Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Educator's Summer Reading List

It is summer, which means that teachers all over the country are working a summer job to pay the bills, attending graduate courses to improve teaching skills, revising lesson plans in anticipation of the next year and, of course, reading this blog.

It has always amused me when acquaintances at various gatherings would say, "It must be nice to have the summer off." Here is a partial list of things I did with my "summers off" over a 45 year career in education:

Gas Station Attendant
Ice Cream Truck Driver
Summer Camp Counselor
Summer School Teacher
Curriculum Writer
New Student Tester
Professional Development Attendee/Provider
College Lecturer
Graduate School Student

One constant over my summers, however, was reading. I hope all of you have some extra time for reading this summer and I hope some of that time will be recreational reading or catching up with a classic you never got to read before.

I would like to suggest that some of that summer reading also be devoted to the three books discussed below. These are not beach books, but books that will arm you with good clear arguments as you fight against the dismantling of public education and the destruction of the teaching profession.

50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education by David C. Berliner, Gene V. Glass and Associates.

Berliner and Glass are two highly respected researchers who use their knowledge of research to systematically dismantle every canard of the corporate education movement. Name an issue: charter school superiority to public schools, international tests showing the failure of our public schools, merit pay will improve teacher performance, class size doesn't matter, retention will improve achievement, money doesn't matter, education will lift the poor out of poverty. Berliner and Glass take on each of these issues, present the reformer argument and then cite research to show how wrong they are.

50 Myths is the perfect book to have on hand when in the company of those who carp about charters, choice and "bad" schools. Clear and easy to read, this is a book you will refer to over and over.

A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education by Mercedes K. Schneider.

Schneider provides us with a sort of field guide to corporate education reformers. Name a reformer and Schneider will provide a detailed account of her/his misdeeds. Those of you familiar with Schneiders writing from her blog deutch29 (and if you aren't you should be) will be familiar with Schneider's penchant for finely detailed investigative reporting, skilled analysis of data and air of indignation.

Here is Schneider on some of her reformy targets:

Joel Klein (former chancellor of NYC public schools) - "If Dante had thought of the likes of Joel Klein, he might have added more levels."

Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America) - "Wendy Kopp is no visionary. She is a well-financed conduit for worldwide education destabilization designed to serve the privileged few."

David Coleman ("chief architect" of the Common Core) - "Coleman is a dangerous man; he has the ability to both direct policy and financially profit tremendously from doing so."

Jeb Bush - "Jeb Bush is not an educational reformer. He is no miracle. He is a career politician who is using education as his platform to 'move ahead the family business'."

Schneider backs up these statements with great detail, numerous quotes from the reformers themselves and data. If you want to know what motivations are behind the corporate reformers and just how dangerous these individuals and their organizations can be, this is the book for you.

Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education: Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley.

Here is a book that every teacher must read in the era of standardized test-based accountability. In school after school, in state after state, teachers are being judged (in small or large part) on value-added models (VAMs) based on student performance on standardized tests. Amrein-Beardsley is the foremost authority on  VAMs in the country. She created the blog Vamboozled! as a forum for information and criticism of VAM based accountability measures. In this book, Amrein-Beardsley takes a scholarly approach to the dismantling of the research and rhetoric behind VAMs.

Her conclusions: VAMs are unreliable, invalid, nontransparent, unfair, full of measurement errors, and being used inappropriately to make key decisions about teacher retention, termination and pay. Other than that they are just peachy.

Beardsley's book is not just a critique of a failed accountability measure, however. In the final chapter she offers alternatives, solutions and conclusions. Her key recommendations are listed here.

  1. Credibility and trust are key to any evaluation scheme. VAMs lack this basic requirement.
  2. Educators' professional judgment should not be removed from any evaluation system.
  3. Any evaluation system should rely on multiple measures that are aligned with locally defined criteria for demonstrating effectiveness.
  4. Any evaluation system must include a plan to evaluate and refine the system.
If you're performance is being judged, even in small part by value-added measures, this book is a must read.

As teachers our lives are devoted to the abolition of ignorance. As professionals, we must not fall victim to ignorance about what is happening to our profession and why. The three books cited  above will go a long way to providing us with the information we need to defend public education and our own professional integrity.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tom Barclay: A Tribute to a Great Teacher

Tom Barclay with Cindy Mershon
One of the finest educators I have ever known is retiring this month. I had the pleasure of working closely with Tom Barclay for the last 12  years of my career and I have been fortunate to call him a friend for nearly 25 years. I met Tom through my wife Cindy Mershon, who was Tom's colleague and close friend for many years.

This post is for the many friends and colleagues of Tom's who were not able to attend Tom's retirement party, but it is also for all of us in education who have known a great teacher. We need to celebrate these folks in this time of teacher bashing and evaluating teachers by labeling them with numbers. (One of Tom's teacher friends at the party shared that she was a 3.65!)

Cindy and I were pleased to be asked to speak at Tom's retirement party this past week. In her talk, I believe Cindy captured the essence of Tom as teacher and person.

One of the things I value most about Tom, and what I believe makes him most appealing to people and most successful in his life and his career, is his ability to be a good listener.  Nobody does it better.  My conversations with Tom have informed and improved my thinking and my work, have soothed my concerns and supported by ideas, and have generally made me know someone cares about what I think and who I am.  I have watched Tom extend this kind of caring – being a good listener IS caring – to many people, and marvel at his ability to be generous and genuine with his time and himself.

When I think of Tom, I think of what Henry James, the novelist, once wrote: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”  Tom is the kindest human being I know.  I have seen his kindness in his role as a teacher, as a principal, as a supervisor, and as a central office administrator.  His kindness is a large part of what makes him so good at his job, what makes him so valuable as a colleague, and what makes him so treasured as a friend.  His persistent courtesy, the philosophy that informs his work and his life, and the respect he extends to children and adults alike are grounded in the kindness that informs all he does, all he thinks, and all he believes.  Unlike my flight home from Miami last night, no turbulence interferes with or disturbs Tom’s approach to interacting with the rest of the world.  Kindness guides him, and kindness wins out every time.

And here is what I had to say. The humor is specific perhaps to Tom and those who knew him. The sentiment, however, might apply to a great teacher you know.

Tom Barclay is the most irritating person I have ever met. I realized this when Tom first joined our Curriculum and Instruction team 14 years ago. At the time I thought I was pretty smart; Tom was smarter. I thought I was well-read. Tom was better read. Worst of all, I thought I was funny; Tom was funnier.

Infuriatingly, Tom was also wise. Whenever Erin or Christine or I would come up with our “next great idea”, Tom would pause and say, “Well, let’s think about this a bit. What is the evidence that this will work, that the teachers will want to do it, that it is good for kids.” Then Chris Manno would agree with him and say, “Yes. let’s take our time on this and see if it will work.” See what I mean. Infuriating.

As you know, Tom has his quirks. In fact the only really surprising thing about this evening is that Tom got here on time. Tom lives in a different time dimension than the rest of is. Here is an example. On the rare occasion when we would find ourselves with a half hour to go to lunch, I would go into Tom’s office and say, “Hey, Tom, want to go grab some lunch?” “Sure”, he would say, “let’s go.” At that, I would be running out the door, jumping into my car and starting the engine. I would then look around, no Tom. I would wait a few minutes, no Tom. I would pull the car around to the front, no Tom. I would go back inside to Tom’s office, to see Tom calmly arranging papers on his desk. He would look up at my quizzical expression and say, “Well, I can’t just leave my desk like this.”

For quicker lunches, Tom had several cans of Progresso Soup in his closet – arranged in alphabetical order: Chicken Noodle, Minestrone, Mushroom, Tomato.

Whenever we did go somewhere together, I would drive. Tom is a very law abiding driver. He is the only driver I know who stops to read the Yield sign. His car’s transmission has only two speeds – slow and slower.

And then, of course, Tom is, in the Seinfeld parlance a “low talker.” Tom would make many of his most important comments in a voice so low that our conversations sounded like this. “Well Russ, as you know we cannot just run willy nilly into the breach…” Punctuated by me saying, “Huh?” I cannot tell you how many times Tom would speak at a meeting and everyone would lean forward, nearly falling out of their chairs, trying to catch a few of the words he was saying. This was invariably followed by Gail Palumbo saying something that blew us back in our chairs in the other direction. Our meetings were a constant lean forward, get blown back.

Despite his quirks and my jealousy, Tom became, after Cindy, my closest friend in education. The absolute best part of my final tumultuous years here at Montgomery, were my 5 PM meetings with Tom. After many a difficult day, I would walk into Tom’s office where we would laugh a lot, cry a little and solve the problems (at least theoretically) of the educational world. Sometimes Earl would join us, sometimes Erin or Gail or Adam, but often it was just Tom and me. With Tom’s total lack of sense of time, these meetings often lasted well past seven, at which time I would leave and Tom would start to straighten his desk. I would call Cindy to apologize for being late and she would say, “I know you walked into Tom’s office at 5…”

Tom’s first job in Montgomery was Director of Social Studies, World Languages and Visual and Performing Arts, K-12. Talk about “Waiting for Superman.” When Chris Manno, Erin, Christine, Gail and I wrote the job description for that new position in our office, I knew there was only one person in the country who could fill that job well. The job demanded a true Renaissance man. It demanded Tom Barclay. Tom had taught social studies and World Language at the high school level, he had been a masterful fifth grade teacher, he had been an organizer of professional development, he was fluent in Spanish, but most of all he was the finest educator I knew. Our team became infinitely better the moment he joined it.

More than any other educator I have worked with, Tom truly cared about people. Tom could spot the weaknesses in some teachers, but he could also recognize, and celebrate their strengths. Tom loved to talk about his students, past and present, to celebrate their achievements and smile at their sometimes truly unusual behavior. Tom’s stories of his students are among my most treasured memories.

Because Tom is indeed a renaissance man and because poetry is a central part of both our lives, I would like to read a poem by Tom’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda. And I should caution, it loses something in the English translation, but Tom, of course, can read it to you in the original Spanish.

Don't go far off, not even for a day, because -- 
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long 
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station 
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep. 

Don't leave me, even for an hour, because 
then the little drops of anguish will all run together, 
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift 
into me, choking my lost heart. 

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach; 
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance. 
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest, 

because in that moment you'll have gone so far 
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking, 
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Tom Barclay. Great friend, great educator, great man. Wonderful education in Montgomery will continue in Tom’s absence. Tom’s office will be filled, but Tom will never be replaced. While living and learning will go on, that living and learning will be a little less rich without Tom’s gently insightful guiding hand. I am sure many of us wish to say to Tom, “Don’t go far off.”

And so, with so many great teachers going "far off" in this tumultuous time, don't forget to take time to celebrate their contributions to children and the profession. Tom would like that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Teacher Tenure Under Attack: Time to Rise to Our Own Defense

In case you missed it, earlier today a California judge ruled in what is known as the Vergara case, that teacher tenure and other job protections are unconstitutional. While this ruling only relates to California and is sure to be appealed, rest assured that this ruling will lead to similar, well-financed suits in other states very soon.

What is a teacher to do? The first thing is to make sure your teacher association leaders are up to speed and ready to fight. Teachers cannot be fragmented on this issue or else they will lose. The opponents are very well-financed. While the name on the Vergara case is a parent who wants the best possible education for his child, the entire suit was financed by a wealthy, Silicon Valley entrepreneur named David Welch.

The big money plutocrats are after your job protections. Make no mistake about it. This move is part and parcel with the entire "blame the teacher" narrative of the corporate education reformers. By keeping the focus on teachers, the 1% can deflect attention from the real issue in education - income inequality.

You may find it difficult to argue for job protections with your friends and neighbors, when many of them do not have those protections. Here is a quick and dirty list of seven reasons teachers need tenure. You can also read more at this earlier blog post of mine. I also recommend reading Peter Greene on talking to parents about tenure here and another piece here. And here is a list of articles on tenure from Diane Ravitch's blog.

  1. Tenure Prevents Teachers from Being Fired for Non-Performance Reasons - Without tenure you could be fired because you weree hired by a Democratic board and then Republican board took over or because a new principal wanted to hire a friend. Long ago my second grade teacher was fired because she got pregnant. 
  2. Innovative Teaching Requires Risk Taking - Engaging instruction is often noisy and messy instruction. If teachers are afraid to take risks to provide good instruction, learning will suffer. Good teaching is also often experimental. If teachrs are afraid to experiment, learning will suffer.
  3. Professionalism in  Teaching Requires Student Advocacy - The teacher must often act as an advocate for a child. Occasionally, this advocacy may come up against some goals, finacial or other, of the administration. A teacher must feel secure in the knowledge that advocating for children will not cost her her job, otherwise who will speak for the children?
  4. Tenure Prohibits School Boards from Firing Experienced Teachers to Hire Cheaper Inexperienced Teachers - If you believe this can't happen look at what is happening in Newark, NJ with Teach for America.
  5. Tenure Protects Teachers from Being Fired for Teaching Controversial Subjects - Any volunteers for teaching evolution or sex education or civics in a world without job protections?
  6. Tenure Assures Due Process When a Teacher is a Target of an Accusation from Student or Parent - This should resonate with any teacher who was not backed by an administrator after a parent complaint.
  7. Tenure Protects Teachers from Punitive and Unreliable Evaluation Systems - Think aboout the combination of value added measures basing teacher evaluation on student test scores and no job protections. That should scare us all.
If you have not already had your consciousness raised by the attacks on public education form the corporate education reformers, perhaps this California ruling will be your wake-up call. Arm yourself with knowledge and start advocating for yourself. Work together with others in our proud profession and do not stand idly by while the 1% work to destroy public education.

Friday, June 6, 2014

I Blog; Therefore, I Am

       Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” I want our students to say, “I read and write; therefore, I can think.”

Rene Descartes
Yesterday I managed to get myself in the middle of a heated discussion with several of my colleagues over how learning takes place. It was a seminar provided by my university for teachers who frequently teach freshmen. The idea is to develop instructional strategies to meet the needs of these first year students who have widely varying backgrounds and academic preparedness. At one point I found myself positioned between a French language instructor, who also happened to be French, and a philosophy instructor.

The philosophy teacher discussed some ways that he got his students to read and think about philosophers like Plato and Kant. The French instructor animatedly argued that the problem with American students is that they cannot think critically about complex text because they have not been drilled in the basics. The gist of the argument was that American teachers and parents coddle their students too much, do not insist that they learn basic things in language, reading and other topics through drill and therefore, cannot think critically.

The philosophy instructor, looking for common ground, brought up the name of the great French philosopher, Rene Descartes, and offered how he was trying to get his students to read and understand the man who famously said, “I think; therefore, I am.” Our French colleague would have none of it, insisting that these students can’t think about Descartes because they have not been drilled in his writings or in the grammar of their own language for that matter. (I hope I am doing justice to the two professors’ arguments here, as the words were flying quickly to and fro).

I jumped in and suggested that they were arguing over the need for a frame of reference in critical thinking and that the real disagreement was over whether this frame of reference was a necessary prerequisite or something that was a part of the learning and critical thinking process.

This got me thinking about learning and critical thinking. Certainly, you need to know “stuff” in order to think critically about “stuff.” But does learning proceed in a linear fashion: first we learn that low level “stuff”, and then we think about it on a higher level. I don’t think so. I think the two go hand in hand. Let me cite an example.

About a year ago I started to write this blog with the purpose of providing my thoughts on literacy instruction, something I felt I already knew a great deal about after 45 years in the field. One of my earliest blog readers suggested that I read Diane Ravitch’s blog to see what was happening in public education and why teachers might be having difficulty implementing what I suggested. At the time I really did not know much about the corporate education reform movement. I had many concerns about the Common Core approach to literacy instruction and I thought charter schools were the wrong simple answer to a complex problem, but that was about it.

I read Diane’s blog. Then I read Anthony Cody and Valerie Straus and Mercedes Schneider and Bruce Baker and Jonathan Pelto and EduShyster and I became radicalized and a staunch advocate for public education through my blog, which changed from a teacherly advice column, to an anti-corporate education reform philippic.

I learned as I was going and my blog entries reflected my learning up to that point and later entries were more informed than earlier ones because I was learning more. What I believe I was doing, in the term coined by literacy researcher, Frank Smith, was “reading like a writer.” Smith says that there is entirely too much to learn about writing for it to be learned from instruction, no matter how good. Students learn most of what they know about writing by writing and reading. Reading in a special way. Reading like a writer. I would add to that getting timely feedback on their writing from teachers.

Because I was a practicing writer, I noticed things in what I read in a special way. I was simultaneously gathering information and thinking critically about that information. The two cannot be separated. My writing drove my learning and my critical thinking.

Of course, some things about writing can be learned through direct instruction: end punctuation, capitalization, punctuating dialogue. But most of the “stuff” of writing we learn by writing and reading in this special way. “Stuff” is acquired because we write.

Similarly for reading, we learn how to read, mostly, by engaged reading. The trick is, of course, that word “engaged.” If our philosophy instructor can get the students engaged in the reading of Descartes, the students will learn “stuff” about Descartes. Again some introduction will be necessary, some activation and building of background knowledge to get the students engaged, but once engaged students can gain basic information and begin to think critically about Descartes through the reading.

Essentially, of course, I am arguing from a constructivist perspective: the idea that students “construct” their understandings in the process of listening, reading and writing about a topic. For this perspective I borrow from not only Frank Smith, but Piaget, Vygotsky and Louise Rosenblatt among others. My French instructor colleague was taking a more behavioral approach; first learn the basics and then you can apply that knowledge to higher order thinking.

The behavioral approach has informed much of the periodic “back to basics” movements of the past 50 years. In reading this usually takes the form of a heavy emphasis on phonics, the basics of reading if you will, before focusing on “real reading.” The approach ignores that students learn much about what they know about phonics by reading for meaning in real reading situations and by writing in an effort to communicate.

So call me an unreconstructed constructivist, if you will.

What does all this have to do with the classroom teacher in today’s Common Core abused classroom. Just this: students mostly need to read to get better at reading and mostly need to write to get better at writing.

The Common Core instructional format of “close reading” may have a small place in overall reading instruction, but as it is presented by Common Core promoters it is a model that relies heavily on teacher centered instruction and teacher developed “text dependent questions.” We had another name for “close reading” in the 1950s – skill, drill and kill.

In writing it appears to call for formulaic writing emphasizing informational and persuasive writing. Not bad in itself, but when tied to testing it may drive us away from student selected topics toward writing toward the prompt. In fact, it is already doing so.

What do we lose with this type of instruction? Only student engagement in their learning. And when we lose student engagement, we lose our audience and the hope for developing the kind of critical thinkers we all seem to desire.

Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.” I want our students to say, “I read and write; therefore, I can think.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lessons for Corporate Education Reformers from Hamilton Township, NJ

Hamilton Township, New Jersey Schools Superintendent, James Parla, took a brave step the other day when he addressed the issue of defacto segregation in his school district. According to an article on the school leader said:

“Test scores are lagging and schools are crumbling and, more often than not, those conditions are at schools with large minority populations… [Parla] urged the school board to find ways to address "de facto segregation" in the district's 24 schools as it looks toward new school construction and redistricting.”

Good for Superintendent Parla for taking this stand publicly and good for the Hamilton Township School Board if they attempt to wrestle with the issue. Solutions will not come easily.

Hamilton Township is in many ways a microcosm of the issue of segregation in many urban areas. Hamilton is a large school district that borders the struggling city of Trenton on one side and wealthy suburbs of Robbinsville and West Windsor on the other. It will be no surprise that the relatively poor sections (with high concentrations of minorities) of Hamilton are near Trenton, while the relatively well-off (and white) sections of Hamilton border Robbinsville and West Windsor.

This geographic reality has led to segregated schools. Parla somewhat disingenuously said this was “not intentional”, but a reality. Perhaps. Certainly, it is in part a factor of socio-economics and geography. Almost certainly it is also a by-product of discriminatory real estate practices in the past. Nicholas Lippa, writing in the NCRP eJournal, summarizes the research on this topic:

“The housing market in the United States has a long history of discriminatory practices that has excluded people of color from integrating into more affluent neighborhoods and communities, which in turn, has led to the subordination of people of color.”

Even a cursory look at Hamilton Township schools puts a lie to the narrative of the corporate education reformers notion of “no excuses” education and poverty as just an excuse for the failures of teachers to provide a proper education to children and the failure of unions to police their own.

Let’s look at two elementary schools in Hamilton first. Greenwood Elementary, just across the border from Trenton, has a 96% minority population and 80% on free or reduced lunch (a typical measure of poverty). The school building is 96 years old and falling apart. At Greenwood, students scored in the 37th percentile in English/Language Arts (ELA) and at the 67th percentile in math on the New Jersey ASK standardized tests.

On the other side of the township, Alexander Elementary has 26% minority children and 15% on free or reduced lunch. Its NJASK scores are in the 75th percentile in ELA and 81st percentile in math.

Hamilton has three high schools, Nottingham, Hamilton West, and Steinert. Nottingham and Hamilton West have diverse populations and between 32 and 41 percent on free or reduced lunch. These two schools score similarly on standardized measures such as the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. About 60 -65% of the students take these tests. Steinert High school lies closer to the more affluent bordering districts, has an 80% white student body with 10% free and reduced lunch. Ninety per cent of Steinert students take the SAT or ACT and on average score 150 points higher than the students in the other two high schools.

Let’s focus on two lessons to be learned here. First of all, segregation matters. The Supreme Court got it right in Brown v. Board of Education– there can be no such thing as separate, but equal. The second lesson is that socio-economic status matters. Schools with higher numbers of kids living in poverty are going to struggle academically.

The corporate education reformers like to tell us that poverty doesn’t matter. Do they really want us to believe that the teachers and administrators at Alexander Elementary are better teachers because their children get higher test scores? Would firing all the teachers at Greenwood Elementary and replacing them with unqualified Teach for America recruits improve learning there?  If we closed down Greenwood and started a charter school in its place would this would level the playing field with the kids at Alexander? Of course not.

Hamilton Township demonstrates that this thinking is absurd. Hamilton Township has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of any large school district in a diverse area. They have well qualified and highly motivated teachers in all their schools (and a few less than great teachers as well). Those teachers all are members of the same union. They use the same curriculum. They follow the same discipline codes. If the Hamilton schools have problems, they are, for the most part,  societal problems and no amount of “teaching like a champion” or “waiting for Superman” is going to change that.

Only when we address the societal issues of poverty and segregation will we truly address the educational issues as well.

So congratulations to Superintendent Perla for shining a light on this issue. Solutions will be difficult and they will take time. Most parents would prefer to have their children attend a neighborhood school. As long as neighborhoods are segregated, these neighborhood schools will be segregated, too. 

One place to start will be to be sure that the buildings that the children attend across the district are clean and well repaired. Students and teachers should not have to learn and work in dilapidated buildings no matter what their race or socio-economic status.