Tag Archives: Millennials

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

This week, our teacher preparation program welcomes the graduates of the Class of 2015 as our teacher colleagues.  These accomplished young teachers are joining the profession at a time of great challenges, but it is also at a time of great opportunities, and having worked with them closely for the past four years, I am convinced that they will do well with those opportunities.  These young people are intelligent; they are dedicated; they are talented; and they are prepared.  It has been an immense pleasure to see their professional journeys.

It would be a disservice to them to downplay the challenges they face as new members of the profession.  Today’s graduates were mostly born in 1993 which means that they were in third grade when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 mandated annual standardized testing for all children in all grades between three and eight and once again in high school.  They went through their formative elementary and secondary education as the high stakes attached to mandated testing was squeezing the curriculum into a narrower box with less art, music, social studies, and science.  While the impacts of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, and PARCC and SBAC testing did not influence their education, they have done their clinical internships and student teaching within schools and with cooperating teachers who have had to grapple with these issues as well as the growing movement of parents who are denying schools the right to administer standardized tests to their children.

Now they leave their university preparation to enter teaching just as these matters are fully breaking upon our schools.  The CCSS are implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  Mass standardized examinations aligned with the standards are now implemented in dozens of states, and they promise to find many fewer students proficient in mathematics and English than just a year ago.  States that won Race to the Top grants or were granted NCLB waivers from the USDOE are using growth measures based on standardized testing to evaluate teachers, despite the fact that the sum of research on growth measures demonstrates that they are unstable, unreliable, and have standard errors so large that even with 10 years of data, a teacher still has more than a 10% chance of being mislabeled.

If these challenges were not hard enough, the confluence of hastily implemented and ill-conceived policies comes amidst a rhetorical turn against teachers as the major culprits behind students whose test scores do not rise.  Today’s reform environment lavishes transformational power upon education, but it simultaneously measures that transformation via crudely designed standardized tests and then blames allegedly incompetent teachers when literally nothing else is done to improve the lives or communities of students who struggle.  A coordinated effort is underway to first assess teachers via standardized test results and then to remove any workplace protections teacher have to make it easier to fire them at will.  It is little wonder that the percentage of teachers who say they are highly satisfied on the job has dropped 30 percentage points to its lowest in a generation.

A distressing side effect of this environment are the number of more experienced teachers who appear ready to discourage our new colleagues from either entering the field altogether or from bothering to have hope on the job.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation reminds us that this is a distressing and unethical practice, and he points out the specific work of the activists in the Young Teachers Collective who are directly asking their experienced colleagues to stop discouraging them.

I hope to G-d that my proud young graduates side with the activists at YTC.  We need them very badly.

Unlike Baby Boomers and my fellow Gen Xers who indulge in annual, graduation week denigration of the Millennials for their supposed faults, I am a fan of this generation.  Having worked closely with them for years now, I find this report on their outstanding and community oriented values to be absolutely correct.  Young adults today are more diverse than their predecessors, more open to diversity than any generation in history, better educated than anyone gives them credit for, and more desirous of being good parents and good neighbors than of the aggrandizement of self typified by generations who modeled our lives after Gordon Gekko.

So let me build on Peter’s plea for people to not be jerks to young teachers, and to add my own plea: young teachers, we need you.  We need you because you have been well-prepared.  We need you because if you do not stay we will have wasted the earned experience and skills you will gain in your first decade on the job, and that will harm future students.  We also need you because of those same values that typify your generation and which will serve as a tremendous asset to protect and preserve truly public education.

But if that is going to happen, we also need you to buck some typical trends in teaching and schooling.  It is very typical for teachers to simply keep their heads low, close the door, and wait for the current political tides to shift.  That is unlikely to work today; people are getting rich messing around with our schools, and they see our nation’s commitment to education for all as a $780 billion honeypot to monetize.  The good news in the midst of this is that the people still back our public schools, and while many have bought the relentless narrative that our schools writ large are failing, parents overwhelmingly support the schools their children attend.  You can generally count on the support of your students’ parents.

We need you, therefore, to be confident in that support and to help lend a voice, early in your careers, for certain truths that can reach the public only if they are amplified by many voices:

We need you to remind people that school and teachers cannot do it all alone.  Education is a likely component of most success stories in our country, but education did not play its role in those successes alone.  Education reform talks about education as key to overcoming poverty, but it spends very little time talking about how the advantage gap is overcome by much more than “grit” and “no excuses.”  We certainly see few reformers admit the severe funding gaps between our richest and poorest schools, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has openly scoffed that funding has any role to play in educational inequities.

But even beyond that issue, there is a question about the central premise of education reform today; namely, if all students acquired more and better education, would they be able to leap over poverty in their careers?  The evidence for this is unclear because even though college degree holders greatly out earn non degree holders, that gap has grown because of cratering wages for less education rather than growing wages for more:


Increasing numbers of college degree holders will not magically create more middle class households unless the number of jobs genuinely requiring college education increase as well.  Education reformers who tout the power of standards and testing to prepare students who are “college and career ready” would do well to ask their billionaire backers to support middle class economics and actually be “job creators” if they really believe education will overcome poverty.  It won’t without fundamental changes in economic opportunity on the other side of education.

We need young teachers to speak up for fundamental truths about their children in communities of poverty. Grit and no excuses make for great bumper stickers and they can produce test practice mills that result in test scores.  But truly standing up for children is more than sloganeering and shutting down schools whose children are hungry and live in communities with few genuine opportunities.  The reality is that in many of our urban communities, black and brown children go to schools with inexperienced teachers, limited services, crumbling facilities, and over crowded classrooms and then go home to neighborhoods that have been in economic decline for decades.  None of the favored reforms today are doing anything to alleviate those conditions, and many of them are making them actively worse.

We need young teachers in such communities to have the bravery of Marylin Zuniga who has lost her job teaching third graders for a series of events based on her desire to embrace both action and compassion.  Ms. Zuniga had her students read and discuss a quote about justice from Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted of murdering a police officer in a 1981 trial that drew strong questions about the fairness of the trial and of the appeals court from Amnesty International.  Later in the year, Ms. Zuniga allowed her students to write get well letters to Mr. Abu-Jamal when she told them he was sick and they wanted to write to him.  While Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case stirs very strong emotion, especially among law enforcement, it is important to consider what Ms. Zuniga was doing with her students, most of whom are children of color in a poor neighborhood: she asked them to consider the legitimate voice of a black man in prison whose case raises difficult questions about the justice system, and on their own, the children showed and exercised compassion.  For young people whose lives are already disrupted by family members in trouble with the criminal justice system, this is a lesson with risks that are worth exploring.  And many in her community rushed to support her even though they were unsuccessful.

If we truly care about the children in poverty in our schools, we need more teachers willing to take such risks and to affirm their students’ desires to see humanity in everyone.  We need them to assert and to affirm their values of inclusiveness and human dignity even if it means taking a risk. Many decried Ms. Zuniga’s actions, but those who knew her the best affirmed the extraordinary stewardship she exercised for children who are already struggling.

We need young teachers to stand together.  There are many forces trying to fragment teachers from working together for their students’ true interests.  There are AstroTurf groups like “Educators 4 Excellence” who take large sums of money to act like a genuine grassroots group but whose pledge includes supporting discredited teacher evaluation methods favored by union busting corporate donors.  There is the “Education Post” headed by Peter Cunningham, formerly of the Obama Administration, and funded with millions of dollars from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation to make a “better conversation” but mostly to pay people to respond to criticisms of education reform as if they have grassroots support.

So when I plead with young teachers to “stand together” I do not just mean to join your union and be active (although, yes, I do mean that too).  I also mean to do what your generation does better than any of us — maintain close and genuine bonds across distance via technology and to forge naturally occurring and completely authentic communities to support each other and to support your students.  Talk to each other.  Share ideas.  Plan.  Respond in the public sphere.  Magnify your voices.  Make stories of public school success go viral.  You have something that corporate reformers can never replicate:  you have authenticity.  Use it.

So, Class of 2015, welcome to our profession.  I am honored that you are my colleagues.  Please stay.  Please lead.


Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, Opt Out, politics, Social Justice, Unions

So, Governor Cuomo, about those proficiency levels….

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a stir among education observers recently by commenting on the need for future changes to the New York state teacher evaluation system.  The Governor is quoted in The Buffalo News:

Cuomo said he sees value in the teacher rankings, but said critics who question how 94 percent of the state’s teachers can be “highly effective” or “effective” have a valid point.

“I’m excited that we started,” Cuomo said of the teacher evaluation system put into effect during the 2012-13 school year. “And I think once we start to study it and learn it and refine it – because there’s no doubt it needs refinement, not everybody can get an ‘A,’ it can’t be – I think it’s going to be a very valuable tool.”

But he conceded the system might need more scrutiny.

Critics of the teacher evaluations have pointed out the wide gap between the 94 percent of teachers who were rated “effective” or “highly effective” and the number of students failing to do well on state tests and in other measures of student success.

State law required school districts to negotiate with teacher and principal unions to create evaluation systems within certain state requirements, including using student performance on state tests as one measure of how well a teacher is performing.

“The way we’ve done it the first few years is they’re negotiated locally. There is no statewide negotiation,” Cuomo said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News. “Each district negotiates it’s own criteria within certain mandates. So the suggestion was the way they negotiated it may be too loose because everyone’s doing well, and I think that’s a valid question.”

While some education bloggers speculate that this means Governor Cuomo will join an aggressive campaign to push out more experienced teachers in his second term, I am more interested in the mentality that the Governor is demonstrating here.  It is one that assumes that if 30% of New York students are being rated as “proficient” and “highly proficient” on the new, Common Core aligned, tests, then it is impossible that 94% of New York teachers are rated as “effective” and “highly effective” even though the new evaluation system makes generous use of value added measures of teacher performance utilizing test scores.  It is a mentality that is shared by Campbell Brown and others seeking to eliminate teachers’ due process rights via ending teacher tenure.  In fact, this is almost precisely what Ms. Brown said when she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show earlier this year.  Mercedes Schneider, a teacher, author, and blogger from Louisiana provided this transcript:

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

This same viewpoint was central to Eva Moskowitz’s recent advertising blitz to expand charter schools in New York City for the alleged benefit of an estimated 143,000 students she claims are trapped in “failing schools.”  The key information supporting that claim?  A “report” from the charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” that claims at a quarter of New York City schools only 10% of students “pass” the state exams.  The Daily News reported this as students failing to read and do math at “grade level” like Ms. Brown did, and others repeatedly say that the students do not “pass” their exams.

The examinations, however, say no such thing.

It is important to recall that the examinations are aligned with the Common Core State Standards which invoke the language of “College and Career Readiness.”  In fact, New York’s Common Core testing consortium is PARCC, which stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”  New York has been administering exams aligned with the new standards for two years now, and students are assessed as “highly proficient,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “not proficient” on a 1-4 point scale.  The result of the examinations has not been exceptional according to many observers, including the Governor.  In the 2012-13 school year, the first year of the new examinations, student proficiency levels dropped from 55% overall for English Language Arts to 31% and remained there in the 2013-2014 school year.  In mathematics, a proficiency level of 65% in 2011-2012 dropped to 31% in 2012-2013 and rose slightly last year to 36%.  The numbers are even lower for students who belong to ethnic minorities or who are from economically disadvantaged families.  African American students plunged from a 37% proficiency level in English to 16% in the first year of examinations, and Hispanic students fell from 40% to 18% with students from poor families tracking closely to these numbers.

However, these percentages are absent context if we do not understand how “proficient” is determined, and that determination was plainly designed to get percentages like this.  Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from South Side High School, makes it very clear that Commissioner John King set the cut scores at different levels of proficiency based on data designed to reflect SAT scores that are loosely correlated with “successful” completion of freshman level college English and mathematics courses.  Although the use of the SAT is dubious and the definitions of “success” in college level courses arbitrary, it was no surprise that the proficiency levels of the new exams closely tracked the target SAT levels.  As Principal Burris notes:

After coming up with three scores — 540 in math, 560 in reading and 530 in writing– the College Board determined the percentage of New York students who achieved those SAT scores. Those percentages were used to “inform” the cut score setting committee.  As the committee went through questions, according to member Dr. Baldassarre-Hopkins, the SED helpers said,  “If you put your bookmark on page X for level 3 [passing], it would be aligned with these data [referring to the college readiness data],” thus nudging the cut score where they wanted it to be.

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that since the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying examinations ARE supposed to be tied to “college and career readiness” that there is nothing conceptually wrong with the examinations themselves producing much lower proficiency levels than previous exams.  Certainly, it is worth a vigorous discussion in public about what the exams are supposed to reflect and whether or not we want the criteria to be aimed at the population of New York students likely to go on to post-secondary education.  Just to make this more interesting:  the percentage of New York state residents over the age of 25 in possession of a bachelor’s degree?  32.8%.   So Commissioner King’s cut scores discovered roughly the population of the state likely to continue into higher education.

One thing should be very clear from this:  Levels 3 and 4 in the Common Core aligned examinations do NOT, have not, and will not align with “grade level” performance at ANY level of the New York school system (unless you want to argue that most NY residents without a BA graduated high school BELOW grade level), and if you have been talking as if they do, you need to stop.  Yesterday.

It is also possible to argue that our nation requires more college educated citizens in order to properly serve the needs of a 21st century economy.  Certainly, Professor Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University believes so, and he believes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that only 27% of the jobs in the economy will require a BA by 2022 is “frighteningly low.”  Professor Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce believe that by 2020, the economy will require 35% of the workforce will require a BA or higher.  This argument is predicated, in part, on the existence of a “college wage premium” that has grown in recent decades because employers are paying graduates with college degrees a higher wage than their non-college educated peers.  While the college wage premium is real and has grown since the late 1970s, the conclusions from Georgetown are not universally accepted.  To begin with, over 98% of job gains between 2007 and 2011 were made by those with advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s.  Additionally, large numbers of today’s graduates with a bachelor’s are being hired into jobs that traditionally do not require a full four years of college, and while Georgetown’s study found that demand for college educated workers outstripped supply, the college wage premium they cite as evidence has been stuck for ten yearsBased on data from Pew Social trends, it is evident that much of the benefit of going to college is made up of the collapsing wages for non-college graduates rather than intense market competition for those with college degrees into jobs that require them:


Suffice to say, this is still an issue that is subject to appropriately vigorous debate, and it is unlikely we can look at the current number of college educated New Yorkers and say with certainty that it is sufficient or insufficient.

Another argument aims at a much harder nut to crack: the persistent imbalance in college attendance and completion by students who are ethnic minorities and who grow up in poverty.  Even with the newly designed examinations, white and Asian students far outperformed other cohorts of students, demonstrating something else that we know: while the number of minority students in higher education has been rising from the mid-1970’s until today, white students still make up 61% of American college students.  Hispanic students currently represent 14% of college students, and African American students make up 15%.  While these numbers roughly approximate these groups’ percentages in the general population of Generation Y, they do not reflect how decreased opportunities for higher education concentrate in urban, predominantly minority, communities. While that is a conversation and debate we ought to be having, past experience with Governor Cuomo suggests that he would steer the conversation towards more charter schools, even though the charter school segment as a whole did no better than the rest of the education system on the new exams.  The Governor certainly is not eager to discuss how his budgets have forced schools to work with dwindling resources, and he has continued to use what were originally designed as emergency budget measures to keep the state’s ledgers balanced without tax increases — on the backs of poor and rural schools.  So while it would be worthwhile to discuss how to extend genuine educational opportunity to more and more students, especially those in districts afflicted with urban and rural poverty, there is really no indication at all that Governor Cuomo is interested in a full-throated debate on the topic.

Instead, he wants to revisit the state’s teacher evaluation system because he believes that with state examination results like we have seen in recent years, many more teachers must be incompetent than the current system detects.

In the classic film “Casablanca,” Captain Louis Renault is ordered by his German overseer to close Rick’s American Cafe on any grounds he can find.  Captain Renault, played by the incomparable Claude Rains, closes the cafe on the grounds that he is “shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here” — immediately before he is handed his winnings for the evening.  Governor Cuomo wants us to believe that we must get even tougher on teachers in New York because of state exam results that a) reflect what we already know about the likely college bound population of New York students and b) that are the direct result of his commissioner pegging proficiency levels to college performance.

I am not sure what his “winnings” are in this act of hypocrisy, but he doesn’t rise to Claude Rains’ level of charm in performance.


Filed under Common Core, politics, Social Justice

The Moral Perversity of Today’s Education “Reform”

The narrative of school failure that fuels today’s reform policies in education stretches back to the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk.”  That document asserted that our national education system was so woefully inadequate to the task of educating for the future, that if it had been imposed upon us it “might be considered an act of war.”  The dire warnings have hardly abated, and in 2014, we are frequently told that our children and economy are in danger unless we fully embrace the vision of today’s reformers.  Moreover, today’s menu of reform, common standards, mass high stakes testing, value added evaluation of teachers, elimination of or severe curtailing of teachers’ workplace protections, promotion of charter schools and school choice, are frequently promoted by politicians and policy makers as civil rights issues.  Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig notes:

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps in minority versus majority performance (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Public concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political, parental, and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the solution for poor and minority youth (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue. Scott (2013a) argued that philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s conjuring of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market-based school choice.

It is notable that the school choice movement counts on prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice….In our recent Twitter exchange, (former California State Senator Gloria) Romero framed her bill as a civil rights remedy for low-performing schools. Clearly, African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions to press for school choice as an alternative to the status quo as our nation has consistently and purposefully underserved students of color (Scott, 2011).

In the 21st century, we are exhorted to education reformers’ policy agenda by language invoking the struggles undertaken by some of our most heroic figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, and told that the best way to close the historic education achievement gap between suburban white children and their urban African American and Latino peers is to embrace highly disruptive change.  We are further told that all of our children are still “at risk” because even in the well-off communities of our upper middle class, students are not learning what they need in a global economy.  Without education reform, our impoverished students will remain locked in poverty, and our comfortable students will slide into stagnation.

For the sake of this discussion, let me do something I never do.  Let me assume, momentarily, that the education reformers are correct.  Assume that common standards and aligned mass assessments will create a seamless system of curricula that challenge students meaningfully, and that those standards encompass a strong vision of student accomplishment.  Assume that adoption of the standards and assessments narrow the differences between states and districts so that expectations remain high for all students.  Assume the assessments are well-crafted and valid measures that stand as good proxies for student learning.  Assume value added measures of teacher evaluation are statistically valid and supported by a robust body of research.  Assume that eliminating the job protections of tenure would mean that vast numbers of students would have greater contact with skilled teachers and that there would be no negative consequences to the rest of the teacher workforce.  Assume that the proliferation of charter schools in urban school districts would give vastly more students options to attend a high performing school and that pressures from school choice schemes would increase the quality of zoned schools.  Assume that urban charter schools fully serve all students who arrive at their doors.  Assume that the advocates of “no excuses” charter schools are correct and that they genuinely demonstrate that closing the achievement gap can be accomplished entirely within school through teachers armed with extremely high expectations.

Assume every last bit of that is true.

Then what?

This is a more critical question than many realize because even if the performance gaps in American education closed overnight, we would still need an economy that can accommodate many more and more equitably distributed high performing graduates than we currently have.  Advocates of current reforms certainly seem to be banking on this.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine recently wrote that Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter school network should be considered a “hero of American social justice,” and he declared that her schools have “been a staggering triumph of upward mobility.”  That’s quite a claim to make for a chain of schools whose oldest students have just begun high school, and, in fact, it rests almost entirely about the network’s accomplishments in state administered standard examinations.

However, the attractiveness of the claim is fairly obvious.  If we admit that economic injustice and that institutional racism have a detrimental impact upon students in poverty and students of color, then we have to admit that many of the gains made over the decades by students from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds are at least partially attributable to unearned privileges as well as to individual merit.  Further, we would have to engage in a policy discussion that attempts to alleviate the deprivations of poverty and institutional racism rather than to extol individuals to claw their way past such obstacles largely on their own.  The “no excuses” brand of charter schools claims that they have figured out how to lift all of their students to the same level of education and opportunity as students in the suburbs, and their policy allies are hardly shy about singing their virtues, as represented in standardized test scores:

Former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein does not want to talk about the complicating factors surrounding Success Academy results, nor does he spend time considering how far such results could be replicated. Success Academy fits into a narrative that believes schools and teachers are fully responsible for providing all of the lift out of poverty.

But, as I said, assume that it is possible and that Jonathan Chait’s premature declaration of social mobility comes true.  What awaits these students?  If current trends in economics do not begin to change soon, the answer to that question is not especially hopeful.  While there is still an discernible “college wage premium” for those who earn four year degrees, since the 1980s, a significant portion of that is more attributable to cratering wages among people without degrees than to significant wage growth among those with degrees:

Wage growth and decline by level of education

Wage growth and decline by level of education

While a Millennial with a college degree earns a wage that is $730 more than a late boomer with the same degree, the wage trends for those with either a two year degree and no degree have dropped precipitously since the early 80s compared with decades of modest but steady growth before.  A college degree may be necessary for a middle class career today, but more and more, it looks as if the degree is more a means to keep from falling into chronic income insecurity rather than as a genuine means of economic advancement.

If the middle class is increasingly a tenuous position in the American economy, it is even worse for the lower middle class, an economic stratum that has traditionally helped families transition from working class to more economically secure circumstances.  According the The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, nearly half of American families live at 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or below, and 30 percent live between 100 percent and 250 percent of the FPL.  Unlike families below the poverty level, such lower middle class households are equally likely to be headed by a married couple or a single parent, and nearly half have a head of household who has attended at least some college.  The report on their economic struggles notes that, despite living above the poverty line, large percentages of these families rely upon a number of tax and transfer benefits such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit to remain above the FPL.  Indeed, without many of these programs, the number of families that would slip from an unsecured lower middle class to simple poverty is significant.  As a transition point from poverty to a more secure middle class, the lower middle class is faltering badly.

And where is the evidence that the economy is desperate for more workers with bachelors degrees?  It certainly is not in the wages earned by recent college graduates.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth adjusted for inflation has been nonexistent since 2000, and the downward trend has continued even as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Wages for Recent College Graduates

Wages for Recent College Graduates

If college graduates were in short supply, basic labor economics dictates that businesses competing for them would have to offer higher wages, but even in the vaunted STEM fields, wages, while higher overall than in non-STEM fields, have not grown significantly for most of the 21st century.

Reality suggests that even if all education reform assumptions were true, graduates of a “properly reformed” school system would still graduate into an economy that is not equipped to lift them from poverty and that is barely equipped to maintain those in the middle class where they currently reside.  The recently published study by Karl Alexander of The Johns Hopkins University, The Long Shadow, illustrates just how complex and potentially unsuccessful the rise from poverty can be.  Out of 800 children studied from first grade to their late twenties, only 33 moved from the low income to the high income bracket.  While a good education is certainly a PART of a pathway out of poverty, it is by no means the ONLY way out, and with more and more workers in the economy struggling to keep pace, it is perverse to suggest that we bestow upon schools the sole responsibility for lifting children from poverty.

And yet that is exactly what is implicit and even explicit in reformers’ policy objectives and rhetoric.  When Jonathan Chait calls Success Academy a “triumph of upward mobility” he is expressly saying that equalizing standardized test scores through Moskowitz’s “no excuses” methodology will effectively raise the children in her schools to economic security.  But even if everything he says about her accomplishments is true, we cannot blithely assume that this academic accomplishment translates into mobility when the economy shows no indications of providing the kind of reward for work that would translate academic standing into economic standing.  Eva Moskowitz’s scholars still face a world where this trend shows no signs of abating:

Share of Total Income

And, of course, we know that we cannot grant the reformers that their agenda will work because much of it simply will not or is built upon faulty and deceptive claims.  Common standards are being implemented in 45 states simultaneously with virtually no field examination of whether or not they improved instruction at the classroom, school or district levels.  Evaluating teachers based on Value Added Models is problematic at best, statistically invalid at worse. There is scant to no evidence that the elimination of teacher tenure is going to significantly improve the teaching in urban schools, and, in fact, the states with the weakest teacher job protections tend to be states that perform very poorly on national assessments. Success Academy, despite claiming to teach similar high need populations as NYC district schools, has a very high attrition rate, and they do not replace students who leave.  This is a trait shared with many other “no excuses” charter schools who eventually have student populations with many fewer disabled students, English language learners and students on free and reduced lunch than their district counterparts.  They combine the selective attrition of the most difficult to teach students with an extreme emphasis on discipline for even minor infractions of the rules and, at Success Academy and elsewhere, a curriculum aimed at test preparation.  While there is little evidence yet that such test performance training will result in long term economic success, there is evidence that charter school expansion can make segregation actually worse.

And this is where reform advocacy devolves from being merely wrong-headed and into territory that is dangerously close to immoral.  America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.  It is well established that poverty and its deprivations have serious, often lifelong, impact on people in health, education and economic outcomes.  While improving educational opportunity for children in poverty is a necessary component of expanding opportunity, left to its own, education reform, ANY education reform, cannot make significant dents into the roadblocks that stand before our nation’s poor.  We do not have an economy where the lower middle class can survive on the wages offered for their work.  We do not have an economy where 90% of the wage earners possess more than 49 percent of the total income in the country, and we do not have an economy where the often expressed need for college educated workers has led to growth in income earned by college graduates.

Worse, we have accepted no society wide responsibility to address child poverty in any meaningful way that would lift more children into the economic circumstances more highly correlated with school success than any other factor.  In fact, as a society, we have responded to current economic circumstances with demands to cut discretionary programs in ways that can directly harm children, deepening the already woeful health, education and economic outcomes for children in poverty.  Matt Bruenig of Demos, estimates that with an investment of 1% of GDP in a straight transfer program, child poverty could be cut by 50 percent, almost instantly.  He further points out that our 24 percent of GDP taxation level is among the lowest in the developed world, and it is hard to argue that there is no room for an extra percentage point of GDP.

But there is no political will to discuss this or other direct approaches to lifting people out of poverty in our government.  More accurately, there is no willingness for the major political donors who effectively leverage significant portions of policy in America to do anything that changes either the economy or their taxation levels.  There is, however, significant interest in bypassing those discussions and placing all of the responsibility to both transforming our economy and for lifting disadvantaged children from poverty upon teachers and school.

It fits the meritocracy narrative, and it may tug at our cultural bias towards individualism in the face of daunting odds.

But it is immoral.


Filed under charter schools, Funding, politics, Social Justice

Welcoming a New Generation of Teachers

My university welcomes the Class of 2018 this week which means that I will begin teaching a new class of first year students enrolled in our secondary education and secondary/special education programs.  It goes without saying that I am consistently impressed with the caliber of young person I meet each year.  They have committed themselves to a program requiring hard work from them early in their college careers, and they have committed their talents and futures to a profession that is intellectually and emotionally demanding.  These are the types of young people I have admired since I began my work in teacher education in 1997 at the beginning of graduate school, and it is genuinely exciting to know how many of them over the years have stayed in teaching, honing their craft, becoming leaders and teaching many 1000s of young people over the years. This is incredible work.

My first year students were born in 1996, when I was still a high school English teacher, and they began Kindergarten in 2001.  This means that among the myriad of things the media likes to remind us that Millennials have “never known”, this class of Millennials has never known a school system without the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization of 2001, popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Hailed by President George W. Bush as refusing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” NCLB ushered in an age when school districts, schools and teachers were to be held accountable by student results on mass standardized tests.  While President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program was billed as loosening the punitive measures of NCLB, it has further entrenched mass test-based accountability by pushing states to adopt common standards and to include the results of students’ standardized test scores into teacher evaluation.  Any current hot potato issue in elementary and secondary education, from the Common Core State Standards, to the mass standardized testing and the use of those tests to evaluate can be traced back to the premise of both of these laws:  accountability of schools for students’ annual “progress” on mass testing is an appropriate lever to effect positive school change.

The cumulative impacts of these reforms on teachers, teacher morale and schools is a subject for another blog, but suffice to say that despite recent efforts to paint the picture more rosily, overall teacher morale has suffered and has suffered more in our schools that need help the most.  It hardly helps that most high profile efforts to “improve” teaching focus solely on weeding out teachers deemed to be ineffective and placing pressure on all teachers to demonstrate effectiveness via standardized test scores.  Absent in those reforms?  Improving school working conditions, increasing teacher collaboration and leadership, emphasis on markers of student learning and accomplishment outside of mass testing, addressing community poverty impacts and looking at what opportunities actually exist in our economy.

Despite all of this, I will meet a group of young people who want to teach.  Experience tells me that all of them, despite the environment in which they grew up, believe in the transformative potential of education and are genuinely committed to inspiring future generations of students.  

But this is also where a cautionary note must be sounded.  The process of becoming a teacher is not one that actually begins with university classes.  Most people begin to make the commitment to teach many years earlier.  Talk to an elementary school teacher, and you will frequently find someone who began with make believe games set in an imaginary classroom.  Talk to a secondary school teacher, and you will often find someone whose love of subject matter set her apart from peers from middle school forward.  During their long “careers” as K-12 students, future teachers observe upwards of 15,000 hours of teachers teaching which forms the backbone of what Dan Lortie called “the apprenticeship of observation” with which all teachers enter their formal preparation.  Unlike professionals in medicine and law, most students of teaching are intimately familiar with being the recipients of teachers’ practice, and it is that familiarity that largely inspires them to enter the field and informs their deeply personal visions of what it means to teach.

Many researchers have noted to much of what future teachers learn from this apprenticeship is incomplete and fails to capture all of the work that goes on beyond teachers’ in classroom performances.  Regardless, it is a beginning, and an important one to people who want to teach — it is our job in teacher education to layer upon it, making elements of it problematic so they can be revised and adding to it the hidden pedagogical skills of teachers that are not generally learned before teacher education.

If learning to teach, if the very commitment to learning to teach begins with the process of one’s own K-12 education, then it is vitally important to the profession and its future that we are mindful of the kinds of schools in which the future’s teachers are currently enrolled.  I would argue that we have done a poor job historically, but especially in the past 15 years, of listening to what teachers themselves believe will help them be better at their profession.  According to Francie Alexander of Scholastic, INC., a survey conducted for a joint Scholastic-Gates Foundation study by the Harrison Group found the following

  1. Most teachers feel heard in their own schools, but 69% do not believe they are listened to by district, state and federal players.
  2. 71% believe they need more time to study and understand the Common Core State Standards before implementing them.
  3. Teachers value collaboration, but 51% cite a lack of time for collaboration as a challenge.
  4. 99% of teachers believe their work goes beyond academics.
  5. 88% of teachers believe the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.

While that survey cited high levels of teachers “enthusiastic” about the Common Core standards, more recent surveys have shown significant cratering in teacher support.  Further, the overall satisfaction reported in this survey has to be weighed in contrast with the 2013 findings of the 29th annual Metlife Survey of Teachers which found only 39% of teachers said they were “very satisfied”.

There is a lot of “churn” in the waters of education today, and it is beyond admirable that so many teachers are able to take professional satisfaction in the concept of the “small victories” many of them routinely see in their work with students and community.  It is equally admirable that young people with exceptional talents and skills seek to join the profession.

But we must be careful that reforms are not allowed to alter the aspects of schooling that make it such rewarding work.  Mass test-based accountability that reduces teachers’ work to an “effectiveness rating” tied primarily to test scores is a toxic approach.  Not only does it disrespect the fullness of the work teachers know that they do, but also it over emphasizes what can even been learned from such tests, and few current reform advocates put their efforts behind better support, collaboration and leadership.  Schools must remain humane places where teachers and students can meet as far more than average annual progress calculations, or we will lose those who wish to become teachers because they want to do good in the world.  If our vision of school tilts too heavily towards the technical/rational aspects of measurement in learning and ignores the humanistic development side, we will end up with future teachers who lack a rich and full vision of their profession.

Think of it this way:  If you have a baby born this year, she will be ready to enter high school in 2028.  Many of her potential ninth grade teachers were born in 2006 and are beginning 3rd grade this Fall, the grade where most high stakes testing begins in earnest.

What kinds of school experience do you want your child’s teachers to have?

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Filed under Common Core, Data, teacher learning, teaching, Testing, Uncategorized

My Entirely Unofficial Commencement Address to the Class of 2014

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

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

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

I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under schools, Stories

A Quick Charge to the Millennials

A quick few thoughts:  I teach education students in their first year, and about three years ago, I had a student, somewhat randomly, ask me what I thought about Occupy Wall Street.  I thought for a moment and then improvised a version of a short talk that I have made sure to tell my students ever since:

I graduated from college in 1991.  My class entered the workforce in a recession, and I periodically read little admonitions from Gen. X to “kids today” that amount to “Hey kid, everyone had it hard getting started in life.  We had to deal with a recession AND the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Get over yourself.”

Increasingly, such pronouncements make me see through a red mist of outrage.

Look, getting started in life is never easy, and yes, every generation can point to struggles that they had to endure, but compared to today’s 20 year-olds?  My generation had it easy — and today, college classmates of mine are major figures in media and politics.  It isn’t at all fair to look at the Millennials and call them whiners while my generation is in the process of becoming the leaders of society.

What is going on with these kids, today?  Well, the cost of college has gone through the roof even as the amount of support available to pay for it without taking out loans has dropped.  In order to pay for college, more and more students graduate burdened with ruinous debt, but the job prospects for college graduates have diminished and not solely because of the recession. Meanwhile, what modest gains in median household income were made since 1990 were gone by 2011. As a result, more Millennials live at home and are delaying what previous generations would have considered signs of independent adulthood.

So this is a reality for Millennials in college — they are starting further behind than any generation since their great grandparents were born, and they will have to work hard, very, very hard to make any progress at all.  This is not fair, but it is also the hand they have to play, and to their credit, most of them who I meet accept that the passage to adulthood will be a longer and harder slog, but they also know they have to do it.

But what is not fair is the criticism being hurled at them for daring to make note of these realities.  They did what they were told to do from a young age.  They worked at their schooling.  They played sports.  They joined activities.  They volunteered in their communities.  They took endless tests.  They took jobs to pay for school.  They sought out and competed for scholarships and unpaid internships.  And they did it all because the adults in their lives, the parents, the teachers, the principals, the guidance counselors advised them like it was 1985 — only on steroids.  Distinguish yourself.  Compete to get into college.  Graduate.  And the world will bestow the rewards of hard work upon you.

It’s dawning on them that a lot of the grown ups in their lives don’t get it.  They don’t get that scheduling kids from dawn to dusk with organized activities doesn’t teach them how to manage their free time.  They don’t get that mastering the art of doing three hours of homework on Monday that is due on Tuesday doesn’t teach them how to plan and complete a long term project.  They don’t get that increased numbers of people BAs and changes in international trade make available work less lucrative.  They don’t get that the college as the ultimate means to get ahead is undergoing a sea change. Grown ups need to start raising kids to succeed in the 2014, not 1984, 1974, 1964, 1954 or whatever decade our memories of youth got frozen in.

And to those Millennials?  You have another task other than recognizing and tackling the difficulties of being a young adult today: You have to become leaders and faster than my generation did.  I don’t think Generation X had any real “crisis” to galvanize our experience.  Millennials have had 9/11, 13 years of war and the Great Recession to define having grown up.  But the powers that be won’t pay attention to them unless they demand it by voting and by becoming active in work, community and politics.  It is fashionable to assume that voting and politics don’t matter, but just because people have a lot of money does not mean they always win.  If money always wins, then Linda McMahon would be a U.S. Senator.  If money always wins, then the Bill Gates funded Common Core and accompanying testing would not be running into trouble with the public. People can push back.

So I want those Millennials to get teaching jobs.  Become school principals and superintendents.  Join community organizations.  Run for public office.  And I want them to do it younger than other generations.  They have to — they won’t have money to influence politics for decades, but they have numbers.  There are 56 million people ages 12-24 in the country.  Another 42 million between the ages of 25-34. If they don’t use those numbers to gain attention to their needs, they will get ignored, and this is a generation that cannot afford that.

So – lead.  I don’t care in what capacity or towards which politics.  Lead.

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