A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for November, 2013

Working with the Right

I must admit to considerable discomfort at being in bed with the ultra-conservative right in my opposition the Common Core Standards and the high stakes testing inextricably tied to them. The current edition of The American Spectator has a lead article entitled “Common Core: The Obamacare of Education” which sees in both the Affordable Care Act and Race to the Top a left wing desire to nationalize both healthcare and education. While I strongly disagree with the ideological frame of the article, Janice Shaw-Crouse’s recitation of the history of the advent of Common Core is essentially correct and emphasizes the lack of participation by educators in their formulation or of a democratic political process in their adoption. Rich people’s money, mostly Gates Foundation dollars, got them written and the federal dollars offered to financially strapped states got them adopted.

Whether looked at from the political left or right, whether experienced as a parent watching homework come into the house of absurd and unnecessary complexity or a teacher observing student frustration with academic tasks inappropriate to their age, a bad idea deserves to be defeated even if when it is all parties to the defeat can’t agree on what replaces it. We now have twelve states rethinking their participation. There will be more. With 2014 being a state election year, you can bet that Common Core will be an issue in most campaigns. Even Governor Cuomo is beginning to talk about how the legislature may have to make some changes. If by some unusual stroke of luck we get a centrist Republican opposing him, you will see our presidential hopeful governor lead to move to change education policy in New York.

I’m taking off until Monday. A Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers.

Follow me on Twitter at @MortyRosenfeld1

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The Deadly Connection of Test Results and Teacher Evaluation

Whether it’s Common Core or some other reformist miracle cure for the social pathology that we believe can be cured if only we have the right kind of schools, once we link student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations we will inevitably have a system in which we teach to some test. To think otherwise is to believe that human beings will ignore the threat to their income these tests pose and concentrate their attention instead on ensuring the exposure of their students to rich curriculum experiences that lie outside the narrow scope of these exams. Only those drinking the reformist Kool-Aid believe that. The connection between student test results and teacher evaluation will have to end if we are ever to get out of this mess the reformists have created. I say this as the president of a local teacher union in which 77 percent of the members were rated highly effective and none ineffective.

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Talk About the Real Common Core, Not An Abstraction

I’m growing progressively angrier at the blind support of state and national teacher union leaders for the Common Core Standards. The Standards they support are an abstraction contained in a document that bears about as close a relationship to what is happening in our classrooms as s White Castle hamburger to fine dining. My leaders can tell me that the Standards are not a curriculum, but the fact is that the curriculum modules developed by the faceless state ed bureaucracy are becoming the de facto curriculum, as financially strapped school districts, hobbled by a property tax cap, cannot muster the resources to write their own curriculum aligned to the Standards. The Common Core teachers experience is increasingly test driven, scripted instruction that leaves little to their professional judgment and creativity. It is assignments that anger parents who can’t make heads or tails out of them. It is children who are frustrated to the point where many talk openly about not liking school. It is little kids struggling with math problems that they can’t read and drawing the erroneous conclusion that they aren’t good at math.

The Common Core Standards were not developed by teachers, despite claims made that they were. At best, a few teachers, picked through a process unknown to me, got to comment on them, this process lending the Standards the illusion of professional respectability. To me The Common Core Standards are a central plank in a strategy to discredit the public schools financed by the one percenters of our nation and pushed by the Obama administration that has shown itself to be no friends of public schools and the people who work in them. But even if we disagree about the motivation behind the development of the Standards, there is very little room for disagreement about what the Common Core Standards have become in our classrooms. The more our union leaders ignore the Standards as they actually exist, the more their credibility and the credibility of our union is diminished.

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Attacking the Common Core Now Mainstream

I’ve been writing regularly about the senselessness surrounding the introduction of the Common Core Standards in New York. When I began to be critical, my views were seen by many as radical and rhetorically hyperbolic. How the times have changed, as parents and educators have awakened to the absurdity of some of the claims for the Standards. Criticisms like mine of this corporate sponsored education reform are now mainstream. Take a look at this spot-on piece by Anthony Cody in Edweek, hardly a journal of radical opinion.

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In The Age of the Selfie

When I began work in the Plainview-Old Bethpage Schools, no two schools were exactly alike. What’s more, the superintendent at the time Robert Savitt took great pride in that. If he spoke at my high school, he would talk about the great things going on at the other, clearly hoping to have our pride spur us on to some new accomplishment. There was a healthy competition that even expressed itself in the union work of the schools. When the Levittown teachers went out on a strike that lasted for weeks, as head building rep of Kennedy, I was not about to let my friend Tony Pilla of Plainview High collect more money for the Levittown teachers than I. Parents were fine with the competition too. No one understood the differences between buildings on the same level as inequities. The differences just made each school unique. There was a broad sense of pride in a school district that encouraged continuous experimentation.

In a time when people take pictures of themselves and launch them into cyberspace for some sort of gratification I can’t identify, when the august Oxford English Dictionary announces “selfie” the new word of the year, differences and uniqueness are transmuted into the suspicion that others have something that is rightfully ours. I was thinking about this as I discussed differences in our two middle schools that have existed for close to forty years with parents and administrators, many of whom are incredulous that previous groups like this one were never willing to go through all of the trouble necessary to bring the two schools into closer alignment. Some members of the group appear willing to radically alter the organization of our schools, inconveniencing parents and teachers across the grades to enable their children to fit one or more extra-curricular activities into their school day and onto their college resumes. How long will it be, I wonder, before every child attends Kahn Academy, taking pictures of themselves while studying, but calling it multitasking.

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King and Race

The august Grey Lady has been grudging in its coverage of Education Commissioner King’s so-called listening tour of the state. On Monday, however, the Times published a piece that fairly reported the beating King has been taking at these so-call forums.

Where the article goes somewhat astray is in its reporting that some of Dr. King’s supporters accuse the teacher unions of stirring up opposition. The article only quotes Timothy Daley, the President of The New Teacher Project, and an organization begun by Michele Rhee, as its only source for this contention. Daley is quoted as saying, “This is the first African-American leader of the State Education Department. And to watch him be shouted at and insulted by largely white audiences in the suburbs is discomforting and it is jarring that, not only has it happened, but it has happened repeatedly.” The very unfortunate context created by bad writing and a very ill-considered quote leave one to infer that the opposition to King and his policies are animated by racial animus and that the teachers unions are responsible.

Let’s be clear. The parents of this state, many from the state’s better school districts, have led the revolt against the state’s high stakes testing regime and the completely incompetent roll-out of the Common Core Standards, standards which many would question even if they had been implemented competently. While some local unions like mine were early critics of the state’s policies, the NEA, AFT and NYSUT have been very timid critics of testing and huge supporters of the Common Core Standards, having taken Gates Foundation money to support various aspects of the Standards. To suggest, therefore, that the unions have stirred up opposition against King is patently false. Are more local unions joining the cause? Yes they are, as they see what these policies are doing to the children they teach. Are they racially motivated? Absolutely not. King deserves the beating he is taking as he tries to defend the indefensible.

The fact that John King is an African American has no place in the discussion of his tenure as Commissioner of Education. Were he white, his policies would be as ill-informed. The fact of the matter is that with his credentials and experience he could not have gotten an interview for a superintendency in many of the districts from which the strongest criticism of his policies is coming. To be sure, he is not solely responsible for the deepening education mess in New York. The Board of Regents and the Governor deserve a huge share of the blame. But King has completely lost the confidence of the educators of the state. That didn’t happen because he is an African American.

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Duncan Helps to Sink His Own Reforms

As the pressures mount to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the pernicious effects of a reckless implementation of the Common Core Standards, defenders of these policies grow increasingly careless in their remarks thereby making it that much harder to defend policies that are inherently indefensible. It is almost as though reform leaders like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York State Commissioner of Education John King are in some bizarre competition for who can shoot more toes of their own feet.

Duncan’s recent thoughtlessly condescending comments about white suburban moms who are against Common Core because “… all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were” raises the bar considerably in the battle for the reformer who is most out of touch with what the American public wants for its children.

Duncan is right that white suburban moms are fortunately leading the way to oppose the Common Core Standards and the high stakes tests that come with them. He is, however, completely oblivious to the reasons for their opposition. He doesn’t begin to fathom the fact that they know that the sick fascination with standardized testing is increasingly focusing their schools on test passing. He ignores that they know that their kids are coming home with needlessly frustrating complex assignments that make little or no sense to parents who are themselves well educated. He obtusely fails to recognize that they know how to organize and make themselves heard by the media and at the ballot box. He cannot begin to understand that his remarks powerfully energize the opposition to him and his ideas. I’m glad he doesn’t. Can John King top this one?

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Too Cute, Commissioner King

Too cute! That’s what Commissioner King’s statement in response to NYSUT’s call for banning Pre-K-2 testing is. The Board of Regents, he tells us, has “…a long-standing policy against administering standardized tests to our very youngest students.”

Give us a break, Mr. disingenuous leader of the state education department. Why can’t you come straight with the citizens of the state and the teachers of their children? You know damn well that the linkage you got the legislature to establish, admittedly with NYSUT’s participation, between teacher evaluations and measurable student growth could have no other outcome than the testing of these very students whose welfare you now claim to support.

King’s statement comes on the heels of repeated failed attempts to satisfactorily explain New York’s testing epidemic and its connection to the spectacularly ludicrous introduction of the Common Core Standards. I doubt that there is a teacher in our state who has any confidence in his ability to lead our education system. Leading the state’s public schools requires adherence to standards of excellence and ethics that he obviously lacks. It’s time for him and the lady with the let-them-eat-cake look of contempt on her face who sits beside him pulling his strings to leave us to undo the damage they have done to the education of the children of our state.

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Education – Cuomo’s Vulnerability

If New York Republicans had any sense, they would find a gubernatorial candidate, a tad to the left of Chris Christie, probably a woman, to run against Andrew Cuomo focusing on Cuomo’s militant support for the corporate school reforms plaguing our schools. They need someone who can span the gender gap that favors Democrats. What better way to do that than to speaks to mothers’ fears of what high stakes testing and the Common Core Standards are doing to the state’s children? At a rally in Mineola called by Long Island Opt-out as a counter to Commissioner King’s by invitation only forum, I listened to parents and teachers talk from their hearts about the effects of these so-called reforms on children. I was especially touch by a mother of a middle-schooler whose child had always been at the top of her class talk about the psychological impact failing last year’s state assessment and being put in a remedial class. Tears rolling down her face, this mother described a child who once saw school as a stimulating, hospitable place that she longed to go to but who now dreads that same place that now is associated in her mind with failure and shame. That mother, and we are learning there are countless others like her, would work her ass off for a candidate who promised to protect her child from the heartless lunacy that is ultimately Cuomo’s education policy. Is there such a Republican, however? Cuomo is clearly vulnerable on education. Will someone emerge to exploit his weakness?

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I Will NOT Let Common Core Ruin My Relationship with My Daughter

Whenever I can, I sit at the teacher lunch tables, talking to our members, listening for their concerns. I’ve been especially interested lately to listen to their comments about the effects of the Common Core Standards and the tests aligned with them on their own children. The following piece by Special education teacher Debbie Riviezzo grew out of such an encounter. It offers the insights of an experienced educator/parent.
Morty Rosenfeld

When I originally proposed writing this article, I planned on calling it “How Common Core is Ruining My Relationship with My Daughter.” I had told Morty a tale of how I had gotten upset with my daughter while helping her with her Common Core ELA homework on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We read excerpts from the UDHR together, and looked at the definitions of key words the teachers had provided. However, my daughter kept going back to the idea that the UDHR was about “helping the starving children.” I finally snapped at her, saying “Aren’t you paying attention? That was only one thing that was discussed. The rest of the documents have nothing to do with that.” My husband finally intervened, telling me to relax, and my daughter to just do her best and finish her homework.

It wasn’t until the next day at work that it occurred to me why I reacted the way I did – because I am a high school teacher, and I was responding to the material, which was at what I consider to be a high school level. So what was the problem with the situation? My daughter is nine years old and in fifth grade. Of course she thinks it’s all about helping starving children! That is how I imagine most kids her age would relate to the material. When this realization dawned on me, I will admit that I sat at my desk and cried. That night, I went home and hugged my daughter. After apologizing profusely, I gave her permission to tell me to stop when I get “too high school” with her.

So why not stick with my original title? I think it is because Common Core, especially the way it is currently being implemented in many places, is doing damage on a much larger level. We have all heard the stories of kids crying because of excessive testing – but what about stories of elementary school children taking hours to do their homework? What about the way in which instruction in basic skills is being shoved aside to make way for modules that are being forced upon students and teachers alike? My daughter will only be in fifth grade once, and what I am seeing is any chance she has to love reading being systematically destroyed by this insistence on using materials that can in no way be considered on grade level. I hear stories of children in first grade crying because their math homework is asking them to write sentences about their problem solving process when they haven’t even been taught how to write a sentence yet!

I believe it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to use our collective voice and knowledge to help bring attention to the issues that are arising due to the current implementation of Common Core. For those of us who are parents whose children are still in school, we have an even greater reason to fight this fight. Reach out to members of your community who may not be as knowledgeable and educate them! (We are teachers after all!) When I spoke out at a Board Meeting in my town after the Superintendent of Schools explained to the community that she and the Board are “agents of the state,” I decided to incorporate a lesson of my own. Referring to the unit on the UDHR, I asked the Board to consider another ideal – civil disobedience. If we do not insist upon having a say in what our children learn, and how they learn it, then the State will continue down its current path, no matter how misguided it may be. I urge all of you to use your knowledge and voice to help bring about change before it is too late, before an entire generation grows up fearing school, disliking reading, and losing their love of learning.

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A New Teacher Test?

At a time when NEA members are suffering from the professionally debilitating effects test based accountability schemes for students and teachers, what is the NEA spending its declining dues dollars on? Why a teacher test of course. Because according to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “We can’t afford to continue a system in which some states and districts allow individuals to be in charge of classrooms and student learning before proving that they should be there. Teacher candidates must demonstrate the skills and knowledge needed for effective classroom practice.”

I’ve written before about what I see a better model of teacher development than currently exists. This latest proposal offers little if anything. I’m sure it will cause some potentially good teachers to be rejected while allowing mediocre ones through. It appears to be overly focused on methodology rather than subject expertise, springing from a deeply held conviction in the ranks that there is what is called best practice, a concept I’ve never been able to comfortably accept. I always remember that some of the best teachers I ever had defied almost every pedagogical rule. In my own reasonably successful teaching career, while almost always prepared for class, I spent no time on the conventional kind of planning taught in ed schools and judged to be good practice.

When I think of the problems facing teachers in today’s classrooms, I have to wonder about what our national unions decide to do with our dues dollars. I doubt that a new teacher exam is a priority for too many of our members.

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On Feeling Good

In a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I suggested that the moratorium on the consequences of the introduction of the Common Core Standards and the high stakes tests aligned with them proposed by AFT President Randi Weingarten and NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi was a diversion and suggested that all it could potentially do was give us time to adjust to conditions we should resist.

Whether as an answer to my piece, or motivated as a more general response to criticism from the ranks, Iannuzzi argued in a union communication for the wisdom of the moratorium, suggesting that resistance to the Common Core and the tests aligned with it while it might make some feel good was strategically wrong.

For the moment I’ll let my thoughts on the moratorium stand. However I want to address the need of members of an advocacy organization like a union to feel good about the work of the group they support. For that group to continue and thrive, it has to speak to deeply perceived feelings and beliefs. Members need to be offered a vision of something better than their current conditions and be led by strong leaders who embolden them to do hard things on the road to achieving that vision. They need to feel pride in themselves and the organization and the organization’s cause. In the hardest of times, they have to feel that their organization is pushing back. Dignity can be maintained in defeat. Surrender knows no positive emotions.

Yes, I want the members of our education movement to feel good, but that can’t come from acquiescing to a corporate sponsored school reform movement, a movement that is routinizing the work of teachers, that is narrowing the very concept of what it means to be educated, a movement which is objectively robbing the joy from the school days of teachers and students alike.

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Can We Change Our Ways?

I was at a meeting of Long Island teacher union leaders yesterday at which participants broke up in to small discussion groups to talk about the issues of collective bargaining in difficult economic times and the state mandated annual professional performance review after a year’s experience with the law.

I was particularly taken by the discussion of bargaining at which the focus almost immediately turned to the almost universal attack by Long Island managements on the increment system of paying teachers for the amount of graduate education completed and length of service to their school districts.
This attack is not new. It has been developing for some years, led by the big management law firms. If one cared to look, he could see it coming and could see that without some degree of inter-local solidarity, we were going to get picked off one by one. I remember speaking to that point at one of our union gatherings of local leaders at which I was almost hooted down for asking people to think about the possibility that while teacher collective bargaining has always been considered a purely local matter, management has been bargaining as an informal coalition for some time to the extreme disadvantage of local teacher unions. Could we respond in kind, I asked.

You would think I had abjured some omnipotent god. State union staff rose to defend bargaining as a local matter. This heresy had to be nipped in the bud.

I made the same point to my discussion group yesterday, prefacing my contribution with, “Now I know the following is not a popular idea, but just think about it.” Interestingly, while I’m not sure I convinced anyone, I know people were thinking about doing bargaining differently. That’s a beginning, at least I hope so.

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Passionate About Childhood

I want to take a break from testing and Common Core thoughts and focus instead on an experience I had. I was participating in a discussion of our district’s middle school program with parents and administrators. I was so taken by the words of one of the parents that I have replayed the moment a number of times in my mind.

Talking about the opportunities offered at our middle schools, she said, “I just want to have my kid have as many opportunities to find his passion.” Why does this obviously well intentioned lady concern herself with the development of a life’s passion for her twelve or thirteen year old? How did it come to be that that a parent feels it her responsibility to hold such concerns?

When I was thirteen, my passion was a girl named Sherry who had moved to our neighborhood in Brooklyn from Chicago, or “Chicahgo” as she sexily pronounced it. Whatever thoughts I had about my life’s work were fleeting, based on glimpses of adulthood gleaned from the adults who were relatives or parents of my friends. I don’t recall anyone talking to me seriously about discovering my passion. If that had been said to me, I would have retreated in embarrassment, thinking that they had read my dirty thoughts of Sherry.
I went to junior high from 9 to 3, and spent every afternoon playing sports organized by my group of friends, in warm weather in the school yard or on the streets, in winter in the wonderful after school center across the street from my home. Most of the time, I was completely free of adult supervision or direction. No teams, no clubs, nothing related to school – a school free time of hanging out – a childhood, a state of existence that seems to have vanished during my adulthood.

The world has changed parents tell me when I ask them to consider having some mercy on their children and provide them with down time. To be sure it has, but what it has morphed into has not been inevitable. We can refuse to let our kids hop on modern life’s treadmill if we choose. There is no reason why kids should be involved in organized activities from sun-up to sun-down. There is no good reason for them not to have dinner with their families each night. Surely there is more to family than driving children from activity to activity. There is no good reason for kids to do hours of homework each night only to wake up bleary- eyed the next morning. We need to be passionate about demanding a childhood for our children.

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King Continues to Offend

The proof of John King’s incompetence to lead our state’s school grows daily. Unable to endure another besting like the one he took at his forum on the Common Core and testing in Poughkeepsie, his next forum was controlled by local legislators. While audience was a bit more polite, just about every speaker had nothing good to say about the state’s testing program and the roll-out of the Common Core.

As I write this, I’m informed that his forum in Nassau County later this month will be even more controlled, with superintendents of schools handing out tickets to the event and deciding who can speak from their districts. The response of parent and teacher groups should be a resounding, “Screw off – Dr. King. We want you gone.”

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Are the States Failing Common Core?

In both the Huffington Post and New York Times, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, sensing quite correctly that people are catching on to the shortcomings of the Common Core Standards, poses a curious question: “Will States Fail the Common Core?” Her thesis is that a great idea that has the “…the potential to disrupt the cycle of increasing poverty and economic and social stratification by making essential skills and knowledge to all children, not just some” is being victimized by bureaucratic incompetence.

Weingarten would like to blame the backlash against the Common Core on the bungled roll-out in many states, and, to be sure, here in New York the implementation has been less than pretty, so much so that the state politicians are daily distancing themselves from the education commissioner and the Board of Regents who are increasingly seen as thoroughly divorced from what goes on in the classrooms of the state. It seems pretty clear that the commissioner will be thrown under the bus. The only question is when that day will come. Yet, is there any reason to believe that a more competent roll-out would accomplish what Weingarten claims for it?

Almost to a person, the teachers I represent in one of the higher performing districts in New York talk about how age inappropriate much of what the Common Core requires is to the children in their classrooms. They talk passionately about how frustrated many of their children are and how joyless their schools are becoming. If upper middleclass kids are experiencing these kinds of frustrations, if children are acting out in response to the stresses of being asked to do what in some cases they are neurologically incapable of doing, how then are children from economically deprived circumstances, children who begin school already behind students from wealthier zip codes, how are higher standards (assuming that they are in fact higher) going to close this achievement gap? Through what osmotic process are kids who come to school hungry, kids who never see a doctor or a dentist, kids who are homeless going to be lifted out of their benighted circumstances by the power of the Common Core Standards?
Rather than calling for a moratorium on the consequences for students and teachers of the Common Core and the high stakes tests aligned with it, why doesn’t Weingarten call for a trial demonstration of the efficacy of this approach to the amelioration of economic deprivation. Let’s see it work. If it does, critics like me will be glad to shut up.

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Among the Problems with the Common Core

Rockville Centre Principal Carol Burris is out with another piece today speaking cogently to why the Common Core Standards are upsetting students and teachers – much of her critique coming under the heading of the age inappropriateness of what the Standards require children to do. She closes her piece with the suggestion that at the very least, the state needs to support New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) call for a moratorium to provide time to change course. As usual, Burris is right on the mark.

What one reads very little about is the sinister effect the introduction of the Standards is having on teaching. When one attempts to explain the foolishness of insisting as the state has that the Standards be introduced before local school districts had any opportunity to write new curricula, he comes up with a very interesting conclusion. Stupid though some of the policy makers in Albany objectively are, I don’t believe they didn’t realize introducing the Standards in medias res would create all kinds of confusion and gaps in student learning. For sure they knew that phasing in the Standards would create many fewer problems. Why then did they choose to accept the predictable grief? Surely it wasn’t that our children couldn’t wait as Commissioner King likes to say. To believe that one would have to believe that the Common Core Standards are a magic bullet capable of healing the educational ills of America’s children on contact.

In the absence of locally written curricula, the modules being churned out by the State Education Department will rapidly become the de facto English and math curricula for the entire state. In these budget challenging times, most local districts are not going want to come up with the money to pay teachers to write curriculum. So, Commissioner King can preach all he wants that the state is not imposing curricula on local schools districts, but for many that will be the end result of the way in which the standards are being introduced. That has been King’s intention from the beginning.

Even drinkers of the Common Core Kool-Aid will have to admit there is a pronounced teacher-proofing quality to the modules that script instruction in what is a professionally demeaning way. All teachers need do is follow the scripts as the children follow the teacher. Little teacher knowledge, judgment or imagination is called for or necessary. That’s the kind of education that lends itself more directly to measurement on standardized tests. That’s what will ultimately yield a lowering of standards in high performing districts.

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