Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

Will the Children Lead Us Again?

December 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Four years ago my wife and I volunteered to chaperone a Habitat for Humanity trip to Birmingham AL sponsored by our local HS. While we were on the trip we had an opportunity to visit the Civil Rights Museum in that city where I learned– or was reminded– that teenagers played a critical role in the Civil Rights movement. It hit me that while I was worried about whether our HS would win the league basketball championship and I was debating the merits of the Beatles vs. the Stones with my classmates my African American counterparts in Birmingham were leaving their classrooms to protest racial injustice. While I was acting in the school play and planning for events with our church’s youth fellowship my African American counterparts in Birmingham were subjecting themselves to high-powered hoses, German Shepherds, police with nightsticks, and nights in jail.

In earlier posts I’ve expressed my dismay over the way we are treating our students today out of “concern for their safety”. While we are not concerned with their safety enough to control the proliferation of guns, we ARE willing to subject them to surveillance while they are in school, to screening before they enter school, and to the collection of data on them 24/7. For all intents and purposes public school students today are being raised in a police state and the adults in our country seem to go along with it… but maybe some of the recent events in our country are bringing this reality to light and might serve as a catalyst for change.

The grand jury decisions involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner are incomprehensible to me and to many Americans… and to many youngsters attending public schools in Denver CO. Their local NBC affiliate reported on the third day of walkouts in Denver schools, listing 16 schools that participated. In this day and age of Facebook and YouTube I wonder if this kind of protest go viral? And if it does, will the police react with the same kind of force they displayed in Alabama in the 1960s? And if it does, will the adults in our country pay attention to   the concerns of the children who are beginning to realize that they are growing up in a police state? And if we DO see what we are doing to our children, do we have the faith in our government and the faith in each other to take out the cameras in schools? To question the madness of encouraging everyone to arm themselves for personal protection? To re-open the doors of our public institutions without metal detectors? And to respect law enforcement officers so they do not feel the need to outfit themselves with modern armaments?

I support the peaceful demonstrations by students and would encourage schools to seize the opportunity to teach children NOW about the need for them to trust each other and the need for us— the adults in their world— to begin dissembling the police state we have created for them.

The Disappearance of the Middle Class Teacher

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment

A few years ago John Stewart ran a segment on the lifestyle of “greedy teachers” that made the rounds among my colleagues in NH. The segment featured Samantha Bee as an intrepid interviewer pursuing a story to show American how their tax dollars are being siphoned to pay for the opulent lifestyle of teachers, and it followed teachers home in their compact cars to walk-up apartments in the city and small suburban homes payed for in part by their spouses earnings.  The segment came out around the time Scott Walker was gutting teachers’ contracts in WI asserting that taxpayers were being fleeced by unions who demanded outlandish wages and benefits.

In the intervening years, economists and “blue ribbon commissions” on the teaching profession have periodically issued reports lamenting the diminishment of respect for teachers and the need to upgrade their compensation in order to attract and retain teachers. Mokoto Rich reports on the latest such report in today’s NYTimes. This one issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality, flags the reality that most teachers today have to work for years before they earn “middle class compensation”, emphasizing that it often takes decades for teachers to progress through the step and track system to earn the top dollar.

Rich then rehashes the tired debate between the “reformers” who advocate higher compensation for teachers who achieve high VAM scores for several consecutive years and the unions who want to see more money thrown on the current step and track system OR have the steps compressed so that higher salaries can be achieved earlier.

As readers of this blog realize there IS another way to reward teachers based on their performance as determined by an array of measures… While the mechanism described in this earlier blog post has only been implemented in few districts it is an effort to apply research on teacher’s motivations and learning curves to compensation.

One last word on Rich’s report: she, the NCTQ, and many “experts” assume that turnover is a function of the changing values of today’s workforce:

With young people changing careers more often than previous generations, schools need to consider how to reward teachers earlier, said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

“We know that unlike the profession that many of us entered 30 years ago, the idea that we’re going to recruit a work force today with the design to keep them for 30 years isn’t realistic in this labor market,” Mr. Eubanks said.

The linchpin in this analysis is the phrase “in this labor market“, which assumes that the way things are today will not change. I believe that we DO need to change the compensation plans for teachers and we DO need to hold teachers in higher esteem given their hard work and dedication. If we could make the compensation higher and more rational, public education would provide a labor market that would attract and retain individuals who desire a job that is secure, rewarding, and beneficial. If we accept “this labor market”,   we are accepting jobs that are short term, driven by the desire to make money quickly, and limited to increasing student performance on tests instead of increasing each student’s ability to thrive in a democracy.

On USDOE’s Tracking of Teacher Prep

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

The USDOE announced earlier this week that it plans to require states “…to develop rating systems for teacher preparation programs that would track a range of measures, including the job placement and retention rates of graduates and the academic performance of their students.” Unsurprisingly one of the metrics that USDOE is mandating as part of the rating system is some form of Value Added measures using standardized tests.

NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich outlines the rationale for this mandate, and it’s full of subtle reinforcements of “reform” advocates, which are flagged in red bold italicsEarly in the article Rich quotes Arne Duncan who frames this efforts as a “nothing short of a moral issue” because when they begin their careers teachers often “…have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.” The solution to this problem is to withhold grant funds from teacher preparation programs that do not pass muster. These paragraphs from the article exemplifies the attitude of the USDOE toward teacher preparation programs, most of which are offered in state funded colleges and universities:

Education experts said the new regulations were necessary to spur change, particularly among colleges that draw most of their tuition revenue from candidates enrolled in education programs.

“I think you need to wake up the university presidents to the fact that schools of education can’t be A.T.M.s for the rest of the college or university,” said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that pushes for test-based teacher evaluations and has battled teachers’ unions. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink— the UNIONS are the problem with introducing “reform”.)

It is difficult to argue against more regulations and accountability, but there are several aspects of this proposal that are troubling:

  • It reinforces the notion that teachers are the primary reason schools are “failing”: If this initiative was part of a multi-pronged comprehensive plan to increase the public’s respect for the teaching profession it would be very helpful to public education. Instead, this plan makes it sound as if State colleges that prepare students are to blame for the struggles that teachers encounter in their first year, that they are to blame for the low standardized test scores that children in poverty achieve (but presumably NOT responsible for any of the high test scores in affluent districts), and that they accept unqualified teacher candidates in order to line their pockets.
  • It reinforces the notion that standardized tests can be used to measure teacher performance: VAM is a sham and the USDOE’s continued insistence that it be incorporated in accountability measures doesn’t change that reality. Oh… and Rich reinforces the “reform” meme that States CHOSE this methodology of student accountability and will therefore CHOOSE this methodology to measure teacher performance with this quote: “Although the rules do not require tests, 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have agreed with the Department of Education to develop teacher performance ratings that include test scores.” 
  • It implicitly reinforces the notion that programs like TFA are superior to “traditional” teacher training programs: One of the underreported changes that RTTT introduced was a deemphasis on districts reporting on the number of “Highly Qualified” teachers they had on the staff, a change that coincided with the promotion of programs like TFA and the expansion of deregulated for-profit charter schools. It will be interesting to see how TFA can sustain it’s standing as a quality teacher preparation program given the fact that most TFA classroom teachers leave the field after 2 years…. and even more interesting to see how USDOE takes action against State Boards who award charters to schools headed by CEOs who lack teaching credentials.
  • It implies that the ultimate value of college education is employability:  All of the accountability schemes I’ve read about to date imply that employability is more important than versatility: that is, learning a specific skill set is more important than learning how to learn. This is a terrible assumption to make because it assumes the entry skills required in today’s workforce are not going to change and this is clearly NOT the case in public education nor is it true in any field. USDOE and undergraduate colleges  cannot predict what the workforce requirements will be in 2050 any more than my college could have foreseen that I’d be sitting at home with access to the library of congress  listening to a collection of customized music selected for me by a computer algorithm sharing my views with readers across the country and (based on the information WordPress provides) across the globe. The research skills University of Pennsylvania required for my dissertation were obsolete 20 years later and the skills they require today will change in the next 20 years.
  • It assumes that “market incentives” driven by the rating system will increase the number of STEM teachers. The article includes this priceless quote based on the daft logic that job placement metrics will somehow enable teacher training institutions to motivate undergraduates to change their majors:

    Using metrics like job placement makes common sense, said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which administers a program for people training to be high school teachers, because it would force programs to train people for actual job openings.

    “Education schools and universities educate a lot of elementary school teachers, an area that’s glutted,” Mr. Levine said. “On the other hand, we definitely need science and math teachers, which they don’t prepare.” 

Accountability is needed… but NOT the “reform” driven accountability advocated by the USDOE that will continue to demonize teachers as the cause of “failing schools” and assumes that STEM teachers will materialize if the metrics are right…

The AP Paradox

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Jessica Lahey’s recent NYTimes article, “To AP or Not to AP, That is the Question” did a good job of outlining the dimensions of what I call the AP Paradox. For some students and teachers in some districts, teaching to the AP test is a constraint. In other districts where students are not typically college bound and funds are tight, introducing AP courses that enable a student to earn college credits is an incentive.

Having led districts that serve predominantly affluent and well educated parents and less affluent districts that had relatively few college graduates among the parent population, I have lived through both sides of the argument involving AP testing and ended up with the belief that the value of AP is situational.

In the two affluent districts I led, the reputation of their high schools was well established in college admissions offices and most of the students were applying to competitive colleges who generally do not award academic credit for AP classes. Moreover, in those districts the talent level for teachers was high because the upperclassmen required content that was typically college level. Many of these teachers believed that teaching-to-the-AP-test limited their flexibility and academic freedom and argued, as Lahey noted in her article, that students were free to take AP Tests even if they did not take an “AP Course”. In these districts I fully and whole heartedly supported the teachers’ argument even though some in the community expressed concerns about the loss of status because we didn’t offer explicit AP courses.

In the one largely blue collar district I led the AP “credential” was helpful for students. It helped those aspiring to competitive colleges because it provided a standard that admissions officers in those colleges could use to rate applicants even if they never heard of the high school. It helped first generation college students applying to community colleges or State colleges because it gave them an opportunity to earn college credits as an undergraduate. The AP credential was also helpful in our efforts to expand our programs at the high school level because voters understood that by offering AP Courses we were demonstrating a commitment to academic rigor and helping students prepare for college and the careers that required college degrees. In this district I wholeheartedly supported the Principals, central office staff, and Board in advocating for the introduction and subsequent expansion of AP courses.

And therein lies the AP Paradox. I personally believe that criterion referenced tests are superior to standardized achievement tests, which leads me to fully support the opportunity for students to take the AP tests. Yet I also believe that Boards and administrators should honor the professionalism of teachers; and because some districts (and ETS) believe that AP Tests should be linked to AP Courses and those AP Courses have prescribed curricula the teachers’ flexibility and freedom is diminished. Moreover, the notion that passing one standardized test administered in one sitting can replace a college course is unsettling. Criterion referenced tests can measure accumulation of knowledge but some form of observation or skill measurement is also required to provide assurance that a student has mastered the concepts included in a college course.

To AP or Not to AP? Here’s Lahey’s concluding paragraph, which takes the question out of the school or district level to the personal level… which in the end is where it belongs:

A.P. courses are, for the most part, rigorous, challenging and demanding, and can be a real boon to students motivated by intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. For students looking to please their parents or for those in pursuit of transcript padding and other false academic idols, A.P. courses can be an unpleasant and unhealthy slog. Therefore, in deciding whether or not an A.P. class is “worth it,” students and parents must figure their own motivations and values into the equation.  

Rotten Apples? Hardly!

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago Time magazine hit the news stands with this horrific cover:


When the article came out progressive bloggers went ballistic and Facebook was full of links to send letters to the editors of Time to decry their cover, which stated (wrongly) that is was impossible to fire a teacher. Having written several posts on this topic, I clicked on the AFT’s link and sent a letter explaining the reality of the situation, namely that teachers have a probationary period that is typically three years and that some of the teachers who “opted out” of the profession were, in fact, counseled out. Because of this, the reality is that 98% of the teachers are doing well in their work even though this fact vexes politicians like Andrew Cuomo.

My daughter in Brooklyn who shares my frustration at the bashing of public education sent me a link to this blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who dedicated most of the space to a well researched letter to Time in response to their reprehensible cover. Written by Nancy F. Chewning, assistant principal of William Byrd High School in Roanoke, VA, the letter includes the following points, some of which I have not made in my earlier posts decrying the bashing of teachers:

  • Aspiring teachers are held in low esteem on campuses
  • Teachers make substantially less than others with an equal education
  • The OECD reports that “American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad.”
  • No other professions are held to a 100% standard- Only teachers!
  • And this gem: “According to a new study from the Journal of Patient Safety, 440,000 people per year die from preventable medical errors. In fact, this study found that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States today.” Are we closing hospitals because of this? Are doctors losing tenure because of this?
  • The NEA [National Education Association] ranks 221st in terms of lobbying expenditures… WELL behind banks, military, and other professions— like doctors– who are not depicted as “Rotten Apples”

The letter describes the money teachers spend on their own supplies and to provide their students with food, school supplies, and clothing. It describes the time teachers spend advocating for their children outside of school. It describes the responsibilities teachers are asked to assume for the well-being of their children. And it describes the devastating impact poverty has on the children in Roanoke, VA, impact that is felt in every district that serves children who are raised in poverty across the country.

I wish some political leader in our country would stand up for public education and especially for the teachers who work tirelessly to help children raised in poverty…. but it’s easier to blame teachers than to blame poverty because “fixing” poverty requires the redistribution of wealth and (gasp) spending money on people in our country who are in need. Here’s hoping the silence about poverty ends as we consider who to elect for President in 2016.

Grass Roots Movement Needs to Start NOW

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Two posts yesterday and an experience I had in a yoga class prompted this post today.

One post, by Bill Boyarski from Truthdig titled “No One Is Paying Attention to the Real Battle For Power”, describes a heretofore overlooked and crucial election result: Republicans captured 32 State Houses and a majority of the State governing bodies in the US… and this does NOT include three prominent “reform” Democrats: Cuomo, Malloy, and Raimondo. In essence this means 35 governors and state governments will be dancing to ALEC’s music when legislative sessions open early next year. Given this political reality, it is hard to imagine that 2/3 of the states will be open to changing the current “reform model” even IF they choose to abandon the Common Core as the basis for the administration of standardized tests.

The second, from Diane Ravitch, described the latest activism undertaken by the Lower Hudson Study Council (LHSC).  Her post summarized the points the LHSC made in their meeting with the editorial board of the Journal News, a regional newspaper in suburban NYC, and closed with these sentences:

Since no part of Race to the Top was based on research, it is unlikely to produce good results. What it has produced is disruption, demoralization, outrage, and a vibrant anti-testing and anti-Common Core movement, led by parents.

On Monday evening I attended a yoga class in a local studio where one of the students was a first grade teacher with four years’ experience. She was lamenting to another class member who works in education that the test preparation begins in first grade and her little children. She indicated that the students are expected to complete  “really rigorous” assignments and that many of them are struggling as a result… but she was accepting this as “the way things are today” in education.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the “old guard” Superintendents and principals need to speak as one because the “new breed” of TFA and Broad grads are in accord with the thinking of the “reformers”…. and the veteran teachers need to join in because many of the teachers hired in the past decade, like my yoga classmate, only know teaching as a “test prep” activity and see that as “the way things are today” in education. Finally, all of us who oppose the test-and-punish “reform” methods need to make certain we elect school board members who are on the same page… because with 32 Republicans (and Mario Cuomo) in State Houses the pushback on “reform” will have to come from the bottom up.

TFA’s Capturing of the Public Imagination

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

I just read Nick Kristoff’s post mortem on the election in today’s NYTimes, an essay that included the following paragraph:

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

Unfortunately I must agree that Wendy Kopp has changed education in the past decade more than any elected official… but I view that as a major problem because she is complicit in the privatization movement that has reinforced the opposition to “government schools” aka public education. As reported in a recent article by George Joseph in The Nation, TFA has eroded the teaching profession by replacing government funded career employees with privately funded short-term contract employees. TFA provides many privatized charter schools with well-educated and well-intentioned novice teachers who are focussed on raising test scores but has diminished the profession in doing so. And worst of all, from my perspective, TFA has accepted funds from foundations whose implicit mission is to erode the public’s trust in government.

According to The Nation, TFA’s last three years of available tax filings indicate they spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion… and it is evident from Kristoff’s reporting that her money is getting TFA’s message across to college students, which is too bad because every student drawn to TFA is a student drawn away from the idea that government can work.