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 I taught using outdated and worn textbooks that were totally inappropriate for my student population using a curriculum that was taken directly from the table of contents of that old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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

School Based Day Care: Improving Teaching and Learning

Improving teaching and learning by doing 
something for teachers rather than to them.

Much of the talk we hear from the corporate education reformers is about what we can do to teachers to make them teach better. Here is a quick list of what has been suggested and in many cases tried to improve teacher performance:

1.    Evaluate teachers using student standardized test score data (Value Added Measures or VAMs).
2.    Eliminate teacher job protections like tenure and seniority (see California’s Vergara case).
3.    Do away with traditional experience and educational level salary advancement and use a system of merit pay designed to reward high performers and punish low performers.

Every one of these ideas is flawed in application and none has been shown to improve instruction. Maybe instead of focusing on what we need to do to teachers we might want to focus on what we can do for teachers to make their very difficult jobs easier. After all, as any good teacher knows, we do not get children to learn well by doing things to them, but by doing things for them (providing the needed instruction, providing feedback on their progress, providing needed resources, re-teaching when necessary, providing the needed guidance or direction, setting achievable goals, helping them organize for learning, establishing routines, etc.)

One thing we could do that would help many teachers would be to provide on-site, professionally run, school district managed and state regulated day care for teachers who are working parents. Everyday tens of thousands of teachers drop their children off at a day care facility, often far from their place of work, and then report to work where they are responsible for their students’ health, welfare and education. Teaching is a job that requires 100% concentration at all times. It can be very difficult providing that attention with your own child miles away in the care of others.

All parents face a daunting challenge in today’s world. Two salaries are generally necessary for a growing family. One family member is often responsible for holding a job that provides health benefits. Even in the 21st century the burden of child care falls mostly on the mother. The vast majority of teachers are women, so the connection is clear. Many teachers arrive at school with part of their minds and much of their hearts elsewhere and with one ear tuned to the cell phone.

This is not a critique of women or men or parents or a plea for the “family values” of 70 years ago. Nor is it a plea for mothers or fathers to quit their jobs and stay home with their children. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the truth of the situation and a plea to do something about it.

School or school district based child care is very desirable and very doable. From the perspective of the teacher/employee, school based child care means a safe and secure place to leave your child during the school day. It means a greater assurance of quality care due to school district oversight and the employment of certified staff. Current school based daycare programs often seek national accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children and are run by experienced administrators tied to the district’s administration. On-site daycare means that the teacher/parent can visit the child during a lunch break and be readily available if a need arises. Further, school based day care means day care that is responsive to a school’s calendar, meaning that the parent does not have to pay for days when schools are closed and care is available for times when teachers must attend meetings or conferences after hours.

School-based day care is desirable for the school district because it helps the district recruit and retain teachers. A professionally run, on-site daycare may help a district attract top candidates for open positions. In my career as a school district administrator, I have seen many excellent teachers make the hard decision to leave the profession when they started a family. Secure and professional day care may help prevent this brain drain.

Of course, as I have argued above, the greatest benefit of school based day care may accrue to the students. With secure knowledge that their own child is being well-cared for and is close by, the teacher can give that necessary 100% to the children sitting in the classroom.

Cost? The cost of the program to the school district should be zero. As long as the district has available space, facilities costs should be a minimum. In any event the district would base the cost to the teachers on the cost of running the program. In places where this has been tried, the cost to the parent/teacher has been about the same or a little lower than other day care arrangements. See here.

So here is one way that the corporate education reformers could do something for teachers that would help attract top candidates to school districts, help retain talented teachers and ensure students get the best their teacher has to offer in the classroom. I would like to see the reformers put their money behind this idea. Or is it only about doing things to teachers?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Hope, Poverty, and Grit

Calling on our political leaders and plutocrats to show some grit.

When I was a kid “grit” was the stuff that was left in the bottom of the bath tub after I showered following a full day spent on a dusty baseball field. “Grit” was also the stuff in the Lava soap my auto mechanic father used to get the grease off his hands at the end of the work day.

Now the word “grit” has morphed into one more way for the corporate education reformers to blame children, teachers and parents for what they perceive as the shortcomings of public education. Apparently, American school children lack grit and their teachers and parents are failing to instill it in them.

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who coined the term, defines grit as "This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time.”

I admit by that definition I am not very gritty myself. My father didn’t know grit from shinola, but he often lamented my lack of it. I had a passion for baseball, but couldn’t hit a lick. My dad said I wasn’t trying hard enough. I believed him, so I practiced more, got extra coaching and still couldn’t hit a lick. My dad said I was too lazy to practice enough. I eventually gave up my dreams of being a major league baseball player. See – a grit deficit.

In ninth grade my grit was put to the ultimate test, I was assigned to read Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I tried to grit it out. I read the first chapter. I read most of the second chapter. That was it. I gave up the ghost. It didn’t make any sense of me and even thinking about the novel today makes start to yawn. Fortunately, my copy of the dreaded Silas had the John Steinbeck novella, The Red Pony, in the back. I loved that. I read it in one sitting. I then read every other book that Steinbeck had ever written (I started with the short ones and worked my up to The Grapes of Wrath). Once again my grit failed me, but fortunately a new passion was found, Steinbeck, and through that passion I developed some literary grit.

I am thinking about grit today in light of a column by Nicholas Kristof in Thursday’s New York Times, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality. Among many other important things Kristof says is this, “Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised.”

This leads me to a question. How can we develop grit in children who feel marginalized and disenfranchised? I am reminded of a line in the song To Be a Man by the folk singer, Len Chandler, “If you give a boy just half a chance, he might become just half a man.” Becoming a fully functioning man or woman demands a full chance. With income inequality rising and 25% of our children living in poverty, we are guaranteeing that one-quarter of our kids don’t get even that half a chance.

The one element I believe we must acknowledge as a prerequisite to the development of grit is hope. Hope of achieving your goals. Hope that allows you to set goals. Hope of a life less burdened by material and emotional deprivation. Hope of fulfilling work. Hope of making an impact for better in the world. If you are feeling, in Kristof’s words, “marginalized and disenfranchised”, where does that hope come from? In this country, we are systematically destroying the hopes of 25% of our children through the pernicious effects of poverty and income inequality.

But the corporate education reformers say that teachers must help children develop grit. The truth is that teachers, including those working with our throw away children in poverty, have helped students cultivate their passions and learn to stick it out when the going gets tough. But it is also the truth that those who do emerge from grinding poverty to the kind of success we want for all of our kids are outliers, exceptions to the rule. Poverty, for far too many, defeats grit.

I would like to see some grit from the political leaders and wealthy plutocrats supporting education reform. I would like to see the kind of grit that makes them want to defeat poverty, not by battering teachers and teachers unions, but by championing policies that lessen inequality. As Paul Krugman has shown, inequality is not inevitable; it is political. Policies and practices can make a difference. It will be hard work. It will take determination. It will take time. It will take a huge effort.

Do our political leaders and 1%ers have the grit to see it through?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Student Advocacy and Tenure: A Philadelphia Story

I once had a superintendent of schools tell me, “Your loyalty should lie with the persons who sign your paycheck – the school board.” I disagreed then and I disagree now. Sure, as an employee of a school district I am sworn to carry out the policies and teach the curriculum that is approved by the Board, but my loyalty as a professional must reside with my students. When the students’ best interests, in my professional judgment, conflict with Board policy or action, I must work to change the policy or redirect the action. That is what it means to be professional. That is also one important reason teachers need job protections.

In an earlier post here, I wrote about the importance of teacher advocacy for children as one very good reason for teacher tenure. This argument was brought home to me through a recent online discussion with a special education teacher in the Philadelphia School District. Apparently the District administration, then under the leadership of the infamous reformer Paul Vallas, was concerned that they were losing special education court cases because special educators were advocating for the children. The teacher reported being told this by a school district lawyer.

“You are NOT advocates for the children…You are advocates for the School District of Philadelphia. You can't advocate for the district and the students…You must always support the district. That's where your loyalty must be if you want to keep collecting a salary from the district.."

At another later meeting the special education teachers were told by a supervisor, “You are not to put anything that costs money into an Individual Learning Plan (IEP).”

So, according to the School District of Philadelphia, teachers are not to be child advocates, but rather good soldiers that (goose) step in line with whatever the District decides is right for the bottom line. And, god forbid, if a child needs a service that costs money to be successful in school, you are forbidden from placing that in the IEP.

Now, I understand that any school district, and certainly one as cash strapped as Philadelphia’s, needs to keep controls on spending. I also realize that special education costs can be a huge drain on a school district’s budget, but to attempt to bully and threaten teachers into abandoning their roles as child advocate in the name of some sort of misguided employer loyalty is outrageous.

What this comes down to is an object lesson in why teacher’s need tenure. Without job protections and in a climate created by the administration of the Philadelphia schools, who will speak for the children?

Healthy schools embrace input from all teachers. In my role as a reading specialist, I sat on many child study teams looking into students who were failing to thrive in our school. I was not only allowed, but encouraged to share my perspectives from my work with the child, the assessments I had administered, and the observational notes I had made. Everyone in the room, teachers, nurse, counselor, social worker and administrator were focused on what was best for that child. Sometimes I made recommendations that were embraced and sometimes my recommendations were rejected in the light of other evidence, but they were always invited. I never feared that my job was on the line because I advocated for a child from my own professional viewpoint.

This type of collegiality in the service of children cannot happen in an atmosphere of fear. Teacher’s make thousands of decisions a day for their students. Some of those decisions involve student advocacy. Teachers sometimes must advocate for an individual child in communication with a parent, with other teachers or with school administrators. At other times teachers must advocate for all the students in the class or in the ditrict when the Board seeks to cut programs or adopt policies that harm kids. The protections of tenure allow the teacher to serve this vital role. If a teacher does not have these protections, the children will be the losers.

Ultimately, the teacher is a special type of employee; one who needs a special type of protection to do the job well. Members of this profession serve two masters: the board of education and the children. Job protections allow these employees to make sound decisions when the needs of these two masters are in conflict.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chris Christie's Hypocritical Stance on School Choice

On Monday, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey issued an executive order that delayed his much ballyhooed teacher evaluation program – AchieveNJ. I wrote about the impact of that action earlier this week here. Along with the executive order, Christie’s office issued a press release that I found to be a particularly entertaining exercise in putting a positive spin on a clear loss.

Here is the first line of that press release: “This Administration is committed to the educational success of every child, no matter the zip code, said Governor Christie.” The zip code line must be in the public relations manual that all education reformers are required to adhere to; we hear it so often. It makes me wonder if Christie should hire a Commissioner of Hypocrisy. Since he has been in office, Christie has worked diligently to be sure that New Jersey’s poor and near poor families cannot change their zip code.

Christie tried to abolish the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) which attempts to insure that there is housing for lower income citizens in all towns and municipalities in New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court stopped him. Forced to write new rules for COAH, the Governor’s representatives on the Council responded with a woefully inadequate plan that David Fisher of the New Jersey Builders Association said was rife with, “ineffective regulations that frustrate the constitutional obligation to assist in providing desperately needed affordable housing.” And Stacy Berger of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey said, “This council proposed rules that will result in many, many fewer homes for hard-working New Jerseyans who make our economy and our community hum.”

What these weak affordable housing regulations do is effectively bar economic diversity in New Jersey towns and townships. More economic diversity would do more for educational opportunity for working poor families in New Jersey than any of the corporate education reformer solutions that Christie champions. Blocking citizen’s access to affordable housing is far worse than blocking traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

This is how the Fair Share Housing Center puts it:

We believe that families of every income level and every background, especially low-income people of color, should have the choice to live in any community and any school district, and should not be excluded by discriminatory zoning policies. We believe that if a low-income person of color wants to live in a community with exemplary schools, or good access to jobs, or close to transit hubs, they should have the same opportunity to do so as people earning six figures.

This is what Fair Share believes and it is also what the law demands, which is why the Christie administration has been at loggerheads with the courts on this issue.

Further down in Governor’s press release, Christie’s Inter-district Public School Choice program is lauded for “increasing educational opportunities for students with the option of attending a public school outside the district of residence and without cost to parents.” Taken together with his efforts to block affordable housing, the Christie administration is saying it will allow you to send your child outside of your home district; just don’t ask to have affordable housing so you can actually move to where you would like to send your child to school.

So there you have the hypocrisy of the Christie administration. The Governor is more than happy to borrow from the corporate education reformers playbook and tell poor parents in urban areas that the problems in education are bad teachers, bad schools and a lack of choice. So we get attacks on teachers and their unions, proliferating charter schools of dubious quality, and the inter-district transporting of children, all in the name of choice.

When it comes to providing real choice for New Jersey families through fair housing, however, Christie says to the working poor of New Jersey, “No choice for you.” So Christie’s desire for choice does not extend to his leafy suburban backyard or to the backyards of his wealthy supporters. The message to New Jersey’s poor? Stay where you are and we will shuffle your kids around.

If Christie wants to keep talking about zip codes, how about a serious approach to assisting families to change their zip codes if they would like?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Guest Post from Denny Taylor, Friend of Public Education, Families and Children

Denny Taylor is author of the influential books Family Literacy and Learning Denied, two books that had a huge influence on my thinking about literacy instruction. When she speaks, we all should listen. After years away from publishing, but not from researching, Denny is back with a vengeance. She deserves our support. Please read her letter below.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing to urgently request your help. If you find the political circumstance and the research base for the four propositions that I have outlined in this letter are compelling, and you support the course of action suggested here please send this letter to friends and colleagues. Use your websites, Facebook, and any other means to get the message out. Given that I rarely enter the public sphere my friends will know that the situation of which I write is pressing. Time is of the essence, I fear.

Some of you will have read books I have written based on forty years of longitudinal research in family, community, and schools settings with children, families, and teachers who live and work in challenging social and physical environments. Except for my doctoral dissertation, all my research has taken place in sites of urban and rural poverty.

About fifteen years ago I became more focused on catastrophic events, including extreme weather events, industrial disasters, war and armed conflict, and acts of mass violence that occur with little warning and in a matter of a few seconds change the lives of children, teachers, and their families forever.

I haven’t published during this fifteen year time period, but I have been working as a researcher and writing on a daily basis. Much of the time I have spent studying the research on trauma and mass trauma with a mentor in the field. Still more time has been spent studying Earth system science, and eventually writing qualitative research papers that were peer reviewed by researchers in the physical sciences. Based on the reviews, I have participated in research conferences and meetings with Earth system scientists whose research focuses on quantitative studies on the anthropogenic changes that are taking place to the planet.

My own research has evolved, and I have found my place between scientists, policy makers, and the public. The mix of social and physical sciences is making it possible for me to share the findings of these fifteen years of daily study, which are firmly grounded in scientific evidence, and in the lived knowledge that has come from living and working in places where catastrophic events have taken place.

There are eight book length manuscripts on my bookshelf and the first three books based on them are being published this summer. These books are very different from each other, but they all focus on the interconnections between two of the greatest threats to our children’s future:

  1. The dismantling of the US public education system; and
  2. The acceleration of anthropogenic change to the planet.
The Earth system scientists from the global scientific community who participated in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report categorized climate change as “unequivocal”, and 195 countries signed documents in agreement with these scientists. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced 40 reports, the first in 2005, raising concerns about climate change and in the 2014 report the GAO has elevated the impacts of climate change to “high risk” status. The Department of Defense (DOD) has issued similar reports and warnings and is preparing for catastrophic events that might occur because of climate change.

But the US Congress still refuses to act. Many members of Congress are still denying that climate change is unequivocal, and they refuse to acknowledge that both the people of the United States and the entire global community are at “high risk”.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that there is now one political party in the US Congress that is not only denying climate change, but has powerful members on Congressional sub-committees convened to focus on climate change who are also outspoken in denying basic science.

The three books connect the dots between the dismantling of the US public education system and the denial of climate change, and they present four propositions:

First Proposition: By defunding public education the federal government is selling the future of children in the US to private corporations, creating huge revenues for companies and a bonanza for shareholders, while at the same time undermining and destabilizing the neighborhoods and communities in which schools are privatized.

Second Proposition: By profligating denial of climate change, defunding and limiting expenditures on mitigating climate and environmental problems, the US Congress is actively engaged in protecting the corporate interests that have supported their political campaigns, while willfully ignoring the very real and very grave threat that exists to the American people, especially children, and to all human life on the planet.

Third proposition: By defunding public education and selling the children in the US to private corporations that are in large part responsible for climate change and the destruction of the environment, the federal government is ensuring the indoctrination of America’s children into the State-Corporate Complex that is threatening their future, while at the same time actively interfering with their capacity to develop the problem-solving capabilities they will need to tackle the potentially life-threatening anthropogenic changes to the planet that they will experience in their lifetime.

Fourth proposition:If we are serious about preparing our children for an uncertain future, in which they will be confronted by many perils, then we must stop the corporate education revolution immediately and recreate the public school system based on democratic principles, ensuring equality and opportunity for all children to participate in projects and activities that will ensure their active engagement in re-visioning and re-imagining human life on Earth.

For our children and the planet, the third and fourth propositions are far reaching in their implications. The three books unpackage the political propaganda, and focus on the scientific research that is being obfuscated for political power, and corporate revenues and profits. Each book explores the relationships that exist between what Noam Chomsky calls “the State-Corporate Complex” and the acceleration of climate change, and the defunding andcorporatization of public education. Together they provide compelling evidence why the Common Core should be abandoned and Pearson’s “global education revolution” immediately ended.
Here are the titles of the three books:

Nineteen Clues: Great Transformation Can Be Achieved Through Collective (just published in paper and also available in electronic formats for Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and iBooks).
Save Our Children, Save Our School, Pearson Broke the Golden Rule (proof copies of this political satire have arrived and the actual book should be available in two weeks with eBooks to follow).
Keys to the Future: A Parent-Teacher Guide to Saving the Planet (is in the final edit stage and will be available in paper by September, again with eBooks to follow).

Together, based on the evidence, these books make the case that there are three things we know for sure:
  1. What happens to the future lives of our children and grandchildren depends on us;
  2. We should not expect the powerbrokers of the State-Corporate Complex to come to our aid or rescue our children;
  3. Extreme inequality is not only bad for people it is bad for the planet – the poor are at greater peril than the rich.
Many teachers and parents are already leading the way in the struggle for equality and more humane learning environments for children. Their courageous activism is the struggle not only for the re-establishment of the publiceducation system, but also for the future of humanity.

The dangers to our children are real, and at Garn we volunteering our time to work for the Press, because we regard ourselves as first responders in an emergency situation. Our mission is to publish books with actionable knowledge that can be of use to educators and the public. We are hopeful for the future and we put our trust in the people, especially parents and teachers, who are working to make the planet a child safe zone.

Please consider supporting Garn Press by sharing this letter with everyone in your social networks and encouraging your friends and colleagues to read the books. Reviews are welcome!
Our hope at Garn is that when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did to respond to climate change we will be able to tell them that:

  1. We saved their schools and made them sites of equity and justice;
  2. We made their schools places where every child developed the capacity to be resourceful and resilient;
  3. We insisted that they had the opportunity to participate in great projects about the Earth and about the Universe;
  4. We made sure their education included both the scientific and the literary so they could see the deep connections between these ways of thinking and ways of being;
  5. We were adamant that they learned together in classrooms that valued the ways in which they could support one another;
  6. We insisted that their classes included the arts, dance, music, drama, painting and drawing in seamless lessons that encouraged joyfulness and a sense of belonging to a community.
We will be able to tell them that because of the ways in which we insisted they were educated the ethos of the nation changed. Because of their children the public began to regard the Earth differently. People began to reassess what was important to them. They acted on what they already knew, that liberty cannot exist without justice, and that the price of great wealth for a few was too high for the public to pay and would no longer be tolerated.

We will tell them we stood strong, and we used these newfound beliefs in our re-Imagining of the ways we live on the planet. We will tell them because we love our children so much the world changed.

We must do whatever we can to make this happen, so we can tell our children, “We worked together and we made the Earth a child-safe zone.”

Denny Taylor
New York
July 15, 2014

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Blinks on Teacher Evaluation

Champion of corporate education reform, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has blinked on one of the signature tenets of that reform movement: AchieveNJ – which provides for teacher evaluation tied to student performance on standardized tests. Faced with an assembly bill that sought to delay the use of the new tests to measure schools and teachers until a task force could be established to review and report on the impact of the tests, Christie capitulated. He had threatened to veto any such bill, but faced with a 72-4 bi-partisan vote in the assembly, Christie had little choice but to compromise.

His executive order does nothing to relieve parents and children from taking the suspect tests, but it does delay the implementation of the value-added measurement of teacher performance. The executive order means that the 20 per cent of New Jersey teachers who teach language arts and math in grades 3-8 will have student performance on those tests count for 10 per cent of their evaluation in 2014-15 and 20 per cent the following year. While the executive order really just kicks the can down the road for two years, it must be seen as a clear victory for the two teacher unions, NJEA and AFT, if not for parents and students.

It is interesting to note that test scores were originally intended to account for 35 per cent of a teacher’s evaluation. Out-going New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, lowered that to 30 per cent earlier this year. Now Christie has lowered it to 10 percent and 20 per cent for the next two years. As Jersey Jazzman has pointed out in a comment on Bob Brauns’ blog, “It is an indication of how arbitrary the process of tying test scores to teacher evaluations is when the governor — on the basis of absolutely nothing — can change the weight of test scores in those evaluations merely by executive order.”

So now we wait for the findings of this new task force. Chritie's task forces have a tendency to report what Christie wants to hear, so I am not very optimistic about what we will hear from this new panel.

Several years ago, another of the Governor's executive orders initiated the Task Force on Educator Evaluation, a group that ultimately recommended the 35 per cent number for the amount that student standardized tests should count in a teacher evaluation. That recommendation flew directly in the face of testimony provided that task force by a group of New Jersey educators and researchers calling themeselves EQuATE.  The EQuATE report called on the task force to recommend the following to the Governor.

Based on a thorough analysis of existing literature, evaluation programs, and its members’ own experiences, EQuATE is recommending the following:

1. Appoint a ―guiding coalition to develop an aligned ―Department of Education – Local Education Authority‖ (DOE-LEA) system for continuous improvement of teaching and school leadership through an inclusive process by December 2011.
2. Develop a balanced teacher evaluation framework and process. The DOE-LEA evaluation system should:

  • Empower teachers and school leaders to customize, adopt and implement a process and framework that is LEA-specific;
  •  Reduce the weight given to standardized test-based measures of student achievement; 
  • Select pupil progress indicators with wisdom; Incorporate all domains of professional practice into the evaluation framework; 
  • Develop guidelines, standards, processes and training around the proper use of data; 
  • Design for transformative change rather than simply technical change;
  • Conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

3. Complete a pilot of the DOE-LEA process and framework by July 2015.
4. Provide LEAs with a set of criteria by which they might opt-out of the proposed statewide system based on performance and locally developed educator improvement systems. One alternative should be a locally negotiated Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) process designed to identify and assist under-performing teachers before making a professional judgment regarding their fitness for continued service.

EQuATE further warned of the dangers of attributing more to test scores than they could reveal about teacher effectiveness.

Research studies show that the teacher’s effect on value-added scores, based on these kinds of tests, accounts for only 3-4 percent of the variation.1 Fully 90 percent of the variation in VAMs is attributable to student characteristics and the interaction of learning/test-taking styles with the instruments used to measure achievement; it’s not the teacher. To ascribe a weight to this measure that exceeds its explanatory power would be malpractice at best.

If the Task Force on Educator Evaluation had aligned their recommendations with this reasoned and well-researched approach, yesterday's Christie capitulation would not have been necessary and real progress on teacher evaluation could have been made. Instead the task force report and the policy which followed it were driven by ideology rather than sound practice. 

Christie paid a bit of a price for that yesterday. It will be interesting to see if this new task force listens to educators, sound research and good sense and makes non-ideological recommendations. I, for one, am not holding my breath.

For a full explanation of why AchieveNJ is "faith-based policy" please see Jersey Jazzman here.