A Teachable Moment

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

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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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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Get the Testing Under Control

I attended a meeting of Long Island teacher union leaders the other day, a meeting focused on the recent deal on teacher evaluation (APPR) cut between the State Education Department, our state union (NYSUT) and the Governor. The agreement expressed in draft legislation attempts clarify ambiguities in a similar law passed in 2010.

All of the leaders expressed anger at the idea that teachers will now be evaluated in part on the basis of their students’ scores on state and local assessments. All appeared hungry to fight back against what they see is an inaccuracy-riddled, degrading evaluation process.

While I couldn’t agree more that we have to fight back, the question is how to go about doing so. I believe that a frontal assault on the APPR is difficult, unless we are willing to think about mass civil disobedience in supports of our push-back. The simple reality is that we are unfortunately not well organized enough to realistically think about such measures.

The way to attack the new evaluation process is to attack the testing mania that birthed it. There is a natural coalition to be formed to save our schools (SOS – I like that.) from the deadening, debilitating effect that so-called high stakes tests have had. In my district, they have even caused a perfectly fine school to be labeled a School in Need simply because all of our self-contained special education students are housed there, their scores triggering this designation.

Teachers hate these tests. Ditto building administrators and central office leaders. Parents are increasingly wondering why their children are going to school to do what is increasingly becoming test prep work, their kids coming home with hours of homework, given, I fear, by teachers to ensure that their students do very well on these tests. If my analysis is correct, there is a whole lot of righteous anger to be organized against these tests, and our unions are the logical organizations to form the coalition and lead the charge. When we get the testing under control, we can have a saner conversation about teacher evaluation.

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The Clarification of Stupidity

I’m expected, I suppose, to comment on the settlement reached between New York State United Teachers, the State Education Department and Governor Cuomo which essentially clarifies an existing law that provided for the evaluation of teachers, tying their evaluations in part to the performance of their students on state and local assessments. In a sentence, a stupid law has been made more clearly stupid while apparently increasing the power of the numbskulls in the State Education Department to reject evaluation plans that are laboriously negotiated at the local level. So, three cheers for the clarification of stupidity. It’s enough to make me puke seeing the praise Cuomo is getting for the basic part of which he had absolutely nothing to do with. I can’t wait for the day when teachers get their evaluations and find themselves reduced to an absolutely meaningless number.

I find myself thinking about a story two teachers told me the other day. A male elementary physical education teacher came upon a little boy who had defecated all over himself. The poor child was distraught and almost inconsolable. The teacher immediately took him to the bathroom and helped him begin to clean himself up, telling the child that the same thing had happened to him when he was young and assuring him that he and everyone else would soon forget all about this embarrassment. Their conversation was overheard by another teacher who immediately came to help. She quickly realized that they had to get the child some clean underwear, but none was to be had in the school. Living locally and having a child of roughly the same age, she ran and grabbed her coat, got into her car, drove home and back with a choice of underwear for the sobbing boy – boxers or briefs. What kind of ignorance rewards teachers like these by reducing their contribution to the all-around welfare of children with a number?

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Early Retirement Accelerates

Today’s New York Times has a story reporting that there appears to be a trend towards early retirement of public workers in the United States. Faced with a barrage of criticism making it seem as though public employees were responsible for the financial crisis in this country, many are leaving early, believing that the longer they stay the more likely they will experience reduced pension and health benefits. My own conversations with the unusually large number of retirees from the Plainview-Old Bethpage schools last year confirm the Times report. I strongly suspect that when the new teacher evaluation system tying teacher performance to student scores on standardized test comes in, we will see a literal race to the doors by those who are eligible to retire. Who among those economically able to retire will want to work in a system that sums them up at the end of the year as a 75 percent teacher or an 82 percent teacher? How infantilizing and demeaning. Some of the best teachers I know are debating whether they want to continue to work in that kind of hostile environment. I have a question for the data fetishists: How do we calculate the institutional loss of the knowledge and skill of those who will leave our ranks earlier than we would expect?

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Times Article Boosts Opponents New Evaluation System

An article in yesterday’s New York Times gave the cause of challenging the linkage of student test scores to the evaluation of public school teachers a shot of steroidal credibility. What began as an essentially local effort of the Long Island Principals Association to push back against an evaluation system that they see as degrading to both teachers and the administrators who evaluate them has begun to morph into a statewide movement with thousands of administrators and teachers signing on to the principals’ letter indicting the recently enacted evaluation system. Coverage by the Times will undoubtedly help to spread the word about the developing movement and help to recruit many more to the cause. A review of the signers of the principals’ letter reveals that local union leaders are beginning to sign on, realizing that few issues have aroused the ire of their memberships more than what they see as an unfair, opaque evaluations system that poses a significant threat to their welfare and to the welfare of their students. That Chancellor Tisch is quoted in the article referring to the evaluation system as “scientific” and “objective” is sure to further inflame the passions of educators who know that we aren’t even sure of what the tests say about our students let alone what they tell us about teachers. What Commissioner King, Chancellor Tisch and the Regents and Governor Cuomo have done to snatch the federal dollars of the Obama’s administration’s Race to the Top program is to elevate a blatant farce to the level of education policy in New York State.

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