“Toward Better Teachers”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes is so full of bad thinking I couldn’t decide where to start… so I started in the middle with this comment that captures the essence of some of the particularly bad ideas espoused by former NYC Commissioner Joel Klein and his fellow “reformers”:
Bruni writes that NYC “…wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms.” The basis for this assertion, according to Joel Klein, is simple: SAT scores! “In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests… the citywide average for all NYC teachers was about 970.” This raises some questions: Is there ANY study that demonstrates a correlation between good teaching at the elementary level and SAT scores? Is Klein suggesting that NYC use SAT scores to screen teachers? Is Klein suggesting the current “irrational” seniority pay scales be replaced with ones that reward teachers who obtained high SAT scores as a factor?
The notion that SAT scores can be used to identify “the best and brightest” teachers, like so many of the “reform” ideas, uses test results as a means of judging complicated work like teaching. By reducing teacher evaluation to a statistical artifact it becomes possible to rank “performance” with precision… but it is a precision that has nothing to do with the actual art of teaching. Data driven quants like Klein don’t understand the human factors that make teachers successful and motivated. Complicated analytics and differentiated pay might motivate hedge fund investors but they won’t motivate teachers because the best teachers only care about kid.
I’ll use the balance of this post to dissemble each example of bad thinking:
- “…poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids“. NO… poor parents deserve neighborhood schools that are as well funded and rich in support services and curricular offerings as those offered in affluent suburbs
- “Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when (Klein) began the job, he claimed it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,”. NO… as written in several previous posts , there is no tenure in public schools… and unless it was bargained away it teachers in NYS are required to serve probation before receiving a continuing contract that protects them from being fired for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Oh… and if it WAS bargained away it could be bargained back in again if the Mayor or Klein put it on tble… but neither Klein nor Mayor Bloomberg seemed inclined to seek solutions through collective bargaining.
- The bogus reasoning that the SAT can serve as a proxy for hiring the “best and brightest” (see above)
- “…teachers must acquire mastery of the actual subject matter they’re dealing with. Too frequently they don’t.” This “reform meme” was repeated without being challenged by Bruni (or any other NYTimes writer for that matter.) Here’s the fundamental question that needs to be asked of folks like Klein: “What constitutes “mastery of the subject matter” for an elementary teacher? For a music teacher? for a special ed teacher? If certification = mastery then I would be surprised to learn that teachers in NYC “frequently don’t “acquire mastery”. If certification DOESN’T equal mastery, it’s NOT the teachers’ problem, it’s the college and university’s problem and the NYSED’s problem. Oh.. and those Teach For America folks, do THEY have mastery?
- Pay reform I: Klein advocates having “…teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise.” The example Klein uses to make his point is paying science teachers more than PE teachers… which overlooks the reality that the teachers who would benefit most from getting a premium of working with “high needs kids” who require additional expertise would be special ed teachers.
- Pay Reform II: “…“some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Readers of this blog know that a performance pay is an agreeable fantasy. Enough said.
- Teachers “…owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks.” I await evidence that there are “too many underperformed” in the teaching ranks… but I am also awaiting evidence that standardized tests yield helpful and meaningful information.
Bravo to the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents for laying bare NY state’s sham evaluation system. (Full disclosure: I was chairman of this group in the late 1990s, so my support for their bravery might be biased) In a two-page position paper that is more measured than its title, “APPR Creates an Illusion of Teacher Accountability and Must Be Replaced”, the authors recount the findings of an independent study they commissioned. Those findings are summarized in one phrase: “...there is no ability to compare ratings between or among teachers or districts“. The position paper summarized three key findings from their study:
• Teachers whose students did not have to take Common Core exams typically received higher evaluation scores than teachers whose students did take the exams. The result? A double standard for teacher evaluation, and one that is ripe for legal challenge that will be costly to local districts.
• The State Education Department claims that individual local districts are responsible for 80% of the scoring under APPR, a claim that is wildly inaccurate. The Education Analytics study found that because of the APPR formula design, the local impact of scoring is closer to 35% of the total.
• The researchers identified that the required local assessments known as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) – typically take 5‐10 years of data gathering, development and training before scores can be reliably used as an evaluative measure – are being used for APPR. They were critical of this effort, noting that the absence of training resources and rushed implementation have resulted in an inaccurate evaluation system.
Those findings notwithstanding, the Regents, the State Superintendent, and Governor Cuomo are all standing behind the tests, though Cuomo seemed disappointed that the tests found that 94% of the teacher were effective or highly effective, thereby undercutting his “reform” message that TEACHERS were the cause of low performance on the tests.
The Lower Hudson Council’s speaking out against the testing regimen is especially heartening because many of the districts in that group are among the most affluent in the state. Their children will likely “succeed” on measures like standardized tests. For the most part, these district superintendents have nothing to gain from taking this position except controversy among community members who buy into the notion that testing “proves” schools are bad and that VAM is a viable means of measuring teacher effectiveness… a meme that the media has promoted.
Will politicians and political appointees like the NY Regents— or Arnie Duncan for that matter— listen to school district leaders? Will other regional superintendent groups follow the LHCSS’s lead? Stay tuned!
Education blogger Jeff Bryant asserted in his column yesterday that education policy could be a determining factor in several gubernatorial races in the coming weeks. But, as he notes, in some cases it will result in the election of a “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate as opposed to the election of a candidate who is willing to undo the budget cuts, evisceration of contracts, and emphasis on standardized testing. While polling data indicates that “The top testing turnout message overall emphasizes education, specifically Republicans’ efforts to cut programs for students while giving tax cuts to the wealthy”, the fact remains that several candidates getting hefty support from teachers unions are NOT advocates of increased funding but rather less strident in they opposition to education than their opponents.
As I’ve noted in several earlier posts, I hope that public education advocates will NOT be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in 2016. Those who seek increased public education funding should rally behind whichever Presidential aspirant pledges to end the standardized testing regimen that has been in place for a generation and the privatization movement that NCLB and RTTT has aided and abetted. If the testing is not stopped the drumbeat of “failing public schools” will continue and the public will be increasingly disinclined to fund a failing enterprise.
Today’s NYTimes editorial page features a high-minded article on Pre-Kindergarten written by Shael Polakow-Suransky and Nancy Nager on the importance of play in pre-Kindergarten. The fact that Polakow-Suransky, the champion of standardized testing during his years in the Board of Education, was advocating “play” in this article was evidently lost on the NYTimes, particularly since the article is somewhat dismissive of the effect standardized testing has had and will continue to have on pre-Kindergarten. While I am in wholehearted agreement with what the authors advocate, I am dismayed at the practical reality that “play” will not be happening any time soon as I remarked in the comment I left:
Unless we abandon the notion that pre-Kindergarten is preparation for K-12 schooling we will never accept the notion that “play” is an acceptable activity. The idea that a pre-K “graduate” must be “ready to learn” in Kindergarten leads to a checklist mentality whereby every Pre-K youngster needs to demonstrate “academic” capabilities like knowing their alphabet, knowing their numbers, nd knowing a predetermined vocabulary. These skills are easy to quantify but, as the article notes, ultimately unimportant in the long run, but these skills are emphasized to prepare students for the three year slog to the standardized tests that are used to measure school performance and teacher performance…. and the testing mania leads to the measurement of what is EASY to measure as opposed to what is IMPORTANT to measure. “Play” develops important skills like independent thinking and self-regulcation while “academic” seat-work develops compliance and conformity.
The link between the factory model of education and the standardized test movement is seemingly self-evident but seems to escape editorialists and policy makers. We need a new model for teaching and learning, one that embraces self-regulation and freedom and we won’t get it until the stranglehold of testing and age-based cohorts is abandoned.
Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.
In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.
During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.
There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.
Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.
In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.” I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.
That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.
And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!