Tag Archives: learning

School Year 2020-21: We Are Asking the Wrong Questions

It is perfectly understandable that many in our country want public school buildings to be open for in person instruction this year. Among the many hardships of COVID-19 lock downs school closures were especially hard on children and families. Essential workers with very young children suddenly found it impossible to provide childcare and supervision. Parents who could work from home had to juggle the incompatible tasks of doing their own work while keeping an eye on children learning from remote. Remote schooling further demonstrated how unequal a society we are with millions of newly distant learners suffering from lack of reliable technology and sudden separation from the critical social and health services that rely upon school buildings to be delivered.  And, of course, a hastily cobbled together remote learning plan in response to a swiftly growing and deadly disease was a poor substitute for in person learning and the social and emotional growth it looks after.

So it is perfectly understandable that people wish to regain in person learning inside of school buildings in whatever way is possible given the reality of America’s situation. Children’s well being and our worsening economic situation would both benefit from a return to something resembling normality. Many of our largest school districts have had to back away from plans to reopen school buildings, and many other districts are seeing the consequences of opening buildings when conditions are not optimal. Despite these warnings, the nation’s largest school district, New York City with 1.1 million students, still plans a hybrid reopening of its 1700 schools by September 10th.

In all of this, it appears that our leaders – local, state, and national – mostly have been asking the wrong questions.

It has been said by others, but it bears repeating here: Schools never closed. School buildings closed, and teachers, administrators, and families scrambled to put together an emergency system that allowed teaching and learning to continue. It was uneven, as almost any emergency response to the needs of 50 million young people would have to be. It was disruptive to other services schools provide to our most vulnerable children because those services are structured to rely upon students’ physical presence in school buildings. As with most things in our nation, children in poverty and children of color were far more likely to encounter inadequate education with school buildings closed. But the fact remains that teachers and school administrators worked throughout the pandemic lock downs in ways that they never had had to before.

With COVID-19 uncontrolled in most of the country, it is further understandable that parents and political leaders are often dissatisfied with the prospect of more months of remote learning. The efforts to get students back to in person learning have been led by the rough question: How do we open up our 98,000 public school buildings as much as is possible?  Most responses – even the ones that have concluded that we cannot — flow from this question: fragmenting schedules so that students rotate in and out of buildings while still doing much school work remotely, efforts to build up local testing capacity, investments in additional technology, directional flow inside buildings, laying in stocks of PPE and cleaning supplies. All of these efforts stem from the assumption that opening school buildings for face to face instruction is the only maximally acceptable goal.

This question is problematic for many reasons, but the largest one is that everyone knew by mid-April that there would be no coordinated national strategy to combat COVID-19. In fact, we knew without any doubt at 11:21 AM on April 17th. That was the exact minute that the President of the United States went on Twitter to declare “Liberate Minnesota!” He followed it up over the next few minutes with calls to liberate Michigan and Virginia, all states with Democratic Governors who were notable for attempting to take their local responses to COVID-19 seriously. It was painfully obvious that the most powerful office holder in the land was far more committed to politicizing best practices in controlling a pandemic than directly confronting the hard work necessary to contain and mitigate it. On April 17th, more than 36,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. Today, 126 days later, that number stands at almost 175,000 with over 1000 Americans dying each day.

Because there is no national strategy, testing capacity in the country remains ineffective with long turn around times for many tests thereby limiting the effectiveness of contact tracing. The shortages of PPE that marked the early days of the pandemic remain as new hot spots crop up, and cleaning supplies are also marked by shortages because of the lack of a coordinated national strategy. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio released a promotional video touting that the city has acquired 4 million disposable face masks for the re-opening of in person learning which is impressive until you realize that is not even enough for 4 full days of in person learning for every child in the system. While many well-intentioned supporters of reopening school buildings note that many school systems across the world have found ways to have face to face instruction in some form or another, it is indisputable that those who have were led by a comprehensive national strategy while the United States has not. Even the few areas that have managed to control the virus to date – like NYC – are burdened with a national supply chain that has not been mobilized to meet our needs.

So the question how do we open up school buildings as much as is possible is simply the wrong question because the enabling conditions – sufficient virus control AND sufficient resources coordinated by a well-thought out national plan — do not exist together ANYWHERE in the country.

So what, then, is the correct question? I would offer: How do we educate as humanely, as conscientiously, and as engagingly as is possible in the middle of a global pandemic?”  The benefit of this question is that it does not assume that all building must be open for face to face instruction, and it also is flexible in the face of conditions in localities. It is entirely possible that in many communities across the country, the answer to this question is some form of face to face schooling where students can socially distance, facilities are safely ventilated and cleaned, or where space exists to set up outdoor classrooms where virus transmission is far less likely.

But it is just as likely that many school buildings cannot be conscientiously used for face to face instruction either because the virus remains out of control in the community, or testing and tracing is incapable of keeping up with new outbreaks, or because the spaces themselves are not able to be made safe for even current hybrid models with fewer students in at a time.  What does it mean to provide an education that is conscientious, humane, and engaging?

For starters, it is important to improve both access to online options and to improve those options themselves. Even the most ambitious plans for face to face learning that take COVID-19 seriously include students rotating in and out of classrooms, so improvement of online experiences and expanding access to them has to be a priority, especially when it is inevitable that many school systems’ attempt will move back to entirely online formats as the school year progresses. Critics of screen time for young children and of the quality of online learning are correct that this is will always struggle to compete with the nature of face to face learning for vast numbers of children. However, we must be conscientious about the risks we subject students, their families, and teachers too, and just because something is not universally as good as what we miss, it does not mean it cannot be more engagingly done, especially if leaders take seriously the need to close gaps that are entirely resource based.

It is also important to consider if opening for face to face instruction really means opening for face to face instruction for all.  It is inevitable that very young students in early elementary grades will struggle even more than all students do with remote teaching, and that it will take an even bigger toll of them than on their older school peers. But it could be possible to set up very low density classrooms if older students are learning fully remotely and those classrooms set up for much smaller groups of early learners and their teachers. Entire high school buildings could be freed up for face to face instruction for children in younger grades if the high school students were learning from home. This would require hiring more elementary teachers to teach much smaller classrooms, and it would require facilities upgrades for smaller tables, chairs, sinks, and toilets, but these are monetary barriers in a nation where private equity has never been richer despite near depression levels of unemployment.

Further, in order to humanely serve students who need the services that we attach to school buildings, we need to stop assuming that they can only be provided in tandem with face to face instruction. If many or most students are not in school for instructional purposes, vulnerable children who need special services could be served in low density settings freed up with instruction going on elsewhere. Choice districts like NYC where students frequently travel across dozens of blocks to attend a K-5 school could shift these kinds of services to registered public school children who live within a school’s catchment, minimizing the distances they travel and their exposure to the virus. Inequality is deeply entrenched in our society and, therefore, in our school systems, but we do not have to accept the abrupt cut off from school-based assistance many families suffered in March, April, May, and June just because school buildings are not being used for face to face classes.

These are only a few ideas that are possible and many more could be implemented and are being implemented in locales that have been forward looking. Is it possible to make these arrangements as satisfying and as effective as the in person schooling we knew in February of this year? Almost certainly not. We are in an unprecedented crisis, and we completely lack the backstop of a national strategy to contain COVID-19 and to restore more of our pre-pandemic activities. However, we’ve made a terrible mistake assuming the goal of face to face classroom instruction is the only way school buildings can serve our students and that we cannot greatly improve upon the goals of educating and caring for children during the pandemic. As long as we remain fixated on asking “how do we open as many spaces as possible for face to face teaching?” we will lack the framework to do better.

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Filed under classrooms, Funding, schools, Social Justice, teaching

Andrew Cuomo’s School Skepticism

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has gotten a large boost in public approval both locally and nationally during the pandemic. That should not be a real surprise to observers. Contrasting his calm and technocratic approach to epidemiology with incompetence and chaos coming from Washington, D.C. was always going to play to his strengths and, oddly, turn some of his deficits into assets. In a time of crisis, people generally like a leader who is able to run roughshod over others who are not stepping up to the tasks given to them and who has a firm hand on the situation. Andrew Cuomo’s default setting is to crash through others and to slap away other hands from what he sees as his territory. The fact that New York, after a very rough start, is making real progress in decreasing cases and deaths is attributable to Cuomo’s governance.

Of course, overreach is also a part of Cuomo’s governance toolbox, so it really should not have surprised anyone that he chose Teacher Appreciation Week to announce that New York would partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” as we move forward.

The next sound you heard was the panic reflexes of 1000s of public education advocates and New York’s professional teachers. It brings back memories of Governor Cuomo’s first term and early second term attacks on the state’s education system and its teachers, and his efforts to tie teacher evaluation to test scores to dismiss 1000s of teachers.  While largely abandoned in the second year of his second term, Governor Cuomo’s education priorities in 2014-2015 were an aggressive move to shake up what he had referred to as “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” largely by reducing job security for teachers and promoting charter schools as a “competition” for district run public schools.

Bill Gates’ involvement also brings back difficult memories. Many in public education have come to see the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a malign actor out to wreck or diminish public education for profit. However, that perspective is not necessary to see the Foundation’s influence in public schooling as guided by hunches rather than by research. Smaller schools make intuitive sense to a humanistic approach, but there are foreseeable drawbacks when you lack scale to provide comprehensive services. Shared curriculum standards across many states could plausibly have led to innovation in designing materials aligned to those standards, but rushed development of the standards and a mad dash to implementation led to widespread backlash and a lack of time to create thoughtfully aligned classroom content even where the standards had strengths. The promise of Big Data generated from shared standardized assessments hit a brick wall when applied as value-added measures at the classroom level no matter how many times the foundation tried to jam through sponsored research claiming otherwise. Over and over, the Gates Foundation not only has pursued funding interesting projects, but also has attempted to steer education policy based on hunches that were far more problematic than assumed.

Setting aside the personalities and histories involved, the official announcement did not contain anything exceptionally controversial.  The bullet points describe questions that any state or local school system should be engaging with thoughtfully regardless of the pandemic mostly about providing distance learning opportunities, increasing access to tools, and using technology to decrease inequities. To whatever degree technological innovations can deliver on these goals substantively, there is no reason not to examine them.

But Governor Cuomo, in his offhand comments, let more of his personal perspective slip into the presentation when he asked, “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms…Why? With all the technology you have?” The implication is obvious: just as the governor has previously derided public education a “monopoly,” he is now suggesting that schooling as a social institution – one that draws students and teachers together to specific times and places – is “old” and in need of a shake up.

“Reinventing” education is a common theme for education reformers and with it comes the common critique that schools today are indistinguishable from schools of previous decades and centuries and, therefore, ripe for creative disruption and competition. Interestingly enough, critique of school as an institution has a long history in the United States that is at least as old as the common school movement itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson opined in 1844 – just 7 years after Horace Mann was appointed to head the new Massachusetts Department of Education – that “we are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing.” In the early 20th century, sociologist Willard Waller caustically observed that “dead subjects” make good curriculum in school because teaching prefers control and does not emphasize creative thinking.  In the 1970s, Bowles and Gintis argued that the internal structure and values of schools replicates the structure and values of capitalist workforces, helping to replicate social hierarchies. More recently, critics of persistent school segregation and opportunity hoarding have highlighted how politically empowered constituents utilize schools to achieve their own ends while arguing that little can be done to address systemic inequalities within and across schools.

And yet, despite these often right on target critiques, in person schooling tied to the communities within which it occurs has remained a constant in American society for centuries. Many reasons are explanatory of this from the practical to the pedagogical to the sociocultural.  Practically, many of the goals we set for school have been best achieved at some level of scale within a system. Pedagogically, the social aspects of learning are more available in person and within the formation of relationships among students and teachers. Socioculturally, the development of democratic norms  without shared social institutions is problematic at best. Beyond these theoretical reasons are also what many families and communities know that they get from in person school in the form of material resources and interpersonal connections with peers and dedicated teachers.

It is very fair to argue that the realization of these school ideals have been denied to far too many students typically across the same racist divides that deny other social opportunities in our country. What is far less clear is that the answer is to divorce education from communities and from social structure rather than to demand a radical revision of the social compact to recognize shared responsibility for all children in our country. I am quick to admit that the path towards that is just as daunting as the moral imperative to do so is urgent.

Andrew Cuomo is no educational progressive of either the early twentieth or the early twenty-first centuries, and his school skepticism, while reminiscent of the long history of institutional critique, seems far more rooted in his desire to leverage large changes without incurring large expense. In fact, Governor Cuomo’s record of “reinventing” education typically asks the most disadvantaged communities in the state to accept educational “innovations” that would never be accepted by wealthy parents in segregated communities. Dr. Molly Vollman Makris of CUNY starkly asks who will be expected to accept larger class sizes, loss of creativity, and loss of personalization in a “reimagined” school system and the conclusion is obvious — wealthy parents will not give up schools once it is deemed safe to drop our pandemic responses.

I can think of many things that are past due for reinventing in education – segregation, the school to prison pipeline, funding tied to property values, scarcity mentality that only seems to apply to economically disadvantaged communities,  swollen classroom sizes and decrepit facilities, assumptions that an unlevel playing field can ever be called a “meritocracy”.

Drawing our communities together around a shared, valued, educational commons? Not so much.

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Filed under Gates Foundation, schools, Social Justice, teaching

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is past time to change our focus.

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

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Chris Christie Calls Mandatory Recess Bill “Stupid”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took time out of his busy schedule as a failing Presidential candidate this week to veto a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of recess for all New Jersey schoolchildren between Kindergarten and 5th grade.  Speaking with Fox News, the Governor said that “part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.”  He also characterized the bill as “crazy government run amok” and mischaracterized it as requiring outdoor recess regardless of the weather conditions; the actual language of the bill expressed a preference for outdoor recess when possible.  Governor Christie further berated the legislators who passed the bill by saying, “With all the other problems we have to deal with, my Legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?”

I think we need to clarify some points:

Collaborating with private donors to transform the city of Newark’s school system in an unproven experiment, turning the city schools over to an inept and defensive administrator who planned to close schools that were meeting their improvement goals and sending families across the city whether they wanted to go or not?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

A $108 MILLION contract with the Pearson Corporation to provide an unproven and disruptive state assessment system whose results were thoroughly misrepresented by the state’s highest education appointee?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Granting a “graduate school of education” that is primarily a collaboration of charter school networks training their own teachers in the “no excuses” methods the sole contract to provide continuing education for teachers in the state’s largest city while increasing the requirements for traditional teacher preparation programs?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Ramming through a major overhaul of the state’s pension fund, refusing to actually pay the state’s agreed upon contribution, but giving management of those funds to politically connected Wall Street firms who jacked up the fees to over $600 million a YEAR?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

“Crazy government run amok” is making certain that state education law requires that very young children get a daily chance to play outside while they are in school.

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Governor Christie’s mocking of the legislature for spending time on something so frivolous is also sorely misplaced.  Far from being unimportant, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called recess “crucial” and cites tangible benefits of regularly scheduled play for children attending school:

Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.

Restrictions or even loss of recess time is a national phenomenon, and the New Jersey law would have protected students from districts who felt the pressure to spend more time on academics and test preparation from stealing that time from recess — and yes, this has happened in New Jersey.  Far from being something that the state’s lawmakers should not have bothered with, protecting children from well-intentioned but ultimately damaging policies is absolutely something that needed to be done.  Mounting evidence suggests that this generation of schoolchildren are being pushed into more and more academic focus at younger and younger ages to their detriment. Even children as young as Pre-Kindergarten are losing play based learning that is developmentally appropriate and actually crucial to their long term social and academic well-being.  Writing in The Atlantic, Erika Chistakis notes:

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

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

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

This isn’t complicated.  This isn’t disputable.  Children need play.  Very young children cannot learn without opportunities to play.  The only flaw with the New Jersey legislation Governor Christie vetoed is that it doesn’t go far enough to protect our youngest school children from misguided efforts to increase their academic “performance” by denying them what they need to thrive.  Our children need recess.  They also need more play oriented learning premised on discovery and social interaction, and they need far less emphasis on tasks that look “rigorous” to adults but which stifle their development and steal time from genuine learning.

Governor Christie isn’t merely wrong; he is cruelly wrong.  The “stupid” thing is the steady chipping away of what our children need.  Perhaps the Governor could remember that as he is trying to score points with primary voters who are not interested in his candidacy.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, child development, Chris Christie, classrooms, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Pearson, politics, Testing

The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a survey on teacher workplace stress conducted in collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), a grassroots network of teachers across the country dedicated to pushing back “against so-called corporate education reform, or the Educational-Industrial Complex, and the damage it has done to students, schools, teachers, and communities.”  The survey focused on the quality of workplace life for teachers, and was comprised of 80 questions answered by over 30,000 participants. Results, presented in brief in this document, show a wide variety of issues that impact how teachers perceive their working conditions, including respect from politicians, the media, administrators, parents, and colleagues, frequency of workplace stress, major sources of stress, and frequency of bullying and negative health consequences within the workplace.  With so many participants, the survey is a notable first step to gaining major research and policy leverage for issues that have been impacting teachers for years, and it has already led to a meeting between the USDOE and the survey team of AFT and BAT representatives.

So it is somewhat disappointing that The Atlantic magazine decided to reduce the story to a tale of inadequate bathroom breaks.

To be fair, the article does discuss other workplace issues for teachers, and in a section of the survey report that also cites time pressure, disciplinary issues, and student aggression as everyday stressors for teachers, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” does stand out.  Further, the author, Alia Wong, makes very clear note of the health risks associated with inadequate hydration and use of the bathroom and quotes teachers in discussion forums noting the degradation of not being allowed basic sanitary needs.

However, the article missed a massive opportunity to take a substantive look at broader issues of workplace stress for teachers, potential reasons why it has been increasing in recent years, and how it contributes to the real staffing problem in our nation’s schools: the high percentage of teachers across the nation with fewer than 5 years of experience and the greater likelihood of schools with high percentages of students who are poor and ethnic minorities to have beginning teachers.  Research has shown that schools with blended cultures of experienced teachers able to mentor novices are best suited for teacher learning and professional development at all experience levels, and teachers in high poverty schools report that they leave either their schools or the profession entirely because of working conditions above any other factor.  The AFT and BAT collaboration on workplace stress opens the door to an incredibly important discussion that has, in recent years, been entirely shoved aside by anti-union activists who have declared, absent evidence, that experienced teachers protected by tenure are a central cause of school failure.

I was therefore disappointed that Ms. Wong’s article decided that, of all the issues reported in the public release of the survey, bathroom breaks warranted a lengthy treatment without pushing further on how workplace stress contributes to teacher turnover and the costs to students that come from high percentages of novice teachers who are often “on their own and presumed expert“.

Jamy Brice Hyde is a teacher in upstate New York, a member of the Badass Teachers Association, and a participant in the survey team that collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers.  According to Ms. Brice Hyde, The Atlantic “missed a tremendous opportunity to tell an incredible story about the crisis in public education. Because a teacher’s work environment is a student’s learning environment. They missed that.”  She spoke with me directly, and I learned that the survey has 31,342 respondents who answered the 80 questions online over a period of only 10 days at the end of April this year.  Ms. Brice Hyde explained that people had warned the team to only expect a few 1000 respondents given the general reach of such surveys, but the response rate was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Ms. Brice Hyde also confirmed that the survey results are not statistically weighted, and that the survey was solicited by a general call to AFT members rather than by statistical sampling.  As such, the results are only a beginning examination of the issue rather than a finished statistical analysis.  However, she confirmed that the raw data is currently being studied by qualified, university-based, researchers who are determining what can be validly inferred, so the process of learning from the survey will continue.

The survey itself was born from genuine grassroots discussions among members of the BAT group about conditions in the workplace, increase in teacher stress, and the very serious consequences many members have felt personally or seen among their colleagues, including recent suicides.  Contact with the AFT led to a conference call meeting with President Randi Weingarten, who Ms. Brice Hyde described as deeply impacted by the stories brought to the meeting and who immediately offered the teachers support to construct and disseminate the survey. President Weingarten, who spoke to me in a separate call, explained the impact of the phone conversation: “The level of need was so intense, and the level of disenfranchisement (of classroom teachers) was just so intense.”

Once the results were in and clear patterns in the responses were evident, the AFT lobbying team convinced Senator Booker of New Jersey and Senator Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to examine workplace stress for teachers.  President Weingarten was enthusiastic about both the collaboration with the BAT group and with its impact. “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

The published survey results provide some stark highlights of what respondents believe to be the status of their profession and their working conditions.  While 89% strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about their profession when they began their careers, only 15% could strongly agree now with another 38% somewhat agreeing.  A staggering 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “treated with respect” by elected officials, and 77% felt similarly about the media.  On the other hand, only 24% of respondents said the same thing about their students and their students’ parents, a result that reflects the annual KDP/Gallup poll which consistently shows that parents with children in public school hold those schools in high regard.

73% of teachers in the survey said they often find their workplace stressful, citing factors such as new initiatives being adopted without adequate support or professional development, negative portrayals of teachers and teaching in the media, uncertain job expectations, salary, and lack of participation in decision making as major sources of that stress.  Further, teachers said that mandated curricula, large class sizes, standardized testing, and lack of support for student discipline were daily sources of stress in the classroom.

Perhaps most alarming is the section reporting workplace bullying and health.  30% of all respondents reported having been bullied in the workplace, and 58% identified an administrator as a bully with 38% saying a coworker was a bully and 34% and 30% respectively identifying a student or a parent as a bully.  While 70% of respondents said their schools had a harassment and bullying in the workplace policy, only 42% said they got regular training on it.  45% of teachers in the survey did say they did not get adequate bathroom breaks, but it is possibly more disturbing to read that only half of teachers said their districts encourage them to use sick days when actually ill, and 26% said that in the past month their mental health was was not good for 9 or more days.

Jamy Brice Hyde informed me that the rest of the data set gave even more nuance to some of these problems.  Of the nearly one third of the respondents who had experienced harassment and bullying in the workplace, 64% believed it was not handled properly, and 38% of them did not report the experience to either a supervisor or a union representative.  84% said that they had not gotten union training on workplace harassment and bullying.  49% of the teachers responding said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point during their careers.

From the standpoint of professionalism, many of the responses should raise serious concerns as well.  Ms. Brice Hyde added that 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.

While 86% of survey respondents said that their feelings about teaching have changed in the past 2-3 years, Ms. Brice Hyde is hopeful that the data gathered by the BAT/AFT collaboration will lead to positive changes.  “The biggest thing we came away from this with is how to get local unions to be better as first responders to our teachers in need,” she said, “And to get the federal government to do a scientific study of teacher work conditions.”  I can certainly see her point, and I think she also correct to say that the survey has happened now “because it is relevant.”  Over 30,000 teachers took the opportunity to make their feelings about their workplaces known in only a 10 day period, and the results have already led to legislative change with the ESEA amendment by Senators Booker and Bennet.

This moment is, indeed, crucial. Research supports that working conditions are a central feature in teachers’ decisions to leave either a school or the profession.  Helen Ladd of Duke University found that more than 1 in 4 teachers in America had fewer than five years of experience in 2008, and her research further demonstrates that when it comes to teacher effectiveness, experience counts.  Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers confirmed that working conditions is the number one reason why new teachers leave high poverty schools with no student factor even close in significance.  Recent research from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that national new teacher attrition over 5 years may be 17% which is much lower than previous estimates, but there may be flaws in comparing the new data with older research.  While this data does come from actually tracking a cohort of new teachers, it stopped after the fourth year while previous research by Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania drew estimates through 5 years in the classroom, and his estimates included teachers in private schools as well as public schools.  Also, the NCES study began tracking its cohort of teachers just when the Great Recession hit, so it is possible the attrition of this group of teachers was kept artificially lower than historic averages.

The NCES data, however, also speaks to the need to address the workplace.  First year teachers with mentors were far more likely to be teaching in their second year than those without.  Teachers who are better compensated tended to stay in teaching longer.  Teachers who began teaching in high poverty schools were slightly more likely to leave the profession entirely, but the data did not address the teachers who leave high poverty schools for more affluent schools, a significant source of staff turnover at such schools who pay a high price for such turnover.

The Badass Teachers Association’s collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers’ has provided valuable insights into which workplace conditions most seriously impact teachers and result in high levels of stress.  Our nation’s policymakers have made unprecedented demands on teacher accountability.  It is past time to hold the policymakers accountable for giving teachers the support and environment most conducive to their students’ learning.

That is a real story worth national attention.

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Filed under Activism, Media, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

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

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times or The Onion? “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”

Every now and again, a serious news outlet runs a story that requires multiple readings to tell that it is not someone trying deliberately to invoke Poe’s Law.  The internet axiom states that it is not possible to construct a satire of an extreme form of belief that will not be mistaken as sincere belief by a substantial portion of readers.  Poe’s Law is most often invoked to humorously highlight beliefs that are both fervently believed but so devoid of actual factual basis or a semblance of reasoning that they lampoon the person holding them.

Welcome to Poe’s Law: College and Career Readiness Edition.

“College and Career Readiness” is language that is plastered all over the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized examinations offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  In essence, the expression means that every student in the country should be taught a curriculum that prepares him or her with the essential mathematics and literacy skills necessary to succeed in entry level college courses or to successfully complete entry level job training in presumably desirable careers.  Proponents of the Common Core State Standards assure us that the common standards provide a proper and attainable platform from which elementary and secondary teachers can educate students to that level, and proponents of the accompanying PARRC and SBAC examinations, frequently the same people, assure us that exams will help us know that every child is on track to be college and career ready — or not.  Regardless of your assessment of those claims and the foundation that underlies (or fails to underlie) them, that’s the promise for standards beginning in Kindergarten and yearly examinations beginning in third grade.

So enter the New York Times with an article asking, and this is not a headline stolen from The Onion, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” detailing various programs and efforts to raise preparation for college with children as young as first grade:

What is college? To Madison Comer, a confident 6-year-old, it is a very big place. “It’s tall,” she explained, outlining the head of Tuffy, the North Carolina State mascot, with a gray crayon. “It’s like high school but it’s higher.”

Elizabeth Mangan, who plans to be a veterinarian because she loves her puppy, pointed out that she, too, would attend North Carolina State. “Me and Madison are going to the same college,” she said.

And what is college? “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.”

Billy Nalls, meanwhile, was drawing curving horns and jagged teeth on Rameses the Ram on a paper pennant representing the University of North Carolina. “I’m drawing him as angry,” he said. In college, Billy wants to learn to make a Transformer (“It’s like a robot that comes from Cybertron”). And what happens at college? “You get smarter and smarter every day.”

Let me say that some of what is discussed in the article is not precisely off base.  Proponents of these approaches are correct that many students who will eventually go to college grow up in homes with college educated parents and with an underlying assumption that college is just a normal part of growing up.  When both of your parents had post-secondary education and career paths requiring that education, it is simply a background assumption in your life that college is likely compared to growing up in entire zip codes were very few of the adults have studied beyond high school.  It is also true that many first generation college students face challenges to their success that are not common among families with a history of college education, and that they often require support beyond the traditional college “bridge” programs.

So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?

It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up.  For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions.  However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order.  Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board.  The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.”  The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.

A 6 year old future Olympian, however, is capable of understanding that she loves skating and perhaps that she is unusually good at it and wishes to spend a lot of time doing it.  It might not be a stretch for that 6 year old to know that the world’s best skaters can get a gold medal and to want that.  Her ability to visualize the path from being 6 to an Olympic medal?  Not there.  And it is pretty much guaranteed that future college graduates, at the age of 6, are simply incapable of envisioning something so distant and abstract.  This is the kind of “program” you get when a vaguely attentive superintendent hears the constant repetition of “college and career readiness” in reform circles and hastily writes a memo.

What is also close to farcical in the described approaches is how ways that students “prepare for college applications” in wealthier communities that first grade mock applications and middle school campus visits miss.  Those children have access to community recreation and athletic leagues.  They have schools with library/media centers that are funded and staffed.  They have community and school based arts and music education.  They have summer camps. Their homes have books and toys suitable for free play.  Their schools are often new or extremely well maintained and upgraded. Very few of them are food insecure or at risk of homelessness.

Everything I have listed is directly connected to students becoming “college and career ready,” so while I can support consciously organizing very young children to play “grown up” and following that with earlier than typical planning for certain students, that does not even qualify as a quarter of a loaf if we do not discuss the kind of cultural capital activities that have nothing to do with pinning mock college applications on a first grade bulletin board. Are we willing to embed resources in beautifully designed community centers that replicate what suburban kids have at home?  Are we willing to fully fund school and community libraries and art and music programs?  Are we going to expand recreation and summer camp opportunities?  Will we rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in our urban and rural communities?  Will we embrace, rather than cut, our obligations to keep people from being hungry and homeless?

Meanwhile I have a suggestion that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a “cut and paste worksheet” describing the steps to get into college.  Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS.  There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations:

Ginger graduated high school college and career ready, and she got into Harvard University.  Her parents make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid, and they are underwater on their mortgage.  At $60,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, and at 8% interest, calculate for how many years SALLIE MAE will OWN Ginger if she begins her career at Starbucks.  Then recalculate how that will change if Ginger’s loans are bought by a securities bundler after five years and sold as bonds.  Show all of your work.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, Media, schools

Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

Towards the end of last year, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation’s report on the tenth anniversary of its global health initiative. After a decade of effort and a billion dollars invested, Bill Gates admitted that despite the investment he had been “pretty naive” about how long it would take to significantly improve public health outcomes in the developing world. Most notable was Gates’ admission that the problems in his approach were not merely ones about overcoming scientific hurdles, but rather they seriously underestimated the challenges of implementing highly technological “solutions” in countries where the majority of the population lack secure access to routine infrastructure which, in the words of Dr. David McCoy of Queen Mary University in London, are “the barriers to existing solutions.”

Both Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog and Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue have written excellent pieces on this somewhat quiet but very important admission by Bill Gates.  Greene astutely notes that Gates’ realization of his limitations does not actually lead him to understand why his approach is flawed:

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It’s not surprising that Gates is naive– it’s surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to “I really thought people would behave differently.” And although I’ve rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, “There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn’t listen to them.”

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples’ insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

This is an important observation because it shows that there is a flawed perspective rooted at the heart of the Gates Foundation, and while the man and the institution may be able to recognize failures, they are not inclined to understand why they have failed.  Anthony Cody also recognizes this observation as he lines up quotes from the central figures at the Gates Foundation that demonstrate little regard for the knowledge about teaching held by teachers and wonders if the “humility” earned in Grand Challenges project will translate to humility about the foundation’s approach to education reform.  I believe that Greene and Cody are completely on point and insightful in their observations and questions on these points, and it is important for people outside the Gates Foundation to constantly remind it that education is a complex and interconnected set of systems with knowledgeable and invested stakeholders that cannot simply be plowed over and disregarded without consequences.

A specific quote from Melinda Gates cited by Mr. Cody struck me in particular, and I believe it highlights some of the difficulties we face in enticing the Gates’ and their namesake foundation to listen.  Cody quotes Mrs. Gates from 2011:

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Asserting that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching” is one of those statements most frequently made by people who do not want to have to bother with how much information there is that refutes the statement.  However, if Mrs. Gates wants to fill herself in on what the “field of education” knows about effective teaching, she could begin with the 4th edition of The Handbook of Research on Teaching.  It might even be worth her while to read the third edition, see if a full version of the second edition is available, and then finish up with the original publication from 1963.  A fifth edition was supposed to published in 2014, but it seems that the editors are taking some extra time to be careful with it.

Then, for kicks, she might want to talk to some of America’s working teachers and see if they know anything as well.

Of course, knowing this field as I do, I suspect that someone who has been working in the technocratic solutions domain for this many years will still object that the multiple 1000s of pages of research on teaching to which I have referred still won’t tell us what “effective teaching” is.  Researching education is, by necessity, working with a “soft field” where you are unlikely to find absolute answers to your questions.  What we know changes as related fields like psychology build their knowledge base, and ideas can circulate in and out of favor as what schools are expected to do evolves with societal priorities.  Most importantly, research on teaching has to consider how variable the 100,000 schools and millions of classrooms across the country are and how that variability influences the teaching that is both possible and that is needed.  We are not engineering within the parameters of Newtonian physics, and that is appropriate.

Mrs. Gates’ other assertion that “you watch them (great teachers) at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft” (but, gosh darn it, we just don’t know why they are so great!) is the kind of statement made by people who really don’t understand teaching.  Of course, there are great teachers, and, of course, you can be impressed by them fairly quickly, but to say that you KNOW someone has thoroughly “mastered the craft” in ten minutes is romantic in the style of teachers whose lives have been edited by Hollywood.  What does Mrs. Gates risk missing in her ten minute assessment?

  • The lesson that worked very well in the first period but worked far less well in the third period.
  • The day when the lesson plan was simply off base.
  • The work that teacher did outside of the classroom determining what students knew, selecting teaching and learning strategies that would help them build upon that, figuring out what would help the teacher know the students had learned.
  • ANY of the uncertainty in the previously described process and the necessity to pivot if that uncertainty disrupts the plan.
  • How the teacher self assesses and with what information.
  • The week when that teacher has sick children at home, cannot get enough sleep, and has little time to plan.
  • The week disrupted by excessive standardized testing or mandatory field tests of examinations.
  • ANYTHING, really, beyond being impressed by Razzle Dazzle without thinking about substance.

Mrs. Gates’ comment makes the most sense to me if she is unaware of the level of work that goes into lending that impressive ten minutes substance, and if she is not especially discerning about whether or not the substance exists.  In fact, in ten minutes, it is sadly easy to be taken in by weak teaching that is buoyed by personality.  I witnessed this early in my teacher education career when I supervised a student teacher who I eventually had to counsel out of the profession.  She was an intelligent young woman, but she was not up to the task of leading a classroom even on her best day and simply could not gain student attention.  What was interesting, however, was how her struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of her cooperating teacher, a 20 year veteran who, with only ten minutes to watch her, would have impressed an outside observer.  She was a dynamic personality who kept the energy level of her class high, but when her student teacher took over the lesson plans, the thinness of the teaching was painfully obvious over time.  Visit after visit, I witnessed the same teaching approach of presentation and then practice via seat work, and it was clear that the only reason the teaching I first saw SEEMED skilled was the personal energy of the cooperating teacher.  The situation became awkward as my shy and hesitant student teacher made obvious the thin planning that went into the classroom.

Mrs Gates’ ten minute observation would have, most likely, been taken in by the Razzle Dazzle:

…and missed whether or not there was substance.  For that matter, Mrs. Gates’ ten minutes would miss a lot of genuinely great teachers simply having an inevitable bad day.

The problem here is complicated and frustrating.  Melinda Gates’ comment demonstrates first, that the Gates Foundation does not really understand (or is dismissive of) the real complexities and uncertainties involved in being a “great teacher,” and second, that the foundation thinks it can ultimately identify precisely WHAT makes their teaching “great” and distribute that throughout the teaching corps.  Instead of appreciating that research on teaching is various because teaching itself is various, the foundation’s leadership seems wedded to an idea that we need singular answers scaled throughout the entire system.

It reminds me of some of the mixed-bag innovations from the Progressive era which, contrary to popular imagination, was not all trust busting, union victories, and establishment of national parks.  Consider “scientific management” that arose from the work of Frederick Taylor and which greatly influenced how factory work was conceived.  Taylor studied work flow to determine the “best” ways for laborers to perform their tasks, and much of what he determined was useful for productivity and workers themselves.  For example, he concluded that workers needed rest periods which was not an accepted practice at the time.  However, faith in “Taylorism” rapidly overstated its ability to scale up the “best” way to do certain tasks, leading to conflicts with workers themselves, such as the famous incident at the Watertown Arsenal when one molder sparked a mass walk out in response to being timed by a stop watch.  While scientific management survives in different incarnations today, Taylorism itself was more geared towards the automation of tasks since workers were not allowed to vary how they did their work once “innovations” were put into place.

I’ve come to think that the Gates Foundation suffers from a similar problem: armed with an interesting and worthwhile question – “How can we identify and support great teaching?” – they have approached it as a technocratic matter instead of as a sociological one.  In doing so, they have vastly overestimated the strength of their tools and vastly underestimated the knowledge and the agency of what they hoped to reform.  The result is rapidly devolving into a discordant mess of overlapping perverse incentives that mistake common standards with a platform for effective teaching, treat standardized test scores as strongly indicative of teacher impact, and encourage teaching narrowly to the tested curriculum. Teachers and parents are increasingly reacting much the same way that the early 20th century workers did when told their ideas mattered less than a supervisor with a stop watch.

We’ve paved roads like this before, and the destinations were not exactly what was hoped for.

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Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Stories, Testing

Arne Duncan’s Great Kid Story Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he was nowhere close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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