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 August, 2015

Testing and Higher Education

In recent days, I’ve had two parallel experiences that further solidified my belief that high stakes testing is destroying any notion of meaningful education.

My partner Judi Alexanderson and I visited her daughter Kris, a history professor at the University of the Pacific. Unlike many in her business, Kris, although research oriented, tries hard to create an interesting learning environment in her courses, putting very serious thought and effort into planning each session. In one of the many conversations we had over our visit, she talked at some length at the frustration she and her colleagues experience getting today’s college students to engage in serious discussions of the content of the courses they teach. Too often they express no opinions, insisting in their exchanges with their professors that they just want to know what will be expected of them on examinations and writing assignments. Kris suggested that she had very similar experiences at Drexel and Rutgers where she previously taught.

A week later I had a visit with my brother Paul, a physician who recently retired from a career in academic medicine, including a stint as an assistant dean of a medical school. I mentioned to him my conversation with Kris Alexanderson, at which he promptly exclaimed, “I had the same problem with the medical students.” He went on to explain how when many medical schools made the made passing the National Boards a condition of graduation, students began to approach their studies through that lens, expressing interest primarily in what would be on that test.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my views on standardized testing and its corruption of education. It was eye opening to me, however, to hear two educators in vastly different fields of higher education talk of how the interests of their students have narrowed to what they can expect on their examinations.

Today’s test pushers talk about preparing students to be college and career ready. That expression irritates me no end, especially if as I suspect these two educators are correct about what is happening in higher education. One day soon, we will awake to the painful irony that all that we did in the name of preparing kids for college and careers ill-prepared them for both, additionally robbing them of the satisfaction of being educated.

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Worker Self-management and Public Schools

The more I’ve worked in and around public education the more convinced I’ve become of the need to fundamentally change the way in which they are organize. The hierarchical structure of our school systems promotes inefficiency, depresses the creativity and intelligence of the staff and undermines the democratic values the institution was created to foster. Vast sums are spent on level upon level of management whose efforts lend little to the mission of the enterprise – the education of young people

I found myself thinking again about teacher management of our schools as I listened this morning to a BBC program on worker self-management as it is practiced in several companies- large enterprises in which there are no managers. Decisions once made by bosses are arrived at by consensus of the workers who take responsibility for every aspect of the operations. Here’s the link to this twenty minute segment. How might we reconceptualize our public schools so that those who do the essential work of educating assume responsibility for their work? How might such a discussion lift us out of the accountability morass we are in?

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Are You Threatening Us?

Commissioner Elia has been making noises about exploring sanctions on districts that have high numbers of students opting out of the state examinations. That stupid talk suggests a lack of know how even more profound than her predecessor whose disregard for the thoughts and feelings of the parents in our public schools quickly became legendary. I don’t recall the arrogant King ever seriously threatening districts the way Elis has.

I strongly suspect that the more she blusters the higher the opt-out numbers will be. I believe it’s fair to observe that the highest opt out numbers last year came from districts that will suffer no great losses from a cutoff of Title I federal funding. The citizens of these districts are not about to be cowed by the threats of a Florida bureaucrat who is deaf to the problems high stakes testing has created. They will not stand by and allow the so-called reform movement destroy the fine schools their high taxes have created. Every Elia threat will enhance the cause of ending the test and punish assault on public education.

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Big Surprise: There’s a Teacher Shortage

The top domestic story in this morning’s New York Times concerns the teacher shortage in many areas of the country. Imagine that! In is few short years, we have gone from a glut of teachers to a shortage. It’s not hard at all to understand how that has happened. Neither is it hard to figure out how to fix the problem.

The financial crisis hit states very hard, causing huge drops in revenue which in turn caused them to cut state aid to local school districts that solved their budget crises by laying off teachers. Across the country, thousands of teachers were excessed, many never to return to the profession, if they were lucky having found new careers. Those teachers who survived the layoffs found their wages frozen or stagnating and their working conditions deteriorating, both as a result of scarce financial resources and the acceleration of the corporate school reform movement’s drive to discredit public education with the goal of privatizing it. Key to discrediting the institution was a growing cult of accountability that has sought to tie student performance on standardized test to teacher evaluations, even though no reputable statisticians support the validity of this process. In many places, governors, often backed by the same forces pushing the so-called reform movement, launched attacks on education unions that ran the gamut from seeking an end to tenure to withdrawing or curtailing collective bargaining and pension rights. In short, that which made teaching attractive to many, job security, union wages, defined benefit pensions, the opportunity to do interesting, rewarding work and the certainty of a decent retirement began to evaporate.

With thousands laid off, with working teachers increasingly disgruntled, with much of the media reinforcing the lie that public education is failing America’s children, with teaching increasingly becoming test preparation, with all kinds of senseless barriers being created to qualify as a teacher being erected, is it any wonder that fewer young people are going into education. Why would a young person seek a career in which practitioners are increasingly presumed to be ineffective no matter what they do, where they are over scrutinized and under supervised, where they must hold multiple jobs to support their families and where their work is increasingly routinized? What is it that our society believes is going to attract them in sufficient numbers?

The attacks on teachers will either cease or the trend towards a growing shortage will continue. Young people seek careers that provide some dignity and status. Those are increasingly hard to come by working in public education today. Sadly, I find myself discouraging young people I meet from seeking to become teachers. I feel ethically obliged to do so.

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Blue Ribbon?

I was amused this morning to read of the concern by some that a couple of schools on Long island may not achieve the federal Blue Ribbon School award because a sizable number of their students opted out of the high stakes state exams this year. These awards have been around for some time and were an early facet of the drive to value schools on the basis of test results in English and math, the narrowest measures of the value of a school’s academic program. The article features a picture of principal Kerry Dunne holding a voluminous application for the award, an application that it’s said took some sixty hours to complete. SIXTY HOURS!

My amusement at the stupidity of a professional putting so many hours into an award that in the end means nothing to the children in her school soon faded as my mind turned to the invidious comparison between school administration in this age of corporate education reform and when I began my career as a public school teacher.

Back then, the administration of Plainview-Old Bethpage promoted a very different kind of competition. Teachers were encouraged to try new things, to teach from their strengths, to avoid mindless uniformity. Our superintendent would come to one school and talk about the exciting new thing he had just seen at a school across town. Teachers from other district were always coming to our schools to see some new thing we were doing. For me the encouragement to do new things began the day I was hired.

At my final interview with the superintendent, he spent our time talking to me about my recent Peace Corps experience in Ghana. Among his questions was whether I had learned anything about African literature. When I told him I had, he immediately asked me if I would consider teaching a ten week senior elective on African literature and, if I would, to let him know as soon as possible how much money I would need for the books I would select to read.

Today we compete to be like everyone else, to get the highest test scores, to have the most AP papers written, to win the most contests, to achieve the highest ranking from pop news magazines, to be Blue Ribbon Schools. Our students compete to build resumes that have a remarkable uniformity to them.

The real Newsday story should have been the hope inspired by the opt-out movement that we are on the road to returning to the day when teachers were encouraged to teach and schools were more motivated by more that pointless competition. If by opting out of the test and punish model of education we return to the day when schools were schools, we will have achieved much more than a blue ribbon.

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