our children?

Some background:

My wife and I have two children who are public school students in New York City.  We, as many other parents do, had our eldest tested for admission to the city’s gifted and talented program.  I’ll be honest – this child is exceptionally bright, but creative use of verbal language, imagination, story telling (our eldest’s strengths), are not really part of the tests used to qualify.  Regardless, the score was high enough to qualify for a seat which was assigned by lottery.

Our youngest sat for this year’s examinations in January. Sibling preference in admission at the G&T programs meant that if that score had qualified as well both our children would be in the same school next year.

Our youngest missed by the smallest margin.

Now I must be clear about this.  Our family does not deserve anyone’s sympathy.  It was by sheer luck of a random drawing among the many children who qualified that got our eldest a seat.  Our youngest was not owed a seat, and our zoned school is another one of the highest regarded schools in the city and is very close to the other school.  We know families who schlep across town to three different schools in pursuit of the cherry that the NYC Department of Education has placed on top the public school system.  Then there are the families whose kids qualify but for whom there are no seats because they’ve greatly overpromised what they can deliver.  Then there is the entire issue of how so many of the qualifying students are concentrated in affluent districts in the city.

So we will be fine, but since we would prefer our family’s attention to concentrate on one school for as long as possible, we took the opportunity to make an appointment with the DOE to review our youngest’s test.  That appointment was today, and we were given twenty minutes to sit with the exam and the answer key under the supervision of a DOE employee.  It was actually a more helpful experience than I anticipated, and our DOE representative was really quite delightful and very skilled at explaining the tests and how they were administered.  I can tell you the following:  We found that our child was prone to picking distractors, especially as each section of the exam progressed. We found one indisputably incorrectly scored item which means the exam is flagged for an immediate rescore.  We also found a handful of items that I strongly suspect would make my friends in measurement and quantitative methods cringe.

And that’s all that I can tell you.

You see, our child was assessed using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT-2), both of which are products of Pearson, and in order to get a look at the examinations, I had to sign a non-disclosure form.  Chew on that for a minute.  An official of the New York Department of Education had me and my wife sign a form promising that we would not specifically or generally disclose the contents of an examination that was administered to our child for the purpose of selecting a public school.  The contents of that examination, several of which arguably violate principles of good test design for young children, must be kept secret even though, of course, it will be redesigned for the next year’s exams and even though I can purchase any number of OLSAT related materials directly from Pearson.

I cannot even really blame Pearson here.  They have developed the examination, and there is significant money at stake for them in a) keeping too much of their material from being seen by competitors and 2) making certain that people have to purchase exam related materials from them.

On the other hand, I have no trouble blaming craven politicians and bureaucrats who contracted Pearson and agreed to terms like this which are good for business, but bad for public discussion of education policy.  What we did today allows my family to pursue our interests as a household, but it disallows any informed discussion with the broader community about the nature of measurements that determine substantial educational opportunities.  And there are real discussions that ought to be had.  This year, three times as many children qualified for seats in the coveted citywide G&T programs as there were seats available, but these qualified children are not randomly distributed across the city.  Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan combined for 623 of those Kindergarten aged children qualified for entry to citywide programs while districts 7,8, 9, 12 (The Bronx), 16, 23, 32 (Brooklyn), and 29 (Queens) had none.  With an income segregation index of 57 in New York City, there is an important discussion to be had about the nature of these tests and whether they identify gifted or privileged children.  But Pearson’s intellectual property is more important than that discussion.


Which is ironic given how eager New York was to join with InBloom, the data storage cloud service that was going to provide storage for student records and allow technology and publishing companies to mine that data to create products for sale.  It was only the vigorous activism by advocates like Leonie Haimson on Class Size Matters that put enough pressure on Albany to halt the project, but it is by no means the only one that sees student data as a commodity.

What does it say that your child’s school records are able to be used without your consent for private purposes but that private materials with profound impact upon public school children and their opportunity must be protected?

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Filed under Pearson, Privacy, Stories, Testing

Open Letter to President Obama — You Are Listening to the Wrong People

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to you with three different roles.  First, I am the director of secondary education and secondary/special education teacher preparation at Seton Hall University where I have been on the faculty since 2002.  Second, I am a lifelong educator whose teaching experience at levels from seventh grade to graduate school courses stretches back to 1993. Finally and most importantly, sir, I am the father of two school aged children enrolled in the public schools of New York City.  All three of those roles in life have prompted me to write to you, and it is my hope that you will seriously consider what I have to say, for it is based upon my devotion to my children, my experience as a teacher and upon the data that is readily available about what is being done to schools during your administration.

With respect, Mr. President, you are listening to all the wrong people about our nation’s schools.

When you were inaugurated, many of us in education had hoped that your administration would urge Congress to roll back the detrimental aspects of the No Child Left Behind act, which had taken the previous two decades of educational failure rhetoric and placed a punishing regimen of unreasonable expectations, high stakes testing and punishment into effect that left schools and schools systems under threat of a “failure” label if they did not achieve near miraculous score gains in standardized examinations.  Instead, we got the Race to the Top program which has taken the worst elements of NCLB and made them even worse.  Your signature education initiative incentivized participating states to enroll in rushed and unproven common standards, increases the amount of high stakes testing at all levels of public education, subjects teachers to invalid measures of job performance and creates preferential treatment for charter schools that cynically manipulate data on their enrollment and achievements, sue to prevent public oversight of the public moneys they receive and whose expansion provides new investment vehicles for the very wealthy.  All of these results have rich and powerful advocates, and all of them are damaging to our nation’s public schools.

The Common Core State Standards have been described as a state led effort because of the role of the National Governors Association in their creation, but the work of a very few people is far more directly responsible for them.  David Coleman, now President of the College Board, Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel of Student Achievement Incorporated worked with a small group of core writers that were largely representative of the testing and publishing industries to produce K-12 standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics in less than two years.  This is a staggering pace for such a complex project, and it was conducted in clear violation of highly regarded and accepted processes for the creation of standards.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas was a member of the validation committee that was convened, in theory, to validate the quality of the standards, but she refused to signed off on them when, by her own account, repeated efforts to have the research basis for the standards produced by the writing committees went unanswered.  Once written, the standards were rapidly adopted by states due to the incentives of Race to the Top and aggressive spending of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Diane Ravitch of New York University has repeatedly pointed out that this process was staggeringly flawed, and even more flawed than the opaque writing and promotion efforts has been the race to roll out the standards in nearly all states simultaneously with no small scale field testing and no known way for data from the implementation to be fed back to any body that is tasked with revising the standards based on such data.

Mr. Bill Gates seems enormously confident, absent any defensible evidence, that this is the correct path.  He provided funding to Student Achievement Incorporated and the National Governors Association, and has been spending lavishly since 2010 to make certain all forms of organizations continue to boost the standards.  Mr. Gates spoke this year at the Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (an organization he has given grants to recently), and his defense of national standards was telling.  According to the Washington Post:

Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets.

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

The version posted to the Gates Foundation website offers a more explanatory framing of the metaphor, but Mr. President, I hope the flaw in his thinking is evident.  Multi-state standards are not, inherently, a bad thing, primarily if used like the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a NO STAKES diagnostic tool, and Mr. Gates is correct that a variety of INDUSTRY standards have led to consumer innovations.  However, even after we accept a standard for early literacy acquisition to be age appropriate and based on research into how children learn to read, the process by which any given child meets that standard is vastly more complex than the process of attaching an electric motor to a hand blender; worse, it does not demonstrate an understanding that children develop at very varied rates, and that an age appropriate target for one child may be entirely inappropriate for a peer in the same classroom.

Even assuming that Mr. Gates is correct and that CCSS would allow teachers to innovate, Race to the Top and Mr. Gates’ own advocacy have worked to tie the CCSS to a regimen of high stakes testing the likes of which we have never seen and which are already incentivizing teachers and school districts to vastly narrow their teaching in response.  Mr. President, policy analysts refer to perverse incentives as those elements of policy that incentivize behavior in such a way that people can obtain the incentive while engaging in practices that are damaging or undesirable.  In this case, Race to the Top is the Mother of All Perverse Incentives.  Your administration required states to adopt test-based evaluation of teachers in addition to adoption of common standards.  This has resulted in states both enrolling in the CCSS testing consortia, and adopting Value Added Models (VAM) of teacher effectiveness as part of teacher assessment and retention.  Mr. President, you recently remarked that schools should not be teaching to the test even while your administration was stripping Washington State of its NCLB waiver over its desire to not use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers, but you could do little that incentivizes teaching to the test more than this.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor provides an instructive anecdote.  Despite her denials and cursory investigation, it is very clear that her “raise test scores or be fired” approach spawned widespread cheating. That behavior is not excusable, but it is evidence of how far some people placed in extraordinarily difficult circumstances will go when subject to such incentives, and it is simply inevitable that short of cheating, the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation will result in more teaching to the test.

And VAMs themselves are invalid, Mr. President.  The American Statistical Association is quite clear on this in its recent statement on the use of VAMs for teacher evaluation.

The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them. Ideally, tests should fully measure student achievement with respect to the curriculum objectives and content standards adopted by the state, in both breadth and depth. In practice, no test meets this stringent standard, and it needs to be recognized that, at best, most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes. Other student outcomes are predicted only to the extent that they are correlated with test scores. A teacher’s efforts to encourage students’ creativity or help colleagues improve their instruction, for example, are not explicitly recognized in VAMs…

It is unknown how full implementation of an accountability system incorporating test-based indicators, such as those derived from VAMs, will affect the actions and dispositions of teachers, principals and other educators. Perceptions of transparency, fairness and credibility will be crucial in determining the degree of success of the system as a whole in achieving its goals of improving the quality of teaching. Given the unpredictability of such complex interacting forces, it is difficult to anticipate how the education system as a whole will be affected and how the educator labor market will respond.

This is clear-cut, sir.  There are no current high stakes tests that meet the requirements of a well developed VAM, and there is no evidence about how VAMs will influence the schools in which they are deployed, but your signature education program is incentivizing them anyway.

To date, no study reliably shows that current VAMs can be used the way they are going to be used over the next few years, but that has not stopped the Gates Foundation from being front and center in this issue as well.  The Gates commissioned “Measures of Effective Teaching” study concluded that VAMs can be effectively used to evaluate teachers, but Jesse Rothstein of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated clearly how flawed the study was, especially how it drew conclusions only weakly supported by its own data:

The results presented in the report do not support the conclusions drawn from them. This is especially troubling because the Gates Foundation has widely circulated a stand-alone policy brief (with the same title as the research report) that omits the full analysis, so even careful readers will be unaware of the weak evidentiary basis for its conclusions…

Hence, while the report’s conclusion that teachers who perform well on one measure “tend to” do well on the other is technically correct, the tendency is shockingly weak.  As discussed below (and in contrast to many media summaries of the MET study), this important result casts substantial doubt on the utility of student test score gains as a measure of teacher effectiveness.  Moreover, the focus on the stable components – which cannot be observed directly but whose properties are inferred by researchers based on comparisons between classes taught be the same teacher – inflates the correlations among measures.  Around 45% of teacher who appear based on the actually-observed scores to be at the 80th percentile on one measure are in fact below average on the other. Although this problem would decrease if information from multiple years (or multiple courses in the same year) were averaged, in realistic settings misclassification rates would remain much higher than the already high rates inferred for the stable components.

It is almost inconceivable how it is that our nation is rushing forward with a package of reforms that are being implemented at breakneck speed with such damaging potential and with so little evidence to suggest that they will do anyone any good, and with mounting evidence that they are objectively harmful.  But one thing is actually very certain: these “reforms” and their attendant policies are making some people a substantial profit.

Three years ago, education writer and consultant and former National Board Certified Teacher Nancy Flanagan noted that the rush for CCSS implementation meant that a publishing bonanza was on the horizon.   Certainly, their implementation with the coming testing requirements has been a bonanza for Pearson who landed the contract to write and implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  testing consortium.  At a predicted cost of 24 dollars for a set of tests as the math and ELA testing comes on line, Pearson is guaranteed a huge new income stream from the more than 10 million students currently in PARCC states.  But Pearson is only the most public face of making money off of the reforms put in place by your administration.  Common standards and mass testing generate vast amount of data, and technology companies are starting up all intending to mine that data for profit.  This is ground that has been ploughed by Rupert Murdoch who, when he began acquiring education technology firms, identified a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting for “big breakthroughs”.  Bill Gates has also been involved in this sector, setting up the data cloud storage firm InBloom for 100 million dollars, and watching it close when parental concerns over data security and the plan to allow vendors to access the data could not be overcome.  But other firms such as Knewton intend to continue data mining and creating products based upon that analysis, and none of them, regardless of how intriguing their products might be, demonstrate sufficient care about the need to explain their services to parents, the need to allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of the data pool or the need to build real support among the people whose children are being transformed into revenue.

I am asking you as a father, sir: would this be acceptable to you?  I regret to inform you, Mr. President, that your own administration has abetted this by changing the regulations that implement the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Publishers, testing companies and technology firms are not the only ones who are reaping new windfalls from your education policies, Mr. President.  It turns out that Wall Street investors are eager to see another aspect of Race to the Top, charter school expansion, continue as rapidly as everything else, and while many of them proclaim to be fans of the charter schools’ alleged “successes” it is also clear that many of them have also figured out how to make guaranteed money from supporting charter schools.  Hedge fund billionaires can use a combination of federal tax credits to make investing in charter school construction a vehicle that can guarantee a doubled return within 7 years.  This is entirely unlike traditional school construction funding via bond issues because such bond issues are done in the open and for a public with a vote for or against the responsible school boards.  This is done entirely in private and with no oversight and precious little public knowledge.  It is little wonder then that Wall Street interests are not only investing in charter school construction, they are also organizing PACs such as Democrats for Education Reform specifically to keep state governments granting more and more charters, something else that you enabled with the provisions of Race to the Top.

You might be able to justify this, Mr. President if you could claim that charter schools are actually the solution to American education, but to make that claim you would have to ignore evidence.  Many charters are excellent schools.  Many are terrible.  But there is no evidence that the charter school segment is consistently outperforming fully public schools.  There is, however, evidence that charter schools do not educate children with disabilities at comparable levels as fully public schools.  There is evidence that charter schools do not serve students who are English Language Learners like their fully public peer schools do.  There is evidence that one of the most prominent charter operators in New York City, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy, is not telling the truth about the number of children in poverty that she serves, the real achievements of her schools test scores, or the rate of attrition for students with disabilities and language learning issues.

These schools are not miracle factories, Mr. President, but supporting their expansion is making people money.  Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, once opined that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” ever for New Orleans Schools because it shook up the status quo and got people “serious” about reform.  That “reform” has meant that this week, the last public school in New Orleans has closed for good, and the city school system in entirely comprised of charter schools.  Amidst growing evidence that many prominent charter operators are not equally educating students and amidst disturbing studies about rising segregation in the charter sector, I cannot help but wonder how Secretary Duncan justifies his statement today.

No wonder teacher morale is at an all time low.

Your public voice in these issues has been a disaster for you, Mr. President.  Secretary Duncan may be the most controversial person to hold that office since its creation, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is both insensitive to teacher and parental concerns and fully vested in a false narrative about American education.  Mr. Duncan has frequently repeated to charges from corporate reformers and privatizers that American education is stagnant and that we can infer a need for their favored reforms from international testing data.  This is part of a narrative of deepening failure which thoroughly ignores how American students have never fared well on such measures and how these scores and our economic health have little connection.  Mr. Duncan has observed that he believes our teachers are not educated enough and we should be more like South Korea, despite the fact that South Korea’s educational “success” comes with high costs:  20% of family income on average spent on private “cram” classes, focus on drill and rote learning that leads to high test scores, and wide recognition that South Korean children face too much pressure, leading to an alarming youth suicide rate.  This is hardly praise worthy, sir.

Secretary Duncan’s misunderstanding extends to why people are criticizing the CCSS and other Race to the Top reforms.  I am sure that you know how he said that Common Core opponents are often “white suburban moms” who are upset to find out their children are not “as brilliant as they thought they were”.  Mr. Duncan apologized for the remark, but his insinuation that any opposition to CCSS is unreasonable betrays that he really does not understand the issue.  Mr. President, American parents, by wide margins, believe that the schools their children attend are doing very good work, and despite three decades of an unrelenting failure narrative, that percentage, over 70%, has remained stable.  What parents are saying is that Common Core, evaluating teachers by tests and the increase in high stakes testing and heavy pressure on schools to raise test scores at all costs have come too rapidly, with too little transparency, and with extreme negatives vis-a-vis how children experience school.  Mr. Duncan does not understand that as evidenced by his remarks in April with NY Commissioner John King where he called parental protests “drama and noise.”  Mr. Duncan may call the 10s of 1000s of families who have opted out of Pearson’s testing and the list of districts refusing to field test the exams “drama and noise”.  Many, myself included, call it a movement that is ignored and dismissed at peril.  I do not know if your Secretary of Education has told you that most opposition to reform comes from Glenn Beck styled cranks and spoiled suburbanites, but if he has, you have been sorely misinformed.

Mr. President, in 1999 Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act, and President Clinton signed it into law.  Although the trends in mortgage lending and investment products that led to the financial crisis had begun long before 1999, the removal of regulations that prevented commercial and investment banks and insurance firms from blending their businesses greatly accelerated the damage being done to our financial industry.

Mr. President, I am afraid that history will look upon Race to the Top as your Financial Services Modernization Act, a tool crafted to be cynically misappropriated by interests with no concern for the public good.

And what is so frustrating, Mr. President, is how entirely unnecessary this judgment of history will be.  Our schools need help, sir, but it is not help that will be found by racing to implement new standards, layering on more high stakes tests, threatening teachers’ livelihoods with invalid statistical models or by turning more and more of our urban school districts over to for profit charter school corporations.  Our schools are afflicted by the same thing that afflicts our society: rising poverty and constant cuts to assistance for the poor.  16 million children in the United States live in poverty; that is 22% of all children, 38.2% of all African American children and 35% of Hispanic children.  Our schools serve communities, and our segregation by income has increased over the past 30 years, meaning that both rich and poor increasingly live in communities with people mostly of their own income level.  The Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) scores for Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are all above 50, and the RISI has gone up in every region of the country since 1980.  Nationally, it is 46, an increase of 39% since 1980.

We see this when we look at our PISA scores broken down by the income characteristics of communities.  According to USC Professor Emeritus Stephen Krashen, the portrait of America’s schools look very different when poverty characteristics are considered.  In schools where less than 10% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, our PISA scores are higher than the average for any OECD nation, but where 75% or more of students are in poverty, the PISA scores are second to last.  Given that our communities are increasingly segregated by income, Mr. President, it is inevitable that test score data compared nation to nation will be misleading.

It is at this point that Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Eva Moskowitz, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Gates, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other corporate “reformers” will line up to accuse me of making “excuses” for “bad schools”.  They will insist, absent any evidence, that “great teachers” can close the achievement gap even if we completely fail to address poverty in our communities.  But it is not “making excuses” to insist that if we want a child living in poverty to succeed in school that we cannot ignore whether or not she knows if she is going to eat tonight, or if she will have a place to sleep, or if her parents will continue to work or any of the host of other matters that afflict children in poverty in ways that negatively impact their formal education.  Mr. President, we have known the long term impacts of poverty on children for some time now just as we have known that it has been growing and deepening, and we spend far less than our peer nations on helping to alleviate the detrimental impacts of poverty.  Nothing in education policy in the past three decades has done anything to address that.

That is not “excuse making,” Mr. President, that is aiming the analysis at the actual problem, whether or not addressing the problem will make anyone a profit.

You have an advantage that few of your predecessors had, Mr. President, and it is your demonstrated interest in and ability to genuinely listen to others.  Joshua Dubois wrote about your meetings with the families at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and how for hours, you sat, embraced, asked questions and listened to them. What strikes me, sir, is how, despite an election year warming up, you never once mentioned this to the press and never once used this remarkable testament to your character for political gain.  I urge you, Mr. President, to visit teachers, parents and children in the same manner, without cameras or vetting, and just ask them what they want our schools to be.  You will not find their answers easily mapped onto your education policies.

It is not too late for you to have a transformational impact on America’s schools, Mr. President, but it will take a number of immediate actions to have a chance.  I ask you to consider the following, badly needed, steps:

  1. Scrap Race to the Top: Your signature education policy is detrimental to children, teachers, schools and communities.  Ending it will not do away with the Common Core State Standards, testing or charter schools, but it will free states and districts to look truly reflectively at these initiatives and to voluntarily engage in as little or as much of them as they deem necessary and beneficial.  It will require proponents of these policies to make their cases in full view of the public in all 50 states instead of hiding behind coercive requirements for federal funding.
  2. Restore Federal Privacy Protections: Technology entrepreneurs may have truly powerful learning tools in development, but to make them work, they need student records deemed private under federal law.  Instead of engaging teachers and parents about these tools, they got your administration to revise regulations and are now mining those records without any meaningful consent.  This is unacceptable, and it must stop.  Our children are not sent to public school to be monetized without our consent.  Parents will listen to open and honest efforts to describe how these tools can benefit their children, but they will oppose efforts to bypass them.
  3. Be Serious About Holding Charter Schools Accountable to Civil Rights Legislation: Your administration recently expressed interest in making certain that charter schools meet federal civil rights requirements.  This is a good first step.  It must be applied vigorously, especially given how poorly many high profile charter operators do in serving students with disabilities, educating English Language Learners and retaining students of color after admission.  Your administration has granted enormous favoritism to charter schools, and they must be made fully accountable.
  4. Demand a Marshall Plan for School Aid and Construction:  Nearly all states are spending less money per pupil today than in 2008. In New York State, the average school district still receives $3.1 million less in state aid than they would have without budgetary tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  All across the country, our public schools are being told to implement a complex new curriculum, meet unrealistic testing requirements and to do so while having their budgets cut to the bone.  Further, in 2008, the AFT commissioned a study that estimated a need for over $250 billion in school infrastructure spending nationwide, a need that remains unmet.  It adds insult to injury that students come from homes that suffer from the deprivations of poverty and arrive in schools that are cold in the winter, hot in the summer and wet when it rains.  Our nation must do something about this.  At the same time, you must highlight schools where children in poverty thrive, not merely where they get good test scores.
  5. Replace Secretary Duncan: Mr. Duncan is entwined so deeply in the Race to the Top approach to reform that he is incapable of moving away from it.  Your Secretary of Education demonstrates no understanding of why people oppose current reforms, little willingness to see his mistakes as more than verbal slip ups, and he consistently misuses international test data to denigrate the quality of our schools and teachers.  If you want to protect our schools from the forces of corporate reform, Secretary Duncan cannot lead.

You have an opportunity, Mr. President, to retask the federal Department of Education with protecting our national Commons, our history of 200 years of seeing public education as a public good for communities and a private good for individuals.  Your administration has abetted the use of our public schools by private and corporate interests in ways that are actually detrimental to education.  If you wish that to not be your legacy, you must act now.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Director, Secondary and Secondary/Special Education Teacher Preparation, Seton Hall University

Career Educator

Father of Two Public School Children



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A Short Story on Falling for Education Narratives

When I was in 7th grade, my junior high school had just set up a “computer lab” with Tandy/RadioShack 80s known as TRaSh80s by classmates who were already personal computing buffs.  My own computing experience was limited to a Commodore 64 system which I remember fondly today but mostly used to play Zork back in 1982.  The lab in school was set up as part of a new curriculum meant to ensure that we all learned how to program – in BASIC.

This being the early Reagan administration, there were two social trends at work.  First, a deep and hurtful recession at home and international anxiety about the rising star of Japan on the world economic stage.  Competition from Japanese manufactured automobiles and consumer electronics were damaging American industry, and an increasingly anxious public worried about our national future.  In a year’s time, “A Nation at Risk” would be unleashed on the public arena and a 30 year narrative of how our schools have failed us as a nation would take off.  Learning computer programming was adopted by our suburban school district as response to that.

As I sat in front of a TRS-80, unhappily learning how to write lines of code that code could make my name scroll diagonally across the screen (I would have much rather have been in study hall re-reading “The Hobbit”), I commented to our teacher how useless this seemed.  I was then given a short lecture on how in the future EVERYONE who HAVE to know how to program computers.  If I wanted any chance at a productive life I would have to learn as well.  In fact, it was my patriotic DUTY to learn how to make my name scroll diagonally across the computer screen.  For a final rhetorical flare, I was asked if I really wanted Japan to take over everything?

I gave my teacher a good hard look.  Then I looked around the lab, and I could see that a few of my classmates were intensely interested in what they were doing and appeared to be, absent his guidance, experimenting with their programs to see what they could make them do.  I looked at him again.

“That’s not true,” I said. “In the future, there will be people who program computers and people who use computers, and they don’t all have to be the same person.”

We didn’t get along.  Luckily, it was only a half year class.  Ironically, the argument for more people learning to program is finally making a bit more sense with the advent of mobile computing platforms that allow people to design their own apps.  Assuming that they want to.  I’d still rather reread “The Hobbit”.

But the moral sticks with me today:  be on the lookout for people telling you what “everyone” will need to do in the “future”.  The odds are very good that they are trying to sell you something today.

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My Entirely Unofficial Commencement Address to the Class of 2014

My university bid farewell to the class of 2014 yesterday.  Commencement exercises are a curious thing.  They are rightfully celebratory of the graduates’ accomplishments, but often overly reliant on pomp and ceremony for the tastes of those attending.  They are also long, sometimes painfully so and commencement addresses are oddly situated.  Supposedly meant to honor the graduates and the world of high education and accomplishment that they have entered, many bore or confuse those in attendance.  When delivered by a lofty persona, that person’s position and importance overshadows the graduates.  When delivered by someone with a lofty opinion of himself regardless of position and importance, the result is the same.  Far too few actually address the soon to be minted graduates with much more than pabulum about how accomplished they are.

Naturally, I have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to share with the Class of 2014.  And, consequently, this is why I expect to never be asked to address a commencement.

Dear Class of 2014.  The world you are about to enter is messy, perplexing, infuriating and the pathways to success in it are harder to find and to navigate than in any time since the end of World War II and almost none of the adults in your life to this point have been upfront to you about it.

I’m sorry.

I also suspect that you have figured it out on your own by now.  One of the funny things about people who are facing complex and anxiety producing situations is that they are fully aware of the ways in which they have been lied to far more so than the people who have done the lying.  Today’s youth employment market is perhaps better than it has been since 2008, but that is damning it with very faint praise.  Overall unemployment among people under the age of 25 is 14.5 percent.  For college graduates under 25, it is 8.5 percent, and the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent.  You can be thankful that you have a college degree in this respect: among your age peers with only a high school diploma, those numbers are 22.9 and 41.5 percent respectively.  And for those of you with jobs, well, they are paying less than they used to.  According to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of recent graduates between 22-27 years old have jobs that do not require a B.A., and while that is not entirely unusual, those jobs are far less likely to pay a decent annual wage than in previous decades.

What is even more galling than those numbers is the insistence at policy levels that it is necessary for everyone to, in President Obama’s words, “eat our peas” — except the very movers and shakers who played Russian Roulette with the nation’s banking system and precipitated the economic wasteland you are looking to inhabit.  Austerity is not merely being imposed upon the assistance programs offered to the poor and ill in America.  In New York State, administrators estimate that the average school district  has had to make do with 3 million dollars less in state aid per year since 2010.  Nationwide, state spending per pupil in higher education is down 28 percent compared to 2008. Gross public capital investment in is now at its lowest level since the end of World War II, meaning that investment in schools and infrastructure spending, important drivers of economic growth and opportunity, are at a 6 decade low.

Some of this is not simply the result of the Great Recession.  The America you were born into was an America that was already well on its way to critical lack of investment in public capital in favor of private capital.  From 1950-1970, America spent 3 percent of GDP on infrastructure.  Since 1980, that has fallen by a third, and the result are transportation, sanitation and energy infrastructures from the middle of the last century and the diminished economic potential from that.

And what have you heard from the people who should have known better?  Who stewarded this reality into being?  Largely, they tell you “This is life, kid” instead of “This is the life we decided to give you.”

And let’s be clear — your generation of college graduates did what was asked of you.  When people demanded that our schools get “more rigorous,” you sacrificed swaths of your childhood to meaningless increases in homework for early grades.  When you got to the higher grades, you did hours of homework a night that had little connection to actually scaffolding your learning but for which your schools could tell the community and the state that they were “raising standards”.  You were born in 1992-1993 which means that you were not out of elementary school when No Child Left Behind demanded constant high stakes testing.  You are the most tested generation in American history.  In order to be competitive for college admissions, your generation took on more activities that, combined with homework and testing, meant very few of you had significant free time to manage.

You did all of that.  You got into college.  You quickly realized how different college was from a world where everyone chose your activities for you and gave you work that required little long term planning.  You succeeded here as well.

And now the world is giving you another “gotchya” moment in the form of diminished career and financial prospects.  By the way, your loan payments come due in 6 months.  If you concluded that every adult in your life, parents, teachers, principals, professors had little clue about the way the world works for your generation, I wouldn’t blame you.

The facts of this world you are entering means that you will have to downgrade expectations about career and financial success, but how you respond and move ahead from those expectations is a different matter.  When I began my career as a classroom teacher, I quickly discovered a set of students who were, for lack of any better words, school resisters.  They came from more impoverished neighborhoods.  Many of them had families struggling to make ends meet, and they had few close examples of people they knew who had used success in school to step ahead economically.  It was not uncommon for them to face forces of institutional racism and sexism that simply expected they would fail because of who they were.  Some of my colleagues were less than enthusiastic about their potential as well, but I made a habit early on of sitting down one on one with a student who was failing to turn in assignments and acting disengaged from our work and asking her who she thought she was hurting.  Such conversations invariably hinged on my acknowledging that student’s very valid reasons for doubting school and affirming what she already knew — that life was unfair and people expected her to screw up.

So why give them the satisfaction of seeing you do just that, I’d ask?   Yes, you have to work twice as hard for less, but in the end you can rub it in the faces of the people who expect you to fail and just maybe build something for your own children in the process.  My goal wasn’t to let a student’s resentment and anger go away.  It was to redirect it for her own benefit.

I challenge graduates of college in 2014 to do the same.  My generation made a half hearted affectation at being worldly and ironic slackers before a large portion of us went on and exploded the world economy and handed it to you.  Your generation has a real chance of showing Generation X and the Baby Boomers that you did not make this mess, but that you are capable of setting it straight.  You can become innovators and entrepreneurs, teachers and scientists, service leaders and public servants, artists and entertainers — and with the world changing as rapidly as it is and with gate keepers of industry, finance and content becoming outmoded, you can become leaders in all of these areas faster than your predecessors ever did.  You can show the endless parade of elder naysayers who make fun of your tastes and your alleged work ethics what you really are.

And I have little doubt that you can do it.  Your generation is vast and it is interesting.  You are more sincerely dedicated to the ideal of acceptance and a diverse society than anyone before you.  You are generous; most of you have already given to charity despite being young and in school.  You may have taken on loan debt to pay for college, but you are the most educated generation in history.  Your priorities are strong — far more of you value being good parents and spouses than value extremely high pay and fame.  You care about the environment and the future.

And there are a lot of you — the population aged 12-34 number at over 90 million.

So Class of 2014, this is my challenge to you: You have entered an unfair and vexing world not of your own making and that few adults in your lives have recognized as such.  But you need to take any anger you have about that and turn it productive — work, vote, lead.  Lord knows, we need you even if most people my age and older won’t admit it yet.

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20 Years in Classrooms — What I Learned in the First Month Still Resonates

In August, 1993, I stepped off of an airplane at Honolulu International Airport to begin a one year assignment as an intern teacher at Punahou School.  I had studied hard for that moment, completing education course work and an English degree at Dartmouth College in 1991 and a Masters in poetry at the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.  For a year, I worked at paying off student loans while living with my parents in Massachusetts and searching for teaching jobs, mostly in private schools.  Punahou offered me an amazing opportunity to learn the craft of teaching from one of their veteran English teachers, and what was originally a one year commitment to teaching in Hawai’i became 4 years as I found a new position at the St. Francis School in Manoa Valley after my year at Punahou was up. I have remained in classrooms every year since then — as a graduate student instructor and as a professor.

This month is the end of my 20th anniversary year of teaching, and what I learned that first year in the classroom still resonates deeply and forms a substantial core of my teaching today.  My mentor, Bill, is a marvelous gentleman of English origin who, as we planned our first classes together, told me the core of his teaching philosophy: Teaching happens when interested minds come together to explore interesting content.  It is a simple statement that embodies a great deal, invoking the famous Vgotsky’s triangle and David Hawkins’ essay: “I, Thou, and It”.  Learning in the classroom is different than entirely self-directed learning, because there is a role for an informed “other” to assist the learner and to help shape experiences around a potentially enriching content.  Without the student, the teacher has no work to do, although many forms of teaching rely heavily on ignoring any legitimate role for the student.  Really teaching cannot fall into that.  Of course, it is possible for teacher and student to develop incredibly positive relationships, but for that to become an end in and of itself and set aside the purpose of being there in the first place…is a mistake.  This is why the choice of the “It” is so important as well. Content not only needs to be present for the student/teacher relationship to have a purpose, but also the content itself needs to be full of potential and the object of purposeful work.  Bill’s simple statement opens a world of fascinating conversation, cooperation and projects; it is a platform for a career of teaching.

The second lesson I learned within the first month of teaching had to do with the purposes my students brought to the classroom.  I realized that I had become a high school English teacher because of my long term love affair with reading and writing.  Books are precious to me as a means of gaining information and, probably more importantly, as a way to experience other lives and times and places in depth.  Reading a good book is a means of living in a new world and making new friends.  Writing is a form of personal power.  Richard Lederer’s “The Miracle of Language” was released in 1992, and I still remember an observation it made about the versatility of the English language.  Given the syntax and immense vocabulary available to speakers and writers in English, it is very likely that any time you talk or write that you are putting together the words you use in the order you have used them for the first time in the history of language.  I have always found that intoxicating as a concept — and see writing as a continuation of the human need to put a stamp in the world, to say “I am here” in a way that goes back to the very first cave paintings.

Something became evident to me by the end of my first month teaching: all of my students were NOT going to become high school English teachers.  It would have been so easy to pitch my teaching to the students who most reminded me of myself, but that would not make me an actual teacher.  I needed to not only consider the needs and interests of all of my students, I also needed to invite them all in to experience at least some of what I saw in the subject. This required excitement, innovation, passion, patience, confidence and reflection from me.  It has required it in every since that first one.  The year that I cannot muster those resources to support my knowledge of content and teaching is the year I need to stop.

The third lesson I learned had to do with how sincerely I believed what I said I believed.  Moving 6000 miles from home and taking up the task of teaching other people’s children meant that I not only had to say that I believed in the value of diversity in the classroom, but also I had to do a crash course to learn what I did not know about my students and their many, rich and beautiful, cultures.  Hawai’i is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, and my students could trace ancestry to every corner of the globe.  They were from families who could trace tens of generations in Hawai’i and who had arrived for a multitude of purposes from every inhabited continent since the late 18th century.  They held on to unique cultures from their ancestry and to new cultures that had developed in contact with each other and existed no place else on Earth.

And I, to my substantial humbling, knew absolutely nothing.  In retrospect, I am incredibly grateful for that because even though I know that I could have gone to teach in my hometown and still have a tremendous amount to learn about my students, beginning my teaching in Hawai’i forced me to recognize immediately that you cannot teach without knowing your students and learning from them. I had the astonishing privilege of learning that lesson from some truly remarkable young people.

Focus on the relationship among teacher, student, and content.  Strive to include all students in the beauty and power of your content.  Learn from your students who they are and what they need from you.  It is 2014 and many of the challenges of teaching have changed, but the heart of it has not.  People truly dedicated to this work understand that and project that, and it is the reason, I think, why most parents respect and appreciate their children’s teachers and schools.  It is why the work remains rewarding.

It is why the work is worth defending.

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