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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Regents Double Down on State Tests

If you thought the New York State regents were a ridiculous pack of imbeciles, think again. You may well have denigrated the cognitive powers of the world’s imbeciles.

As parents and teachers grow increasingly aware of the damaging effects of high stakes testing and the linkage of that testing to the evaluation of the state’s teachers, what do our Regents do? The attempt to meet the mounting pressure on them to reduce the amount of testing by asking districts to base 20% more of teachers’ evaluation on the state examinations. Just as we are learning from experience that, as we expected, there is essentially no relationship between the growth scores teachers receive and their ability to teach, our Regents move to double down on.

This is clearly beyond imbecilic. It speaks to their complete incompetence to oversee education policy. If these people had to stand for election, as I increasingly believe they should, they would be gone at the first election.

Last year over 60,000 children were withheld by their parents from taking the state examinations. Let’s hope this year that number doubles. Let’s also hope that New York’s voters send Governor Cuomo a message through the Democratic primary and the general election, a message that he and Speaker Silver take to heart and one which causes them to end the ignorance that is being palmed off as education policy.

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NEA RA – Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the recently concluded NEA Representative Assembly. They’re more first impressions rather than carefully thought out ideas, but I know that I will be thinking and writing more completely about them in the future.

I both understand and am angered by what I see as the blind support of African American NEA leaders for many of the administration’s ed policies. They appear to broadly accept the Obama/Duncan view that the Common Core State Standards are going to significantly lift minority children out of poverty. How that happens, no one seems to articulate beyond repeating incessantly that if we hold all children to high standards, they will meet them.

When the teachers in my upper middle class district tell me that about a third of our students are floundering with the CCSS, how can anyone believe that children who begin school with a documented achievement gap are going to thrive academically when highly advantaged children aren’t? Where in the CCSS is the magic that is going to raise up the children who until now have been largely forgotten by society. This time, I fear, African Americans will be had by one of their own, not that that makes this stupidity any less revolting.

The RA passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, something some of us tried to pass three times before only to be defeated by NEA leadership fearful of offending the President and losing their seat at the table, albeit at their master’s feet. The mood has clearly changed. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize the growing anger of the membership into a movement. Incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has all the skills to do that. Whether she has the brains and heart to do so is unknown. If she like too many leaders becomes the mouthpiece for NEA Executive Director John Stocks, nothing good will happen. Stocks talks about organizing at every NEA meeting I’ve been at. The more he talks about it and the more I get to talk to staff who are assigned to his “organizing” priorities, the more convinced I am that he is in way over his head. With all of the talk about organizing, once again the NEA assembled close to nine thousand union activists to a meeting and did nothing to send each one home with a task to do around a national organizing drive. It’s enough to make people like me crazy.

Finally, there were several new business items that sought to investigate the magnitude of the contributions of people like Bill Gates to the NEA. Those efforts were beaten back, but I sense the members’ desire for transparency in this regard is growing. They know their leaders have essentially been co-opted and seem to want to expose the extent to which they have been sold pernicious ideas about testing and teacher accountability by corporate elites with no legitimate interest in improving the nation’s schools. Were I Lily, I might open the books on this issue to signal an abrupt, clean break with the policies of the past.

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A Small Step Forward

So New York now has a moratorium on the consequences of the Common Core high stakes tests for both students and teachers where student scores cause a teacher to be judged “developing” or “ineffective.” That’s not a small thing to the teachers in some districts who were clobbered last year.

However, it is, as NYSUT President Karen Magee suggested, a first step in what has to be a process of finding a teacher evaluation system that hold teachers accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do. This legislation does nothing to stop the absurdity of forcing all children to meet a set of standards that take no account of what children are able to do at various stages of their development. Neither does it give us a sane testing policy, one aimed at informing instruction rather than disciplining and punishing.

I’m sure Governor Cuomo thinks NYSUT now owes him an endorsement for his generous easing of the consequences of high stake testing on our members. I hope we’ll be smarter than that. I hope we’ll put time, money and effort behind a candidate who will offer a vision of a real, developmentally appropriate education for every child in our state, an education that prepares our children to learn, not to qualify for the next school or job, one that enables them to be engaged citizens of a society in which the quality of life improves with each generation.

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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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The Political Ground Shakes

The news this weekend was the board of directors of NYSUT, the state teachers union in New York, voting no confidence in Commissioner of Education John King and calling for his removal. This vote came shortly after the state senate’s education committee told King that he must either pause and fix the implementation of the Common Core State Standards or the legislature would. The political ground on which Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King stand is starting to shake. Unless they are prepared to make major changes to the state’s testing regime, including uncoupling student test results from teacher evaluations, and the implementation of the Common Core, it can’t be long before they are swallowed up as state politicians running for election this fall scurry to avoid being devoured by a progressively angry public. The next rumble will come in a few weeks when numbers of parents refuse to let their children take the state assessments. That will be the parental vote of no confidence which our legislators will surely hear.

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Cuomo’s Merit Pay

While there is much to take issue with in Governor Cuomo’s budget, his proposal for teacher merit pay is the most revealing of his complete and total ignorance when it comes to education. Having brokered the devil’s deal on teacher annual professional performance reviews (APPR), he now proposes to double down on that fraudulent process by giving teachers rated “highly effective” a bonus. Talk about believing one’s own bull! Take an evaluation process that no responsible educator believes in and use is as the instrument for determining merit. Great for teacher morale! Great for encouraging teaching to the test. Great for wasting taxpayer money. Great for contributing toward the mockery education policy in New York has become.

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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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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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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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Unintended Consequences

I had a troubling conversation with several high school teachers last week that highlighted one of the many unintended consequences of the new teacher evaluation system.

Before this new system was foisted upon us, it was the custom of most supervisors to inform a teacher that she was to be observed at a particular time. In most schools, this practice was seen as polite, the alternative being for a supervisor to be thought of as swooping down on a teacher, hoping to catch her doing something wrong. Under the new law, however, at least one of the observations of a teacher’s performance must be unannounced, with the result that many teachers, I’m told, are holding off trying new approaches to the material they teach until they have had their unannounced observation. It’s too risky to try new things. You stand the potential to lose too many points on your annual professional performance review. Save the creative, risky stuff for a later, less risky time.

So a system that was designed to avoid supervisors seeing canned lessons is ironically promoting canned lessons rather than the experimentation that improves teachers’ skills, makes for exciting classes and prevents the burn-out that come from teaching the same thing, in the same way, year after year.

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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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