A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Social Capital and Student Achievement

One of oft repeated stupidities of the education reformers, most notably Arne Duncan, is the goal of having a great teacher in front of every classroom. There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Assuming we could all agree on what qualities constitute a great teacher, what are the odds we could find 3 million of them? To paraphrase newly elected National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, there are people who seriously believe that it is possible for 100 percent of any population to be above average. They believe such things because all things are possible to people who don’t know anything about the subject they’re talking about.

So, if we agree that the goal of a great or even above average teachers in every classroom is a self-contradictory objective, is there another approach to school improvement that offers real possibility of success? A recent article in the Shanker Blog by two University of Pittsburgh researchers summarizing their studies in public schools suggests an approach that will ring completely true to teachers but will not be easily swallowed by our education bureaucrats who believe that all wisdom flows down from them. Professors Leana and Pil argue that “…organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals. Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement and a collective sense of purpose.”

These researchers show that what they call social capital is essential to school improvement. Social capital consists of the “…relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and even between teachers, parents and other key actors in the community.” In schools with rich social capital, teachers have time and the inclination to talk to each other about their work. They feel confident confiding in others about gaps in their knowledge or know-how. They have a sense of working in common cause. Studies conducted by these investigators show strikingly significant gains in student achievement when teachers have a robust social capital support system.

If Leana and Pil are correct, and my experience says they are, then the function of school leaders is to promote the development of social capital in our schools. Yet, current trends are moving in the exact opposite direction, with evaluation systems that single out individuals rather than promoting cooperation and what union guys like me refer to as solidarity. School leaders seeking to promote the development of social capital spend much less time scrutinizing teachers, putting their time and effort into creating a climate of trust and information sharing. Does that sound like the leadership of your district?

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Ed Dep’t Doubles Down on Stupidity

If one needed any further proof that education policy in the Obama administration is bankrupt and that Education Commissioner Arne Duncan is totally unfit to lead the federal education efforts, surely the decision by the feds to revoke the state of Washington’s waiver from the demand of the No Child Left behind Act that mandate that every child be proficient in reading and math should remove any doubts one might have had. Yet this is precisely what Duncan has done because the Washington legislature refused to pass a bill tying teacher evaluations to the test results of their students. Thus, even schools in which test results improved very significantly have been rated failing and 20 percent of the federal funds must now be set aside for tutoring or sending students to schools not deemed to be failing. There is just one word for actions like this – STUPID!

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Time for Regents to Fade Away

Isn’t time for New York to do away with the Regents? Isn’t it time that citizens be able to hold their elected representatives accountable for education policies rather than having the un-elected Regents as a buffer between the citizenry and the people we elect? How different things would be if that were the case. With polls increasingly showing waning public support for New York’s education policies, we could conceivably change them as soon as January first. Instead, led by the imperious Ms. Tisch, the Regents are talking about doubling down on the abject stupidity of tying teacher evaluations to student results on high stakes tests that are increasingly divorced from any sane notions of the age appropriate education of children. It’s time for the Regents to fade into the history of education in our state.

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Respecting Teachers’ Judgment

This post belongs to a series I have been writing intermittently about standards teachers could support. Other posts are Searching For Standards Teachers Could Support, Teacher Written Standards would be Age Appropriate and Public Schools and Citizenship.

Teachers could respect standards that respected their professional judgment. Any set of standards presumes a predictable classroom environment in which they are to be applied. In any school, however, as social beings, children and teachers come to class usually prepared for the planned lesson but sometimes not. Sometimes, those are the best days of all. I was reminded of this the other day as I came across a tweet by a 5th grade teacher in a neighboring district who wrote, “Successfully tossed today’s plans aside and introduced my class to the works of Pete Seeger.. this beats CC any day.”

We call these things teachable moments, but that term doesn’t catch what’s going on here. For the 5th grade teacher quoted here, Pete Seeger’s death was a moving event – Seeger having been important to him in ways we can’t begin to calculate. His relationship with his 5th graders is clearly such that he “needed” to share his knowledge and feelings about this great musician who played crucial roles in most of the great social movement of the last sixty years. His love and respect for Seeger’s work was important to share with children he clearly cares about.

His lesson on Seeger was a success in this teacher’s eyes, but any teacher can tell from his tweet that he knows the education bureaucracy he works for with their assessments, pacing charts and progress monitoring wouldn’t appreciate his deviation from his Common Core lesson plan. I’ll go with tis teacher’s standards any day. If you want to hear the voice of what my standards point to as a highly effective teacher, check out his Twitter feed at @rrato.

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Leave It to Cuomo

Like in a tire ripped open by a New York pothole, the air is rapidly escaping from so-called education reform movement in New York. With parents and teachers becoming increasingly aroused to action against the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them, with members of the legislature beginning to respond to the ire of their constituents, with New York City under its new mayor poised to undo the Bloomberg corporate reforms, this is the time our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decides it would be wise to call for the demonstrably failed concept of teacher merit pay to be grafted on to the equally stupid annual professional performance review process that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations. Is there no end to Cuomo’s pandering to the corporate reformers? Probably not, as they are the ones who have filled his campaign fund with millions of dollars, probably enough to scare off any serious challenger.

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Weingarten’s About-face

I congratulate AFT President Randi Weingarten for finally coming to the conclusion that value added measures of teacher performance are a sham – there being no research that establishes their validity. While I welcome her to my side in the battle against obsessive testing, as the elected leader of a union I belong to, it’s not that easy to forget the damage her support for the linkage of student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluation has caused. It’s much easier to forgive Diane Ravitch who was never elected and paid to represent me. Despite serious opposition to her position from the rank and file, Weingarten persevered, sincerely believing that she was right – that she had insights many of the members lacked. She proved to be wrong.

Should the insurgent candidates in the upcoming NYSUT elections prevail, they will do so in large measure because of their perceived failure to handle the testing/teacher evaluation issue appropriately. As NYSUT makes up about half of the AFT membership, it will be interesting to see if Weingarten meets a similar fate.

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TEACHER WRITTEN STANDARDS WOULD BE AGE APPROPRIATE

This post is part of the series of posts seeking national standards classroom teachers and parents could proudly support. The introduction to the series can be found here.

Despite all of what is essentially propaganda to the contrary, classroom teachers were not hands-on participants in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards. If they had been, we wouldn’t have parents and teachers across the nation in an uproar, particularly those dealing with young children.

We know beyond a doubt that children develop at different rates. In an ideal world, not all children would start school at 5 years of age. We would observe their development carefully and begin to formally educate them when they were ready. In a system of public schools that must accommodate millions of children, that isn’t practical. We have begun them all in most places at five, but we provided some broad flexibility in at least the early grades so that kids with lags in aspects of their development were accounted for and hopefully caught up to their peers. That is, the expectations for the various grades were flexible enough that kids of a broad spectrum of abilities could still be considered to be doing satisfactorily.

With the Common Core Standards, at least as they are being implemented in New York, that is far from the case. We have what I call the compounded educational felony of age inappropriate standards promulgated nationally by people with, to be kind, very limited understanding of the cognitive development of children, passing them on to incompetents like we have in Albany to be interpreted and expressed in the so-called modules on the State Ed website. That leaves classroom teachers with little children who can barely hold a pencil properly coloring in bubbles on answer sheets to verbal math problems which they can’t read with any degree of precision. It leaves them shoving vocabulary words down the throats of children who may parrot the words back but who are not ready yet to store them in working memory.

Finally, no teacher I know would have just dumped the Common Core State Standards without first thinking through the learning gaps that need to be filled in the transition to this new approach. Just yesterday, I was talking to a colleague who teaches 6th grade math in a district serving a high percentage of children who live in poverty, kids who for a variety of reasons have gaping holes in their learning. She reminded me that math knowledge is acquired sequentially. Miss some basic concepts in first grade, and you’re probably going to have difficulties in grade 2. Unaddressed, the gaps grow exponentially. Try as a child to deal with math that is served up in non-traditional ways, ways in which many elementary teachers find it difficult to understand and the learning gaps are multiplied by at least several factors. Send these kids home with homework that their parents don’t recognize as math, and you have guaranteed that numbers of them will see themselves as bad at math for the remainder of their lives. Many will actually be. As bad, parental support for public schools is undermined as parents send their kids to schools that frustrate them and diminish their self-confidence.

Good, highly experienced teachers, teachers from inner city, rural and suburban schools writing national standards and planning for their implementation would have foreseen these problems and attempted to plan for them. The standards would have been informed by the essential skills of people with broad experience and knowledge of what children at a given age can be expected to do. We could still have such standards, if the Obama administration would come to its senses, shed itself of the influences outfits like the Gates Foundation and other corporate interests and work with our two national unions to recruit real teachers to rewrite the Common Core State Standards that in their current iteration will accomplish nothing.

Even then, however, we would still be faced with national disgrace that a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty.

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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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Scrap Salary Schedules Says Van Roekel

The sad truth is that both the National education Association and the American Federation of Teachers support the corporate sponsored drive for digital accountability for teachers and students and the Common Core Standards that are aligned with this testing epidemic. Both grow progressively more distant from the work of the people they represent to the point where their national presidents sound increasingly like Bill Gates and the other corporate reformers.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel speaking to the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago earlier this month declared himself against conventional salary schedules that pay teachers on the basis of academic preparation and years of classroom experience and in favor of systems that at least in part measure and reward merit. At a time when the increment system is under attack at bargaining tables throughout the country, making speeches like this is tantamount to aiding and abetting the efforts of boards of education to control teacher wages – to have their wages stagnate like those of more and more Americans – to push back against the unions who have brought teachers into the middle class. In short it’s abjectly stupid and harmful. It brings kudos from the reformers who see the NEA’s support for corporate public school reform as evidence of our union being “forward thinking” to be sure, but it has caused members to wonder whose side their leaders are on.

If Van Roekel felt compelled to attack the so-called single salary schedule, he might have had the foresight to advance the idea of a pro- union, solidaristic schedule, one predicated on the concept that two people doing the same work should appropriately receive the same pay. He might have advanced the idea of a probationary period during which teachers are paid an apprenticeship wage, perhaps spending part of their day being mentored rather than actually teaching and advancing upon completion of a reasonable probationary period to the maximum salary on current schedules. Although this too would be controversial with the rank and file, he could at least show how such a system has members earning more dollars over the course of a career than the current system. But solidarity is just a word, I fear, to our national union leaders. They seem to find it easier to support ideas that pit member against member and undermine our ability to resist our enemies.

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Taking a Risk for Justice

A couple of days ago, at a union meeting of leaders from adjacent school districts, I listened to Jeanette Deutermann, the leader of the Long Island Opt-Out movement, parents who will not allow their kids to be subjected to New York’s obsessive testing. Deutermann spoke eloquently of how the upsetting experience of her child during the state exams led her to start asking questions about them, the answers to which were deeply disturbing. She shared her concerns with some friends, tied into what opt-out movements in other states were doing, and the Long Island movement was born.
Deutermann is clearly looking for a way to work with teachers. She doesn’t want to get them in trouble, but she knows that it is only through a close alliance of parents and teachers that the powers in Albany will be more fearful of an enraged public than the corporate leaders sponsoring the current testing regime as a tool to discredit public schools.

In response to Deutermann’s remarks, I spoke about the need for teacher unions to support the Opt-Out movement if we are to maintain our credibility with our parent communities. At the very least, I maintained, we ought to be encouraging our own members to opt their kids out of a testing regime that we often claim is tantamount to child abuse. Addressing the concerns of several leaders that there were risks associated with defying the education department both for individuals and school districts, I tried to bring my colleagues back to their roots.

I observed that the brave souls who started our teacher union movement took far greater risks than I was talking about. That, for example, the brave teachers who undertook the first strike on Long Island did so with a law on the books that permitted the state to terminate them for striking. However, they knew what all who strive for social justice know – that there is always risk in confronting injustice, but the risk of tolerating it is greater. Those who take the battle on are not fearless. They get scared, but they do what they have to anyway.

I don’t know if I convinced anyone. I do know I’m sick and tired of union meetings where leaders find an assortment of excuses to avoid taking action. Too many of our unions have adopted a service model instead of an organizing one, the one that brought us from what was essentially serfdom to economic security. I know too that if we rise up and use our numbers to unite with pro-public education citizens and confront the privatizers, the testocrats and the plain stupid, we can save public education and our profession.

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Gates and Our Union

Some of my colleagues were upset by Diane Ravitch’s blog post for yesterday from which they learned that last year our state union accepted a grant from the Gates Foundation to its Education and Learning trust of $500,000. I’m happy for their surprise. I’m even happier for their anger! I hope they channel their anger into action.

While I didn’t know of this, even though I’m a member of the NYSUT Board of Directors, I’m not in any way shocked by this news. That the NEA and AFT have both been altogether too cozy with Gates has been clear for years. Why would anyone be surprised that the AFT’s largest state affiliate would try to translate that coziness into dollars? Where was the outrage two AFT conventions ago when the featured speaker was none other than Bill Gates talking about teacher accountability and how to measure it? Very few people walked out of the hall with me. Our leaders encouraged us to be polite to the man who has done more to discredit teachers and public education than anyone I can think of. Our leaders believed for a time that a seat at Bill Gates’ table would enable us to influence the policy of his foundation, ameliorating the negative influence of his money on our profession. I believe they have started to learn otherwise. We can see them changing course. Their policies haven’t worked. Our members are increasingly demanding action. They are starting to get it.

Both AFT and NEA have gotten considerably more aggressive in the anti-testing campaign. While they can’t yet bring themselves to openly support the Opt-Out movement, it’s beginning to lo0k as though they will have to if we are to maintain any credibility with parents of the children we serve. When AFT President Randi Weingarten calls for a moratorium on “the consequences” of the Common Core Standards because of the slipshod way in which they are being implemented, she surely knows that call will go unheeded and that the only next step open to us will be to join the growing public movement against the Common Core. Both organizations are making serious efforts to get away from service oriented unionism and back to their organizing roots. Witness the call of New York’s leaders for a mass demonstration in Albany on June 8 to demand a sane testing regime and adequate funding of our schools. Better yet, witness the organizing work being done at the local level to make this day a huge success.
So, colleagues, be angry. Let your anger move us to action. Let’s get organized. Let’s start taking some risks to defend public education. We’re going to have to do more than vote and write letters to save the institution we love.

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Gates Is At It Again

In a show soon to air on PBS, Bill Gates is said to be going to air his latest teacher improvement plan. Taking a step back from student test scores as a measure of teacher quality, he is now proposing that the country spend 5 billion dollars to put a camera in every classroom so that God knows who can watch and evaluate teachers’ performance. It can’t be long before some data driven dunce comes up with a scale that gives principals 25% of the teacher score, parents 25%, students 25% and taxpayers in the community another 25%.

There are literally countless people working in America’s public schools who know infinitely more about educating children and judging the quality of teaching than Bill Gates. We almost never get to hear them. In America today, the value of an idea is directly proportional to the money behind it.

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A Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret in the debate about the role of testing in our public schools is that the more we rely on tests to evaluate teachers, the more truly ineffective teachers we will have in our nation’s classrooms. That’s because the easiest teaching there is to do is teaching to a test. It requires very limited knowledge and even less imagination. Get the students convinced that the “must” pass the test, and by and large they will accept the drill and kill that is becoming increasingly standard fare. It’s probably even true that we could get very similar test results with high tech devices and a security guard watch over the students as they follow endless links on the road to mastery scores on their tests.

In the old Soviet Union there was a joke among workers that went, “The government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.” In the education world of the testocracy, we will increasingly pretend to teach, and our students will pretend to learn. After a brief period, nobody will even know we are pretending.

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Sunday Morning Talk

he Sunday morning talk shows are a highlight of my week. A pile of fresh bagels, an assortment of smoked fish, lots of coffee and politics. What could be better? Watch a few. Record a few. The whole day accounted for, especially when there is no baseball to watch.

But on ABC’s This Week, Michelle Rhee hawking her new book disturbed my morning as not even war reports can. Here was this media-made expert again being given attention as though she accomplished something important and actually knows something about public schools. It’s maddening to see the deference she receives, even though there is a growing body of evidence that her accomplishments as head of the D.C. schools is also a largely media concocted story. Confronted by George Stephanopoulos with the fact that there is growing public opposition to the standardized testing that she has championed, this master media manipulator began to back away from her staunch advocacy of testing, sensing that that her economic future may depend on public popularity. Sounding very much like national union leadership, Rhee thinks that we need a balanced testing regime, although exactly what balanced means to people like her she has yet to say. The most infuriating part of the interview was when Stephanopoulos as her what she had learned from her D.C. experience, and Rhee, a wide toothy smile on her face, said that she probably shouldn’t have fired a fired a D.C. principal on TV. I guess for her that passes for moral growth.

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Will Seattle Be the Spark?

I’ve written many times that the only way many of the so-called education reforms that are destroying our good schools are going to be defeated is through the civil disobedience of educators and parents. Parents have been in the vanguard of fighting the plague of high stakes testing. Growing numbers of them are keeping their kids home on the days that the tests are administered. Today the first teachers joined the battle. The teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle have announced their refusal to administer the state tests that are used to evaluate instructors. Their press release is contained in this blog post I found. The writer calls upon teachers and their unions to support these courageous teachers. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written the following to them:

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers support your efforts to end the scourge of high stakes testing that is destroying public education in the United States. We hope that your courage sparks teachers and their unions throughout the country to defend their profession from the data driven drones who seek to measure us out of existence.

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Kids Thinking of Gaming the System

While I was thinking of what I would write about today, I got an email from a colleague who reported a conversation he overheard between among a group of sixth grade middle school students in our district.

“It’s very easy, if you don’t like your teacher, just fail the second test on purpose, and the teacher will get in trouble.”

What the kids were clearly talking about is the pretest teachers of many subjects were forced to give at the beginning of the school year to set a baseline against which to judge the academic growth of their student in June. So, add to the list of stupidities inherent in the new teacher evaluation system the gaming of the system itself by eleven year olds.

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Thinking About Chicago

The focus of the media in the aftermath of the Chicago teacher strike appears to largely be on the new evaluation process partially tying teacher salaries to state examinations. While none of the mainstream press appears to have the details of the agreed to evaluation plan, and while some of it at least remains to be worked out, the public is told that this will bring some significant benefit to the students of the Chicago public schools. It will bring nothing to the students. It will bring anxiety and bitterness to the teachers. Fine teachers will have their reputations tarnished, while bad ones will be deemed highly effective. Politicians like Rahm Emanuel will smugly posture, spouting bloviated bull about how they had the balls to take on the teachers’ union. The kids in the Chicago schools will still be sitting in huge classes without the support services that just might help them overcome the handicaps poverty has imposed on many of them. When, as it surely will be, this teacher evaluation canard is exposed, those who long for the demise of public education will point to this evaluation fiasco as proof that nothing good can come from public schools.

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Guidance?

For those who believe Governor Cuomo’s bull about teacher unions dragging their heels at negotiating agreements on the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) legislation, follow this link to the latest in a seemingly endless series of guidance documents from the New York State Education Department. Can a procedure for the evaluation of teachers that takes 92 pages of opaque prose to explain possibly improve the education of a single child in our state? And what reason is there to believe that there won’t be other guidance documents forthcoming that will change what we think we understand about the rules today? As an administrator in my district quipped the other day, “We’re waiting for the guidance document on guidance documents.” Fortunes of money have and will be spent on this nonsense. Thousands and thousands of hours have been spent by teachers and administrators working on developing plans. Children will be increasingly subjected to more state tests, and not a single child will be helped by the process because it doesn’t address any of the problems faced by our public schools. It is we who should be providing guidance to the no-nothings in Albany. My suggestion? Leave now. The careers of the folks in Albany are bound to be ruined when these plans are fully implemented and the stupidity of this endeavor becomes broadly apparent.

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Public Humiliation

The release in New York City of the ratings of teachers on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized tests, data which is know to be highly flawed, is a new low for the scumbags who believe that we can improve our public schools by shaming our teachers into doing a better job. When Bill Gates and Chancellor Meryl Tisch, two committed leaders of the testocracy, are alarmed by this event, even the diehards ought to pause. In predictable fashion, the New York Times, which litigated to obtain teacher scores, has started to showcase higher scoring teachers, giving them a dubiously deserved celebrity which will inevitably isolate them in their schools and, much worse, create the impression that the other teachers in the school are undesirable. It’s enough to make one puke. The only hopeful note is a report suggesting that city teachers have had enough and are ready to fight. We could well use their leadership in that direction! If the public humiliation of teachers doesn’t cause a militant response, there will be no hope lest for the education labor movement.

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And the Stupidity Unfolds

Sunday’s New York Times featured a front page article entitled “States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations” that is remarkable for its ironic understatement of the problems inherent in the new teacher evaluation protocols spreading flu-like across the country. The article opens with a Nashville principal perplexed at having emerged from watching what he understood to be a very good literature lesson but knowing that the rubric he is expected to use to evaluate the teacher’s performance will render his official report of the lesson less than very good. He will be forced to give parts of it the lowest possible score for what he knows to be foolish reasons. This is one of the “quirks” that some states are looking to fix, we are told.

It’s much more than “quirks” in the evaluation procedure that is at the heart of the principal’s problem. Assuming that he knows what he is talking about and that the lesson was to his experienced eye very good, what sort of lunacy is it to oblige him to suspend his professional judgment and mindlessly apply a rubric that assigns values to parts of a teacher’s lesson and loses track of the effect of the whole in the process? No, it’s not a quirk in the rubric driven evaluations that need fixing. It’s the entire concept that renders both teacher and principal slaves to an essentially arbitrary model of what a lesson should be, a model that degrades the craft of teaching. How long do we think it will take for students to figure out the rubric from experiencing lessons of the same shape period after period, day after day? “Here comes the group work,” I can hear them saying now.

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