Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Can We Talk?

I am channeling the late, great Joan Rivers today as I ponder the question that many education reformers have been asking: "Can we talk?"

Lately you can't open a link to a pro-education reform blog without finding another reformster pleading for a civil conversation on education. My colleague and fellow founding member of the Guys with Beards and Blogs Foundation, Peter Greene, of the Curmudgucation blog,  has analyzed the pleas of the Thomas Fordham Foundation's Andy Smarick here and those of Mike Petrilli, also from Fordham and Neil McClusky of Cato, here and here. Now jumping into the conversation in a post in Education Week,  is Patrick Riccards, aka Eduflak, who pleads for reformers and educators to work together for the good of the (wait for it) children. You can read his post here.

Riccards gets off to a good start with the title of his piece: It's time for reformers, educators to work together. I welcome what is implied in this title:  reformers are not educators. That's a good start. Even though this acknowledgement filled me with a warm glow, a sudden chill returned when the question popped into my head, "I have been here all along, where have you been?"

Then I recalled where the reformers have been. They have been out spreading the word that teachers are the problem, that tenure hurts children, that we need to close public schools and replace them with charter schools, that parents need choice. They have been out designing the Common Core State Standards without teacher input and working with the federal government to bribe the states into adopting them. They have been out cheer leading for the Vergara decision, promoting vouchers that undermine public school funding and when they got tired of blaming teachers for the problems of public education, started blaming the colleges of education.

But before I close my mind off completely, let me take a look at what Riccards suggests. Riccards deplores the acrimonious debate and suggests it works against progress. 

But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed.

Fine. What else?

Beginning with the Chicago teachers' strike in 2012, which largely turned on educator opposition to new teacher-evaluation processes, and continuing through current events, one thing is crystal clear: The negativity and false choices used by all sides simply won't get us to our intended destination.

Whoa! Hold on there, Kemosabe! The Chicago teacher's strike was the root of the negativity? Why not start this sentence with "Beginning with the reformer's false narrative of bad teachers'; or "Beginning with the federal government's attempt to force schools to rate teachers through flawed VAM models"? If you want to talk to me "for the children", then let's not be childish about where the acrimony began.

Riccards then launches into a more conciliatory tone suggesting that reformers tone down the anti-teacher celebration that resounded coming out of the Vergara decision and recognize that bashing teachers is counter-productive to the cause. 

And then we read this:

We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process.

Don't you love that phrase "lift up our most successful educators?" I hear strains of Josh Groban singing "You Raise Me Up" in my ears as I envision the reformers raising me to their shoulders. Is it just me or does this sound just a little condescending?  And, oh by the way, does lift up mean merit pay? Is that really where you want to start a conversation?

To his credit Riccards does recognize that without the support of the classroom teacher, no initiative will be successful.

Riccards appeals to his fellow reformsters to not oversell the value of charter schools. He acknowledges that they have not been the panacea that many paint them to be.

But then we get this:

Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don't attend, and likely will never have access to. Instead, we should focus on how to take the most promising practices from our charter schools and begin to implement them at traditional public schools.

As a general rule, whenever I hear the term "value-add" I run for the hills. This is business world speak for "it works when you turn it on" and is generally used to sell you something you don't want. The first time I heard the term, in fact, was on  a used car lot. I suggest that if reformers want to have serious talk about teaching and children they drop the term. There is no "value add" with children; their value is immutable.

As to taking the "most promising practices from charter schools",what would that be? Draconian discipline policies? Unaccredited teachers? Huge teacher turnover? Eliminating English Language Learners, special education students and miscreants? Outrageous suspension figures? Inhuman workloads? No thanks.

Riccards has four concrete suggestions.

1. Open lines of communication - By this Riccards apparently means that when you want to do something nasty to teachers make sure you let the head of the union know before you do it.
2. Look for areas to partner - Because, you know, we are all in it for the kids. When will reformers realize they did not invent doing things for the kids. What do they think we were doing before they were born?
3. Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences - Uh, no. The union is the teachers. The teachers are the union. This is the good old business practice of divide and conquer.
4, Establish a practitioner advisory board - Riccards says that reformers need to realize that there are not a lot of educators working in the reform area (a happy admission) and so reformers should form an advisory board of actual teachers to advise them. Good idea. Of course, alternatively they could just get the hell out of the way and let the practitioners practice.

So to answer the question I started off with for Mr. Riccards and the other reformers who wish to start a dialogue: Can we talk? Not now, but let me know when you are ready to listen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The False Promise of School Choice

Governor Chris Christie was in Camden, New Jersey this week to praise the opening of some new charter schools that he is championing. A great believer in school choice, Christie said that parents should have “more choice, not less.”

I would like to take the Governor at his word on this. If I were a Camden parent and I had real “choice”, I would choose to send my child to a wealthy private school like the one Joe Kennedy, Sr. sent two of his sons to, Choate Rosemary Hall. I think all of us might do the same.

Choate, of course, is one of the go to private schools for the privileged in America. Located in Wallingford, Connecticut, its leafy sprawling 458 acre campus is home to “one of the leading schools in America.” Its alumni roll reads like a Who’s Who of American politics, industry, arts and letters, and sports. Graduates include John F. Kennedy, Edward Albee, John Dos Passos, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, nuclear physicist Katherine Way, Senator Bob Kasten and literally hundreds more prominent folks. They also have one of the top ice hockey programs for boys and girls in all of New England.

Not surprisingly, students at Choate appear to graduate “college and career ready.” Many of them furthering their education at places like Harvard and Yale.

OK, Ok, I know we can’t send all of our Camden students to Choate. After all it costs about 52,000 dollars a year to educate a boarding student there. So, if we can’t send all of our Camden kids to Choate, maybe we can provide them with a Choate-like curriculum right in South Jersey.

What does the Choate curriculum look like? Here are a few highlights.

·          There are more than 300 courses in the curriculum
·         Coursework includes community service and global studies
·         A two-year intensive Science Research Program includes mentored laboratory work during the summer at universities in the United States and abroad. 
·         The Capstone Program allows sixth form (senior) students to explore an area of the curriculum in depth. Working under a faculty adviser, students take at least five courses that focus on a curricular theme, culminating in a substantial final project.
·         The performing and visual arts are supported by the resources of the Paul Mellon Arts Center.
·         Among extracurricular arts clubs are six a cappella groups; step danceslam poetry, hip hop, and rap groups; improv, musical theater, and instrumental ensembles of all sizes; photography and film-making clubs; and supporting publications for the arts, fashion, and culture.
·         The Arts Concentration Program provides students with individually tailored instruction and class scheduling.
·         The Senior Project Program provides on- or off-campus internships in academic research, visual art, and the performing arts.
·         Other specialized programs include American Studies, creative writing, economics, Future Business Leaders, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and debate.
·         The Environmental Immersion Program allows students to study environmental issues in the Kohler Environmental Center  "the first teaching, research and residential environmental center in U.S. secondary education."
·         Choate students may compete in more than 30 varsity sports including crew, water polo and squash.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. Who wouldn’t want to have this type of choice for their children? I was struck by the lack of a mention of the Common Core State Standards in the curriculum. And while Choate students do take lots of AP courses and the corresponding tests, I could find no evidence of yearly standardized tests meant to determine adequate yearly progress.

So, what kind of choice does Governor Christie want to offer to Camden’s children? A choice to send their children to a publicly funded, privately run charter school managed by Mastery Charter. What will parents get for making this choice? A bare bones curriculum focused on achieving higher test scores on standardized measures. A curriculum taught by many neophyte, uncertified teachers who are likely to leave in a year or two for greener pastures, and a discipline regime based on rigid adherence to a “no excuses” philosophy and shaming.

They will also get no voice in the policies of this school, since their Boards are not elected entities and are often populated with people outside the community. Can we really sell the idea that parents are getting real choice when we deny them the voice that comes with the ballot box?

Politicians love to utter the word “choice” because it sounds so American. We all want to have choice. Unfortunately, these politicians do not want to offer poor, urban children any real choice. First, they underfund and undermine urban public schools and then offer “choice” in the form of privately run charters.

My bet is that given a real choice, parents of children in Camden and all cities would choose to have a fully funded, well-staffed, well-maintained local neighborhood public school that offers a rich and varied curriculum focused on the interests and passions of every child and where parents could voice their “choice” every couple of years by using that good old American vehicle of choice, the vote.

The wealthy and powerful of this country have demonstrated what kind of education is appropriate for their children by choosing to send those children to schools like Choate, which offer a rich curriculum in an idyllic trusting and nurturing environment. Why do they fail to offer a similar kind of choice to other people’s children?

Friday, September 12, 2014

What Do We Want from Public Schools?

Ok students, let’s start today with a quick multiple choice question.

Which of the following represents the best reason for having a highly functioning system of public schools?
a)    economic stability
b)    social stability
c)    political stability
d)    joy of the individual

Yes I know. I hated these “best reason” questions when I was taking standardized tests, too. It always seemed to me that these questions were asking you to guess what was in the test makers head. Nonetheless, your answer to this question will go a long way to determining what kind of schools you champion.

If your answer to the question is a) economic stability, you are part of a long tradition in American education that sees education for its utilitarian value. One early proponent of the economic stability argument was Booker T. Washington, who argued that the best way for newly freed African Americans to find their place in an American society that they had been brought to in chains was to learn a trade. Later on, public school districts throughout the country built vocational schools where high school students learned practical skills to ensure employment. In this day and age, when a high school diploma seems inadequate for earning a living wage, those who focus on economic stability are likely to champion educational standards that promise to get students “college and career ready.” If your concern is maintaining the economic status quo, you may choose economic stability as the goal of public schooling.

If your answer is b) social stability, you also have history on your side. As Michael Katz has shown in his book The Irony of Early Education Reform, a driving motive behind the reform movement in public education in the 19th century was to convert the children of factory workers and recent immigrants into “middle-class standards of behavior and tastes.” Public education was seen as a way to “control the rabble”, if you will. It was a way for the “haves” to control the “have-nots.” Many charter schools have apparently bought into this philosophy. Schools, such as those run by the KIPP chain and those patterned closely after KIPP, focus on compliance and test scores. Students are subject to rigid, military-style discipline regimens and blatant shaming in order to force compliance. So if you are a champion of charter schools, your bias may be toward social stability as the best reason for good public schools.

Beginning with my first day of school, I learned that in America we lived in a democracy and that the preservation of that democracy was dependent on an educated populace. In school I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the National Anthem, and took courses entitled American History, Civics, and Problems of Democracy. So surely answer c) political stability is an appealing answer. One of my education heroes, John Dewey, in his book Democracy and Education, said that the aim of education in a democratic society was the creation of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. A beautiful sentiment, but a messy one. As a child of the 60s, I know just how messy this can be. During that period I exercised my rights as a free (and admittedly immature) individual to take to the streets in protest for civil rights, freedom of speech on my college campus and against the Vietnam War. It was (sort of) political democracy, but it wasn’t very stable.

What the corporate education reformer wants from political stability, I believe, is something very different from what Dewey wanted or what I was protesting about. As E. Wayne Ross has pointed out in his introduction to Volume II of Defending Public Schools, the real political status quo in the country today is neoliberalism. As Ross puts it, neoliberalism represents

            “policies and processes that permit a relative handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, and is characterized by social and economic policy that is shaped in the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, and government deregulation are some important principles of neoliberalism."

Understood in this light, the education reformer looking to preserve the political stability of neoliberalism, might argue for the positive impact of competition on public schools. They might champion school choice in the form of for profit charters, parent vouchers, and parent trigger legislation. They might seek to weaken unions and subject teachers to a “business model” based on a perversion of Darwinian survival of the fittest, with the fittest being judged by student scores on standardized tests.

I borrowed the term “joy of the individual” from the aforementioned Michael Katz, who says throughout its history, individual joy has never been the focus of public schools. So what might we think of those who choose d) joy of the individual as the best reason for having public schools. Are these only the raging looney-fringe idealists? What might schools look like if the individual student were at the center of our thinking?

A school focused on the joy of the individual would start, I think, with an emphasis on engagement, rather than compliance. Engaged students need the  guidance and direction and background knowledge a skilled professional can provide, and they need some routines established so they can get out of their own way and learn, but they do not need the harsh discipline practices seen in so many of those reform charter schools.

Engaging individual students will require a broad and rich curriculum including plenty of time for the arts in all of its forms and for physical education and recess. A school focused on the joy of the individual will also be required to provide lots of choice. Choice in what books to read. Choice to pursue topics of personal interest and choice in how learning is demonstrated.

But choice is not sufficient for this focus on the joy of the individual. Since the individual must also live and work in a society, this rich curriculum would also include the study of the vast array of cultures in that society, readings of the great works of many different cultures and opportunities to talk and meet with people from many different cultures.

This kind of education cannot be done on the cheap. It cannot be done if we focus on “college and career ready”, instead of life ready. It cannot be done in an atmosphere of rigid compliance. It cannot be done in an atmosphere where educators live in fear of their jobs. It can only be done through a real commitment to our children, every one of them.

This focus on individual growth in public education may seem to be pie-in-the-sky, but think for a moment: If you were about to send your child off to school for the first time, what would be your dream education for that child? I think your dream would come pretty close to answer d above, joy and personal fulfillment.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why Corporate Education Reform Will Fail (Eventually)

In my post on Monday I explored the work of historian and social theorist, Michael Katz, especially his 1968 book The Irony of Early Education Reform, which so uncannily presaged the current education reform movement. One line I read from Katz’s updated introduction to the 2003 edition of that book is staying with me. Katz said that the book “‘highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails.”

History will tell us if the reforms touted by the corporate education reformers will take firm root in the country. Perhaps the reformers will be successful in getting their laundry list of reforms in place. After all they are very well financed and they have powerful political support on the federal and state government level. Bill Gates and other plutocrats are spending millions to have their way with public education. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has used his office and power of the purse to bribe states into his favored reforms. Governors in Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey have seized on the education reform mantras of “choice” and union bashing to extend the agenda in their states. The court in California has at least temporarily struck down tenure and highly publicized campaigns to do the same in New York and other states are well under way.

It may very well be that in some time in the future, we will see the installation of the Common Core nationwide, the reduction of teacher unions to toothless tigers, the extension of charter schools to the point where no urban district has a public school system, voucher programs proliferating and robbing school districts of funds, and teachers being reduced to “at will” employees at the mercy of evaluations based on student test scores.

This could well happen; we don’t know. There is one thing we do know, however. If every single reform cherished by the corporate education reformers is put in place, history tells us that it will not improve the educational outcomes for the vast majority of the 25% of American children living in poverty. In other words, even if the reformers get everything they want, they will fail in their stated goal because they are aiming their reforms at the wrong target and they are doing so because they do not want to deal with the real target – income inequity.

The corporate education reformers are engaged in that very American pastime of “Shoot, Aim, Ready.” So that while willfully ignoring the real and very much obvious need for economic reform they take down their shotgun and shoot at education; they shoot at teachers; they shoot at teacher unions; they shoot at “lazy” students; they shoot at poor parents. Meanwhile they rig the political agenda so that they continue to get richer as the poor continue to get poorer. Aiming your guns at education doesn’t cost the 1% money (any money they do spend is tax deductible anyway). Aiming at the real target – income redistribution – stands to cost them a great deal of money.

If the corporate education reformers do win their pyrrhic victory, there will come a day of reckoning when the public realizes that all of these reforms have failed because once again education has been used as a shield for the real problems facing the country. Unfortunately when that realization comes and the country turns to educators to help right the ship, they will find a decimated core of teachers stripped of their professionalism, unused to taking individual initiative, unable to exercise autonomy productively and left without the tools they need to provide for the education of the children.

It is clear that at some point in the future, the current approach to education reform will fail as it has failed every time throughout our history. It will fail because it is attacking the wrong target. The only question now is: “How much damage will the corporate education reformers do to public education before their failure is discovered by the nation as a whole?”

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Irony of 21st Century School Reform

On Friday, September 5, 2014, The New York Times carried the obituary of Michael Katz, the University of Pennsylvania professor, historian and social theorist probably best remembered today for his influential 1990 book, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. In that seminal book and other writings, Professor Katz was harshly critical of the Reagan and later Clinton administration take on the poor and programs aimed at poverty.

Both Reagan and Clinton held a narrow view of poverty, he said, that essentially blamed the poor for their own poverty because of their moral failings. Poverty, Katz posited, is better understood as the result of large historic and economic trends, such as war and peace and the shifting interest of capital that favored some people and disadvantaged others.

You may wonder why I would be writing about Professor Katz on this education blog. It turns out that Katz had written a much earlier book in 1968 called The Irony of Early School Reform. With such a provocative title, I knew I had to learn more. What I discovered is astonishing. Katz examined the public school reform movement of the 1820s to 1860s in Massachusetts. What he learned may well echo in the ears of those critical of education reform today.

To boil down the gist of Katz’ argument, I have enlisted the aid of some reviewers of his original text, Jack K. Campbell in The Teacher’s College Record and Laurence R. Veyzey and Peter Kenez in the Oxford Journals.

First of all, Campbell asks, “Who were these reformers?” The answer?  “Analysis of their class interests showed they were those who controlled legislatures and commercial enterprises. They crossed political lines. They were mostly laymen. (They recruited schoolmen in their machinations by inspiring them with a "messianic" complex. Teachers were to save the world. Professionalization of their ranks was to close out opposition.)” Laymen?  Control of Legislatures? Commercial enterprises?  Messianic Complex? Hmm.

What was the world view of these 19th century reformers? “These proponents blamed their social ills on urbanism, ineffective parents, immigrants, and the 'lower stratum' in general.”

What was the goal of these reformers?  “They promoted popular education as the means to achieving what they considered a well-ordered and integrated society. At the same time, they hoped to induce both prosperity and domestic tranquility.” And  Veyzey and Kenez add, “There is no doubt as to the paternalism of the educational leaders. They sought to convert workers' children to middle-class standards of manners and taste. They aimed, through manipulation of the curriculum and the environment, to internalize the norms that would reduce crime in the streets.”

How did they hope to accomplish their goals? Again from Campbell, “Through the ‘whip hand’ of school committees, they ruthlessly attacked the rival private academies as well as the decentralized system of public school control. They sought greater concentration of power, not, as is usually supposed, to facilitate financial and social equality, but to spread costs over a broader base and take initiative away from the local district.”

How did the reformers respond when it became evident through attendance records that the “common schools” were not for the “common man”? The reformers created the “reform school." “Under the guise of penal reform, they attempted to grade prisons as well as schools and used the courts to reach the hard-core juvenile miscreants. Professor Katz chose to call this development the real beginning of compulsory education. The implication, obviously, was that the lower classes were vicious, immoral, and needful of educational correction. But the appeal for public schools was always couched in terms of social mobility.”

Where did these reformers go wrong? Katz concludes that “by making education the single panacea of reform, the promoters oversimplified the problems of industrialization and even misdirected the needed impetus for reform.”

As we can see from the work of Michael Katz, the education reformers’ playbook has not changed much in two hundred years. Today’s reformers take the same paternalistic approach to education.

·         Just how far is KIPP Charter School “no excuses” discipline from the 19th century reform school? Certainly, charter school disciplinary practices can be seen in the same paternalistic light that Katz has shown on the 19th century reformers.

·         Reformy billionaire Bill Gates and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have both recently blamed children and their parents for American students’ “lack of motivation.” Reformers think that if only people would do what reformers think is the right thing all would be well.

·         No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Mayoral control of school boards and the Common Core State (sic) Standards all fit nicely into the reform playbook for subverting democracy through centralized control.

·         Attacks on teachers, teacher unions, pensions, tenure and seniority can all be seen as one piece with the traditional reform goal of providing education on the cheap.

·         The modern reformer argument that it is education that is the problem, not poverty and other economic and social forces, echoes the 19th century oversimplification of the problems facing the newly industrialized world.

It is apparent that over 200 years education reformers have not learned very much. Blinded by a paternalistic view of the “other” and driven by profit motives and a desire to control costs and shape the world in their own image, they fail to see the bigger picture or recognize the complexity of the problems.

I will give Professor Michael Katz the final word. Writing a new introduction to his book in 2003 Katz said:

“Very simply, the extension and reform of education in the mid-nineteenth century were not a potpourri of democracy, rationalism and humanitarianism...we must face the painful fact that this country has never, on any large scale, known vital urban schools, ones which embrace and are embraced by the mass of the community, which formulate their goals in terms of the joy of the individual instead of the fear of social dynamite or the imperatives of economic growth.”  ‘Irony’ highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails (Rosenberg,Education Update,  2003).”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Keeping Your Balance in Literacy Instruction

By now veteran teachers are accustomed to the pendulum swing in literacy instruction that veers wildly from one new best practice to another, often recycling through a back to basics heavy emphasis on phonics and then swinging back to a more holistic comprehension strategies approach. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the pendulum has seemingly swung in another direction with the emphasis on students doing “close readings” of more challenging text so that they may be “college and career ready”, whatever that means.

The latest issue of Reading Today (September/October) that arrived on my desktop yesterday is a case in point. The swinging of the pendulum is on full display as Tim Shanahan, emeritus professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, contributes an article entitled, Should We Teach Students at their Reading Levels? His answer is no. In the same issue a few pages farther back, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have an article entitled, Break through the Frustration: Balance vs. all-or-nothing thinking. As the title implies, they argue for a balanced approach that includes plenty of on level guided reading.

What is the poor classroom teacher to do? How does the teacher maintain her balance as the pendulum swings seemingly out of control? Let’s see if we can make some sense of all this for the practitioner in this CCSS age.

Tim Shanahan is a very persuasive literacy expert. He writes and speaks well. His arguments are often thoughtful and clear and he makes his ideas easy to implement through his step-by-step instructional style. He is also often wrong and politically motivated. Shanahan is a big booster of the CCSS approach to literacy instruction, including an emphasis on more complex texts and close reading. Before CCSS, Shanahan was a big booster of the Reading First initiative, the now largely discredited Bush era foray into improving reading performance. Shanahan now writes, in addition to his own blog, Shanahan on Literacy, for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Gates funded conservative think tank and leading champion of the Common Core.

In the Reading Today article, Shanahan argues that if we teach students at their instructional level they will never be college and career ready. As Shanahan puts it, “If low performing fourth graders are to be taught from second-grade books, when do they catch up?” Fair enough, but we might want to reverse that question and ask Shanahan, “If fourth graders reading at a second grade level are taught from sixth grade level books, how will they ever improve their reading and are they likely to be frustrated by the entire enterprise and give up?"

Shanahan argues that what we need to do is to provide students with “enough scaffolding to allow them to read harder books successfully.” In this brief article Shanahan does not go into great detail on what this scaffolding might look like, but he does offer a link to numerous research articles that discuss such scaffolding. Many of these articles focus on well-founded instructional practices like re-reading, introducing vocabulary before reading, and teacher modeling.

It is interesting that CCSS champion Shanahan is advocating lots of scaffolding prior to reading frustration level texts, while the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, argues that students should approach difficult text with minimal scaffolding and focus on “the four corners of the text.” But that is, perhaps, an issue for another day.

In their article, Burkins and Yaris say that we must avoid the extremes, both of an instructional design based too heavily on guided on-level reading or one that tosses out leveled reading for reading texts on the frustration level. They call for balance and they have sound ideas for maintaining that balance. They argue that “our challenge is not to choose between instructional-level text and frustration-level text; rather, the challenge is to manage strategic use of each in varied instructional contexts.”

For Burkins and Yaris, students will continue to need small-group, instructional level guided reading where the student does most of the reading work. They will also need work on frustration level texts through read-aloud where the teacher does all of the print work, and the teacher and students work together on comprehending the work. Shared reading is important also. In shared reading the students and teacher work together to do the print and meaning work in texts that are a little above reading level for most students. Finally, Burkins and Yaris argue for independent reading, where students read books they have chosen due to their own interest and may run the gamut to below grade level through above grade level.

Whoop! There it is.

I recommend teachers jump off the swinging pendulum and do what makes clear sense here. No matter the dictates of the CCSS, no matter Shanahan’s love of the frustration level, in reading instruction balance is critical. Moving away from guided, instructional level reading now will only mean, as Burkins and Yaris suggest, moving back to guided reading when the impact report on the Common Core comes out in a few years.

Keep your balance teachers. Read-aloud daily; engage in shared reading daily; meet a guided reading group or three daily; and allow students independent reading time daily. When you have done all that, maybe you can squeeze in a little math.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Talkin’ Teachers Union

A Labor Day Message

Come you ranks of labor, come you union core
And see if you remember the struggles of before
When you were standing helpless on the outside of the door
And you started building links on the chain, on the chain
And you started building links on the chain.
                                                Phil Ochs, Links on a Chain

I have always felt that Phil Ochs metaphor of the union activism as “building links on the chain” to be very apt. In his song, Ochs reminds us of the reasons for the union movement (workers at the mercy of the employer, police strike busters hired by companies, horrible safety conditions in the workplace) and also admonishes the unions for their excesses (particularly as it concerned the treatment of minorities in the 50s and 60s).

With teachers’ unions under siege in 2014, it may be a good idea to look back on the conditions for teachers and students before teacher unions had significant power and also to look forward to what the purpose of the union can and should be in the future.

When I began my teaching career in Pennsylvania in1969, the teachers’ association I joined was a largely toothless organization that had no collective bargaining rights, no right to question pay or working conditions and no influence over educational policy. I was paid 6,300 dollars to teach 30 periods a week with two periods a week for lesson preparation, an average class size in the mid-30s in a dilapidated classroom where the temperature rose to 98 degrees on warm June days. I taught using outdated and worn textbooks that were totally inappropriate for my student population using a curriculum that was taken directly from the table of contents of that old textbook.

In 1970, the teachers’ association got the right to collectively bargain. I joined the negotiating team and together we teachers embarked on a remarkable decade of growth and improvement of the profession. It was certainly messy at times, with contentious and lengthy bargaining sessions, recriminations played out in the local press and even a brief strike or two. But by the time I left that school district in 1982, my salary had quadrupled (in part due to a Masters degree and years of service, but also due to the bargaining process). I now taught 25 periods a week with 5 preparation periods and class sizes averaging in the mid-20s. My classroom now had an air-conditioner. I had new textbooks and taught from a curriculum that I had developed myself after a series of professional development opportunities that had been negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement.

Working together, we teachers improved our working conditions and our lives as well as improving the learning conditions for our students.

As Labor Day dawns here in 2014, teachers’ unions, perhaps in part because of past successes, are embattled. The unions are blamed for protecting “bad teachers”, being resistant to change, and for fighting for a status quo that has us falling behind other nations in international tests. While the public in general, still holds the individual teacher in some level of esteem, the teachers’ union is held up to ridicule even by some members of the profession.

Perception is often more powerful than fact. The perception of the union as protector of “bad teachers” is a hard one to kill. Let’s try to kill it anyway. Tenure laws were put in place long before there were any viable teachers unions. Tenure does not mean a lifetime job for the teacher, it only guarantees due process. It is the union’s job to ensure that an employee gets due process. Having worked on both sides of the educational fence, as union leader and school district administrator, I know that the very few “bad teachers” who do persist in our schools are there due to lax administration and not union protection.

As far as resistance to change, like any large organization, teacher unions tend to like the status quo. But when teacher unions fight against so-called reform laws like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, are they resisting change or recognizing that an extreme test based accountability system will fail as a way to improve student learning?

When the union opposes a teacher accountability system based on demonstrably flawed statistical methods, are they resistant to change or protecting their members from spurious evaluations and protecting the public from the cost of the lawsuits that are bound to follow?

When the union opposes charter proliferation and vouchers is it because they want to maintain the status quo or because they recognize that charters and vouchers steal money from the already cash strapped public schools while failing to provide any improvement in student learning and being rife with fraud and waste?

Indeed, our teachers’ unions have made missteps. Stung by the criticisms of the last three decades, the union leadership has tried to work with the reformers on such initiatives as the Common Core State Standards. 

The error here is clear. Whatever the merits of the Common Core, and there are some, the Common Core fails the sniff test that every veteran teacher uses on a new initiative: “What classroom teachers were involved in the production of these standards?” We know the answer to this question was few, if any. Hence the Common Core with all of the Gates funded marketing behind it was doomed to failure one way or the other.

Moving forward, I would like to see our teachers’ unions focus on the role of the teaching professionals in developing a viable evaluation method that allows teachers to police their own profession. Unions, partnering with administration can create an evaluation system that is effective and fair. It has been done in places like Montgomery County, Maryland and Toledo, Ohio.

I would like to see our teachers’ unions fighting for equity. This is a traditional role of unions and never has it been more important to fill this role than now. Inequity is rampant in this country and it is financial inequity that is the prime reason for our educational failures. It is not bad teachers or unions that are responsible for our struggling schools,, but the bad economic policies that lead to 25% of our children living under the educationally debilitating effects of poverty.

Finally, I would like to see our unions fighting for the teachers’ voice on educational policy decision making. Our public school system was established to help the country maintain an educated populace well prepared to participate in democracy. Policies that are handed down from the wealthy educational oligarchy cannot and will not perpetuate a democracy. Democratically established teaching and learning standards, developed with the voices of the actual teachers included, have a better chance of survival and impact.

Teachers who truly care about the profession, who truly care about the children, who truly care about the future, must recognize that it is only through concerted, coordinated and united action that we will be able to hold off the wealthy one-percenters who seek to turn public education into a private fiefdom. More than ever we need to continue to build and strengthen our “links on the chain.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Trouble with Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is capable of writing insightful critiques of New York’s great restaurants. When he writes about education he can only offer us fast food.

Former New York Times food writer and current columnist, Frank Bruni had an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled The Trouble with Tenure. In the article, Bruni quotes extensively from Mike Johnston, the former Teach for America temp teacher and public school principal, who is currently a Colorado State Senator from Denver and the author of Colorado’s 2010 law abolishing tenure. Bruni also quotes noted educational authority Whoopi Goldberg in the piece.

The gist of the Johnston/Bruni argument is that principals need the flexibility to “hire for talent and release for talent” so that they can form a team with the “same vision.” And that tenure provides no incentive to improve practice and provides no accountability for student outcomes. Johnston/Bruni continues, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

I would call Johnston’s take on tenure the typical viewpoint of a bad principal. For you see it is the principal who issues and denies a teacher tenure. It is silly to blame teachers or teacher unions for tenure abuse, when the granting of tenure is fully in the hands of the administration. Johnston’s viewpoints on teacher unions and “bad teachers” were no doubt formed during his Teach for America indoctrination. He wants the principals to have the power to fire at will. He has now taken his bias into the schools he managed and into the Colorado Legislature. But, as Linda Darling-Hammond has famously said, “You can’t fire your way to excellence.”

Doing away with tenure will not improve student learning. Good principals know how to achieve results for children within the constraints of tenure.

How do good principals work to achieve a strong team with a shared vision under a tenure system? Let’s start with an understanding that teaching is a complex process that requires complex metrics to judge its effectiveness. A system of weighing merit through student progress on standardized tests is fraught with error and will be recognized by a good principal as a very limited way to judge success. The good principal communicates to teachers a deep understanding of the complexity of the job and issues fair assessments based on that understanding and based on intimate knowledge of the teacher, the students and the learning environment created by that teacher.

Secondly, a good principal builds a strong team by hiring the very best candidates s/he can find and providing them with the support they need to succeed in the form of professional development and adequate resources. After 2,3 or 4 years of providing the needed support, if the principal, using a variety of inputs, determines the teacher is not being successful with children, then tenure is not granted. So one way a good principal builds a strong team is to hire well, train well and cut the cord when things do not go well.

But what of those so-called “bad teachers”? What of those teachers the principal has inherited from former “bad principals” who were simply granting tenure for those who had been there for three years? A good principal doesn’t whine about not being able to get rid of the teacher, a good principal works to help the struggling teacher improve, through a corrective action plan, through professional development and through an intensive supervisory model. By investing this time, the good principal often finds that the teacher improves and a new loyal member of the instructional team has been added to the ranks. Sometimes the struggling teacher is unwilling or unable to improve and as long as the principal has documented the efforts at improvement and the failures to demonstrate improvement, that teacher can be removed under any tenure law.

Is it a long and tedious process? Yes, it can be. Could it be streamlined? Probably. But the streamlining of tenure process must be weighed against the possible mistakes that can lead to a competent teacher being dismissed after shoddy work by an administrator.

Tenure does not prevent a talented principal from forming a strong team with a united vision. A principal creates a strong team through the communication of a clear vision that is supported by research on how children learn, by understanding the complexities of the teaching/learning process and through hiring, staff development and staff improvement processes that move the institution forward. I have seen this happen in four schools I worked in as a teacher and administrator. There are no shortcuts and tenure is not the roadblock that Bruni, Goldberg and Johnston would have us believe.

In previous posts here and here, I have discussed the need for tenure. The need can be boiled down to the necessity for teacher autonomy, teacher advocacy for children and reasonable protections from politically motivated hiring and firing.

Frank Bruni is capable of writing insightful critiques of New York’s great restaurants. When he writes about education he can only offer us fast food.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Value-Added Models' Fatal Flaw

Much has been written about the corporate education reformers pet teacher evaluation tool the value-added model (VAM). A VAM is a statistical measure that attempts to account for a teacher’s effectiveness through student performance on standardized tests. These measures have been nearly universally discredited by study after study, most recently by the American Statistical Association, the leading professional organization for statisticians in the country. For an outstanding review of all that is bad about VAMs, I would recommend Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education: Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability, by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley.

While VAMs do not come close to meeting the sniff test for reliability and validity, they have been forced down states’ throats as an accountability measure through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. Each of the 46 states that signed on is supposed to come up with a teacher evaluation system using VAMs in order to get a waiver from the impossible to achieve goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Whether VAMs are statistically suspect or not, they are doomed to fail. They have a fatal flaw that will insure that failure. Here is why.

What is the purpose of a program of teacher evaluation? For more than 95% of teachers the chief purpose of an evaluation is formative. In other words the evaluation is designed to help that teacher get better at teaching. Any smart school district leadership recognizes that by the time even a first year teacher is evaluated, the district has invested heavily in that teacher. The investment came in the form of recruiting, interviewing and training costs. The new teacher has value and, as in any good organization, a school district seeks to protect that investment through ensuring, to the extent possible, that the teacher is successful.
In order for an evaluation program to be successful in helping a teacher improve, three critical conditions must be met.

1.    Trust – Feedback is a two way street; it requires a giver and a receiver. Feedback does not lead to improvement if the teacher does not trust the source of the feedback. A teacher must be open to whatever evaluative feedback is provided. An administrator providing feedback earns that trust through being knowledgeable, fair and open to dialogue with the teacher.
2.    Actionable Feedback – A formative evaluation must provide a teacher with feedback that is doable. Recommendations must take into account the unique characteristics of the context in which that teacher is working. This means that the feedback is situational, responsive to the realities of the classroom setting, including such things as class size, grade level, special needs of the students and other demands on the teacher’s time.
3.    Adequate Resources – The evaluation must also take into consideration resources of time, money and materials. If a refinement in teaching is recommended by the administrator, then that administrator must be able to point to the resources that are available to implement the recommendation. This may include sending the teacher to a professional development opportunity, providing time for the teacher to view other classrooms implementing the suggestion or providing support materials for the teacher to use in the classroom.

The fatal flaw of value added models is that they do not have and can never have the trust of teachers and the do not provide actionable feedback. Let’s leave aside for a moment their statistical volubility. VAMs are simply too far removed from any classroom reality to be trusted by teachers. The classroom teacher, working with the child every day, knows much more about the individual child as a learner than any one shot standardized test can ever reveal.

VAMs also fail to provide actionable feedback. What do you do with a number that describes the growth scores of students who are no longer in your classroom? How do you use that number to improve instruction? If your scores are low does that mean you need to do more test prep? Does it mean something about your instruction? Does it mean something about last year’s group of students? How does that apply to this year’s group of students?

Finally, VAMs waste resources because they are simply not a useful tool for a school district seeking to provide an evaluation program that supports the development of skilled and contributing teachers. Even if an evaluation program were simply designed to ferret out under performing teachers, the VAM measures are too unreliable to be used for dismissal purposes.

By forcing schools to focus on this unproductive approach, the federal Department of Education and the education reformers are hampering the opportunity for a richer more meaningful approach to evaluation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teaching Teachers to Teach? Context Matters

Apparently it is open season on teacher preparation programs and professional development for teachers. Last week New York Times columnist Joe Nocera had an op-ed piece called Teaching Teachers. His column follows a Sunday New York Times book excerpt on Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). Nocera quotes heavily from Green’s work. In Education Week, Walt Gardner Weighs in with Can Teaching Be Taught?

This all comes in the wake of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) latest report on the quality of teacher education programs. The NCTQ is a Bill Gates funded reform arm of the corporate education reform movement. The apparent purpose of the NCTQ is to discredit traditional teacher preparation programs through the most cursory and flawed of research methods, so that profitable alternative graduate programs can make money.  To gather information for their report, NCTQ mostly views documents on education school’s websites and uses their own metrics to decide on their quality. NCTQ has been universally discredited in the media. See Linda Darling Hammond’s piece from the Washington Post here.

Here is a good general rule: If anything you are reading cites the NCTQ as a reference, don’t believe a word of what is said.

The gist of Nocera’s op-ed in the Times is that university departments of education inadequately prepare teachers to teach and that once on the job teachers are left to their own devices to figure it out or not. He cites Elizabeth Green as saying,The common belief, held even by many people in the profession, that the best teachers are ‘natural-born’ is wrong.”

Really? This is the common belief? I suppose that my thirty year career in professional development has been a mirage. I get a little tired of people outside of education telling me what the common beliefs are.
Sure I think that many people believe that there are those with a particular talent for teaching, but in all my years as a teacher and administrator, I have for the most part encountered professionals of varying talents, who were trying to improve their craft. Talent is never enough. The baseball player Tony Gwynn was the finest hitter of is generation. He had considerable athletic talent, but more importantly he worked hard every day to get better at hitting.

So, how do we best improve the preparedness of new teachers coming into the field and how do we make sure that improvement in teaching continues throughout a teaching career? I believe that the context of the learning is key. Undergraduate education can only do so much. Learning to be a teacher is an on-going effort that must be pursued over time in the context of the actual classroom.

I have taught undergraduate education majors and also working teachers enrolled in Masters Degree programs. The graduate students were far superior students mostly because they saw the direct application of what they were learning to their classroom. In a word, they had “context” for what they were learning. Not only that, they also had a laboratory (their own classroom) in which to try out ideas. They came to class with questions in their head about how to improve their instruction. These graduate classes were like seminars in teaching improvement.

Through no fault of their own, undergraduates do not have this context. That is why it is important to get pre-service teachers into the classroom as participant observers as soon as possible. Many schools of education are already doing this, of course. Education majors need to be in the classroom observing and assisting the certified classroom teacher starting in the sophomore year. College professors need to reinforce this in-context learning by attending these visitations themselves and discussing what happens there in a seminar structure.

Of course, these regular visitations should end in the senior year with a minimum 18 week student teaching experience under the guidance of an informed college supervisor and a master classroom teacher. This experience is critical.

No matter how good the undergraduate program is, however, it can never substitute for the moment the neophyte teacher steps in front of her/his own class. In this context, the new teacher is most open to learning and the opportunity for learning is fully contextualized. At this point it is critical that the neophyte have a skilled mentor who is readily available for assistance. Most current mentoring programs in schools fall short because resources of time and money are not available to provide a real mentoring experience.

Ongoing professional development also has a large role to play. As I mentioned above, new teachers can greatly benefit from continuing their education on a graduate level because that learning is now contextualized. School districts can help their teachers stay current and refine their professional abilities through in house professional development. Many of my colleagues moan when they hear of another professional development program coming their way, but done right, these programs are critical.

So how do we do professional development right? Once again a part of the answer is context. Professional development should happen in the teacher’s classroom to be effective. A good model would look like this.

1.    Formal presentation given by an experienced and knowledgeable teacher/consultant to a group of teachers on some important aspect of teaching and learning
2.    Planning time for the teachers to meet as a group and develop a plan for integrating this new strategy into the classroom
3.    Observation by the teacher/consultant of the application of the strategy in the classroom
4.    Face to face feedback conference from the teacher/consultant to the teacher on how the lesson went with suggestions for refinement of the strategy.
5.    A follow-up observation and conference by the teacher/consultant to see the refined lesson
6.    Further meeting time for the group of teachers to discuss implementation of the strategy and continue refinement of practice.

Obviously the models for mentoring and professional development laid out here require resources of time and money. If there is one major mistake we have made in public education it is that we have tried to do it on the cheap. If we want to have the finest possible teachers with the finest possible training, then simple answers and shortcuts won’t suffice. I would call programs of tying teacher evaluation to test scores, grading colleges of education, and hiring Teach for America recruits simple answers and shortcuts.

Back in my teacher’s union president days, I had a board negotiating team member tell me that the taxpayers he represented didn’t want to pay teachers for “free time.” He thought that two preparation periods per week was plenty. In his words, “We are paying you for your time in front of students; you can plan on your own dime.” Viewing American public education over the past 45 years, I would have to say that his is the prevailing sentiment still.

When will the so-called reformers realize that to get the best teaching, we must invest the necessary time and money?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Data Wall for Corporate Education Reformers

Corporate reformers love their data. They say data is what should drive instruction. One particularly pernicious aspect of a data driven obsession is the data wall. Data walls are intended to display student performance publicly in the classroom or, as I have often seen it, in the hallway, so that everyone can see who has done well and who has not on standardized tests and other measures of performance.

Above is one typical example (hat tip to Edusanity). Guess how long it will take children to figure out which student corresponds to which number? The purpose of these data walls appears to be, as Valerie Strauss has pointed out, the humiliation of children. In the spirit of this reformy idea, I thought I would develop a data wall of my own to assess the progress of some of the more noted educational reformers.

As you can see this data wall has four categories of cluelessness. Since the education reform movement is heavily populated by people who have never or only briefly taught, the highest rung they can obtain is Clueless. The lowest rung on the ladder is reserved for the Clueless and Rich. This category is reserved for those plutocrats who, in the name of charity and dodging taxes, have decided to make teachers and students miserable with their cockamamie ideas.


Wendy Kopp - The founder of Teach for America started with a reasonably sound idea for filling teacher shortages in urban areas and has turned it into a multi-million dollar machine for bashing real teachers, providing willing and naive staff for charter schools and union busting.

Eric Hanushek - The Stanford economist is the prime mover behind the "poverty doesn't matter, just fire the bad teachers" movement. What Hanushek has mostly managed to prove is that economists are clueless about educational reality.

Mike Petrilli - President of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank and a leading supporter of the Common Core. Petrilli proves that you can be thoughtful, witty, well-informed and still clueless about teaching and learning.

Supremely Clueless

Arne Duncan - Leading the way as supremely clueless, the Secretary of Education fulfills his mission as the nations "teacher in chief" by bashing teachers every chance that he gets. A supporter of the Vergara tenure decision, charter expansion, valued added measures for teacher evaluation, Duncan has been consistently on the wrong side of every single education issue.

John White - A former Teach for America recruit, White has overseen the dismantling of public edcation in New Orleans in his role as Superintendent of Schools in Louisiana. White comes by his cluelessness honestly as he is not certified to teach or be a school administrator in Louisiana. He did attend the Broad Superintendents Academy where he learned to destroy public education. 

Campbell Brown - A former newsreader, Brown is new to the wall, but already demonstrating all the characteristics of extreme cluelessness. Bouyed by California's Vergara decision, she is tearfully suing the State of New York to get rid of job protections for teachers in that state. 

Supremely and Doggedly Clueless

Chris Christie - Inheriting one of the finest education systems in the country, Christie has been persistent and consistent in his efforts to destroy it. While his minions close access to bridges in New Jersey, Christie has denied the public a voice in the dismantling of public education in Newark and Camden.

Cami Anderson - Chris Christie's handpicked Superintendent of Schools in Newark New Jersey, Anderson is so sure that she knows what is best for the children of Newark that she has decided to stop attending school board meetings or listening to parents and community leaders. Determined to fix Newark's schools in her reformy image whether it is good for kids or not.

Michelle Rhee - Well, you know.

Clueless and Rich

Eli Broad - The developer of the Broad Superintendent's Academy dedicated to training non-educators to destroy public education so that more money can be made by wealthy venture capitalists. (See John White above)

The Walton Family - Dedicated to ensuring that the population of the country remains ignorant, compliant and poor enough to keep shopping at Walmart.

Bill Gates - Prime financier in the experiment to destroy public education and replace it with a business model in his own image. Likes playing god to America's parents and children. Says we will know if his experiment worked in ten years, because you know, today's kids have the time.