A Teachable Moment

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

A Pissing Contest Over Teacher Evaluation?

My readers are more than familiar with my opposition to high stakes testing in the evaluation of students and teachers. I believe it fair to say that my voice in New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) was an early influence in moving our union’s position from support for test based teacher accountability all the way to support for the opt-out movement which seeks to encourage parents to withhold their children from these tests. I feel obliged to state my bona fides as a preface to questioning the current approach of our state union to dealing with this issue.

Currently, largely through the work of the NYSUT and the heroic work of the Opt-Out Movement, we have a moratorium on the use of high stakes tests to evaluate teachers. While a majority of students still take the tests with the student growth scores still reported to the district by teacher, scores are advisory. The commissioner of education appears to be proposing that the moratorium be extended, to which NYSUT has responded with a demand that teacher evaluation be returned solely to local school districts. I completely agree that the state has mucked up the teacher evaluation process and that a return to local control of the process is desirable. I’m not sure, however, that now is the time to get into a pissing contest with the state, a state that is apparently willing to extend the moratorium protecting our members.

At a time when most of our political energies should be focused on the mid-term congressional elections in the fall, at a time when we should be focusing our members attention on the importance to our welfare of returning control of the congress to Democrats, failure to win the battle over evaluations will make our job of turning our members out in November all the more difficult. How much easier and safer it would be to take credit for the extension of the moratorium with a reminder to our membership that we continue the battle for a return to locally bargained teacher evaluation systems.

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Useless Drivel

I was recently asked to review the observation file of a young teacher who is worried that he will not receive tenure. Reading through the inane drivel of a half dozen administrators charged with evaluating this teacher, I was reminded of the essential pointlessness of much of the written evaluation of teachers and the urgent need to figure out a better way of determining the fitness of the people in our classrooms. We have huge cadres of administrators spending a significant portion of their days working at a process that is more about coercion and control of teachers than it is about improving instruction.

The typical observation devotes one or two pages to a narrative of the observed lesson. It begins with things like the teacher’s welcoming of the students and proceeds to step by step record the details of the lesson. The often very poorly written narratives are interspersed with allusions to the latest faddish expectations. Nowadays, this usually means references to the state standards, the use of technology and one or more education theories. This is followed by a listing of what the observer deems commendable aspects of the lesson which in turn is followed by a listing of needed improvements. This latter list often takes the form of what the teacher might have done. As my partner Judi always says, “I might have decided to dance naked on my desk, but I chose not to on that occasion.”

Read carefully, most observations say more about the observer than they do about the teacher being observed. Good observations are experienced by teachers with relief. Bad ones tend to arouse more anger than reflection. In all my teaching years, rarely did I see anything worthwhile grow out of this process. Rather, the quirks of observers became universally known and lessons were developed to cater to them.

I’m not unaware of the need for some kind of record upon which to base employment decisions about teachers. I’m not sure I know what that record should be. What I do know is that the current model doesn’t do what is claimed for it. I’ve known terrible teachers with outstanding observation portfolios and very fine teachers who were unable to get tenure. I do know that part of a more valid system entails using universally recognized outstanding teachers. So many of the observations I’ve read over the years were written by people whose words reflected a lack of understanding of the art of teaching.

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Will King Ever Be Gone?

Why are none of our nation education union leaders publically demanding that Hillary respond to Secretary John King’s decree that school with more than 5 percent opt-out rate be treated as failing schools and be sanctioned by the feds? Many of us knew this would happen when President Obama poked his finger in the eyes of America’s teachers by naming King to be his Secretary of Education succeeding Arne Duncan who did more to diminish the stature of the teaching profession than I can remember. We desperately need to hear from Hillary that she will rid us of this anti-public education secretary.

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The Last Day

The last day of the school year. As expected, teachers calling all morning to complain about the score in some box on the rubric used to evaluate their performance, even though their over-all rating is effective or in many cases highly effective. So much time and energy is put into this process. So little of any use comes out of it, either for the employer or the teacher. We would be hard pressed to show that that any of this administrative work has any effect whatsoever on the education of a single child. Yet, we spend fortunes of money on a huge bureaucracy to create the illusion of meaningful evaluation and the weeding out of incompetence. The truth is the truly incompetent usually demonstrate that trait in multiple ways within the first few weeks on the job. What if the real purpose of our evaluation systems is to keep teachers in their place, have them categorically accept all directions they are given, swallow the indignities directed at them from superiors who often know nothing about the art of teaching, what if the real purpose is control though the fear of a negative evaluation?

I’m going to continue to blog over the summer, although perhaps not as often as during the school year. Although I’ll be retiring next week, I plan on continuing this work. So, if you put education out of your mind for the summer, don’t forget to come back in the fall.

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Albany Fails Again

The New York State legislature has finished its yearly session without any significant progress on education issues. For most teachers, the failure to untie student performance on high stakes test from teacher evaluations is the bitterest pill left by the legislature for us to swallow. It’s more than time for parents, teachers and all citizens concerned with the corruption of New York’s schools by the corporate school reform movement to rise up and defeat those in the state senate who value heir political contributions from the reformers more than the children and educators of our state.

Unless and until we target and defeat at least a few supporters of the testing scourge, our public schools will continue to suffer. The same people who support the so-called reforms are by and large the supporters of the property tax cap, charter schools and using public money to support private and religious schools. They must pay a political penalty, or they will succeed in undermining a vital institution of our democracy. It’s time to vote to save public education.

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Students and Teachers As Numbers

Why do we appear to think that unless you give teachers a score for their effectiveness, we are not holding them accountable? A law passed last year has local unions negotiation yet another number based mumbo-jumbo system for evaluating teachers at providing each one with a so-called HEDI Score, an acronym for ratings of highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective. Two of my colleagues and I spent part of yesterday afternoon working with central office counterparts on this exercise in futility. Basing our discussion on guidance documents from the state, documents that could serve English teachers as examples of how not to write, it was obvious to all of us that what we were doing had little, if anything, to do with the evaluation of teachers but was rather an exercise in professional pretense.

Here has been very little improvement, if any, upon the narrative observations of teachers that constituted teacher evaluations prior to the test based accountability reforms of recent years. Imperfect though they were, as good as the skill of the observer for the most part, they told a skilled reader more about the performance of teachers than the reducing a teacher’s work to a score. Union leaders and central office administrators will spend untold hours over the next few months developing teacher evaluation plans that will mean nothing to a single student,will further demoralize teachers and will discredit the politicians who sold out to the corporate school reform movement and passed the laws creating these foolish schemes.

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The Lederman Verdict

So Sheri Lederman, the Great Neck teacher who challenged the growth score portion of her teacher annual professional performance review, won her case. The court ruled that the value added methodology used to arrive at her score was arbitrary and capricious. The ruling is a moral victory, but unfortunately only applied to Lederman and to a particular evaluation she received. The law is now changed, although there is now an even bigger value added component. The fact is both this case and the ruling point to the difficulties and frustrations of seeking a judicial remedy for the pseudo-scientific bull-shit that has turned our schools into test prep institutions and will eventually choke all the life out of the school experiences of our children. It’s why each day I become a more fervent supporter of the opt-out movement, convinced as I am that it is only through civil disobedience that we will end the corporate assault on public education and our nation’s teachers. Sure, there are other legal cases in the hopper that may eventually give us better and broader verdicts, but how many years of curriculum constricting test prep must our children endure before that happened? How much more demoralization must our teacher experience?

Let’s use the Lederman verdict and its declaration that the value added method of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores is pointless – junk science if you will. Let’s use it to educate more parents to the wisdom of opting their children out of the tests that support value added evaluation. When almost no children take the test, there’s no value added anymore.

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Can Sanity Be Coming to Teacher Evaluation?

An extraordinary amount of time money and energy has been spent in the quest for some holy grail of teacher evaluation, all to absolutely no effect other than to severely damage the morale of the nation’s teaching force. Motivate by the empty slogan “a great teacher in front of every classroom, our political leaders, often with the assistance ed school professors, have taken us from evaluation system to evaluation system, all seeking to quantify the unquantifiable. Here in New York, school districts are supposed to have yet a new plain in place before the start of the new school year or face the loss of the recently enacted increase in state aid to education. Districts are in the process of doing this even though we all know that in a year or so we are going to have to do it again.

Here’s what I know about evaluating teachers. Judging their worth on the basis of student test score has been clearly demonstrated to be more about junk science than about judging worth. While it used to be the case that building administrators mostly knew how to judge good and bad teaching, in this day when they tend to come to their positions before they have mastered the craft of teaching, fewer and fewer of them have the foggiest idea of what they are looking at, focused as they are by rubrics that have them seek evidence for various parts of a lesson rather than the impact of the whole.

The best judges of teaching are teachers. In most schools, the experienced teachers know who the good teachers are. They know who should get tenure and whom we would be better off without. When one asks teachers whom they learned the most from about being a teacher, they will invariably tell you they learned from other teachers, more often than not in unplanned moments of interaction rather than any staff development at which some high paid consultant tells them what they ought to know. Yet, in most of our schools, we are indifferent to the thoughts of teachers about who should enter and stay in our profession. We schedule the teacher workday in such a way as to essentially preclude teachers having opportunities to talk to one another about their work. We isolate them for most of their day and have people less experienced and knowledgeable than they judge the quality of their work.

I had a little glimmer of optimism this morning as I read an article by Charlotte Danielson whose academic work has impelled many teacher accountability efforts. She now appears to be rethinking the subject more soberly. We share a belief in the importance of focusing on probationary teachers, making sure they are worthy of career status. We agree too on the importance of teachers engaging each other as a central feature of a system that promotes continuous teacher learning. Who knows? With big name scholars in the filed like Danielson thinking sanely about teacher evaluation, perhaps we can come up with a system that makes sense, even to our politicians.

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Not Again!

“This is a tremendous amount of work with no purpose. I think the people who wrote this don’t understand what it costs to renegotiate … and how now districts are being held hostage to this.” She was talking about the requirement in state law for school districts to negotiate new teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores, even though there is a moratorium on the use of score to evaluate teachers and work is beginning at the direction of the Regent to come up with a new approach to teacher evaluation.

It’s satisfying to know that at least one Regent is thinking about the absurdity surrounding high stakes testing and teacher evaluation in New York State. We have a bunch of new Regents who have begun to distance themselves from the Tisch era of corporate led school reform, a new chancellor who almost from the moment of taking office announced that if she had a child, she would opt her out of the state exams, and we have by all accounts a growing state and national opt out movement of parents and teachers who are seeing to it that fewer children take high stakes tests each year. We had over 100,000 opt outs on Long Island alone this year. What is to be gained from spending countless professional hours working out annual professional performance review plans (APPR) that are bound to change in a very short time? This is the kind of stupidity for which Albany has become famous.

It’s time for the Governor and our legislators to act to remedy this costly, teacher morale destroying foolishness. Changing the system by which we evaluate teacher every couple of years does not inspire the confidence all should have in the accuracy and fairness of that system.

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A Different Common Core

If we were seriously interested in holding our public schools accountable, we would be much more interested in things other than standardized test scores. We would be horrified by how many Americans reject the scientific certainty that all life on earth has evolved over millions of years. We would be appointing one committee or another to determine why so many of the products of our schools know so little about their elected representatives, how their government works and how few of them ever bother to vote. In our discussions of academic standards, we would search for a curriculum that started children learning in their earliest years about what the legacy of slavery has meant to our nation and what it continues to mean to today’s African Americans. We would heavily sanction schools that didn’t find daily ways to engage students about current events, criticizing teachers for their failure to engage contemporary controversies in their classrooms. We would be taking stock of the extent to which America’s students recognize their responsibilities to others and how their political and economic freedoms are inextricably tied to those of their fellow citizens. We might even come up with some mathematical index to gauge the success of our schools as the agents of the renewal of our society. We need to be talking about a different common core.

This subject is on my mind this morning since I read this article in the New York Times on how poorly America’s seem to be doing in getting children to understand climate change and humans contribution to it.

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The more I think about the moratorium on the consequences of high stakes testing for teacher and students in New York State, the more I’m sure that what we’re witnessing is simply a more sophisticated, more media savvy campaign to make the standards, the high stakes test aligned to them and the connection of both to teacher evaluation permanent. None of our leaders in Albany are talking about permanently ending the absurdity of judging teachers on the basis of student tests. What we are hearing is the continuing belief that appropriate tests can be developed for this purpose. What’s also curious is that while there is a moratorium in place for the time being, the state tests will still be given and the results for teacher evaluation will be reported on an advisory basis. In other words, we’ve put a halt on the consequences of these exams because we have no confidence that they measure what they claim to, but we are going to report the results anyway thereby potentially embarrassing some teachers, although that embarrassment is not to be construed as a consequence.

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Don’t Let the Moratorium Become a Trap

Federal law no longer mandates the use of student test data to evaluate teachers. While the 3 through 8 testing mandate remains, it is essentially left to the states as what is done with the test results. New York law, however, mandates a linkage of student test scores and teacher evaluation. While the Regents have adopted new regulations that establish a moratorium on the uses of state test scores in teacher evaluation, the information coming out of the State Education Department make sit absolutely clear that that in the 2019-20 school year, there is an expectation that teacher evaluations will make use of a revised growth model. Thus, if the stupidity of linking teacher evaluation to student scores on high stakes tests is to be consigned to the substantial history of idiotic education reform ideas where it so rightfully belongs, it is going take a change in the law. It becomes increasingly clear that the Cuomo’s Common Core Task-force is a diversion meant to confuse the public into thinking that there has been a meaningful retreat from the corporate driven education reform agenda. Clearly, the Regents have not given up their commitment to yearly testing and on the pseudo-science that claims the efficacy of judging teachers on the student results of that testing. If we fail to build politically on the moratorium, rather than a significant step forward, it will become a dangerous trap.

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New York Standards and a Moratorium

Predictably, the Governor’s task-force on the Common Core is apparently about to recommend that the state develop its own tests and standards with the input of teachers and a four year moratorium on the impact of test data on either students or teacher evaluations. In that Governor Cuomo has a reputation for having the reports of his commissions written before they even convene for the first time, it appears reasonable to expect him to implement most, if not all, of the report. The moratorium appears designed to politically shield Cuomo through his re-election as governor and for seeking the presidency should the Democrats fail in 2016.
I want to keep reminding readers of Cuomo’s craftiness in disarming his opponents and clearing the way for his own agenda. The coalition of opt-out parents, anti- standardized testers and Common Core opponents will need to keep their alliances organized and dedicated to making sure the changes they have been working for become permanent.

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NCLB is Dead. Welcome ESSA!

The nation took a huge step forward today with the Senate’s passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the failed No Child Left Behind Act that ushered in the test and punish approach to public school reform. This bipartisan measure is said to have the support of President Obama, although it must be seen a repudiation of his policies and the work of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Credit is due for the efforts of our two national teacher unions for their very effective work in getting this legislation passed.

The downside of the measure is that it maintains the yearly testing of current law, but differs markedly in permitting the state significant latitude in what is done with the test scores. It also ends the federal mandate that the test scores be tied to the evaluation of teachers. More responsibility for education is returned to the states where issues of academic standards, teacher evaluation and what to do about failing schools will now be addressed without the financial coercion effectively dictating state policies. To be sure, there is still much work to be done to undo the harm done to our schools by the corporate driven test and punish reform movement. We can begin to see, however, movement toward a return to sanity.

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Cuomo’s Strategic Retreat

The media and blogosphere are full of speculation about Governor Cuomo’s apparent turn-away from the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluations. On my way to work this morning, local public radio had a commentator talking about Cuomo’s retreat from the combined attack of the parents and teacher union activists in the opt-out movement. If indeed Cuomo is retreating on the issue, we have to figure it’s a strategic retreat, one most probably designed to get even with those who have had the temerity to disagree with him. That’s simply baked into the character of the governor we have come to know. Just look at his treatment of Mayor de Blasio, a leader in his own party but a rival for the public’s attention.

I implore my colleagues in the movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing to avoid declaring premature victory. I am increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s retreat is temporary, just long enough to dissipate the energy of the anti-testing movement many of whom are already celebrating victory and declaring value added teacher evaluations dead. To do so is to trust Andrew Cuomo. Is there anyone in our movement who does? Then let’s act accordingly and redouble our efforts to bring sanity back to the evaluation of students and teachers.

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Watch Out for a Moratorium

In my November 6 post, I warned about the distinct possibility of the Cuomo administration out maneuvering the parent/teacher movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the tying of that testing to the evaluation of teachers by having his Common Core Commission propose a moratorium of some kind.. Today, the august New York Times is reporting unidentified sources as saying that a moratorium is in the offing. If true, while many will see this as a victory, I’ll be increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s real goal will be to suck the wind out of the teacher/parent opposition to his test and punish approach to public education – lull his opponents into a false sense that they have won. Once the pressure is off of him, he will go right back to supporting the agenda of his Wall Street backers. The only strategic response to a moratorium is to redouble our efforts to end the corporate sponsored reform movement once and for all.

Taking the rest of the week off. Back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Test and Punish Takes a Hit

Good news this morning about progress in the battle to end the scourge of high stakes testing. A Senate and House conference committee has apparently agreed on successor legislation to the No Child Left behind Act that introduced the test and punish approach to school improvement in the United States.

Although we are as yet unable to read the bill, press reports indicate that while the grade three through eight annual testing requirement remains, most of the federal consequences for schools and school districts for insufficient progress have been abandoned in favor of state authority to decide. Also said to be absent is any mandate for the Common Core State Standards or the linkage of student test results to the evaluation of teachers, again such issues being left up to the states to manage.

While this legislation that seems assured passage into law does not guarantee any relief to New York’s teachers and children, state education decision makes will be unable to say that test and punish is the law of the land that must be followed. We will now be able to focus laser-like on demanding sate changes to the Standards and a teacher evaluation process free of the linkage of to student test results. The defense that the fed are making us do it is about to lose some of its potency. The new ESEA will not resolve all of the issues we have with the corporate reform movement. We will need to continue the battle to end the federally mandated annual testing. But ending the mandates on the standards, test based teacher evaluation and federal remedies for students and schools that don’t satisfy arbitrary federal notions of growth is a major step forward. The NEA and AFT deserve big-time credit for helping to shape this legislation.

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Political Progress

I and many others have been critical of the early endorsement by our two national teacher unions of Hilary Clinton before extracting from her some reasonable commitments to our political agenda. Recent days, however, have brought the pleasant surprise that through leadership efforts Hillary is laying out education positions that hold the promise of undoing the severe damage done to our schools by the Obama administration’s brainless test and punish approach to closing the achievement gap between the children of the poor and the more affluent. Brainless is really too mild an epithet for a Race to the Top scam that led cash strapped states in the midst of a financial crisis to embrace the untested Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation plans tied to high stakes tests. Hillary seems to understand this and has pulled away from full-throated support for charter schools, recognizing that they do not educate all of the children public schools do. She has additionally, stated that she knows of no evidence to justify the tying of student test scores to teacher evaluations. I strongly suspect that our leaders have been telling Hillary that their endorsement wasn’t going to amount to much if her positions on education didn’t start to bend in our direction. One way or another, let’s recognize AFT and NEA progress when we see it.

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Our Tax Dollars Wasted

New York State has spent almost 700 million dollars on Race to the Top. 700 million dollars to implement a test and punish culture in our public schools. 700 million to enrage parents and encourage them to opt their children out of the tests on which we have spent millions. Here’s the state’s breakdown on what they spent our tax dollars on. November 2016 will be our opportunity to hold the people who let this happen accountable.

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Teach Strong

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to Teach Strong, a coalition of organizations interested in public education who want to work to make teaching a more attractive career. Both the AFT and NEA are participants in this venture, a venture premised on the belief that the quality of America’s teachers is poor and that changing the way we recruit, train, support and pay teachers is key to having a great teacher in every public school classroom.

Why the hell members are paying dues to the NEA and AFT to have their leadership run down their abilities is beyond me. Much of the bullshit that passes for serious discussion of teacher quality references SAT scores of ed-school students and draws conclusions about their intellect and teaching abilities on the basis of a standardized test that is increasingly coming to be understood to essentially be a fraud. Are there some dumb teachers? Sure! Just as there are some incredibly dumb physicians, dentists, lawyers etc. Here’s the interesting thing from my experience, however. I’ve met numbers of teachers over the years who are not intellectual giants, don’t see themselves as belonging to an intellectual elite, but who are, nevertheless, fantastic teachers, teachers who any sane person would want their children exposed to.

Even the name Teach Strong is offensive, the implication being that we have been teaching weakly. Why is it that we can’t face the fact that talent in any field is unequally distributed so that to expect there to be a “great teacher” in every classroom (whatever that means) is ludicrous. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we could staff every classroom with honors Ivy League graduates, and we wouldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom. We might even be surprised to find that we had made matters worse. The real problems facing America’s public schools have little to nothing to do with the quality of the teacher workforce. We would gain much more from halting the denigration of America’s teachers than we will from raising the bar for entry into the job.

America’s teachers are teaching strong. Many work in places where salaries are so low they must work multiple jobs to maintain themselves and their families. Even in our best schools, places where teachers make considerably more than the median American salary, teachers meet the challenges of working in an hostile environment, one in which they are essentially isolated from other teachers, asked to individualize instruction to over 120 students, evaluated in part on the test results of student scores on high stakes tests, required to respond to the most outrageous complaints with complete equanimity, infantilized by administrators who increasingly have had little teaching experience and where they talk increasingly about career change. Hardly a week goes by that one of our members doesn’t tell me about a conversation she has had with her child who has express interest in becoming a teacher. With guilty looks on their faces, these members tell me how they discouraged their kids from following them into teaching. Like all good parents, they want better than they have for their kids.

We’re already teaching strong. What we need is for people to notice, especially our national union leaders.

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