Tag Archives: classrooms

Who’s Afraid of Professional Teachers?

New York’s charter school sector, apparently.

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

30 hours

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

100 hours

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

sheldon-throwspapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 8th, 2016 – Your Students are Watching You

I can hardly blame any teachers who hesitate to vote for the Democratic nominee this year.  One obvious reason is that many teachers are themselves Republicans and hesitate to vote for any Democratic nominee.  Another is that many teachers, with cause, are wary of many Democratic politicians who have embraced the agenda of school privatization with a vigor that was hardly conceivable twenty years ago.  In the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo of New York and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago have been passionate architects of school closings, have embraced blame-the-teachers-first evaluation and retention policies, and have promoted school privatization that undermines truly public schools.  While I have argued that Secretary Hillary Clinton has signaled willingness to pivot from these policies in her administration, I cannot blame teachers who hesitate in the wake of a pair of two term Presidents, one Republican and one Democratic, both of whom embraced awful education policies.

But I address this blog to teachers who are contemplating what I find unthinkable – casting a ballot for Donald Trump.  I call it unthinkable because I am starting from a premise that teachers care about their students and want what is best for them.  For every single one of your students, regardless of who they are and who their families are, there is something horrible at the core of what Donald Trump’s continued domination of the national landscape would mean.  While I find his policies – such as they are – harmful and nearly farcical, what is even more disturbing to me as an educator would be giving him four years in the most visible and influential office in the nation where he would have a guaranteed national audience for the unending sexism and bigotry that has become the lingua franca of his campaign.  As a teacher, you should be able to look all of your students in the eye and say that your vote has helped them.  I do not believe you can do that if you vote for Donald Trump.

Half of your students are girls and young women.  What could you possibly say to them that justifies a vote for Donald Trump?  That it does not matter if the President of the United States of America is a man with a decades long record of belittling women in public mostly because of how they lookThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely barged in on partially dressed teen aged beauty pageant contestantsThat it does not matter if the President of the United States has a record of making sexually suggestive comments to under-aged women?   That it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely relates to women only in terms of their sexual desirabilityThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who bragged about his ability to get away with sexual assault and then tried to brush it off as “locker room talk”?

I challenge any teacher looking a classroom full of girls and young women who deserve to be seen as complete human beings and to be evaluated on the basis of their accomplishments – and to explain how the President of the United States can be a man who speaks and acts like this.  For that matter, I challenge any teacher to look a the boys and young men in their classrooms who deserve to be taught to respect all people and say that electing a man with such pervasive and obvious misogyny is okay.

You have students with disabilities in your classroom.  Donald Trump famously mocked a reporter, a reporter he knew reasonably well, in an effort to deflect criticism of his false claims about Muslims celebrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  When called on his revolting display making fun of the man’s physical disability, he basically lied about it.  The incident reveals starkly how little regard Donald Trump has for either the truth or for affirming the dignity of people with disabilities.  As a teacher, could you honestly tell your students with disabilities that it does not matter if the President of the United States shows so little care for their dignity?

Donald Trump as President threatens harm to other students in your classrooms as well.  While 1.4% of U.S. school children are themselves undocumented immigrants, millions of school children who are United States citizens have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.  Donald Trump’s signature policy proposals on immigration would cause them unspeakable harm.  While Muslims remain a small percentage of Americans, they and their children are under staggering pressure due to the Republican nominee.  Almost two thirds of American Muslim adults, who are largely middle class and mainstream in beliefs, are foreign born, which means that their families overseas would be barred from visiting under Donald Trump’s various plans to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.  Donald Trump has also called for a national “stop and frisk” policy for police as part of his “law and order” campaign pledge.  This would be an unmitigated disaster for African American and Latino students, especially African American and Latino young men.  “Stop and Frisk” in New York City was an abject failure of a policy that could only justify itself by coinciding with nationwide decline in crime whose reasons are multi-faceted and complex.  At its height in 2011, “stop and frisk” policing stopped mostly African American (53%) and Latino (34%) New Yorkers a total of 685,724 times.  88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of doing anything that was even worthy of a ticket, let alone doing anything criminal.  The only thing a national stop and frisk policy would encourage is the ongoing and continuous violation of the rights of young African American and Latino men.  Could you, as a teacher, look at your students of color, who are children of immigrants, and who are Muslim and say that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote that will protect and respect them?

Beyond the actual harm caused by these policies, is the harm caused by the man himself and the careless manner by which he espouses bigotry against Muslims, other minorities, and immigrants.  Hate speech is on the rise, and there is a direct line between Donald Trump’s willingness to entertain practically every form of prejudice imaginable and this phenomenon.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has written about a “Trump effect” in our schools where Muslims and immigrant children are facing increased bullying in school.  Donald Trump’s campaign has also given form and purpose to the “alt right,” a previously amorphous collection of white supremacists and anti-Semites who  have identified a champion in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises and believe that they can muscle their way into the American mainstream through him.  Millions of young people are watching this campaign and forming their ideas about what is and is not acceptable in American democracy through the first Presidential campaign they have paid attention to in their lives.  What lessons are they learning that will serve the crucial values of Democracy and Pluralism through a candidate who embraces racial, religious, and national bigotry, who expresses those ideas with careless abandon, and who emboldens the sickest corners of our national character to think that their time has come?  Can you, as a teacher, vote for a man whose campaign rhetoric would earn him immediately detention in your school and whose worst followers target so many of your students with hate speech and harassment?

Teachers pledge to do a great deal more than to teach their students content and academic skills.  We are also caretakers of our students’ emotional and social development.  Every young person in your classroom is a sacred trust between parents and guardians and society through you and your colleagues.  Your job involves creating a small version of a pluralistic and welcoming society in the space of your classroom, a society where all students are welcomed and affirmed so that they can take risks and grow both intellectually and socially.  There is literally nothing in the Trump campaign or a potential Trump Presidency that is congruous with that trust.  In Donald Trump, we have a potential President whose language and behavior towards women, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants would earn him immediate discipline from any teacher and principal worthy of the job.  As President, he would be an ongoing disaster to those of us who hope to foster an environment of care in our classrooms, and he would consistently demean those we are charged to uplift.  I challenge any teacher contemplating him for President to enter the voting and imagine the children in your classroom – if you could not explain your vote to them, think carefully about what that means.  Your students are watching to see what kind of a nation we really are.

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Filed under Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice

Why Are Education Activists Walking to Albany?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough?

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

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

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

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

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

How to Appreciate Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

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

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

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

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

It’s just that simple.

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

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

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

A private employee serves one master — the company.

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

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headlee: How does that feel?

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

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

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

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

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

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

Leslie: Once.

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

Leslie: Sad.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

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

giphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

SA1 Data

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

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

PS149 Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are engaging in a pathology.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching

#TeachStrong? Brother, Here We Go Again…

Education reformers in the 21st Century seem incapable of seeing any problem as something other than a marketing campaign.  Faced with growing grassroots opposition to the Common Core State Standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, backed with fresh cash from the Gates Foundation, launched a #SupportTheCore event on social media to try to make CCSS support look genuine and natural.  As they felt control of the education reform narrative slipping from their grip, major corporate backers of standardized testing and school privatization handed $12 million to former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham to launch The Education Post, a pro-reform blogging outpost, providing content for itself and editorial pages.  Needing to dress up her campaign to destroy the collective bargaining and due process rights of our nation’s teachers as something more noble, former news anchor Campbell Brown set up her own web headquarters called The 74, referencing the estimated 74 million children under the age of 18 Brown claims she is defending from greedy unions.  It seems that whenever they want to tackle difficult and contentious issues, reform advocates turn immediately to the tools of viral advertising and public relations to create the imagery of genuine, natural support rather than bothering with the hard work of building it.

Cue #TeachStrong.

Let’s agree to set aside the choice of a name that inevitably invokes one of the worst doping scandals in the history of sport (although, seriously?  millions of dollars in expert branding experience and nobody thought about that??).  “Teach Strong” is the name chosen by a new group of stakeholders organized by the Center for American Progress to make teachers and the future of teaching an issue in the upcoming election.  The campaign launched this week with a splashy web site and social media campaign, which is is par for the course these days, and a declaration of 9 “principles” that they believe will “modernize and elevate” the teaching profession.

Lyndsey Layton mentioned in The Washington Post that the coalition includes “some strange bedfellows,” and she certainly was not kidding.  On one side, Teach Strong has both major national teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT.  It also has the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the national association of college based teacher preparation programs, and it has the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a long standing national organization for public school leaders.  Also in the coalition is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which grew out of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s response to A Nation At Risk and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, whose early work was heavily influenced by executive director Linda Darling- Hammond, indisputably one of the leading experts in teacher preparation. Teach Strong is also joined by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a long time education advocate for disabled children and by The New Teacher Center, a non-profit that grew out of the nationally recognized teacher mentoring and support program at University of California, Santa Cruz and which now assists states and school districts across the country in developing new teacher induction and mentoring.

On the other side?  There is the omnipresent Teach for America which recruits high achieving college students, gives them less than two months of preparation, and then places them in some of our nation’s highest need school districts for two years.  They are joined by “Educators 4 Exellence,” a foundation funded astroturf group dedicated to promoting the Common Core State Standards and hosting a pledge that has members standing up for assessing teachers using standardized test scores.  The similarly foundation backed “Deans for Impact” joins the table as an extremely small group of education school deans committed to various aspects of current reform efforts, and Relay “Graduate School” of Education is also present, bringing their odd posture as a graduate school that produces no research and which basically uses no excuses charter school teachers to certify other no excuses charter school teachers mainly using online modules.  Former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham’s Education Post is present, which is bizarre given its status as primarily a content delivery forum for education reform advocates.  Revoltingly, the National Council on Teacher Quality is also on board – NCTQ is a self appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” which has such a rigorous system for reviewing teacher preparation programs that it basically sits in its offices in Washington reading online course catalogs before informing the nation that our teacher preparation programs are all horrible.

I suppose representatives from the Center for American Progress, an organization that has long been on the reform side of the Common Core and standardized testing debate, would call this a “Team of Rivals” to match the famed Lincoln Cabinet.  I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  Another way of looking at it would be if the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program – you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.

What will TeachStrong aim this odd set of partners at?  Nine principles are given top billing:

teach-strong-infographic

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation rightly notes that many of these principles are laudable – depending upon what actually materializes from them.  Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in The Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here.  If “Reimagining teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice” means helping to bring more university-school district professional development schools to scale so that prospective teachers can constantly learn from practice while universities and schools inform each others’ work, that would be wonderful.  If it means setting up more outfits like Relay “Graduate” School of Education where people with no teacher preparation get competency based modules on no excuses charter school practices, no thank you.  If “Provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed” means giving teachers genuine collaborative control of their professional development and having administrators facilitate teachers getting what they determine they need, fantastic.  If it just means more “granular” standardized testing data and a few more resources to jump through SLO hoops, that’s a big meh.  If “create career pathways” means acknowledging excellent teaches and finding roles for teachers to play in induction and mentoring, curriculum development, and setting school and district policy, let’s talk.  If it just means finding teachers with high value added measures on tests and giving them bonus cash, forget it.

While the devil remains in the details, a bit of that devil also resides in some very obvious retreads of past efforts to reform teaching.  In fact, efforts to “modernize and elevate” teaching go back to the founding of many of our comprehensive public universities that began as normal schools before morphing into teacher colleges and then to regional universities.  At every step of this evolution, there was an odd relationship whereby the field of education was held in disrepute even though the emerging comprehensive universities relied upon the teacher preparation mission of education schools.  While the model of teacher preparation within a university setting was well established by the middle of the 20th century, this lack of status for the work persisted, and, following the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, a flurry of activity was aimed at enhancing and improving teacher preparation.  In fairly short order, reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group produced proposals on how to improve teacher preparation and make it more in line with professional preparation in high status professions.  Clinical language and portrayals of teaching as at least a partially technical practice subject to data driven analysis became more common.  John Goodlad weighed in with Teachers for our Nation’s Schools that included 19 “postulates” outlining the professional territory and responsibilities of teacher preparation.  The National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future also provided a summary report called What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future which further detailed a professional vision of teacher preparation aimed at replicating crucial elements of high status professions.

nation preparedtomorrow's teachersgoodlad

NCTAF

So let’s just stipulate that this is hardly a revolutionary concept, okay?

What might be ground breaking is the standard imprint of 21st century education reform – slick marketing, an emphasis on jamming things through quickly without thinking about consequences, and generally treating problems as public relations issues instead of as structural concerns.  I am apprehensive that this is precisely where this is heading in no small part because, like so much else we contend with today, the campaign appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed.  This is painfully wrong, and anyone who thinks that teacher preparation has remained unchanged in the past 30 years (Yes, that’s you NCTQ) needs to retreat to a library and not come back for at least two semesters.  While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes, as a result of efforts previously mentioned.  From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the Teach Strong partners (Again, that’s you, NCTQ) to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.

The reality is that our teacher workforce, whether made up of recent graduates from traditional programs who have benefited from changing preparation in the last 3 decades or whether made up of experienced veterans who have been continuously improving their practice over time, is not a static and obsolete lump that threatens our future as portrayed in the Teach Strong launch rhetoric. How we prepare and license teachers grew and developed over a 100 year long period, and there have been significant efforts to develop that process over the past three decades that have actually impacted change.  If Teach Strong can work thoughtfully to help increase the scope of the most beneficial of those practices, it will be a positive influence, but if it simply tries to rush in the shallow metrics of NCTQ and the fly by the seat of your pants preparation of TFA and Relay, well, you get the picture.

There is, however, another, deeper, problem in all of this.  While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they had one seriously negative effect, an effect that has been compounded since test-based accountability took control of education policy.  By emphasizing the type of preparation practices in high status professions, teacher professionalization tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated.  While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism.  David Hansen wrote cogently on this concern:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

If Teach Strong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations.  It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted.  People driven by vocational aspirations may be willing to forgo some compensation – but they cannot forgo having a say in what they do.

This is the kind of teacher we should all be working to see with all of our children:

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Filed under Media, NCTQ, politics, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog.  I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education.  Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy.  The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other.  Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners.  To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.

But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten.  Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon.  If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”  Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”  While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue.  Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools.  Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them.  The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.

While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.  I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.

But this isn’t funny.

While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty.  I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.

My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school.  It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing.  I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.

Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.

My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed.  He was not a bad person.  Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum.  But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits.  The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class.  They stole from his desk and briefcase.  He found rude messages on his chalkboard.  He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy.  Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier.  At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control.  A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.

I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.

And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts.  This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection.  Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress.  Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work.  Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves.  Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families.  Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying.  There are many possible solutions and interventions.

A gun in the classroom is not one of them.  And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside.  I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others.  If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?

Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic.  We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates.  In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time.  This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.

This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice.  As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues.  Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible.  Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.

There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain.  We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help.  It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer.  But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having.  We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach.  We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.

We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population.  We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.

And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose.  Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies.  Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.

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Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching

Reading at Frustration Level with J.K. Rowling

One of the more esoteric and interesting debates centered around the Common Core State Standards for English centers around text complexity and the concept of reading at “frustration level.”  The general idea behind instructing children at this level of text is that in order to improve as readers, children cannot only read texts that are within their current skill level and should be instructed using materials that challenge their reading.  As this article at Education Week notes, this is hardly a new concept, and it recapitulates debates that have gone on in reading circles for some time about the “best” ways to encourage young readers to develop.

On the one hand, the idea of instruction at so-called “frustration level” should not be exceptionally controversial if done by skilled teachers using high quality materials and carefully planned instruction.  After all, education theory has long accepted the idea of a “zone of proximal development” where a learner can accomplish a particular task with guidance and scaffolding and which exists between what the learner can do comfortably and what the learner cannot do yet.  Within this concept, we accept the likelihood that a learner will experience some degree of frustration and will make mistakes which can be actually instructive.  Movement from one “side” of the zone to the other is a matter of real accomplishment for learners, and since reading is a skill where learners move from simpler tasks to ones that are far more complex, it makes sense that teachers would have to use texts that push their students.

However, what the exact balance of “frustration level” texts should exist within the curriculum is a matter of healthy debate.  Proponents of the Common Core standards have generally believed that current popular reading programs in recent decades have allowed students too much “comfort” in instructional reading and have made significant increases in the amount of time students are expected to spend with texts they cannot read entirely independent of scaffolding.  For the record, researchers who I admire both personally and professionally have voiced support for increased text complexity, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and expertise of P. David Pearson, for example.  At the same time, I tend to agree with other critics who have rightly questioned the quality of materials aligned with Common Core for classroom teachers, the depth and quality of development for teachers expected to adapt the standards to their classrooms, and whether or not it is appropriate to TEST students at “frustration level” on the Common Core aligned PARCC examinations.  As Russ Walsh notes:

What happens when students are asked to read very difficult text? For those students who find the text challenging, but doable, they will redouble their efforts to figure it out. For the majority of children, however, who find the text at their frustration level, they may well give up. That is what frustration level in reading means. The ideal reading comprehension assessment passage will be easy for some, just right for most and challenging for some. The PARCC passages are likely to be very, very challenging for most.

But I want to set aside the testing and implementation questions and simply focus on a more fundamental question:  if we expect students to spend more time reading at levels that a truly challenging for them, what, apart from very careful and extremely skilled teaching, do they require?

This is not actually theoretical as my wife and I have been observing an exercise in this very question all summer long with our oldest child.  While a remarkably skilled and precocious verbal story teller, it has been a bit of a longer road for reading skills to develop.  Mind you, our child has had perfectly fine reading skills and is reading above most grade level assessments, but reading has not developed as visibly as spoken language skills.  What we found out a few years back after some examination was that many reading skills that we could not observe (such as segmenting and blending) were fully intact, but our child, being a perfectionist who hates displaying skills that are not completely independent, would hesitate to try them in front of others.  In fact, until our child had enough confidence to read reasonably interesting chapter books independently, reading together time was often a struggle between an adult trying to patiently coach breaking down unfamiliar words and a child stubbornly waiting for us to give up and read it ourselves.

Our child has progressed in school reading assessments using the “Fountas and Pinnell” leveled reading system. I have my suspicion that these assessments are tracking lower than our child’s actual reading level.  From reading together, I have noticed tendencies to read words that appear on the next page while trying to jump ahead when excited or having attention wander when bored.  Hardly surprising as this is not an exact science made a bit more problematic when working with a child who is easily bored by very strict academic tasks and who does not like feeling under scrutiny.  Regardless, one thing has been absolutely clear in the past year of schoolwork:  given a choice of free reading material, our child often selects books that fall into a very comfortable reading level and will sometimes opt to reread familiar books instead of branching out into new series.  This again is not especially worrisome for pleasure reading:  repetition can reinforce development of sight words and casual reading is best done by choice.

Which makes the past two months quite remarkable.

For family reading time, I often go to books above either of our children’s reading skills but with real potential interest as stories.  Our oldest child took to The Trumpet of the Swan this way and read it in bed for over a week after I finished reading it aloud.  Both of our children were rapt with attention to The Hobbit, although it did not become an adventure in self reading.  I have my eye on A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, just to really push matters a bit, The Sword and the Stone.  The reason I have some hope that one of those titles will become beloved in our home has to do with what we must only call The Summer of Harry Potter.

I tried reading the stories out loud for our children two years ago, but our oldest child, having a really empathetic nature and a difficulty with characters getting in trouble, did not want to listen past the first book.  But we began again in June, and as soon as I was done reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both children begged to see the movie, insisted that I dive right into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and our oldest child began taking book one to bed every night and devoured it.  The Chamber of Secrets  was quickly read, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban fell to a combination of night time reading and reading on the bus to and from camp before I could begin reading it out loud for both of our children.  I have just begun reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud, and our older child is about two thirds of the way though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Our children go to bed around 8pm, and on more than one occasion, I have found our oldest child still awake after 10p, reading by headlamp.  I have been asked to turn off the television so more Harry Potter can be read.  The entirety of the supplemental Hogwarts Library series has been read independently, and my wife and I were bombarded with Quidditch facts and informational about magical creatures.

Now while I have said I believe our child’s tested reading level is below the actual skill level, it is also true that the advertised reading level of even the first of the Harry Potter books is probably still pretty high and that our child is spending at least some time reading at the so-called “frustration level” where the mechanics of the syntax and words not yet in sight word vocabulary will trip our child up.  Yet this is not slowing things down.  In fact, our child is reading with enthusiasm books that must occasionally frustrate mechanically and in situations that are increasingly scarier and more humanly complicated than anything read before.  Our child has had an historic dislike of main characters being mad with each other, but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend a good portion of Goblet of Fire angry at each other and that did not deter reading in the slightest.  From conversations, I know that the stories are understood.

So what is going on?  What would propel a young reader who has been reluctant to try out new books and who has never really taken to academic tasks with books to push so hard on known boundaries and comfortable texts?

Well, love.

Our child loves these books: the world J.K. Rowling created, the characters with depth and the ability to grow, the situations that test them.  Our child loves the overall arch of the story that is becoming evident as it progresses school year by school year.  The characters are at once entirely human and understandable while simultaneously inhabiting a world of surprising wonders.  If there is a reason to keep reading even though the books stretch on both a technical level and on an emotional level, it is because of love.

I think all of us, Common Core proponents and skeptics alike, want children to grow as readers — to stretch and to challenge themselves.  And we should all want children to have comfortable spaces within which to challenge themselves and within which they can just relax with the familiar and enjoyable.

But we should also remember what it is that inspires children to really push on their boundaries.  In school, it is with highly attentive teaching that provides sufficient modeling and supports and gives children a sense of agency to understand why they do what they do.  Outside of school, it is a deeply personal combination of factors with a lot of love in the mix.

And that’s something we ought to figure out how to get more of in school reading instruction as well.  Our oldest child loves what J.K. Rowling has created so much that just about nothing can deter total immersion in that world – not even how it pushes skills to develop.  That’s a good object lesson for school too.  Do we want children to really engage with their “frustration level”?  We ought to find out what they love…and maybe “frustration level” will seem a lot more like “a challenge I enjoy”.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, standards, teaching, Testing

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.

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