Category Archives: teaching

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

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

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

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

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

Saving Mr. Data

I am beginning to think that enthusiasts of standardized testing and data in education accountability are feeling nervous these days.  Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is the new chair of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and he has set about the long overdue process of renewing and/or revising the No Child Left Behind Act which required annual testing of all students in every state.  The outcome of that process and of the House’s parallel bill which left committee already and which failed to adopt a Democratic sponsored amendment to require states to adopt “college and career ready standards” and to use standardized test results in accountability systems, will play a significant role in the current policy environment that is best summarized as “test and punish”.

However, it is not just a Republican controlled Congress that is threatening federal mandates for universal and annual standardized testing.  An unusual coalition of small government conservatives and anti-testing progressives have joined with growing numbers of parents concerned with how test based accountability is consuming their children’s education.  The once unthinkable is now being thought out loud and in the open — Congress could reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act without provisions requiring that all states test all students in all grades.

This would, obviously, be a blow to a cornerstone provision of NCLB that once enjoyed bipartisan support as a necessary measure to ensure that states did not try to duck being accountable for all students.  It would also throw a huge monkey-wrench into favored policies of the Obama administration promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While the Common Core State Standards might survive in some form without annual standardized testing, the testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC), began their work with the support of federal grants almost as soon as the standards were being adopted thanks to financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and federal incentives from the Race to the Top grant program.  If annual testing requirements were scrapped by Congress, it is an open question how many states would keep Common Core and stay with the testing programs created for it.  Another policy threatened by removing annual testing requirements is the assessment of teachers by the test scores of their students.  Despite wide criticism from the research community, Secretary Duncan remains firmly committed to tying teacher evaluations to students’ annual progress on standardized examinations, and without annual examinations of all students, you cannot run their results through discredited and unstable statistical models to determine if teachers deserve their jobs.

So defenders of annual testing have work to do in public if they are going to save their baby,

One such recent effort appeared in the New York Times on February 6th. Penned by Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellwether Education and former adviser to Secretary Duncan’s Department of Education, it is simply titled “In Defense of Annual Testing”, and it lays out what are becoming familiar efforts to shore up presumably left leaning support for keeping NCLB’s annual testing requirements.  These are not arguments that should be casually dismissed, and they have the moral authority of some of the nation’s most distinguished civil rights organizations that originally signed on for the accountability measures in NCLB when it passed and who have reiterated their support.

They are, however, arguments that don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

Aldeman opens with a brief assertion of a now familiar claim:

But annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

This claim suggests that without ANNUAL standardized testing of ALL students then we will not know how INDIVIDUAL students are progressing through school.  It has echoes in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote of how he tutored a great kid in his youth who had been tricked into thinking he was progressing towards college but who was barely reading at a third grade level.  According to Secretary Duncan’s telling, this young man was the proverbial “child left behind” for whose education nobody had ever taken any real responsibility.  Annual testing was the only effective means to catch how he was being poorly served and demand that someone do something about it, and Secretary Duncan even presented annual testing of all students as a parental tool: “Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is making in school? Or is that optional?”

The problem is that this line of thinking shows a staggering lack of imagination.

As an argument, it fails to acknowledge that there are many other, and far more interesting, points of data that can be used by teachers, parents, and schools to keep far more compelling tabs on student progress throughout the year.  Locally designed and implemented ongoing assessments such as portfolios and project based learning can provide teachers with ongoing and meaningful insights into how children are learning, and report cards can be reformed to provide parents and guardians with far more nuanced information.

It is even possible to use externally designed assessments in more interesting ways that help inform teachers, students, and parents in real time.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes that computer-based “adaptive assessments” given individually and with no stakes attached can be the basis of a system of formative assessment that gives immediate feedback to teachers about student progress that can be used to craft individual learning plans for those who struggle.  In coordination with portfolios and project based learning (and with full disclosure of how they use data and substantial privacy safeguards), computer based assessments could become a valuable tool based on data.  Dr. Baker further notes such data-driven and formative assessments would be vastly more useful than mass administered tests whose results are distributed months after the fact when students have already moved on to their next grade levels.

Aldeman dedicates most of his Times piece, however, on the belief that NOT testing every child in every year will allow states and localities to wiggle out from being accountable to all students all the time:

The grade-span approach would eviscerate the ability to look at particular groups of students within schools. Instead of having multiple grades over which schools could compile results, each school would be held responsible only for the performance of students in a single grade. Not only would this lower the quality of the data, but it would also raise the stakes of the tests: If you think the stakes are too high now, imagine being a fifth grader in a school where your score determines the results of the entire school.

Worst of all, under this approach, far fewer schools would be on the hook for paying attention to historically disadvantaged groups of students. A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

Let me state that as a liberal with an eye for history, this argument is certainly intriguing.  We are a nation that only 12 years before my birth required the National Guard to let nine African American students attend a high school ordered to desegregate.  In 1969, the year I was born, the Supreme Court issued a ruling calling for Southern states to cease delays in desegregating their schools — a full 15 years after Brown v. Board found such arrangements unconstitutional.  Federal legislation and federal court cases were also instrumental in holding states and municipalities responsible for ending gender discrimination, for providing students with disabilities access to an education, and for providing support for students learning English.  It is no doubt this record of positive intervention at the federal level and of state delays in implementing equality of opportunity that motivated civil rights groups to endorse annual testing in NCLB and to stand with it today.

That does not change that such testing is unnecessary, is unacceptably disruptive to learning, and is narrowing curricula nationwide.

Mr. Aldeman is suggesting that eliminating annual testing will mean huge swaths of children will be hidden from the test and that the test stakes will be raised enormously with only exam being used.  The stakes argument hinges on a mistaken impression of what the exams say and what should be done with the data they produce.  For the stakes on gradespan testing to be even higher than they are today, one has to assume that such testing is used not only to monitor the education system but also to actively punish schools with low test results.  While few would argue that schools with poor results should be permitted to languish, the kinds of punitive measures embodied in NCLB are not a necessary result of monitoring student test scores.  Under the leadership of Superintendent Tony Alvarado, New York City’s Community District 2 implemented a complex and interconnect culture of reform that included standards and assessments.  However, data from the assessments were used to monitor how schools in the district were doing and to allocate resources for improvement and innovation where they were most needed and with the constant goal of instructional improvement.  Again, Dr. Baker of Rutgers makes a salient observation:

Here’s the really important part, which also relates to my thermometer example above. The testing measures themselves ARE NOT THE ACTIONABLE INFORMATION. Testing provides information on symptoms, not causes or underlying processes. It is pure folly to look at low test scores for a given institution, and follow up with an action plan to “improve test scores,” or close the school if/when test scores don’t improve, without ever taking stock of the potential causes behind the low test scores. TEST SCORES ARE SYMPTOMS, NOT CAUSES, NOT ACTIONABLE IN AND OF THEMSELVES.

Recognition of that fact and crafting policy responses to low test scores with that in mind would necessarily lower the stakes on the tests themselves.

Further, while there might be some argument for an annual test that could contribute to closer monitoring of those symptoms, there is no argument that convincingly says that such tests must be given to every student in every grade in order to get a good picture of how schools and school systems serve historically disadvantaged children.  First, a low stakes system of formative assessments, both qualitative and quantitative, could apply to all children and would conform to accommodations for children with special needs.  So there can readily be ways for teachers, schools, and parents to know how ALL students are doing during the course of the year.

Once we’ve set aside the issue of having a meaningful, formative assessment system for all students that can actually assist teachers, there’s no truly compelling argument against properly devised sampling of students for standardized testing.  Implemented correctly, sampling would not leave substantial numbers of children invisible as Mr. Aldeman fears, and we would stop spending inordinate time trying to ferret out distinctions in performance within schools when, as Dr. Baker once again notes, the greatest and most consequential differences in test measured achievement exist between schools and districts, not within them.  Insisting upon keeping annual testing of every student in every grade keeps an unnecessarily disruptive system in place as part of an accountability system that, in fifteen years, has not yielded sufficient results to justify the sacrifices in teacher autonomy over instruction and the sacrifices in non-tested subjects being shunted aside in favor of test preparation.  In fact, the only people to “benefit” from this system are private test designers like Pearson, who are being handed not just lucrative contracts but also terabytes of data to mine for new products, and advocates of firing as many teachers as possible based upon student test scores.

This is especially frustrating to me because data, when used with a clear understanding of what it can and what it cannot do, is a tool, an important tool at that.  It can help us develop broad pictures of what is happening in schools, and it can direct our attention to places that require more careful and nuanced study.  The persistent overreach and abuse of its capabilities is building a backlash that makes it much harder to successfully advocate for more judicious and appropriate use of what can be learned.  If we wish to SAVE data and its uses in school, it would be best to set aside NCLB and begin again sensibly.

I believe I see the problem, Captain.  My head's been severed.

I believe I see the problem, Captain. My head’s been severed.

12 Comments

Filed under Data, NCLB, politics, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Arne Duncan’s Great Kid Story Problem

In his speech laying out administration priorities for the renewal or rewrite of No Child Left Behind, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a personal anecdote to explain the imperative of accountability based reform:

In between my junior and senior year at college, I took a year off to help in my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago and figure out if I really wanted to devote my life to this fight for educational opportunity.

One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at the local high school, who was studying to take his ACT.

He was a great kid who had done all the right things. In a very violent neighborhood, he had stayed away from the gangs. He didn’t drink, he didn’t use drugs. He was actually an honor roll student with a “B” average, and on track to graduate. I initially thought this was absolutely a young man who could beat the odds and defy the negative stereotypes of young black men.

But as we started to work together, I was heartbroken to quickly realize that he was basically functionally illiterate.

He was reading at maybe a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and was unable to put together a written paragraph. Tragically, he had played by all the rules, but had no idea how far behind he was. Throughout his life, he had been led to believe that he was on-track for college success.

And he was nowhere close.

The educational system had failed him, and the buck stopped nowhere.

This is the kind of personal story that makes great fodder for satirical pieces in The Onion, but I will grant Secretary Duncan a point: there are children in the system who are passed along from grade to grade without learning enough to be successful in more complex subjects later on.  And the Secretary has a point that in too many cases like these few people are willing to take responsibility.  When I talk to my education students about this, I frame this as a cycle of blame passing:  The ninth grade teacher has a student who cannot write well and blames the junior high teachers for what they didn’t teach.  The junior high teachers blame the middle school teachers, and the middle school teachers blame the elementary school teachers.  Eventually, the child is in utero and nobody has taken proper responsibility for teaching the child as he has arrived in the classroom that year.  Given that higher education institutions report that about 20% of first year students need to take at least one remedial class when they arrive (and even 12.8% of entering students at very selective 4 year schools), it is reasonable to ask if our elementary and secondary education systems can do a better job preparing more students for further schooling.

Of course, answering such questions are complex.  Critics and reformers often point to the number of college students in need of some remediation and state those students are “not ready” for college.  That’s far too broad a brush.  For starters, the numbers are variable by the type of institution reporting, by race and ethnicity, by gender, by age of student, by dependency status, and by the educational obtainment of the parents of the student receiving remediation.   Additionally, students can receive a wide variety of remediation in college from a single studies skills course to an entire plate of courses meant to “plug holes” from elementary and secondary education.  A student who dropped out of high school, got a GED at 25, and enrolled in Community College who needs math instruction to progress in a STEM program is far less worrisome than the young man in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote who is reported as laboring under the impression that his reading level being at The Magic Treehouse series is going to get him into college.

There’s just a problem.  Secretary Duncan’s priorities for the NCLB revision won’t help him either.

It isn’t that someone shouldn’t have taken responsibility for the young man’s learning (although how Secretary Duncan, at the callow age of 20 or 21 could actually tell that nobody had done so is left unexplained); it’s that forcing that responsibility by holding his teachers accountable to his standardized test scores each and every year, as favored by the Obama administration, is one of the worst paths to take to help him.

“Testing” is not a dirty word.  As part of a multiple assessment system to help teachers, students, and parents know where students stand and in what areas students need help.  Formative assessments, however they are developed and administered, are meant to provide the kind of feedback that can personalize instruction and help teachers as they create a rich and complete curriculum.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes for what such assessments cannot be used:

This information should NOT be used for “accountability” purposes. It should NOT be mined/aggregated/modeled to determine at high level whether institutions or individuals are “doing their jobs,” or for closing schools and firing teachers. That’s not to say, however, that there might not be some use for institutions (schools districts) mining these data to determine how student progress is being made on certain concepts/skills across schools, in order to identify, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, for thoughtful data informed management. Current annual assessments aren’t particularly useful for “data informed” leadership either. But this stuff could be, given the right modeling tools.

This is the approach we use to ensure that no child is left behind. By the time annual, uniform, standardized assessment data are returned in relatively meaningless aggregate scores to the front office 6 months down the road, those kids have already been left behind, and the information provided isn’t even sufficiently fine grained as to be helpful in helping them to catch up.

Dr. Baker differentiates testing used for individual diagnostic purposes and testing used for accountability/system monitoring purposes:

When it comes to testing for system monitoring, where we are looking at institutions and systems, rather than individuals, immediate feedback is less important. Time intervals can be longer, because institutional change occurs over the long haul, not from just this year, to next. Further, we want our sampling – our measurements – to be as minimally intrusive as possible – both in terms of the number of times we take those measurements, and in terms of the number of measurements we take at any one time. In part, we want measurement for accountability purposes to be non-intrusive so that teachers and local administrators, and the kids especially, can get on with their day – with their learning – development of knowledge and skills.

So, when it comes to “System Monitoring” the most appropriate approach is to use a sampling scheme that is minimally sufficient to capture, at point in time, achievement levels of kids in any given school or district (Institution). You don’t have to test every kid in a school to know how kids in that school are doing. You don’t have to have any one kid take an entire test, if you creatively distribute relevant test items across appropriately sampled kids. Using sampling methods like those used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can go a long way toward reducing the intrusiveness of testing while providing potentially more valid estimates of institutional performance (how well schools and districts are doing).

The distinctions here should be obvious, and they are crucial:  accountability relies upon system wide data that is best captured via sampling, and monitoring system wide trends via data does not require that every child be tested in the same standardized test every single year.  As Dr. Baker has shown previously, trying to take this data and use it for accountability of individual teachers based upon value-added modeling does not produce results that are stable and are therefore pretty useless.

Wouldn’t you know that Secretary Duncan has it exactly backwards?

By insisting that large standardized measures be given to every child every year AND endorsing using those data for individual teacher accountability, the Secretary is calling for maintaining a standardized testing regime that is needlessly intrusive and for applying the data from those tests for the wrong purposes.  Worse, it is incentivizing the worst kind of teaching, practices to which Secretary Duncan gave a passing acknowledgement as destructive but which his insistence upon placing the highest stakes on an intrusive testing schedule will entrench into classrooms.  We’ve seen this in the years since NCLB with narrowing curricula and more focus on tested subjects that upon a full, rich curriculum.

One other rationale is possible by insisting upon annual, large scale examinations for every child, but it is one that betrays a lack of imagination.  Secretary Duncan said that:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

Secretary Duncan is suggesting that mass standardized tests given annually are the tools needed by parents to monitor their children’s progress.  I suppose there may be families out there who are itching for that packet from the state DOE that comes weeks or months after the standardized exam, but I think it is far more likely that parents would like to know that teachers have access and utilize a steady stream of tools to assist their students and to communicate with families.  As it stands, Secretary Duncan insists on giving those parents a single test result that can suggest something is going on but which cannot say a blessed thing about why it is going on.

Arne Duncan is worried about that great kid he met three decades ago.  Sadly, he doesn’t have a clue about what would have helped that child not get lost in the system.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, NCLB, teaching, Testing

New York’s Public Schools Need Some Friends in Albany

This is the text of a detailed letter I am sending to my representatives and other leaders in Albany.  I invite anyone to use any portion of it and the resources in the notes to write your own.  However, the New York State Allies for Public Education has a convenient web form that will generate a letter to your representatives as well.  It can be found here.  The agenda has been set by Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch — it will make our schools objectively worse in every way and it will sweep up all teachers regardless of their capabilities.  We need parents, community members, and teachers to band together to say that this must be stopped.  Let’s dare our representatives in Albany to become friends of public education.

The Honorable Linda Rosenthal
LOB 741
Albany, NY 12248

Senator Jose Serrano
181 State Street Room 406
Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247

Dear Assemblywoman Rosenthal and Senator Serrano:

The public schools of New York need some friends in Albany.

I wish I could say that the parents, children, and teachers of this state could count upon friendship in the Governor’s office or at the Regents Chancellor’s office, but both Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch have made it very clear that they intend great harm to our public education system.  They have powerful backers among Wall Street and private foundations, and they have the encouragement of the United States Department of Education, but regardless, what they say they intend to do will not only harm the 600,000 public school teachers of New York, but also it will degrade the quality of education enjoyed by millions of school aged children and counted upon by their parents and communities.

Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill on December 29th that his own office drafted (1) and which would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from suffering professional consequences due to the results of the new Common Core aligned state examinations.  The Governor justifies this by claiming that the current teacher evaluation system finds too few teachers incompetent and that student scores of the new exams demonstrates that this is untrue.  Chancellor Tisch has joined the Governor in calling for far more rigid teacher evaluations, responding to a December letter from the State Director of Operations with her own priorities. (2) Chancellor Tisch backs changing teacher evaluations so that the 20% currently set aside for local measures of teacher performance be eliminated and that the portion assigned to student growth in standardized tests be raised to 40% overall.  In addition, Chancellor Tisch proposes that a teacher found “ineffective” by the standardized tests be determined to be ineffective overall, and she believes that two such evaluations should lead to a teacher’s removal.

There are few proposals that could be so immediately harmful to students regardless of Governor Cuomo’s declaration that he is looking out for them and that the NYSUT only wants to protect bad teachers.  This change to teacher evaluation rests upon a flawed premise about student achievement in New York, will subject teachers to an evaluation system with no basis in research, and will dramatically harm the quality of curriculum and instruction across the state in both affluent and impoverished districts.

Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch apparently believe that because the student proficiency levels on the new Common Core aligned examinations are in the 30-35% range then it is “obvious” that many more New York teachers must be incompetent and deserve to be removed from the classroom.  This is a flawed premise and deliberately misleading. Both the Governor and Chancellor know full well that the cut scores for proficiency were set deliberately to match SAT scores (3) linked to specific grades in first year college courses.  The percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8 (4),so the argument that THESE proficiency levels on THESE exams mean that many New York teachers are incompetent only works if you assume that there is a demand for college educated workers not being met currently.  The economic evidence for that assumption is weak, however, because while a college wage premium exists, its growth has shrunk dramatically in recent decades (5) and much of that small growth is coming from falling wages for non-college graduates.  It would be worthwhile to question the uneven distribution of college opportunity among racial, ethnic, and economic lines, but it would also be worthwhile to discuss the loss of opportunities for families to move from poverty to the lower middle class (6), losses that keep many more families in poverty than can be lifted by more college degrees.

From that flawed premise, Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch assume that teachers can be accurately measured as ineffective based upon standardized test scores.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Value Added Models (VAMs) are not widely accepted as valid for teacher evaluation, and the evidence against using them that way led the American Statistical Association to issue a statement warning about the limitations of VAMs (7).  Teacher ratings using VAMs can be highly unstable.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers notes that teachers who ranked in the top 20% of teachers using value added modeling were likely to shift in subsequent years (8), some even to the lowest quintile and then back to the top, demonstrating how unreliable these methods are.  VAMs take their toll on excellent teachers in excellent schools as well, as demonstrated by the case of the “worst 8th grade math teacher in New York City” in 2012 (9).  This teacher taught at a citywide gifted and talented school, and all of her students passed the challenging Regents algebra exam, but her VAM, based upon an exam testing material her students had learned several years earlier, placed her at the absolute bottom of all 8th grade math teachers.  Hers is not an isolated case, and if Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch have their way, there will be no locally derived measure sufficient to have saved her job.

The tragic impact this will have upon classrooms everywhere should be obvious.  With such dire consequences tied to a single set of standardized examinations and with no other measure mattering, teachers, even in successful schools, will have to teach to the test.  Narrow and relentless test preparation can increase student scores, but it comes at the expense of creativity and subjects not tested.  Research since the passage of No Child Left Behind demonstrates that subjects such as science, social studies, art, music, and physical education have all been reduced because of the consequences attached to low test scores (10).  The Cuomo/Tisch proposals for teacher evaluation will inevitably accelerate this, leading to less time spent in a well rounded curriculum and more time in didactic instruction and seat work.

Meanwhile, the New York Times recognized this week that fiscal inequity is “the central crisis” in New York’s schools, and that Albany is over $5.6 billion dollars short annually of commitments made in 2007 (11).  The New York State School Boards Association estimates that the average district in New York has lost $3.1 million a year in state aid due to the continued use of the gap elimination adjustment (12), and Dr. Baker of Rutgers calculated that New York City alone has lost between $3-4000 per pupil per year through Albany’s refusal to fully fund its own aid formula (13).

In a time when teachers are being told to do far more with their students, Governor Cuomo has consistently starved local districts of funds, and now he and Chancellor Tisch demand that these same teachers produce test results or be fired using statistical models with no foundation in research.

Enough is enough.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has responded to Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch (14), and I implore you to join them in opposing this damaging agenda. It has no basis in fact, it will severely harm all of our schools in every community, and it fully ignores the ongoing failure of Albany to equitably fund our state’s schools.

Our public schools need friends in Albany.  I hope that you will be among them.

Sincerely,

Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.
Director of Secondary Education and Secondary/Special Education, Seton Hall University
Father of Two New York Public School Students

Notes:

1. Taylor, K. (2014, December 29). Cuomo Vetoes Bill That Would Protect Teachers From Low Ratings. The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/30/nyregion/cuomo-in-reversal-vetoes-bill-that-would-have-protected-teachers-from-low-ratings.html

2. Burris, C. (2015, January 1). Teacher Evaluation: Going from Bad to Worse? The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/01/teacher-evaluation-going-from-bad-to-worse/

3. Burris, C. (2014, April 29). The Scary Way Common Core Test “Cut Scores” Are Selected. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/29/the-scary-way-common-core-test-cut-scores-are-selected/

4. United States Census Bureau. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36000.html

5. Shierholz, H., & Mishel, L. (2013, August 21). A Decade of Flat Wages: The Key Barrier to Shared Prosperity and a Rising Middle Class. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.epi.org/publication/a-decade-of-flat-wages-the-key-barrier-to-shared-prosperity-and-a-rising-middle-class/

6. Harris, B., & Kearney, M. (2013, December 4). A Dozen Facts about America’s Struggling Lower-Middle-Class. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/12/12-facts-lower-middle-class

7. ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment. (2014, April 8). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from https://www.amstat.org/policy/pdfs/ASA_VAM_Statement.pdf

8. Baker, B. (2012, November 17). On the Stability (or not) of Being Irreplaceable. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/on-the-stability-or-not-of-being-irreplaceable/

9. Pallas, A. (2012, May 16). Meet the “Worst” 8th Grade Math Teacher in New York City. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/meet-the-worst-8th-grade-math-teacher-in-nyc/2012/05/15/gIQArmlbSU_blog.html

10. David, J. (2011). High Stakes Testing Narrows the Curriculum. Educational Leadersip, 68(6), 78-80. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/mar11/vol68/num06/High-Stakes_Testing_Narrows_the_Curriculum.aspx

11. The Central Crisis in New York Education. (2015, January 4). The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/05/opinion/the-central-crisis-in-new-york-education.html?_r=1

12. Q&A: New York State’s Gap Elimination Adjustment. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.nyssba.org/clientuploads/nyssba_pdf/Q&A/Q&A-Gap-Elimination.pdf

13. Baker, B. (2012, December 7). Forget the $300m Deal! Let’s talk $3.4 billion (or more)! Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/forget-the-300m-deal-lets-talk-3-4-billion-or-more/

14. NYSAPE Response Letter to Governor on Public Education. (2015, January 5). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.nysape.org/nysape-response-letter-to-governor-on-public-education.html

3 Comments

Filed under Activism, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming”

About five years back, I got my first impression that our older child might potentially decide to become a teacher.  It was during what I thought was going to be a game of “Hungry Hungry Hippos” which took quite an unexpected turn when our child took all of the marbles, placed them neatly in the center of the game, and told the hippos that they all had to “wait for snack time.”  Over time and with more time in school, other hints have cropped up such as an almost immediate affinity for any teacher at the head of the classroom, a willingness to respect norms of classroom behavior, an almost obsessive love of certain stories and storytelling, a fascination with explaining acquired knowledge to others, giddy excitement at the opportunity to do a presentation for students in a lower grade, and a certain flair for the theatrical.  While this same child is also a bit of a homework resister and not a fan of rote tasks, I can see aspects of a “born teacher” growing up (even though these same traits could apply to other fields).

This lines up well with what we know about how individual students make the decision to become teachers.  It is not a process that begins simply with a sudden decision to teach.  Rather, it unfolds over time during the some 13,000 hours that students spend in contact with classroom teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade, a period that Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” in his 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.  Those who decide to teach have prolonged and substantial experiences with people practicing their chosen profession over the course of 13 years, and many potential teachers wish to teach because they, themselves, enjoyed being taught.  They found the study of subjects and school itself to be enjoyable.  While many of the ideas about what teaching actually is that are formed during this observational period are simplistic and need to be challenged both in teacher preparation and throughout the career, it remains true that school is the most active recruiter of future teachers.  If my older child does decide to become a teacher, like most others who choose the field, it will be out of a desire to share with future generations of students a love of learning and to make their school experiences enjoyable, joyous, and inspirational as well.

That is, if Governor Andrew Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch manage to not ruin New York’s schools first.

That statement is not made even a little bit tongue in cheek because both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch have made it abundantly clear in the past month that their dissatisfaction with New York teacher evaluations will not go unanswered and their likely “solution” will unleash a torrent of perverse incentives upon our schools.  Andrew Cuomo signaled his intentions to make teacher evaluations more “rigorous” just before the election with newspaper interviews and public statements.  The process was set in motion last month with a letter from Jim Malatras, director of state operations, to Dr. Tisch and outgoing New York State Education Department Commissioner Dr. John King.  The letter opens with the now familiar refrain that the new Common Core aligned state examinations are showing far too few of graduating seniors being “college ready” (even though the proficiency levels, which were set with cut scores pinned to the SAT scores of successful college freshmen, slightly exceed the percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree), and then laments about the unacceptability of the situation.  Teacher and blogger Peter Greene nearly dissects the letter in this post, and among its many facets is a clear desire to make it far easier to get rid of teachers and to increase the number of teachers found ineffective and thus able to be removed from the classroom.

On December 29th, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill his office had originally drafted that would have given teachers a two year grace period from the new exams being used to remove them from the classroom, a move that starkly reversed his pre-election promises to give the new systems more time to be understood.  Questioned on his change of course, the governor raised the irrelevant specter of child abusers remaining in the classroom, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired,” Cuomo said. “But we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”  He did not explain himself with any specific cases of teachers actually found guilty of sexual abuse still teaching, nor did he explain how tying more of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores will get abusers out of schools faster, but he did join both Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in trying to scare people into endorsing radical changes to teachers’ workplace protections.

Dr. Tisch responded to Mr. Malatras’ letter with her own set of priorities to tie far more of teachers’ evaluations directly to student progress in the state examinations and possibly eliminating local measures of teacher effectiveness altogether.  2013 New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris explains in this article what Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo appear to be proposing:

The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.

The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead.

Principal Burris further notes that Dr. Tisch appears intent on ensuring that the predicted growth of students on standardized tests be the supreme measure of teacher effectiveness, suggesting that teachers found ineffective by those measures be found ineffective overall and removed from the classroom after two such ratings.  Such a system would provide no room for a principal to protect a teacher known locally as both effective and valued by the community, as Principal Burris relates in the story of a teacher from Great Neck who would fall victim to Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo.  Given the growing understanding that value added measures (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness rely upon tests not designed to detect teacher input, are highly unstable, and cannot account for teacher impact on variability among student scores, it is quite apt that Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University and a leading researcher on value-added measures, described the proposal as going from “bad to idiotic.”

This aggressive move to double the value added portion of teacher evaluations and to override local measures in favor of standardized tests is bad for teachers, and it is potentially even worse for students.  By doubling the state examination’s role, eliminating locally chosen measures, and potentially overriding any consideration other than the state examination, Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo are proposing a system where teachers would face strong incentives to push test preparation into a central role in the curriculum.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor Schools in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the not excusable but entirely predictable results of tying people’s job security to capriciously unstable measures of their effectiveness.  Less drastic, but potentially more widely damaging for more students, is the evidence that raising the stakes on standardized tests to these extremes will result in an even narrower curriculum than under the original No Child Left Behind provisions which have already reduced time spent on non-tested content and increased teacher centered instruction.  In New York State this will be compounded by the constant gaming of state aid from the Cuomo administration that has coincided with increased demands on districts, especially struggling districts, to perform at higher levels.

It takes no powers of prognostication to see where New York schools are headed if the Governor and Chancellor get their way.

John I. Goodlad, a giant in education research in the second half of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 94 on November 29th of last year.  In his 1984 book, A Place Called School, he asked, “Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. … Why are our schools not places of joy?”  The Cuomo/Tisch goals for teacher evaluation are almost guaranteed to drive a huge amount of joy right out of our schools alongside art, music, civics, and health.  Teachers and students will have less room to explore, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and shared purposes for education outside of test performance will be even further diminished.

And this is where education “reformers” need to think especially carefully because it is not just the schools of today that they are impacting.  Children in Kindergarten today were born in 2009.  Several 100 thousand of them will likely be first year teachers by the year 2031-2032, and the kinds of teachers they will become will be greatly influenced by what school is like for them between now and their graduation from high school as the class of 2027.  Will their schools be places of extreme test preparation, didactic instruction, and a curriculum that is narrowed by the parameters of tests?  Will these future teachers learn that school is supposed to be emulate even a fraction of the stress and narrowness of the Chinese cram school portrayed in this recent New York Times Magazine? Will there be joy?  And if not, what kinds of future teachers will emerge from those schools to teach the generations behind them?

So, education “reformers” — a New Year’s Resolution for you just as America’s teachers are returning for the second half of the year: The next generation of teachers are currently in the schools that you are reforming. Resolve not to wipe out the joy.

2 Comments

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

On My Twelfth Year of Common Core, David Coleman Gave to Me…

…a tightly written College English 1 essay.

And not a whole heck of a lot of anything else.

Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards.  This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards.  This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed.  However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.

I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit.  In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards.  Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development.  Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing.  P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:

Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective.  I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them.  Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.”  Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays.  Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:

As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.

His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.

Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.

Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.

Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound.  The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed);  standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;”  standard 5 puts students to work to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g. the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”

I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this.  The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses.  The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools.  It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be.  For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay?  It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools?  I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.

However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important.  Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras.  It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience.  And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves.  William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy.  There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading.  Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves.  Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.

It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.

If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain.  The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.1
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.3
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 3rd grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1
With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.2
With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.3
With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption).  I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling.  I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read.  There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool.  None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read.  As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature.  I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman.  Can I have my Tolkien back, please?

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, teaching

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:

NYC VAM

This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:

NYC VAMreal

And in this image, I circle everything else:

NYC VAMfake

Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.

11 Comments

Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.a
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.b
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.c
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.d
Establish and maintain a formal style.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.e
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.

References:

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

Dear Common Core English Standards: Can we talk?

Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany.  I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers.  As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education.  The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English.  My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four.  As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball.  Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and  “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines.  Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon.  Why was I a high school English teacher?  Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge.  I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.

That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them.  In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.

Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.

I have read the standards, many times.  I have introduced them in foundations classes.  I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning.  In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy.  I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.

Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.

It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation.  It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten.  But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.

The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level.  Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity.  For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.

From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Range of Reading and Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major.  The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century.  For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned.  However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain.  Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.

As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers.  From 6th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

From 3rd grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

From Kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

So what is wrong with this?  It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency.  What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis.  In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.

This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever.  Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:

The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….

Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisti­cated levels? (pp. 15-16)

Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process.  Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.

At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge.  To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough.  The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself.  To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful.  RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life.  But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves.  Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.”  In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.  The reader is a bit player.

This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.  After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University.  He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts.  What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy.  As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.  This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought.  When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:

When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.  There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.

Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core?  That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards.  However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor.  For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation.  At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001.  I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:

Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.

The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself.  Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well.  This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s.  Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text.  Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning.  Readers who want to understand society and history via the text?  Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries?  Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?

People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

66 Comments

Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Anti-Tenure – Union Busting FIRST, Students Second

One consequence of becoming active in social media and blogging is crossing paths with people that you would not normally encounter face to face.  For example, among my normal Twitter feed comprised of classroom teachers, public school advocates, researchers and news sources, a certain gentleman was noticeably involved in several arguments.  Shortly thereafter, he began following me on Twitter.  His name is Dmitri Mehlhorn, and he is a former C.O.O. for Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, and, suffice to say, he is a true believer in current education “reforms”.  When Rhee announced that she was stepping down as the head of Students First, Mr. Mehlhorn penned this astonishing piece of apologia for The Daily Beast on her behalf, which despite saying she was “right about everything” cannot really name a measurable outcome of Ms. Rhee’s activism that has improved education.  Mostly, he spends the article lamenting the attacks upon Ms. Rhee, even going so far as to paint her famous on camera firing of a school principal as her sending a “message” to teachers that she was on their side:

As I said, Mr. Mehlhorn is a true believer, and the arguments he was involved in on Twitter centered on former television anchor Campbell Brown’s efforts to sue teacher tenure out of existence in New York.  As a devotee of Michelle Rhee, Mehlhorn is obviously in favor the current lawsuits, and as a former close associate of Rhee’s organization, he ought to be well-versed in the arguments against teacher tenure and be able to explain why it is better for the profession and for students to end due process protections for teachers and make them at will employees.

In fact, that is not a simple argument to make, especially since all research demonstrates that the urban schools Mr. Mehlhorn and Ms. Brown insist will be made better by eliminating tenure suffer far more from high teacher TURNOVER with some districts losing up to 50% of teachers within 5 years.  However, Mr. Mehlhorn did not seem overly interested in making the argument, preferring to respond with broad accusations that “my side” did not “care” about doing anything while “children suffer”.  That prompted my request for an actual argument about how ending tenure will make schools better able to retain good teachers instead of vague accusations and assertions of his bona fides in education reform.  This is what he came up with:

I will confess that I had to read this several times before understanding that the gist of it was really Mr. Mehlhorn’s argument.  I also tried looking at it out of order and contemplated standing on my head before accepting that the argument was basically this: Good teachers work more hours than bad teachers (conceded).  So good teachers get paid less per hour than their bad teacher peers because for the same salary, they work more hours (conceded but in a nobody-calculates-teacher-pay-that-way-not-even-teachers kind of way).  Ergo, the presence of bad teachers demotivates good teachers who either leave the profession or don’t go into it at all knowing their work is not valued at as high an hourly wage as their bad teacher peers.

Confused

Now keep in mind that Mr. Mehlhorn is not RANDOMLY opining on this subject.  At Students First, teacher unions are not regarded highly.  Consider this post where a “balanced” perspective on teacher unions as “change agents” or “opposition” is considered.  The union as “change agent” comprised a handful of paragraphs from a DC public school teacher Eric Bethel (who has since been appointed as a principal in the district) about the union getting on board with “reform” – reforms that just happen to be those approved of by Michelle Rhee.  The second piece goes on at some length and is written by Hoover Institute Fellow Terry Moe who co-wrote the Bible of school choice “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools” and his basic point is that strong teacher unions will always prevent schools from changing.  His solution?  Make unions far less powerful.  This is a Students First presentation of “balance” on a key issue.

So Mr. Mehlhorn, prepped with Michelle Rhee’s culture of anti-unionism, ought to have a sophisticated argument as to why eliminating tenure will make schools better, not by merely removing the percentage of teachers who ought not be teaching at more rapid pace, but by addressing one of the most complicated problems actually facing schools: retaining teachers at our schools with the highest levels of poverty and disadvantage.

His best stab at it? A cost-benefit calculation on salary that I have never heard one teacher make in my entire 21 year long career in secondary and higher education.

The problem for Mr. Mehlhorn and for the argument he tried to represent is that this is a matter that ought to be quantifiable.  There ought to be a way for him to say that there are “X” “bad teachers” in the classroom who are protected by tenure laws.  Then he ought to be able to certify what percentage of X are effectively irremovable and tie that to their tenured status and no other reason such as ineffective school and district leadership.  Then he should be able to demonstrate that the harm inflicted upon 3,000,000 – X teachers and their classrooms and students will not be GREATER than the harm reduced by making it easier to remove X teachers.

Of course, he cannot do that or, at the very least, has not been given arguments to make those points.  While Mr. Mehlhorn proved very adept at dropping the names of researchers used by the plaintiffs in the Vergara lawsuit to claim that there is a specific monetary cost for students who have a “grossly ineffective teacher”, he was completely unable to or unwilling to address that the research is highly controversial, rests on exceptionally shaky assumptions, and is not widely accepted in its current form.  Additionally, the premise for going after tenure protections of ALL teachers summarily dismisses any other fix for the the assumed problem.  Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Dmitri Mehlhorn do not advocate enhancing the process by which teachers are moved from probationary status.  They do not advocate for making principals more effective at their jobs (except for making it easier for them to fire teachers), and, in fact, advocate for making principals MORE adversarial to their faculty and undermining their ability to be instructional leaders.  They do not advocate for reforms to the procedures by which a school district can demonstrate cause for removing a teacher who is no longer probationary (something that already happened in New York State).  They advocate that every teacher become an at will employee.  Teachers have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #WithoutTenure to explain what the consequences of that would be for their ability to robustly advocate for their students’ needs, and this piece by Peter Greene makes it clear what could happen in schools where teachers lose their current job protections.

Further, from what we know about why teachers leave positions, resentment of other teachers making more money per hour does not enter the equation.  Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania notes that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon which drives a large proportion of the annual demand for new teachers.  While Dr. Ingersoll’s research notes that teachers at small, private schools actually turn over at rates that far exceed those elsewhere, he compared high poverty, urban teachers’ reasons for leaving with those of small, private schools and found that school management factors contributed highly to both populations’ reasons for leaving.  Small, private school teachers cited low salary overwhelmingly as a factor along with dissatisfaction with school administration, a concern shared with teachers in urban, high poverty schools who also listed lack of administrative support, low student motivation, discipline problems and lack of decision making support as roughly equal reasons for leaving.

Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, affirms that the teaching environment has a large impact on teacher satisfaction, fully independent of the demographic contexts of the school and more closely related to the social conditions of working in the school.  Their research further states that a positive school climate can impact student learning, again independent of the school’s demographics.  Dr. Moore Johnson’s work also notes that once school environment factors are taken into account no student demographic factors remain as significant indicators of why teachers leave.  Factors that contribute to teacher dissatisfaction with working conditions include principal leadership that is effective, fair, provides instructional leadership and practices inclusive decision making.  Teachers also gauge the quality of their collegial relationships and issues regarding how student discipline is supported in these decisions.

Dr. Moore Johnson notes that the good news in this is that “unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be changed.”  To be fair to Mr. Mehlhorn and his ilk, one COULD make an argument that eliminating tenure will help “change” working conditions by making it simpler to weed out bad teachers — but you would have to push really hard to make that your first priority or even on the top ten list.  Improving principal leadership and building more structures for effective and productive collaboration among teachers should be near the top of such a list because 1) effective principals seek ways to meaningfully evaluate and support teachers and 2) a collaborative environment would more easily identify those teachers who do not want to improve and make a reasonable case of removal for cause under existing rules.  It would also have the benefit of aiming to support and improve everyone at a school not merely to exact punitive costs upon individual teachers and administrators, and it would preserve the ability of teachers to advocate on behalf of their students in cases that require a more adversarial stance.

But the anti-tenure campaign does not push meaningfully for any reforms to school climates.  In fact, they advocate making the climate worse by suggesting that all teachers must lose the “for cause” protections of tenure in order to weed out the minority of teachers deemed ineffective.  There is nothing in the current lawsuits that will improve what it is like to work in schools that suffer high rates of teacher attrition, and, thus, nothing in those suits that will help retain effective teachers for students in urban poverty.  Campbell Brown makes only token and meaningless statements about “raising up” the teaching profession, and she certainly is not suing any state legislatures for not instituting reforms that strengthen principal leadership or teachers’ collegiality.

At the end of the discussion, therefore, the effort to sue away tenure is not about making schools better directly through “removing ineffective teachers.”  It is about greatly weakening teacher unions, as argued by Terry Moe in the Students First blog post linked above.  People like Moe, Rhee, Brown and Mehlhorn clearly believe that those unions need to be broken first, and they ASSUME that schools will improve for students when teachers are more free to be treated like employees at Walmart.  That belief may be sincerely held, but they should stop obfuscating on it and admit that their primary goal is to bust one of the last large, middle class  unionized workforces left in America.

Mr. Mehlhorn, by the way, stopped following me on Twitter.

4 Comments

Filed under politics, teaching, Unions