Tag Archives: teachers

What, Exactly, Am I Preparing My Students For?

On February 14th, 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle and proceeded to murder 17 students and staff before he fled the scene and was quickly apprehended.  The tragedy was the third mass shooting with more than a dozen fatalities in only 4 months and the seventh mass shooting in the same period.  The event also brought a swift round of accusations and counter accusations about responsibility and apparent inaction to repeated calls to law enforcement over Cruz’s behavior.  The fallout of that is still ongoing, and it will certainly sort itself out over time.

What was less expected was the swift and, for now, sustained call for action from the very victims of the mass shooting, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  America is caught in a cynical cycle where a mass shooting tragedy is met with a chorus of political “leaders” offering their “thoughts and prayers” and declaring that now is “not the time” to discuss policy changes that might address America’s unique problem with gun violence in general and with mass shootings in particular.  It was widely, sadly, believed that after 20 first graders were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012 with little more than a round of “thoughts and prayers,” a call from President Obama for action, and zero action by Congress for years that nothing will change.  That belief seemed validated as the years ticked by with over 400 additional people shot in more than 200 shootings in schools.

There is a chance that might change.

The reason for that hope is the unexpected but inspiring “Never Again” movement that the high school survivors of Parkland have put together at breakneck speed. These students, raised entirely after the Columbine massacre, well-educated, media and social media savvy, have captured a tremendous amount of attention and have openly expressed the frustration and exasperation with the nation’s complete standstill on gun policy purchased by millions of dollars in political donations by the NRA.  Consider this speech by Senior Emma Gonzalez:

This interview with her classmate, David Hogg:

Cameron Kasky, asking Senator Marco Rubio if he will reject NRA donations:

Or Delaney Tarr explaining to lawmakers that they will not go away:

For their efforts and their eloquence, the teenaged leaders of the past three weeks have been subject to bizarre conspiracy theories, patronizing mocking by conservative pundits, and death threats.  So far, they show no signs of being deterred nor of losing their platform.

It would be remiss to not mention how activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter expressed both admiration of and support for the Parkland survivors, and dismay at how powerful figures in the media, in entertainment, and in politics never afforded similar attention and support for their protests:

It is also important to note the passion and dignity that Black Lives Matter brought and continues to bring to their protests, despite constant misrepresentation, backlash and police response, as evidenced by the arrest of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling:

This is important because both Black Lives Matter and Never Again ask at least one clear question in common:  Is it possible to go about a daily life without constant fear of violence and death?  Both movements deserve answers in the affirmative, but neither are likely to get those answers soon.

It appears, also, that America’s teachers have been forced into the same question alongside the student activists.  Educators have been present at every one of the 400 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and they have been victims.  Teachers in American schools are tasked with training students through mandatory “lock down” drills in the event that the increasingly thinkable visits their schools.  During actual school shootings, teachers are responsible for following school procedures that are hopefully designed to keep their charges safe.  In the days after the Parkland murders, teachers shared stories of their discussions with students about what would happen in the event of a shooting in their school, and they have been, frankly, heart breaking.  A teacher in Ohio, Marissa Schimmoeller, explained how her students promised to “carry her” to safety as she is confined to a wheelchair, and other teachers took to twitter to explain their gut wrenching conversations with students in the wake of the Florida attack, like this one about how a teacher would have to lock her students into a closet from the OUTSIDE:

Teachers were further forced to wonder what their lives and safety mean when the President of the United States insisted upon using his social media platform to claim that arming teachers would be a big step in “solving” the problem:

I have already written at length about how absolutely terrible an idea this is.  Mark Webber details further points about the impracticality and expense of such an idea.  Peter Greene points out the incredible juxtaposition of all of the explicit criticism of teachers that has been at the center of our national education debate for, well, forever, but then assuming teachers can carry guns in school and be first responders in an actual crisis.  Unfortunately, since the President of the United States decided to interject, repeatedly, this terrible idea into the national discourse, it has become a part of the debate on what teachers ought to do in the face of gun violence in schools.

It would be tempting at this point to take comfort in raw numbers.  The reality is that the vast majority of America’s 50 million school aged children and their 3 million teachers go to school 180 days a year and never have more than a preparedness drill.  American education is a vast enterprise spanning 98,000 public schools spread across 15,000 school districts.  Students spend a total of 54 BILLION hours in public schools in every year, and Americans’ odds of dying in a mass shooting in any location are about 4 times less than the odds of choking to death on food.  But that is not how terrorism really works.  The sheer randomness of mass gun violence in our society means that even if we are very unlikely to die from such violence, we can never really dismiss the possibility, and the unique position America occupies in the developed world as the undisputed capital of gun violence and mass shootings cannot be dismissed either.  Besides, the odds of dying in a tornado in Kansas are also very low for any individual.  It is still prudent to have a storm cellar and a plan to get to it in an emergency.

Does this mean I have to change my teacher education curriculum?

This isn’t an idle consideration.  Since I moved from the classroom to teacher education in 1997, one of the core principles that has guided my work has been preparing future teachers for work far beyond instruction.  Gary Fenstermacher, interpreting the work of John Goodlad, states that teachers have to learn how to be “good stewards” of their school, meaning that they take responsibility for the well-being of the entire enterprise within the school within the context of free public education in society.  Further, teachers must practice communication and be informants to the community, they must understand and promote the role of citizenship in a democracy, and they must model transformational learning, demonstrating to students that they themselves are always learning deeply and meaningfully.  This is complex vision of teachers’ work that takes a tremendous amount of dedication and knowledge to put into practice and which the best teachers refine over the course of their careers.

The work beyond instruction points to an ethical responsibility for teachers that is both humbling and daunting.  How can I practice stewardship of the school and its role in the community if I do not confront bullying and abuse regardless of its source?  How can I be an effective communicator to parents and the community if I condescend to them or embrace pernicious stereotypes?  What kind of citizenship will I promote if I do not challenge injustice and the complacency that lets it flourish?  Teacher education that does not present these questions to future teachers fails to provide even the barest preparation for what teaching really is.

Do we now have no choice but to fold “What will you do if someone aims a gun at your students?” to teacher preparation?

On the one hand, this does seems like a “storm cellar in Kansas” concept.  You can go your entire life without ever needing it, but if you do not have it if the time comes, you are far worse off.  On the other hand, merely acknowledging this as a responsibility of teachers – as if it were taking attendance – without at least trying to challenge the insanity is a massive failure of moral imagination.  Perhaps this is why Black Lives Matter activists make so many people uncomfortable and why the Never Again activists have captured an available platform.  As the young people who have grown up in a system that is insufficiently outraged by the outrageous, they are not simply accepting it and are demanding to know why those in power will not use their legal authority to make it better.

Perhaps it will be sufficient for teacher preparation to follow the lead of NYU’s Steinhardt program with a crisis preparedness seminar centered on case studies of situations that arise in school and which brings in guidance counselors, other professionals, and students themselves to consider what can arise in schools — including shootings.  But I think this is stunningly insufficient if we do not add our voices to those calling for real and comprehensive answers to our gun problem, and if we fail to highlight how many schools are insufficiently prepared to meet their most pressing needs — a rich curriculum, guidance and full care of students, nutrition programs, fully funded and staffed libraries, working facilities — then we are merely acquiescing to further neglect of our students and co-workers.  Responding to the tragedies that have spanned Columbine and Sandyhook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas requires not to simply run children through preparedness drills, but also requires that we add our voices to the young activists demanding why our political system can offer them nothing more than drills layered with thoughts and prayers.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, classrooms, Corruption, politics, racism, school violence, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning

A New Start in New Jersey?

New Jersey’s public schools welcomed a new governor last month, after a bruising 8 years of Chris Christie.  It is not necessary to recap all of the previous administration’s battles with the state teachers union and his numerous insults to individual teachers (although Rutgers graduate student and career educator Mark Weber has a handy summary here).  Governor Murphy promises to be a much more progressive figure in New Jersey politics, and he has pledged to move the state away from some legitimately damaging Christie-era policies.  During the campaign, Governor Murphy promised to withdraw New Jersey from the PARCC assessments and to implement shorter tests that give teachers and students actual feedback, to fully fund the state’s education aid formula, and to walk back from state takeovers and other top down policies.  Early indications suggest that he is in earnest about these promises and that New Jersey is moving in a different educational direction.

This is a good start, but New Jersey’s school problems are deeper than funding, inappropriate tests, and the overall demeanor of its governor.  This is not unique to New Jersey.  States across the country reeled from the effects of the Great Recession, and a wave of disruptive policy initiatives impacted schools systems in every state of the Union.  Governor Murphy faces a New Jersey where state aid remains underfunded, where the impacts on classrooms of standards reform and the PARCC examinations are still significant, and where recruitment of new teachers has suffered along with teacher morale.  While funding and curriculum/testing reform are significant endeavors that need the new governor’s attention, he must also look towards an impending problem for all of New Jersey’s school: the teaching profession is far less attractive today than it was a decade ago, and without a strong plan to reverse that, funding and curriculum changes will falter.

A recent bill advocated by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker would help, somewhat.  Financial incentives to become a teacher and to stay in the profession are welcome and overdue, but it is only a portion of the problem.  Economic incentives alone will not make teaching as a profession more attractive because the roots of our current problems are not tied solely to economics.  This is also not a new phenomenon.  The prevalence of “psychic rewards” in teaching was noted by Dan Lortie in his landmark study “Schoolteacher” and their nature are both subjective and highly individualistic, largely because of the highly uncertain aspects of teaching itself.  In short, very few seek to become teachers because of the fame and money, and since the most prized rewards of teaching are vulnerable to the “ebb and flow” of classrooms and schools, it is easy to see how teacher morale can plummet.  Pull too hard on what makes the work worth doing and fewer people will want to do it.

So what has happened in New Jersey that has impacted our ability to recruit and retain teachers?

First, New Jersey has restricted who can even consider becoming a teacher.  Through multiple changes to the state code, New Jersey has raised the GPA entrance and exit requirements for potential teachers, raised the entrance exam requirements for teacher education so that only the top third of test takers can become education majors without passing additional examinations, has added the Pearson administered edTPA performance assessment on top of the PRAXIS II examination as an exit requirement, and has expanded student teaching into a full year experience.  All of these initiatives have one obvious impact: many fewer graduates of New Jersey’s high schools can even consider teaching as a profession.  This may have a certain intuitive logic and hearkens back the Reagan administration’s “A Nation at Risk” which lamented how many of America’s teachers were among the poorest students in college.  Two problems are associated with this perspective, however.  While there is certainly evidence that teacher knowledge matters, there is scant evidence that the knowledge reflected in high standardized test scores is closely correlated with becoming a good teacher.  Indeed, struggling in an endeavor can lend a great deal of insight for a potential teacher, and in two decades in higher education, I have seen many students who clearly had requisite knowledge and who brought valuable experience to teaching struggle on a standardized test that said very little about them.  Second, the very students that New Jersey has declared are the only ones eligible to seek teaching as a profession are also students with a great many options in front of them. Even if they are not drawn to teaching for wealth, they surely want their classrooms to be places that are satisfying to them as professionals.

So what do New Jersey teachers currently find in their classrooms?  For teachers in tests subjects, up to a third of their evaluation rests on Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs), a form of valued added calculation that attempts to compare teachers’ impact on tested subjects with their students.  While SGPs are simpler than other growth measures, that does not mean they are less controversial, and studies in New Jersey highlight how closely correlated SGPs are to demographic and resource characteristics as opposed to individual teacher inputs.  While Governor Murphy promises to withdraw New Jersey from the PARCC assessments, any replacement assessment would still be figured into the current teacher evaluation system.

All teachers, including ones in tested subjects, also complete the Student Growth Objective (SGO) annually.  When I first heard about the concept — teachers selecting an annual project for improving their teacher and working closely with administrators — it certainly seemed full of potential.  Reality, unfortunately, has been rather different.  The SGO manual describes a process that is cumbersome and limited to “growth” projects that produce measurable results which effectively means using tests of some sort of another.  The busy work aspect of SGOs as practiced is clear on page 19 of the current manual:SGO

A keen observer might wonder upon what basis “adding or subtracting 10%” is remotely a valid method of determining what range of student performance indicates different levels of competency, and that same observer would be right to suspect that these instructions are far more about producing tables that are quick and easy to read in an office in Trenton than they are about helping teachers and supervisors genuinely reflect upon and improve practice.  A process like this, tied to evaluation, invites the worst of bureaucratic responses that go through the motions without really engaging in genuinely student or teacher learning.  I would challenge Governor Murphy to visit teachers and try to find out how many simply give students a test on material that hasn’t been taught early in the school year so that the final SGO evaluation can demonstrate “growth.”  Don’t blame teachers, though – blame a process that lends itself to compliance without substance.

The current situation is one that Governor Murphy has inherited, and it goes far beyond disruptive standardized tests and the disposition of the occupant of Drumthwacket. New Jersey currently sits with a tightly constricted teacher pipeline on one end of teacher preparation, and a profession that is saddled with an evaluation system based upon measures ranging from statistically dubious to bureaucratically mind numbing.  Imagine the irony of recruiting high caliber students into demanding preparation and sending them into an evaluation system that fails to treat them as professionals and you can grasp the difficulty of convincing young people to pursue teaching.

Fortunately, there are fixes to the current problems in New Jersey, some relatively easy and others more complex.  Governor Murphy should consider adding flexibility to who can enroll as education majors in the state.  If keeping the pool of potential teachers academically talented is important, it should, nevertheless, be possible for students who are not among the strongest test takers to demonstrate their competency through GPA targets in non-introductory semesters, an allowance that would give students incentives to stay on track and allow for students making a difficult transition to college expectations to find their academic footing.  The Governor can also reconsider the state’s commitment to the edTPA performance assessment which is both expensive and needlessly complicated.  For several years I have told my students that edTPA is “not the worst thing in world,” but since the worst things in the world also include smallpox and diphtheria, that is not an exceptionally high bar to pass.  The basic components of edTPA are already well known in teacher education – assess student needs, design instruction to meet those needs, teach, and then assess the impact of that teaching — in the form of Teacher Work Sample and other performance assessments.  The difference with edTPA is that it is externally evaluated by the Pearson Corporation and it uses a language for analyzing teaching that matches nothing teacher education or professional development has ever widely used before, creating barriers for communication with cooperating teachers and school administrators.  Finally, since it is scored securely by a third party, the edTPA is a massive project for prospective teachers during their student teaching that nobody who knows their work and their teaching context can provide significant, formative feedback.

New Jersey should convene a meeting with the leaders of Schools of Education and set parameters for locally derived performance assessments based upon the earned expertise of the education researchers, the experienced classroom teachers, and the supervising administrators involved in student teaching experiences in New Jersey.  We are more than capable of doing so, and many of us were doing so for many years before the state told us we cannot be trusted with the task.

The Garden State can also take steps to trust teacher expertise and professionalism in the classroom by moving strongly away from the SGP and SGO components of assessment that both drive up the importance of standardized testing and take enormous amounts of time in an exercise with little value.  Partisans for the education reform environment from 2010 forward will argue that the standardized test based  assessment system is indispensable because it dispenses with the “lies” about what students are actually learning.  Considering how narrowly standardized tests actually define learning, this argument betrays an awful lack of imagination.  It is not necessary to abandon standards and rigor while simultaneously engaging teachers and administrators in real processes that use locally produced assessments and support the growth of structures that actually support teacher growth.  Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University provides a detailed outline for such systems in this 2012 report, a substantial jumping off point for policy makers who are interested in evaluation premised on growth and support, an entirely new direction in New Jersey at this point.

If Governor Murphy fulfills his promises on education, he will have a decent start.  However, the problems facing New Jersey schools run deeper and right into the systems that have been set up over the past decade.  The Garden State is narrowing the pool of available teachers in ways that are unnecessary, and it is subjecting those teachers to professional assessments that are both unfair and wasteful once they enter the classroom.  A new set of professional structures, developed in full partnership with community education stakeholders and premised on support and growth, would be a far greater incentive for young people to commit to a career in the classroom and to keep them there once they have begun teaching.  More flexibility for young people entering and exiting teacher preparation would not negatively impact teacher quality while keeping the door open for more promising candidates who are drawn to this profession because of their personal desires to do good in the world.  It will take a while to figure this out, but it will be worth it.


Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, Cory Booker, Data, Funding, PARCC, Pearson, Phil Murphy, politics, standards, Testing, VAMs

SUNY to Teaching Profession: Meh.

It comes as no surprise that in New York the SUNY Charter School committee voted to approve its controversial regulations that will allow SUNY authorized charter schools to certify their own teachers.  Faced with criticism that ranged from teacher educators to the state teachers’ union to the Commissioner of Education to the state Board of Regents, SUNY altered the rules slightly, increasing course hours but cutting time spent in classrooms.  According to the Times reporting, even Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a self-appointed watchdog on teacher education that  rates teacher preparation programs without ever bothering to visit them,  spoke dubiously on the regulations as passed:

“It’s, ‘Here, we’ll make our candidates go out and take, what is this, a three-credit course that everybody will roll their eyes and say, “This isn’t very helpful,” but higher ed will get the dollars, so you get higher ed off your back,’” Ms. Walsh said. At the same time, she said, “I don’t understand how you justify reducing the practice time to 40 hours, which is not even two weeks of school.”

Teacher certificates earned at a SUNY authorized charter school will still only be good for teaching at another SUNY authorized charter school, so it is an open question about whether or not this will be a large pipeline for charter schools who are still held to state requirements that a large percentage of their teachers hold valid teaching credentials and are seeking to bypass that by doing it in house.  What is clear is that charter chains like Success Academy, which boast very high scores on state tests and very little tolerance for even mildly divergent behavior, are pleased since they will no longer have to bother with new teachers who have actually learned to teach and have existing teaching experience and knowledge of pedagogy.  The immediate upshot of the SUNY vote is that such schools no longer have to bother pretending that teaching is more than performance of a script informed by an enthusiastic reading of Teach Like a Champion.

I wrote about these proposed regulations, as did many education bloggers, when they were released for public comment.  Unsurprisingly, I found them appalling.  In order to circumvent their difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, the charter school sector proposed that their schools, which disproportionately operate in urban environments with largely minority student populations, be allowed to provide the barest minimal training, justifying it because they get high test scores, and call it “teacher certification.”  Compared to the actual programs of teacher preparation – including extensive coursework and work in classrooms as well as a rigorous external performance evaluation – the now passed regulations amount to the slimmest preparation, 16 credit hours of instruction and less than a week worth of time in an actual classroom.  Presumably, it is okay for black and brown children to be taught by teachers far less prepared than their peers in richer and less diverse schools.  Add in the incredibly incestuous relationship between charter schools, their donors, the Governor of New York, and the appointees on the SUNY Board, and the ethical quagmire here is obvious…even by Albany standards.

Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reminded his social media followers that some charters actually have a financial interest in this arrangement:

The “Company Store” metaphor harkens back to pre-labor union days when workers could be paid in company scrip that was only good for use in the store run by the company itself.  In the charter school case, many of the schools that will operate SUNY approve “certification” programs will gain back teachers’ salaries in models already proven by Relay “Graduate School” of Education:

Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A.

Another way for affiliated charter schools to channel money to Relay is to set aside a portion of their budget to subsidize graduate education—but only at Relay GSE. That is, some EMOs (including Uncommon) have a practice of paying for graduate degrees obtained from Relay, but not from any other institution (unless the teacher can prove that Relay does not offer a degree in the same field). Teachers agreeing to pursue their degrees from Relay with school support must complete those degrees or, as noted earlier, are required to reimburse their EMO for any/all tuition reimbursement they received.

While this model is not as well tested in New York State, the SUNY Charter School Committee just opened the entire system of SUNY authorized charter schools to give it a try.

Education blogger and Rutgers graduate student Jersey Jazzman, however, pointed out a very important potential consequence of the scheme that may not turn out so well for charters who decide to bypass traditionally prepared teachers.  New Yorkl charter schools with high turnovers of teachers get to “free ride” on the salary scales at district schools because their teachers, mostly in possession of traditional teaching credentials know they can move on to positions where their salary scales and benefits are guaranteed by union contracts:

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters “free ride”, as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But the SUNY credentials are only good at other SUNY authorized charter schools, meaning a new teacher who get “certified” this way has no option to teach anywhere else.  So either the SUNY schools will have to find a continuous stream of new teachers who do not mind that their experience is not applicable teaching anywhere else and who will begin and end their careers in charter schools, OR they will have to cough up benefits and salary and working conditions that will keep their teachers.  There is not an inexhaustible supply of young college grads looking to teach with no prospects of a career in the work — otherwise Teach For America would not find itself struggling to fill its corps in recent years.

The SUNY Charter School Committee has clearly seen all of this and offered a big “meh” as the height of their concern.  But if quality education is the actual goal of charter education, they will not get there by ignoring the evidence that experienced teachers are more skilled than inexperienced ones and by replacing adequate funding with choice and calling it a day, especially in a state that is still billions of dollars a year below it’s target for education funding from a decade ago.


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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCTQ, New York Board of Regents, politics, School Choice, schools, teacher professsionalism


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

#TeachStrong? Brother, Here We Go Again…

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

Cue #TeachStrong.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

nation preparedtomorrow's teachersgoodlad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

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

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

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

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

But this isn’t funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching