Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Standardized Tests are the Failures - Not Our Children

How Standardized Tests Do Not Assess Common Core Standards (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

Packaging "Wonder"
The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) drives the current trend - the Common Core and its Standardized Tests, which bombard American public school children all through the school year.  The College Board's David Coleman and a team of non- educators chiseled out these standards (as in chisel and stone). Coleman claims that this will be instrumental in"cultivating wonder" in every classroom across the country.

The idea of cultivating wonder is a lofty notion. But "wonder" can't be mandated. In the Socratic Tradition, cultivating wonder requires thinking and discourse and investigation - none of which can be measured through standardized testing.

So good luck to any teacher, student, administrator, or parent who tries to find the ways that these assessments actually connect to the standards themselves. Because there is none.

Let's look at the description for the Close Reading standard:

College and Career readiness anchor Standard for reading

Key Ideas and details:

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (www.

Despite the fact that this approach to reading feels like a joyless procedure, I tried to keep an open mind when working with my seventh graders. I have an arts background and would need to lean on imagination and problem solving to work to engage my students and to get them excited about looking at written language.

Our English language is robust and evolved, often strangely, from other languages. New words find their place in our dialogues as they're appointed to everyday use.  Our language is as organic as a rain forest; fluid and changing.  I was eager to work with my students who are also fluid and changing: Seventh graders mostly love to talk and to challenge: We could have fun with this.

This standard includes the study of connotation and detonation.  Different words mean different things to a student - depending on gender, socioeconomic background, nationality, personality, cognitive development, and life's experience.  Depending on who you are, the word HIT - might apply to baseball, a popular song, viewings on a viral You Tube item, or, a slap.

But, there was no curriculum provided. So, burdened by no curriculum, or, re-frame this as unburdened by untried pre-processsed rigid bulleted CC lesson plans, I had a certain amount of freedom to seek out my own resources as I set about to "cultivate wonder" among my students.

No curriculum? Consult with a scholar.

Before outlining lessons, I re-visited Francine Prose' Reading Like a Writer. I had read this book in grad school.  A prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, Prose is a university professor and a scholar of reading and language.  I love this book - she discusses the explicit and the subtle, and relates how as a student, her English teacher guided her class through King Lear and Oedipus Rex to circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness and vision.  Prose observes: "And searching for every relevant word turned out to have an enjoyable treasure-hunt aspect, a 'Where's Waldo' detective thrill...(p. 4, Reading Like a Writer).

Her book is organized sequentially in the way we approach reading: The chapters are as such: Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Dialogue, Details, and the nuanced Gesture. She examines the literal, and how that may be interpreted. There is something for every reader of any age;
plenty for a child who is a concrete thinker to grab onto - and plenty for a child who is moving into higher level thinking to ponder.

Through the rest of her book, which I enthusiastically recommend for anybody who reads/writes and/or teaches any subject she encourages us to roll up our sleeves and immerse ourselves in language.  I wanted to use Prose' book to light the way through this new reading unit, kind of like a powerful utility flashlight - so we could focus on words and phrases through her high beam.

For starters, I brought a few words to the table: Dove, Blood, Hit, and Fire.  Students wrote down their gut response. No correct or incorrect - purely subjective. (that is connotation)

Then we discussed the literal meanings and created a mnemonic for Denotation = Dictionary Definition.

Students' connotations of the words were quite varied:  Another mnemonic: Connotation - Connection: Emotional, Experience.  For the word Dove:  Dove=soap, Dove=bird, Dove=peace (symbolic, higher level thinking here), Dove-venturing bird from Noah's arc, Dove=shy and gentle.
The responses were so individual, which what makes language study fascinating.

Okay, so how does all this kind of reflection and discourse measure up on a standardized test? Before going there, there's another example of student responses to the word Blood.

Blood=hospital, Blood-=relative, Blood=gory, Blood=loyalty, Blood=war

There is no "right" answer for connotation if we have no context around it.  But depending on the context, blood takes on a different shading.  This is a skill to cultivate; it's higher level reflexive thinking -- a good reach for seventh graders.

Later we examined the connotation of the word rain in the Longfellow poem The Rainy Day. In this poem, rain signifies sadness and loss. How different from the joyful rain Langston Hughes celebrates in his April Rain Song.  We spent the rest of the year, until the tests, looking closely at the denotation and connotation of language in all that we read together.

What I had learned to share with my students: Attached to every word we know and use is our whole life's experience, and it's all rich.  I wanted them to keep experimenting with reading and writing and speaking.  They wrote daily reflections, poems, short paragraphs and essays - these were how I checked in on where they were in their understanding.

Fast forward: Test time:

Based on all the sound and fury around the goals of Coleman's Common Core, for some reason, I had
anticipated that a whole new kind of test had been created - one that would suitably measure cultivated wonder.  But on the first morning of the test week, as I flipped through the booklet, my heart sank.  These tests resembled the earlier ones from Bush's failed No Child Left Behind mandate.
These were zombie tests, rolled out from the closet of the undead.

The reading was so voluminous, that many students were unable to complete it. There was no time to highlight or jot notes, as we had slavishly practiced in class.  The writing section asked students to spit out answers - not to craft their writing.  When time was up, my students were frustrated and some were tearful as they threw down their pencils.  All the liveliness of our collective learning was yammered down flat - in a boring and insulting drill.

It was as if I'd coached them to overdress for an upcoming event, when actually all this occasion called for was to dress in a standard uniform that didn't actually fit anyone.

Problem #1: And Now for Something Completely Different.

If you've never perused a standardized ELA test, what you'll notice straight off is that the four or five reading passages have nothing to do wit;h each other.  They are decontextualized. Students read first about the Klondike Gold Rush (content not covered in class - no curriculum provided for this test), answer the questions, then skip on to ingest an unrelated passage about Diamond Veins in Africa, then leap into a disembodied passage from Louisa May Alcott's Jo's Boys (an author and book not familiar to most seventh graders, and developmentally inappropriate for many).

Because of the random quality of passages, students have just enough time to maybe develop a mild interest in the information, but then it's over, and they have to promptly move to the questions without time to process what they've just read.  It's reminiscent of the old Monty Python sketches: And Now For Something Completely Different that roll along with clattering speed.  Students have to constantly switch gears.  It's impossible to pick up on the rhythms and choices the author has made, which are
key points to reading closely, as Prose suggests.

Students have no prior knowledge of the content, so they're immediately placed at a disadvantage. Ramp up the time pressure, and I can't think of a better way to teach students how to dread reading and writing.

Important to note: The reading content (we're not asking for the questions)  of these tests are kept secret and unattainable, kind of like the Holy Grail. (Monty Python context).  That's how the test pushers keep a "leg up" on our kids, as they "race to the top."

Problem #2:  But all the work we've done doesn't show here.

As she guides us through careful word study, Prose provides us with 1 - 3 paragraphs minimally or
even a full page from an author's story so that we are provided with abundant clues as we infer what the author wants us to pay attention to. It's similar to looking at an Impressionist painting: We need as much of the painting as possible to stand back and better understand how each brush stroke is part of a larger image.

But the reading clues in standardized tests are stingy.  There's no room for full-bodied interpretation of a passage.  It's like giving the test taker a portion of a brush stroke and expecting him to "get" the full picture.

Let's have a look at this excerpt from a standardized test passage (2013 - Engage NY - 7th grade ELA exam):

Passage excerpt from Earth and Water and Sky by Brian Bushemi
(note: Brian Bushemi's novels are not on the touted CC Lexile that supposedly matches readers with books.  Students are not familiar with him. He's not Walter Dean Myers or Jaqueline Woodson or Suzanne Collins -   It is likely that Bushemi is a writer employee of Pearson, the British test materials company that has an enormous contract with PARCC. )

My point: Kids are not being tested on authors that they actually read. So why are teachers required  to choose books from the lexile?

(lines 25 - 31)

        "David stood up and continued toward the Thinking Pond. Suddenly, he heard a sharp, whining sound like the engine of a high-flying jet airplane.  It was followed by a crack! like a whip being snapped, only a thousand times louder.  Then a ball of fire roared overhead, followed by a searing gust of wind.
          The shock wave knocked David to the ground, his ears ringing. A second later, he heard an explosive, hissing crash up ahead.  A rush of air and hot steam billowed through the trees, and he covered his head as it washed over him."

And the "close reading" questions:

Which sentence from the passage best shows how powerful the meteorite was?

A "Suddenly, he heard a sharp, whining sound like the engine of a high-flying jet airplane."
      (lines 25 and 26)

B  "Then a ball of fire roared overhead, followed by a searing gust of wind." (lines 27 and 28)

C  "The shock wave knocked David to the ground, his ears ringing." (line 29)

D  "A second later, he heard an explosive, hissing crash up ahead." (lines 29 and 30)

Using Prose' flashlight beam, it's evident that Bushemi spends many sentences describing the power of the meteorite. The test assumes that students know what a meteorite is; earlier in the passage the boy muses on what it might be. A student who has no prior knowledge (we did not study meteorites in class), and thinks differently, might rightfully infer that it is an imaginary object, similar to A Thinking Pond as a magical notion.

Letter C shows that David is knocked to the ground (an idiom phrase - a challenge for an English Language Learner), but what exactly is a shock wave? Do meteorites emit shock waves that can knock people down?

A, B and D are good answer candidates for showing the power of the object, if one closely reads the words sharp, ball of fire, searing, explosive, hissing crash.  The connotation of all of those words is disturbance.  But the students aren't really being asked to work with connotation here, nor denotation, even though the standards cite those as launches to wonder.

Keeping in mind that many seventh graders are literal thinkers, it's easy to get this one wrong. There aren't enough clues. The offerings here are stingy. Thinking needs to be tamped down to it right. It's about navigating tricks, test maker's bias, and splitting hairs.  It not a scholarly exercise.  Alas, the joke was on us because the game was rigged. (casino context)

Neither does the reading of the other passages or questions bear any resemblance to reading with care. Many teachers like myself spent so much time "cultivating wonder" in the months before only to be astonished that none of that work can be measured by this test.

What happened?

My students' test scores tanked.

In Coleman and company's zeal to reform public school, they created a slipshod and hackneyed way to measure learning.  Paradoxically, these high stakes tests are insulting in design because the bar is so low.  They don't in any way deliver on the high falutin' dreams of Coleman's Common Core, and
their relationship to these standards is dysfunctional.  Yet, they do have the power to predetermine a child's educational future, to determine which schools are "failing", and the power to destroy teachers' careers.

They flatten what is individual in thinking, they degrade true scholarship, and discourage "thinking
differently"; peculiar to a culture that allegedly emulates "thinking outside the box." (corporate context).  Our children deserve better.

It all demonstrates that Coleman, Gates and the rest of the "reformers" have no idea what they're doing. Let's reform this reform, for starters; trash the tests.  They are failing our children, not the other way around.


Coming next: Part 2: Why conceptual thinking is the way of today and the future,  and how standardized tests cannot measure this.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Big Brother and His Holding Company- John King and The New York State Education Department: Manipulating Student Information to Drive Agendas

Data mining embeds student information into the digital footprint forever - but worse -
John King and company are manipulating this highly personal information to "demonstrate"
that our public school system is "failing" our students.  Carol Burris, principal of Southside High School, NY discovers egregiously inaccurate tracking of her students.

" The list did not include the names of many former students who were attending private and public colleges and universities, both in and out of state. I began calling families to verify the report. There were 53 names that did not have a college listing. By 5 p.m. that day, I had spoken with 27 families. In 25 of the 27 cases, the students were thriving in their third year of college. They were at Brown, Bard, Cornell, Bentley, Notre Dame and Wesleyan."
Read the rest of her article via Valerie Strauss' column in the Washington Post below:

Principal uncovers flawed data in her state’s official education reports

November 22 at 10:30 AM

School reformers talk nonstop about using “data” to drive policy, teaching and just about everything else, which, you would think, would require that the data being used be accurate. The following post exposes a troubling problem with the push for “data-driven” everything — bad data. This important piece was written by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog, and it is worth reading. You can see some of her earlier posts

By Carol Burris

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has once again demonstrated its uncanny ability to forge ahead without regard for the facts.

In its zest to prove there is a crisis of college readiness, combined with a sweetheart infatuation with big data, NYSED produced reports (SIRS 601-604) to track New York high school graduates’ college enrollment. A few days before the public release of the reports, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner sent a memo to districts. He explained that the department had combined school data with that of the National Student Clearinghouse to document which former high school students were enrolled in college and whether they persisted in their studies.

The memo informed superintendents that after the Regents discussed the data, it would be publicly released because it would be of interest to communities.

Our district data coordinator, who is my assistant principal, brought me the SIRS report. It claimed that only 80 percent of our students from the cohort of 2008 (Class of 2012) were enrolled in college.   As soon as I saw the number, I knew it was not correct. Ninety-eight percent of the 2012 Class told us they were going to college and gave us the name of the college they would attend. Might some have left after one semester, or changed their minds? It’s possible. But I found it difficult to believe that 18 percent had either not enrolled or quickly dropped out.

I asked my assistant principal to drill down to the names in the SIRS report. Not only were the names given, the report included which colleges and universities the students attended, their race, special education status, whether or not they received free or reduced priced lunch, and in many cases, their college major. This massive collection of data on graduates made my jaw drop.

And then I looked at the names. The 2012 salutatorian wasn’t on the list. I began a name by name comparison of the cohort against the report. The list did not include the names of many former students who were attending private and public colleges and universities, both in and out of state.
I began calling families to verify the report. There were 53 names that did not have a college listing. By 5 p.m. that day, I had spoken with 27 families. In 25 of the 27 cases, the students were thriving in their third year of college. They were at Brown, Bard, Cornell, Bentley, Notre Dame and Wesleyan. 
One student was in the Naval Academy (which smartly and ironically is one of the few schools that does not share data), and another at Tufts. One was at the University of Florida and another at the University of Charleston. What was even more bizarre was that some were in New York State public colleges governed by NYSED—SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook and Queensborough Community College. One student had already graduated from a technical school with a 3.84 GPA. Eighty percent had now become over 90 percent, and over the course of the next few days the percentage would continue to climb. This was no small error.

When calling, I asked parents whether they had “opted out” of having their son’s or daughter’s college enrollment data collected. They had not. One mom said: “Honestly, if I knew about it, I would have opted out. It is not John King’s[1] business where my son goes to college or what his major is.”

The error was not limited to Rockville Centre. Ken Mitchell, Superintendent of Schools of the South Orangetown Central School District, discovered that 80 of his 2012 graduates who were attending college were not on the list of attendees. On the SIRS report, The New York State Education Department gave a 62 percent college going rate for his district, although the true number was 89 percent.

In an article entitled “Educators livid over college ‘success’ report,” four other districts reported error rates that ranged from 15 percent to 27 percent. Harrison Schools’ Superintendent, Lou Wool, characterized the NYSED report as “irresponsible” and said that it was part of an agenda designed to convince the public “that public schools were failing.”

From APPR scores that do not add up, to a disastrous rollout of the Common Core and its testing, the New York State Education Department has inexplicably gotten a pass on a series of blunders. But there are implications regarding this latest error that go well beyond New York.

Apparently one of the many “holes” in the Clearinghouse data, according to NYSED, is that students who do not receive financial aid in some schools are excluded . No matter what the reasons for error, many of our schools’ highest achievers—students who are likely to persist and who do not need remediation were not reported. Other excluded students are those who attend the military academies, who opt out of data collection, who attend colleges outside of the United States, or who attend colleges that do not share data. And of course there are always errors in matching the databases.

Because of all of the problems described, it is reasonable to question the veracity of many of the national claims regarding college readiness. We have been bombarded by “data” on remediation and the lack of college readiness, and this “data” is used to justify Common Core reform. In some cases, the data is pure exaggeration as I have written about here and here and here. However, because NYSED created this report which allows us to “peek inside,” we now know that there are serious problems at the very source. In a news report, Deputy Commissioner Wagner claimed the error rate was 3 percent, because that was the error rate allegedly found by the New York City public schools. This does not conform, however, with the very large rates of error that individual districts are finding.
Flawed reports such as these reflect the mindset of those who are infatuated with data, and who jump to use it when it confirms their belief that schools are not doing a good job. NYSED included the results in a Powerpoint narrative of how unprepared our students are for college. Superintendent Donahue of Byram Hills Schools referring to NYSED said that “once again, the confidence that they put in data is misplaced.”   That is a generous understatement. What happened in New York should be a cautionary tale for all.

[1] John King is the New York State Commissioner of Education

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Teachers protected under tenure's due process are best able to advocate for their students

Tenure does not mean "a job for life", but it does provide teachers with due process, enabling them to act in the interest of their students without fear of intimidation, recrimination or firing.  In the article below, Marla Kilfoyle and Melissa Tomlinson clearly outline the complexity of teaching and why tenure is critical for cultivating sound pedagogy, encouraging teacher advocacy for the multitude of student needs, and to protect the careers of dedicated teachers for stable school environments.



By: Melissa Tomlinson & Marla Kilfoyle
Imagine you are charged with the job of making the decisions that concern the life of a child, including the protection of that child. If you are a parent, this is no stretch of the imagination.
Now imagine that you are prevented from doing this. You are afraid to speak up and have opinions for fear of personal recriminations that could affect yourself or other family members. Consequences could include temporary loss of income, loss of a job, even loss of a career. You become silenced, effectively opening the door to the possibility of harmful decisions to be made regarding children that are in your charge.
As a parent, you have power. You have legal guardianship rights over the lives of your children until they turn 18. For a large portion of that time a child attends school. While that child is in school it is in the best interest of all children that adults involved can advocate for the child. When you deny tenure rights of teachers you are silencing that advocate.
We are 2 teachers and we are 2 mothers. Melissa has 2 boys and Marla has 1 boy. As teachers we understand the importance of teacher tenure, which for the remainder of this article we will call due process. First of all, a teacher’s right to due process does NOT guarantee them a job for life. For example, in New York State any tenured teacher can be dismissed under 3020a law.

Here are some scenarios in which teachers would need due process to protect children.

Scenario #1

Mrs. Smith goes to a meeting for Johnny, a special education student that she has taught all year. She knows that Johnny needs to have speech therapy and plans to recommend that he receive it as soon as possible. Before the meeting Mrs. Smith is told via email that she is NOT to recommend speech therapy for any more children because the district does NOT want to pay for the services.
Mrs. Smith with NO due process rights – goes to the meeting and doesn’t say a word in advocacy for Johnny because she is a afraid to lose her job and/or goes to the meeting and advocates for him and is fired by the district directly after the meeting is over.
Mrs. Smith with due process rights – goes to the meeting and can ignore the district directive and recommend speech therapy because that is what Johnny needs. The district cannot fire her for ignoring this harmful directive without a due process hearing.

Scenario #2

Mr. Jones suspects that one of his students is being beat up at home. The student in question, Mark, comes to school with a black eye. Mr. Jones tells his department chair that he is calling Child Protective Services on the parents. Mr. Jones gets an email from the district telling him to NOT call CPS because they don’t want the bad publicity.
Mr. Jones with NO due process rights – does NOT call CPS because he is the sole breadwinner in his house and cannot lose his job and/ or he calls CPS and is fired at the end of the week.
Mr. Jones with due process rights – calls CPS, ignoring the district directive not to, and cannot be fired without a due process hearing.

Scenario #3

Mrs. Davis is an award winning English teacher. She has enjoyed teaching an amazing unit on To Kill A Mockingbird for her entire 15 year career. In this unit she can teach children about social justice and equality. In Mrs. Davis class is the new president of the Board of Education’s daughter. When Mrs. Davis starts her To Kill a Mockingbird unit the BOE President calls her up and expresses concern that the book has rape in it. Mrs. Davis explains to the BOE President that her focus on the book isn’t rape but social injustice. The next day Mrs. Davis is called into her directors office and told she cannot teach the book.
Mrs. Davis with NO due process rights does NOT teach the book in fear of losing her job. She is the sole provider for her mother and herself and/or Mrs. Davis teaches the book against the advice of her director and is fired at the end of the year
Mrs. Davis with due process rights explains respectfully to her director that she will teach the book as she has done so successfully for 15 years. She further states that she will be attending the BOE meeting to make a statement that the BOE President is attempting to censor reading lists in the district for children. She cannot be fired without a due process hearing.

Scenario #4

Mr. Bryant has been a math teacher at XYZ High School for 25 years. He is loved by his students and parents in the community. He has been active in school and advises the award winning Math Club. During Mr. Bryant’s 25th year as a teacher the district hired a new Superintendent of Schools. This Superintendent sought to trim the budget and decided to cut several clubs, including Mr. Bryant’s award winning Math Club. Mr. Bryant made an appointment with the new Superintendent to plead their case. The meeting did not go well so Mr. Bryant rallied the community to raise money to keep the club. This angered the new Superintendent who
Mr. Bryant with NO due process is fired immediately and the new Superintendents nephew, a new math teacher, is hired to take his place.
Mr. Bryant with due process is called up to the Superintendent’s office and given a hearing prior to an attempt to fire him.
The above scenarios are only a few that we can provide to you. We could write a book but we hope that you get the overall simple reason why teachers need due process rights. Many people argue that no other job gets due process rights, and in many cases they are correct, but NO other occupation deals with the complexity of teaching children and making sure that the environment that they learn in is free of cronyism, favoritism, safe, and free from personal bias. A teacher’s right to due process provides a stable, safe, and productive environment for children to learn and thrive. It gives teachers the ability to advocate freely for children in their care without fear of losing their jobs.

marla-melissa-300About Marla Kilfoyle and Melissa Tomlinson

Marla Kilfoyle is General Manager Badass Teachers Association and Melissa Tomlinson is the Assistant General Manager of the Badass Teachers Association.
Marla Kilfoyle began her adventure into the Badass Teacher Association by way of being a parent advocate on Long Island in such groups as Parents and Teachers Against Common Core and LI Opt-Out. Marla has been a teacher in the Social Studies Department at Oceanside High School (NY) for 27 years. In addition, Marla coached the Oceanside Girl’s Track and Field team for 15 years and runs her district’s social science program.
Marla is the mother of a 10-year-old son and wife of Allen, a retired NYPD Detective. She continues her work as a parent advocate in LI Opt-Out as a member of their leadership team.
Melissa Tomlinson: A teacher of students with special needs at the middle school level, realized that she was not alone in questioning the role of standardized testing in schools when she found the Badass Teachers Association. She was first pushed into the spotlight of fighting the methods of corporate educational reform when she faced Governor Chris Christie to ask about his public degradation of NJ Schools when they were rated one of the top three in the nation. Along with teaching and advocacy, Melissa runs the after school program in her school building, providing a place for students to receive extra educational assistance, exposure to career possibilities, and a safe place to be after school hours.
Melissa is the mother of two teenage sons and she fights for equitable education for all students, now and in the future.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Destroying Teacher Tenure in New York State Will Create A Tenuous Career for Teachers: Teachers as Temporary Staff

New York State teacher tenure is now under attack by Campbell Brown (ex CNN anchorwoman, not an educator) and her base support group of Hedge Fund Managers.  (Wright v. NY).

Their rationale: Not all children are receiving equal high quality educations because -  (to make their long speciously reasoned story short)-  there are too many “ineffective” teachers in, particularly - high need classrooms in impoverished districts.  Their rationale continues:  Remove the tenure system and get rid of the teachers they deem as ineffective, and education outcomes- that word they like to tout - will dramatically improve.   They intend to mask this as students’ civil rights, as that worked recently in removing teacher tenure in California (Vergara v. California).

These non-educators believe that standardized test returns are primary indicators of a teacher’s abilities. 

In the real world, a teacher’s job entails a rich knowledge of her/his subject area, knowledge of developmental growth in her/his students, classroom management skills, and the ability to navigate 30 or more students with diverse and varying abilities – working to maintain and ignite students’ desires to do well, and at the very least – to stay with it.  Teachers also do heavy lifting with social interactions; with students, their students’ parents, their administrators, other teachers.  Additionally, each year, they meet an increased load of paperwork and record keeping, not to mention day to day lesson planning, and their own assessments as they fold into the day the increasingly overbearing requirements of complying with the Common Core – curriculum invented by non-educators. 

In Campbell’s data world, low standardized test scores would inform unilateral removal of a teacher – no matter that this teacher may accomplish all of the above.

If Campbell were an educator, she would understand that much of what teachers accomplish is virtually invisible at the time – learning is like that. Real learning is incremental and tends to show itself at a later time, when learners have fully absorbed a concept.  But Campbell Brown is not a teacher.

Tenure provides due process to ensure that frivolous firings of teachers do not occur.   What defines frivolous?  Here are some suggestions:  That a teacher is not teaching the preferred content that a politically insulated board of education may prefer:  Teacher Y may be teaching evolution against several of the board’s members preferred beliefs in creationism.   Teacher W may call a student on plagiarism, and may be threatened with a lawsuit by irate parents. (I saw this happen to a colleague, who was fortunately protected by her tenure’s due process).  And, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for a sports-oriented district to frivolously fire a teacher who also coaches a team – should that teacher not accrue enough wins for his/her team.  Those are only a few examples of what might prompt frivolous firings.  School boards are made up of ordinary citizens who may make rash decisions frequently based on bias, fear - or most commonly, misinformation. Due process protects teachers from emotionally driven decisions and power trip posturing. It is an arm of our Democratic process.

In other words, dissembling tenure opens a massive can of worms that Campbell Brown and her deep-pocketed friend do not have the capabilities to wrangle and put back in the can.  It’s easy to make messes.

Say that Campbell and friends are successful in burning down teacher tenure in New York State, after which she and her pals zealously move on to some other project:  What’s left? What will the lay of the land look like in a typical urban, suburban or rural public school?

When there is no tenure, and teachers are arbitrarily fired, the union base will shrink until there are not enough members for the union to sustain itself.  It will shrink out of existence.

Without tenure, teachers will be hired as temporary staff, where they are not eligible for any benefits, and can be paid at the lowest salary tier, despite the fact that they may have years of experience and more than one Masters Degree.  As in many other industries, the day-worker phenomenon is already present in certain districts where there is a proliferation of “Leave Replacements”.  These teachers replace teachers who retire or are absent due to extended medical leaves.  Frequently, teachers on medical or maternity leave don’t return.  It’s common practice now for districts, in saving money, to eliminate those positions and re-shuffle teachers, now a smaller work base.  

Leave Replacements may be called in to fill the gaps.   Leave Replacements are not eligible to be active union members.  One can only be a full union voting member, and participate in collective bargaining if one has tenure. Most Leave Replacements do not attend union meetings. There is little incentive to stay in step with the Union. They may only attend meetings as onlookers.

As a result of their day worker status, Leave Replacements receive a paltry amount of benefits, if any.  They are paid the lowest salary tier and receive no guarantee of a job for the following year, even though they work the same hours, have the same credentials, and carry the same full responsibilities as a “regular” teacher.  Leave Replacements may be eager new teachers, or they may be experienced and talented, and may have been previously laid off from a district bending under the Property Tax Cap –e.g. New York State.  (In some circles, I’ve heard teachers glowingly referred to as “candles lighting the way” – so this is an example of burning the candle at both ends.)

Leave Replacements aren’t considered a legitimate member of the school community, because nobody expects them to stay, and they must proceed through a re-do of the hiring process (again!) – including an interview, even though they may have received a Highly Effective performance review by an administrator, because they are tied to the evaluation system.  But that is no guarantee that they’ll be re-hired.  With communities tapped out financially, the incentive to hire a less experienced Leave Replacement for an even lower salary is appealing to districts.  Currently, the competition for positions is intense.

Also, because Leave Replacements are anxious to keep their temporary positions, doing more with less with the hope that they just might be hired for yet another year – they are more vulnerable to being exploited.  (“We’ll hire you if you agree also to coach the girl’s field hockey team and advise The Art Club.")

Picture this for the future if tenure is abolished and union busting is successful:  Schools filled with independent and itinerant low paid teaching contractors.  The art and science of Pedagogy, and curriculum design, and teacher-created assessments  are a thing of the past.  With no incentive to grow their careers, teaching contractors will be encouraged to “phone it in” at every opportunity:  distributing worksheets and administering standardized tests.  Who could put their heart into teaching under such circumstances? 

There are no opportunities for collaboration because each teaching contractor doesn’t know if she or he will be teaching in that school the following year. I used to share my lunch time with a talented Leave Replacement ESL teacher who, at the beginning of June, still didn't know if she would be invited to go through the interview process again, to possibly obtain again, in September, the position she had held this year.  She didn't know if she would meet her mortgage payments.  Each year she was hoping to gain a little traction, and each year was filled with no guarantee of a position.   Three years is the normal probationary time for a teacher before being tenured.  Christina had been holding the same Leave Replacement position for four years.  Two science teachers, Leave Replacements in the same school, also had to tread water all year long until they both found themselves in the midst of further position shuffling - vying for the same Leave Replacement position for September. 

Additional potential fall-out in destroying tenure:  Children will need to learn to view their teacher-contractor with a certain level of detachment, not knowing if that teacher will continue as part of the staff: That teacher they may connect with cannot be viewed as a long term resource and support.  This is the most effective way to sabotage teacher-pupil relationships and to destroy continuity, and school community.   Parents will warily wonder each year if their children's teachers/contractors have the credentials and experience to reach their children. 

Under these conditions, who will choose to enter the teaching profession? Why would any education students -- candidates for multiple Masters or PhD degrees apply for the position?   How will our best and brightest be attracted to this profession?    

How can a new teacher develop into an innovative and thoughtful master teacher within such a tenuous career? Destroying tenure is a sure way to make a career rudderless.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Self acceptance: Powerful modeling for children and a courageous act...

Here is New York Times Columnist Charles Blow's straight-to-the heart Op-Ed on Identity; accepting differences we perceive in others and --accepting ourselves as we are:

"Self-acceptance, of all stripes, large and small, is always an inherently political and profoundly revolutionary act...

E.E. Cummings once put it: 'To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.'”

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist- Charles M. Blow

Age of Identity

“Hair is political.”

That was the line that stuck with me when my 17-year-old daughter recently regaled me with the minutiae of a lighthearted argument she’d had with a friend. It was about my daughter’s staunch resistance to straightening or altering her hair in any way.

The friend had insisted that such alterations were no big deal, to which my daughter took umbrage and shot back, “Hair is political.”

In my daughter’s view, such alterations were a sign of suppressive concepts of worth and beauty of which she would have no part. Presenting herself as nature made her was an act of self-loving defiance that demanded not her alteration but the alteration of others’ attitudes about how we expect people to bend in order to belong, about how many destructive subliminal messages we’ve all absorbed and how we must search ourselves for the truth of our own prejudices.

It reminded me of the profound commentary on the subject by the actress Tracie Thoms in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary “Good Hair”: “To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary. Why is that?”

But to me, my daughter’s message was bigger than her, or hair, or a debate between teenagers. It was a life lesson that we all have to learn, over and over: Self-acceptance, of all stripes, large and small, is always an inherently political and profoundly revolutionary act.

We are so suffused in a mix of misogyny, patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia and hetero-normative exclusionary idealism that we can easily lose sight of the singular acts of ordinary bravery that each of us displays every time we choose not to play along.

Life is an endless negotiation with ourselves and with the world about who we are — the truest truth of who we are — and whether we have the mettle to simply be us, all of us, as we are, backlash notwithstanding.

And every time we answer “yes” to the question of courage, we stand an inch taller and we rise closer to the light.

In fact, Michaela Angela Davis, a self-described “image activist,” calls this the “Age of Identity and Intersections.”

It is a time when more people are asserting themselves as nonconformists as they recognize that there is a variety of intersections to subjugation. It’s a twist on the idea of diversity: not simply honoring a variety of origins as positive, but uniting under a banner that reminds us that the diminution of the very concept of variance has been a historical tool of psychic violence against those deemed “different.”

It is about developing kinship and alliance among the historically alienated.

It is about understanding that open hatred of — or even subtle, sometimes subconscious devaluing of — women, minorities (racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise) and people who don’t hew to sexual or gender norms are not discrete dysfunctions, but are of a kind, a cousin of flawed consciousness.
And when that is understood, the fight against them all becomes more focused. You stop hacking at the branches and start digging at the root.

Sometimes, when we are confronted by another overt act of intolerance in the news — another racial epithet, a further effort to erode women’s access to a full range of reproductive options, one more state attempting to hold on to its bans against marriage equality, another manifestation of rape culture — it can seem that we are going backward in this fight rather than forward.

But I don’t think so. I think that, as the saying goes, it’s darkest before the dawn, that these cases stand out not necessarily because they are growing, but because they are so at odds with this country’s moral trajectory. (Although, it must be said that there are increasing efforts, particularly in Republican-controlled states, to restrict women’s health care.)

Young people in America are growing up in a country that is quickly becoming brown, where women outnumber men in colleges, where acknowledgment of sexual identity is increasingly met with shrugs.

This doesn’t mean that they are immune to bias, but it does give hope that bias will diminish as difference becomes more mainstream, historical privileges become more identified and gender roles become less rigid.

That is why I greet with overwhelming optimism the continuous stream of people who refuse to conform and who insist on acknowledgment of their own identities, as they are, in all of their inherent glories and by way of their “revolutionary acts.”

E.E. Cummings once put it: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

And when we understand that that struggle against conformity and control is a shared, unifying experience, the accomplishment is made a little bit easier — and a whole lot sweeter.

Truth is political.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When Parents Become Activists and Advocate for their Children

Ira Shor is a professor at the Coty University of New York, where he teaches composition and rhetoric. Shor understands that standardized testing is the foundation on which the entire “reform” project rests. Take away the test scores, and the data-driven teacher evaluation collapses, along with the ambitious plans for privatization.
Shor writes:

“Opt-Out: The REAL Parent Revolution”
We parents can stop the destruction of our public schools. We can stop the looting of school budgets by private charters and testing vendors. We can stop the abuse of our children by the relentless hours of testing. We can stop the closings, the co-locations, the mass firings, the replacement of veteran teachers with short-term TFA newbies, the shameful indignity of public schools told they have 24 hours to clear out so a charter can seize their classrooms. To do this, we have to opt-out our kids from the new testing regimes—refuse to let the schools test our kids with PARCC or Smarter Balanced, boycott the pointless and punitive tests which make the best years of our kids’ lives into a digital hell.

I opted-out my 10-year-old son from all state tests this year and will continue to do so when the useless and costly PARCC tests arrive next year. I will encourage other parents to join me in boycotting such standardized tests, which Diane Ravitch has rightly called “junk science” because they cannot accurately report a student’s achievement, learning process, or academic needs, or a teacher’s competence. For commercial and political reasons, it pleases Duncan, Gates and Co. to spread such tools from coast to coast, but they offer no evidence that such tools can do the job they claim, despite the constant promotion financed by Gates’s millions to the two teacher unions, to the national PTA, to “Education Week” magazine, and other key players working on his side.

Neither CCSS nor PARCC can make our kids “college and career ready.” This is impossible from the rigidly-defined, narrow CCSS skill-sets or from the hours of standardized testing, which over-produce metrics that don’t amount to teaching or learning. First, of course, I ask, Who can predict what the job market will be like when my 10-year-old enters it? Also, school curricula which narrowly focus on skills under-develop the critical habits of mind and communication which children need to make sense of the world as they find it. Employers, in fact, report that narrow subject matter is not what they look for in candidates, preferring instead future employees who have learned how to learn, how to ask questions and to make sense of situations, how to ask for help, how to work in groups, how to learn from others by example, and how to communicate. Hours of standardized testing cannot lead to these outcomes.

The national CCSS-machine also ignores the most important factor in a child’s test scores: family income(widely-discussed since 1966 and the famous Coleman Report, reiterated again and again by social research.) SAT/ACT/high-school and college graduation rates have always correlated closely with family income. Because our society has the highest rate of child poverty of any developed nation(about 35% of Black and Hispanic kids, about 11% of white kids), our national averages on standardized tests are pulled down. The strongest policy, then for raising average scores would be an anti-poverty program, what Christopher Jencks 40 years ago called “an incomes policy,” that is, equalizing family incomes. When he proposed equal izing incomes, policy in the U.S. tilted towards the bottom 80%, especially the bottom 20% of families, as research by Saez and Piketty and by Robert Reich have shown; in that era, Black kids closed about 20% of the “achievement gap” with their white peers(see Jencks’s “The Black-White Achievement Gap.”) CCSS and its PARCC testing will fail just like NCLB and RTTT failed before them, fail to close the achievement gap, fail to produce deep learning for the vast majority of children, fail to close the huge income gap.

Because our children are in this together, so are we. Because our kids cannot defend themselves, we have to defend them. We parents must step in to stop it. We should put our foot down and say, “Do it to your own kids first before you experiment on ours!” Tell that to Bill Gates, to Arne Duncan, to Eli Broad, to Daniel Coleman, to Michelle Rhee, to Wendy Kopp, to Eva Moskowitz, to Govs. Cuomo and Christie, to the hedge-funders in Democrats for Education Reform, who send their own kids to test-exempt private schools with small classes, well-paid veteran teachers, handsome campuses, and field trips so that their kids “feel at home in the world,” as the elite prep of certain kids is sometimes called.

If we parents opt-out, we remove our kids from the commercial machine invading and destroying public schools. We refuse to let our kids become mass subjects tested to distraction. We insist that inspired teaching and complex learning and rich arts should be at the center of every school.
Authorities count on our quiet compliance to cement their plans into place. We need defiance instead, for the sake of the kids and for the sake of the public sector without which democracy cannot survive. When we opt-out we rescue our kids, our public schools, and our society at the same time. Our opposition will force authorities to retreat, if we stick together, get tough on behalf of our kids, and insist that public schools belong to us for the public good, not to the private sector or to the commercial parasites stealing our children’s futures.
Go to United Opt Out and learn more about how to join the cause.

Children Learn through Playing

Child's play is deeply formative with learning that cannot be measured or quantified.  This is true of the ways that middle and high school students learn through play also.  See my earlier post (April)
"Yes, and...Embracing the Awkward" to read further about  how play can influence different areas of learning.

This is all the more reason for states to disgard the current Common Core and its blizzard of tests, worksheets, micro-managed reading and writing and overall tedium. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Who are the brightest, happiest, most cooperative, most well-adjusted and resilient children...?

Dr. Peter Gray is an anthropologist who has spent decades studying the importance of play. In this Ted Talk, he shows us the ways that children who live in cultures that allow them to play freely develop into socially skilled and emotionally stable adults.

He also provides evidence that with the emphasis on school, standardized learning and organized sports, our children are not being given the necessary freedom to play, but are directed to "resume building" - and there is a greater increase in anxiety and depression.

Dr. Gray encourages us to "be brave enough to stand up to the continuous clamor of more school."