Tag Archives: New York Times

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.


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


Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

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.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.


Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

New York Times Editorial Board on Annual Testing: “PREECCCIIOOOUUUUSSS!”

The Editorial Board of The New York Times is a reliable source of pro-education reform articles, and yesterday they published their take on the potential new testing environment that will be ushered in if the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) is passed and signed into law.  The Board was relieved that earlier drafts which “seemed poised to weaken…its protections for impoverished children” were changed in the final legislation and urged its passage by the Senate.  What “protections” for our most vulnerable children were at stake?

Annual standardized testing of all children.


The Board acknowledged flaws with how No Child Left Behind labeled and sanctioned schools, noting that testing well beyond federally required exams proliferated as states and school districts administered diagnostic and practice exams lest they fail to prepare students for the examination with potentially dire consequences.  They also correctly noted that the backlash against testing is justified – even if they only tangentially admit the central role of federal policy across two administrations in getting us to this point.  However, they also celebrated the preservation of annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and they approved of maintaining the requirement that schools must test 95% of all students and called it a discouragement to the opt-out movement.

The Editorial Board treads familiar, almost entirely mythological, ground with their defense of annual testing of all students:  Once upon a time, the federal government “kept doling out education money to the states no matter how abysmally their school systems performed,” and the requirement for mass standardized testing was “to make sure that students in all districts were making progress and that poor and minority students were being educated.”  This mythology is summarized by the Board’s concern that previous ESSA drafts “would have allowed state to end annual testing altogether, which would leave the country no way of knowing whether students are learning anything or not.” (emphasis added)


This is, as usual, a staggering lack of imagination, and an insistence upon maintaining annual tests because of properties they do not possess.  Only testing every child in every grade level lets us know if children are learning.  Only testing every child in every grade allows us to hold districts and schools and teachers accountable.  If we do not test every child in every grade, then historically disadvantaged populations will be allowed to sink even further and the promise of equal opportunity will be lost.

Such statements might have been viable in 2001 when the NCLB legislation was passed with bipartisan support, but after nearly a decade and a half, there is no evidence to be found that test based accountability is telling us anything we did not already know from other means, nor is there evidence that the children whose plights provided NCLB’s rationale are prospering. To be honest, at this point in our policy cycle, it takes a love of annual standardized testing similar to Smeagol’s love of the One Ring to be blinded as to how thoroughly it has failed to improve our schools.  Consider the latest round of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress.  NAEP, dubbed “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a set of standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in 4th grade, 8th grade, and high school from all states every other year, and it is the only consistent measurement of student knowledge across 4 decades of administration.  The 2015 results were released this Fall, and they do not speak well of test-based accountability and its impact on the “achievement gap” between majority and minority children:

NCLB Era Reading Gap

If we mark the NLCB era from the 2002 test administration, then we have to conclude that, in the 8th grade reading NAEP, the gap in scores between white and black students has closed a grand total of one point.  The 4th grade gap has closed a more generous four points in the same time.  In mathematics, the NCLB era has seen a score gap in both 4th and 8th grade close all of three points.

One might suppose, given the enormous importance of annual testing of all students imagined by The Times and other testing advocates, that we must surely see far worse in data from previous eras, and to be certain, the period from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s saw distressing increases in test measured gaps before they stabilized prior to NCLB.  However, before the late 1980s, there was another picture altogether:

NAEP Reading13 year old math NAEP

In both reading and mathematics for 8th graders, 1973 through 1988 saw sharp decreases in the measured achievement gaps, closing by 21 and 22 points respectively.  While no single factor can wholly account for this, it is hardly surprising that the substantial progress towards educational equality began to erode as our nation abandoned policies of active integration and fair housing during the Reagan administration and as courts with larger conservative majorities released school districts from oversight with integration in mind.  The reality is that integration is a key improvement strategy for our nation’s most at risk students, and national policy has largely abandoned it in favor of first the standards based accountability policies of the late 1980s and the 1990s and then the test and punish policies of the NCLB era.  With soaring inequality impacting the majority of Americans and our communities and with our collective abandonment of integrated, mixed-income housing contributing to the highest levels of income segregation in the post-War period, why do we need to test every child in every grade in every year to learn that the trends which have negatively impacted almost all Americans and their communities have also impacted our schools?

The Times‘ Editorial Board betrays a staggering lack of imagination when they insist that we must test annually to know “whether students (are) learning anything or not.”  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University argues cogently that if the purpose is to use standardized test data to monitor schools and school systems, you do not need to test every child every year at all; that can be accomplished by testing samples of students every couple of years.  Further, if your goal is to know if individual students are progressing in their learning then there are far more important tools that could be used by teachers in formative assessments without any stakes attached that could inform them and parents far more effectively than a mass standardized test whose results come back well into the following school year.

It is also entirely possible to hold schools and teachers accountable without our mass testing ritual and all of the distortions it causes to genuine learning.  Grade span testing or semi-annual of student samples would give state and federal officials sufficient data to know when a closer look at a district or school is warranted (although, just like with annual testing, it does not remotely explain what will be found when looking).  There are nearly infinite alternative measures of schools such as graduation rates, suspension rates, teacher retention and turnover, teacher qualifications, class sizes, post graduation reports, student engagement, parental engagement, parent satisfaction surveys.  Every one of these items – and many others – is a way of understanding what is happening inside of a school, and while ESSA allows states to design accountability systems that use them, the role of testing data will still remain grossly outsized.  We also have alternative models of accountability that involve both community stakeholders and teachers themselves such as the local accountability and funding formula efforts in California and peer review systems that already have substantial success where they have been employed.  Robust models of teacher accountability exist, and they emphasize the role of teachers as professionals capable of engaging in substantive understanding of their own work and the role of evaluation in supporting teachers as its primary goal.

There is a limited role that standardized test data can play in a comprehensive system of school monitoring, development, and accountability, but it must play a small role at best in coordination with a system that is premised on support and development.  However, no school accountability system, regardless of premise, is capable of turning around a 40 year long, society spanning, trend towards inequality and segregation. That requires far more than clinging to annual, mass, standardized testing as our most vital means of giving every child access to an equitable education, and if The Times and other testing advocates really cannot see past that, then they are not merely shortsighted; they are clinging to damaging and delusional policies.  A bit like our, poor, deluded Smeagol and his final cry of “Precious!”


The last supporter of annual testing?


Filed under Data, ESSA, Media, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, standards, Testing

Being Thankful

It is easy when writing a blog to get caught up in negativity.  In a strange way, it can be a form of fun.  You sharpen your instincts for sarcasm while deploying your skills skewering policies and people actively causing harm to a topic near and dear to your heart.  In today’s public education battles, with billions of dollars being deployed to reshape one of our core democratic institutions without the public’s input, it is almost always easier to state what I am against than what I am for.  Sometimes that is intensely necessary as getting past catchy slogans and plans not backed with research requires taking claims apart with deliberation and focus.  But it is not enough. It fails to highlight the real good being done by pro-public education activists every day.

So I’d like to take this appropriate time of the year to consider for what and for whom I am thankful in addition to my family, my friends, and my community.  Every single group or event for which I am thankful has made significant strides to keep public education public and mindful of its core missions in an age when powerful forces are trying to bend it away from them without bothering to convince the public.

I am thankful for the Opt Out movement.  I am not against the prudent use of very limited and minimally disruptive standardized testing for very limited purposes.  We have gotten far from that in the age of test-based accountability, and the real consequences for the quality of education are well known.  Despite the evident dangers of test-based accountability, the federal government and the states, spurred by intense lobbying by private foundations, actually made the situation worse since the 2008 election, making teachers’ livelihoods tied to statistical uses of standardized test data that is not even supported by the American Statistical Association.

Parents, after watching a decade of standardized testing slowly taking over every aspect of education, are finally saying “enough” and demanding that education regain its sanity.  They are tired of being ignored and rolled over.  They are tired of being told the schools they cherish are failures.  They are tired of seeing test preparation pushing aside genuine learning.  They have been insulted by the Secretary of Education as spoiled complainers.  They’ve been implicitly called union pawns and openly compared to anti-vaxxers by the powerful Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents.  They’ve been threatened if their districts don’t somehow manage to convince and/or force them to test their children.

And it hasn’t deterred them one iota.  20% of New York state’s eligible children refused the state standardized tests in 2015, and there is little to suggest that number will go down.  The message is being heard broadly.  President Obama dedicated time to voice concern about over-testing, although the substance of his actual remarks was not impressive.  More impressive?  A report in The New York Times indicating that Governor Andrew Cuomo may be on the verge of throwing in the towel on test based evaluations of New York’s teachers.  This is the same governor who a year ago declared that the evaluation system he had pushed for himself was “baloney” and declared his intention to make student test scores 50% of teacher evaluations – which he got through the state budget process.

For Governor Cuomo to be considering, as reported by Kate Taylor of The Times, reducing the role of testing in teacher evaluation – and even contemplating removing it altogether – is tremendous.  It is not merely blinking; it is a flat out collapse, and I suspect the governor’s allies at Students First and other reform outfits will be howling their protests soon enough.  But for now, this development can be entirely chalked up to Opt Out’s relentless focus and refusal to fold under pressure.  Of course, history shows that Cuomo cannot be trusted, and he is probably calculating that if he can mollify suburban voters by relieving some of the testing frenzy, then he and his allies can regroup and focus upon taking away local control from urban districts and converting as many of their schools into charters as possible.  In fact, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute already laid out this strategy in 2014 – saying that reformers had overplayed their hands by saying that even suburban public schools were failures and should instead focus as much as possible on getting no-excuses charter schools into place in urban school systems on the false premise that the test prep factories really represent “excellence”.

So the challenge for Opt Out in the future will be to recognize the progress it has made and to keep fighting so that all children are given schools freed from testing mania and full of enriching and empowering curricula.  I think they can do it.

I am thankful for the Badass Teachers. True grassroots movements are incredible to watch.  They are the result of hard work and organizing, usually spreading because a small group of people kept talking to others until a large group is formed around common principles.  It cannot be faked.  It cannot be bought with foundation money buying splashy web pages and getting “commitment” in return for funding.  It is born out of genuine, lived, passions.

That’s the Badass Teachers Association, or BATs, in a nutshell.  This organization of classroom teachers and allies was born out of teachers who were increasingly frustrated by the efforts of reformers to blame them for all of the problems that land in school but for which society at large accepts no responsibility.  In short order, it has grown to tens of 1000s of members across the country, and it is a vibrant presence in social media and, increasingly, the wider public discourse on our national educational commons.

And they have had an amazing impact already, influencing both national union leaders and legislation in our nation’s capitol.  Because they are a true grassroots organization, BATs leadership and BAT members are in constant and close proximity to each other, and real conversations about real teachers and classrooms are ongoing.  That led to genuine concern over the number of teachers speaking about workplace stress increasing under current reforms, leading even to recent suicides.  Members of the Badass Teachers contacted the American Federation of Teachers which led to direct conversations with AFT President Randi Weingarten.  President Weingarten lent AFT assistance to the BATs in putting together a first of its kind teacher workplace survey which went live in April of this year.  In a mere ten days, over 31 THOUSAND classroom teachers responded.  The team of teachers who wrote the 80 question survey were told to expect maybe 1000 responses.

The initial results are available online here.  On its own, such a survey highlighting the impacts of today’s education environment would be incredible, but the influence is much more far reaching.  The survey results gave the AFT enough information to convince Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation directing the federal DOE to examine workplace stress among teachers.  In a conversation with me, President Weingarten of the AFT expressed her enthusiasm for the work the BATs group did.  “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

To witness the impacts of influence flowing up from the real grassroots – that is empowering and it is potentially very long lasting.  I cannot wait to see what the BATs do in the upcoming years.

I am thankful for the Dyett Hunger Strikers.   We live in a time when school privatizers have wrapped themselves in the language of the civil rights struggle and have claimed that their efforts to wrest control of our public schools away from democracy is a civil rights matter.  Given the history of local and state control fighting integration and racial justice, it is not entirely surprising that they have allies among traditional civil rights organizations on matters like testing and accountability.

But the overall package has little to do with civil rights, and while suburban parent constituencies have been angered recently by the impacts of over testing and loss of local input into schooling, urban communities of color have been experiencing that loss of voice for years now.  Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University makes it very clear how school reform efforts aimed at privatization of public schools are not civil rights advances: privatization is unaccountable and refuses to serve all children as public schools do; school choice leads more to schools choosing the children they want rather than families choosing the schools they want; privatized schools employs huge percentages of novice teachers who they burn out and replace with more novices in short order – experienced teachers are, ironically, reserved for the fully public schools in suburban communities while privatized schools in urban communities get well intentioned do gooders with no experience.  In school privatization, wealthy communities retain full control of their schools while poorer communities are given “choices” — but only those the more powerful deign to give them.

With that in mind, it was incredibly powerful when a group of parent and community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago did something astonishing.  They went on a hunger strike to demand that the Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen to what the community had been advocating for and planning for over several years: a fully public, open enrollment high school with a green technology and global leadership focus that had been carefully planned for within the community. The strike continued for an agonizing 34 days during which Mayor Emanuel pettily refused to acknowledge the strikers but during which CPS gave ground in slow dribs and drabs. The strikers won not only the reopening of their community’s high school, but also the commitment that it will be an open enrollment, public school not handed over to an outside contractor.  And while CPS would not commit to their specific plan, there will be elements of the green technology and global leadership focus in the school.

The strikers, however, did more than win some concessions on one school.  They put a dramatic spotlight on the inequities of how “reform” plays out in impoverished communities in our country.  While they were starving themselves for a fully public school, CPS, which had claimed budget woes in efforts to close 50 schools in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, unveiled plans for multimillion dollar annexes in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.  Jitu Brown, a lifelong community activist in Chicago, made this discrepancy in education reform crystal clear:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown’s fellow hunger striker, April Stogner, spoke on this with John Hockenberry of Public Radio International:

“When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This was a fight that refused to cede the moral high ground to school reformers and put a clear spotlight on how little community voices matter to the people who claim to be acting on their behalf.  The fight for Dyett High School was a powerful message that while the civil rights movement has made great strides using federal power for equality, that does not mean that school privatizers can claim that mantle by grabbing power from afar and then steamrolling communities.  Mr. Brown went on to say:

“There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

In a time when one of the most important discussions we are having as a nation is the one prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its insistence that we face the systemic inequalities built upon racism  permeating our society still, it is incredibly powerful for a community to rise up and insist that their SCHOOLS matter as well.  It is absolutely shameful that people had to put their very bodies on the line for more than a month to make that message completely clear, but it is inspiring that they did so.  I hope to hear much more from them in the coming years.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Cory Booker, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice, Unions

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

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

Do we have a deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also failed to notice:

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

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

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

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


Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

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

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

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

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

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.


Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

Shoe Horning Opt Out into the Unions vs. Reformers Narrative

New York Times education reporters Kate Taylor and Motoko Rich published a story this week on the burgeoning Opt Out Movement.  As the oldest paper of record in the United States, the Times has been slow to report on what has been a largely local story that has now evolved into a statewide and even national phenomenon.  While this is understandable given its role in the national discourse, what is not understandable is the way the story was framed into something unrecognizable to most participants in Opt Out.  The article briefly mentioned parent led groups working with teacher unions, but a reader with no prior experience on the matter would easily leave the article entirely convinced that Opt Out is both union promoted and union generated.

Secky Fascione, director of organizing for the National Education Association, the largest nationwide teachers’ union, said reining in testing was the union’s top organizing priority. In the past month, Ms. Fascione said, chapters in 27 states have organized against testing, including holding rallies; petition drives; showings of “Standardized,” a documentary critical of testing; and sessions telling parents they have a right to keep their children from taking tests, as tens of thousands of parents around the country have done.

“Does it give us a platform?” said Karen E. Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers. “Absolutely.”

Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich would be right to note that union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Karen Magee of the New York State United Teachers have recently given vocal support to Opt Out.  It is also true that other union affiliates have taken action in the past several months to support parents who choose to opt their children out of taking the PARCC or Smarter Balance testing that are rolling out nationwide this year.  Further, it is true that many of the unions find themselves in deep conflict with state capitols and with the Federal DOE where policies using those tests for teacher evaluations have originated.

But it is singularly misleading to frame this conflict as one that originates with the unions.

Diane Ravitch of New York University reported on her blog that one of the founders of United Opt Out, Peggy Robertson, had this to say in response to the article in The Times:

When United Opt Out National began over four years ago we were simply a facebook page with a file for each state. Within hours our FB group page was flooded with opt out requests and now we have opt out leaders all over the country and grassroots opt out groups popping up everywhere. I think Florida has 25 at this point – probably more since I last checked – and mind you they did this all on their own. UOO has simply been a catalyst and a support. What is even more fascinating, and sad, is that UOO has reached out to the unions many times, and never received a response. You will notice that United Opt Out National is rarely mentioned in recent articles. I think that’s because we represent the people. The power of the people.

Sadly, it cannot be claimed by the reporters in question that they did not know the parent origins of the Opt Out movement, either:

If the Opt Out story is only now growing of interest to the national education reporters of The New York Times because now national and state level unions, having seen where a significant portion of parental sentiment is heading, have begun to help amplify the message, that is fair, although perhaps short sighted depending upon your perspective.  However, to leave readers with the impression that a movement which has been growing for four years and which has resulted, this Spring, in over 175,000 test refusals in New York State alone, is working at the behest of the national teachers’ unions is not only disrespectful of parental leadership, but also it is disrespectful of facts.  While their voice and influence is welcome, union leadership followed the parents on this issue.

President Weingarten’s and President Magee’s support has been welcomed this Spring, but as Ms. Robertson pointed out, unions have been asked to assist before with much more tepid responses.  While disappointing, that is also not expected.  Union leaders generally have to preserve an ability to speak with policy makers, so a degree of caution in promoting a movement that aims to pull the rug out from under test based accountability and spark a confrontation with those implementing that policy is expected.  What has changed is that in New York, Governor Cuomo decided his reelection “mandated” was to charge like a mad bull through teaching as a profession, and nationwide, the Common Core aligned PARCC and Smarter Balance examinations are debuting — to not exactly glowing reviews.  Nationwide, increasing numbers of parents are tiring of annual standardized testing becoming a goal in and of itself instead of taking a proper role in monitoring the education system. No amount of condescending horse pucky from educational “leaders” will change that.

So the real story in Opt Out is that unions are coming around to support a parent led and developed movement.  While Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich do acknowledge that some union leadership is not really on board, they missed the serious split within New York’s UFT — New Action Caucus may have put up a motion to support Opt Out, but that motion repeats an earlier attempt by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) Caucus to pass a similar resolution in March. Here’s Lauren Cohen of P.S. 321 raising the resolution. This is an ongoing and contentious debate within the UFT not presented in the article.

So why miss the back story and leave readers with the impression that parents are a vehicle for union grievances?  I have to agree with Bruce Baker of Rutgers who commented:

The real story of how we got to April of 2015 with hundreds of thousands of opt outs in New York and many thousands more across the country is a messy one.  It involved parental volunteers, activists from a wide variety of political affiliations, a growing body of research on the damage of test-based accountability and the unreliability of using tests to evaluate teachers, and, yes, growing union grievances.  It is a story that would have to include the reluctance of union leadership to be seen in front of the issue to the frustration of both parents and rank and file members.  It would be about the slow convergence of many forces at work in our education system, including the shadowy world of deep pocketed oligarchs who leverage astonishing sums of money into even more astonishing influence regardless of the people’s will.

But that isn’t neatly dualistic.  That isn’t the story certain influential people want to read.  So we get this.


Filed under Activism, Common Core, Media, Opt Out, politics

New York Times Fails Education Reform – Again

Two weeks ago the New York Times published a guest editorial by Chad Aldeman defending keeping annual testing as a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as Congress is debating revisions and renewals to the changes made in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  I was not especially impressed.  Today, the editorial board itself has chimed in with what could have been a carbon copy of Mr. Aldeman’s position.  The board implores Congress to maintain annual testing as a key component of federal education law, and, unsurprisingly, I find the arguments less than stellar.

The board covers fairly familiar ground while acknowledging that some aspects of NCLB have been negative, such as the inability of test based accountability to distinguish between so-called “failing” schools and schools that missed certain accountability targets as measured by tests.  The board also acknowledges that testing has expanded to consume too much attention in many states and districts.

However, their recommendation that states “fix this” by “identifying and discarding unnecessary tests and, if necessary, placing explicit limits on how much time can be spent on testing” misses that it is the FEDERAL accountability requirements that spawned excessive testing and test preparation in the first place.  It is an act of fancy rhetorical footwork to blame states and municipalities for an over focus on standardized testing when FEDERAL requirements have incentivized that very focus, first with threats to label schools as failures under NCLB and then with the Obama administration pressuring states to use discredited statistical models to evaluate teachers as part of Race to the Top.  The “wave of over-testing that swept this country’s schools during the last decade” is the responsibility of the federal government, and it is up to the federal government to fix it.

The board repeats claims familiar in reform circles that annual testing is needed because if we do not test every child in every year, “parents would never know how well their children were doing.”  This claim remains staggeringly bereft of imagination every time it is written by another person or organization intent on seeing annual testing maintained.  Set aside the reality that a child whose parents or guardians need a standardized test to know how she is doing in school is a child with much bigger problems than whether or not her state administers an annual test, and consider how many, far more meaningful ways, there are to communicate how a student is doing in school.  Annual tests come late in the year, focus upon content that does not indicate creativity and problem solving, and report results far too late to be used for the benefit of individual students.  Fortunately, we have myriads of ways to help teachers assess students, use that information to improve instruction, AND communicate with parents.  There are teacher designed tests, portfolio assessment systems, project based learning, and computer delivered adaptive assessments that give immediate, formative feedback.  Every single one of these ideas will let parents know how their children are doing, and some of them could readily be pegged to provide comparisons to other students if absolutely deemed necessary (doubtful).  How a mass standardized test EVERY year would remain necessary with a collection of tools like this instead of a carefully sampled exam reported every couple of years is beyond me.  Regardless, the Obama administration invested $330 million to write new, even bigger, standardized exams for the Common Core State Standards.

The Times board also states that “national test data clearly show that since the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act was signed in 2002, academic performance for the country’s students has improved and achievement gaps between white and minority children have narrowed.”  The implication here is that we owe that to NCLB, an assumption that is made problematic by taking a wider view of achievement history as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  It is true that the gap between white and black 13 year-olds, for example, in mathematics and reading closed from 32 points to 28 points and from 29 points to 23 points respectively in between 1999 and 2012.  However, longer term trends show much more dramatic gains in the 1970s and early 1980s:

13 year old math NAEP

NAEP Reading

In between 1973 and 1986, the gap in mathematics achievement closed by 22 points, and in between 1971 and 1988, the reading gap closed by 21 points.  Modest gains in closing the gap in the early years of NCLB were statistically significant, but no significant gains were made in mathematics and in reading between 2008 and 2012.

The Times is praising an anemic record of “effectiveness” for test based accountability, and it fails to consider what might contribute to the steady and significant improvement in the 1970s and early 1980s and what might account for how those gains leveled off or decreased in the late 1980s and 1990s.  Consider that the 1970s saw the last major effort by politicians and courts to expand desegregation of our schools by placing school districts, including many in northern states, under court orders to integrate their schools systems.  This effort peaked in the 1980s and since then, schools have become re-segregated in no small part because of white flight.  Boston, Massachusetts, which had a particularly contentious relationship with court ordered integration, saw the percentage of white students in public school plummet by more than 40 points between 1970 and 1990, a change that cannot be explained by simple increases in the minority population:


White flight was also a proxy for the middle class abandoning urban communities, and in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the percentages of people who live in housing tracts dominated by their own income levels has risen nationwide.  The change in the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) is in the double digits for many of our most populated urban areas:

risi increase

So here is what the editorial board of the Times fails to consider:  Achievement gaps on the NAEP narrowed dramatically during the 1970s and early 1980s when the nation was still pursuing policies of deliberate integration.  However, the cumulative impact of white and middle class populations leaving cities in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s led directly to re-segregation of our communities and schools, and the trends since 1980 have been towards greater and greater income segregation.  Today, more than 50% of students attending public school qualify for free or reduced lunch programs which means that, because of the previously mentioned trends, more and more school districts have higher concentrations of poverty.  We also know from analysis of the international PISA exam, that students in United States communities with different levels of poverty scored very differently on standardized exams.

Given this, the fact that during the 90s the gap in achievement measured by NAEP increased only slightly in math and increased in reading but began to narrow again BEFORE NCLB should be celebrated as an achievement of hard working schools facing deteriorating conditions within their communities.

The Editorial Board of the Times fails to make any convincing argument that maintaining standardized testing of every child in every grade each year is necessary to address the root problems our education system faces — concentration of poverty and increased segregation in our communities. Do we need annual testing to tell us that poverty in childhood has lifelong consequences in health, education, and economic opportunity?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that communities with high concentrations of minority students from impoverished households struggle on test based measures?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that income segregation means that constituencies with political power have no personal stakes in the outcomes for disenfranchised constituencies?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that governors and state houses from Albany to Madison have cut state spending for education and maintain patently discriminatory state aid funding formulas?

We do not.  And as Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder remind us in this policy memo, what we need is “sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright…”  That will not happen while high stakes testing is driving our education system.


Filed under Media, NCLB, Social Justice, Testing

Saving Mr. Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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