Friday, October 31, 2014

Words, Words, Words: Narrowing the Vocabulary Gap through Read-Alouds

In many ways what we routinely call the achievement gap can be understood as a vocabulary gap. It has been almost 20 years since the famous Hart and Risley study pronounced the thirty million word gap. As the graph to the right shows, they found that by age 3 children from affluent families heard 30 million more words than children from the lowest socio-economic group. Additionally, children in higher socio-economic groups heard more statements of encouragement, while children from low socio-economic groups heard more words of discouragement.

The child’s greatest asset in coming to be literate is, of course, the oral language each child brings to the school door. It is obvious that some children arrive with the major advantage of a much larger vocabulary;  a vocabulary learned not through dedicated study, but through lots and lots of contextualized and supportive talk. And this advantage only grows with time. While all children learn many new words in school, children who start with a larger receptive vocabulary add more words more quickly because they have more word structures in the brain (schema) to receive these new words. It is an example of what has been called “The Matthew Effect”, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Recognizing the critical nature of the first three years in a child’s life and of the huge impact on language development that comes from the primary caregiver of that young child, organizations like Too Small to Fail and the Thirty Million Words Initiative are going into homes and helping care givers learn how to nurture the child’s early language development.

Such programs are hopeful, but once the child arrives at school what can a teacher do to narrow the word gap? It seems obvious that if we could narrow the vocabulary gap we would be making inroads in the achievement gap.

One school-based answer would be to provide children with a language rich learning environment. An environment where the teacher engages the children in lots and lots of contextualized talk about a broad range of subjects, but also an environment where children are talking to each other in structured play situations.  I addressed this issue of talk in the early years of schooling here. I worry that a movement toward a more academic orientation of pre-school and kindergarten could move teachers away from providing the time for the kind of structured play that encourages children to interact with each other around contextualized play. As Fiano (2013) has said,

            Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. 
            Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral
            discourse in student-led workstations will alleviate off-task 
            behavior by students. Additionally, there needs to be time built in for
            teachers to observe the language that students are using during
            independent workstation use (p. 77).

Another, equally important, answer is the interactive read-aloud. I have addressed the importance of read-alouds in other posts here and here. In this post I would like to make a plea for the interactive read-aloud as a way to build all children’s vocabularies. As I worry that the push for higher standards and test driven accountability might drive out play in the kindergarten, I also worry that these forces might drive out read-alouds from the daily diet of the student. This would be a tragedy on many levels, not the least of which is that the read-aloud offers a great opportunity for narrowing the vocabulary gap.

To learn new words children need to hear the rich language of the best children’s literature as often as possible. Immersion in this language through read-aloud is a good beginning, but children also need to have their word acquisition mediated by the teacher who can contextualize and clarify new words and model for students how the meanings of new words can be determined through the context of the passage.

Enter the interactive read-aloud.

An interactive read-aloud is a systematic approach that includes the teacher doing the following:

·         Modeling higher-level thinking
·         Gathering, confirming and revising student predictions
·         Asking thoughtful questions focused on analyzing the text
·         Prompting student recall
·         Reading one book repeatedly
·         Reading books on a related topic
·         Systematically discussing words through providing short definitions and/or modeling identifying a word in context

Research has shown that it takes many encounters with a word to “own” it. Reading one book repeatedly provides an environment to encounter words over and over again. Reading books on a related topic helps students build a vocabulary around a particular theme or content. For example, reading aloud many books on insects over of the period of a week will expose students to insect related words in a context that allows them to make connections and again encounter these words multiple times. Reading books organized around related topics builds the content vocabulary for future study of these topics.

Simply hearing words in a rich context is not always enough, so it is also important that the teacher stop during the read-aloud to provide short definitions or longer explanations of words when necessary. Taking breaks during the read-aloud to have children turn and talk to each other about words they hear will get the students using the words and reflecting on the meanings.

So much for the how of a read-aloud focused on vocabulary development, what books should we read aloud? The answer is any book of high quality that uses words in a rich and meaningful context. Research has shown that children’s listening comprehension is about two grade levels ahead of their reading comprehension, so interactive read-aloud provides the opportunity for reading highly literate texts that we might not use in regular reading instruction. Aim high with your read-alouds and scaffold the children’s comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.

We should also be reading a good mix of fiction and non-fiction in our read-alouds. Vocabulary development is largely a matter of building more and more sophisticated conceptual knowledge. Reading non-fiction, as well as fiction, helps build this conceptual knowledge.

Read-aloud is a critical part of the instructional day. We must not let it be crowded out by someone’s idea of what 21st century instruction looks like. If we need to justify our read-aloud time in the plan book, we should write that we are narrowing the vocabulary gap by exposing the children to the rich vocabulary they need for continued learning.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Challenging Andy Smarick's Defense of Standardized Testing

It looks like the test and punish crowd is beginning to get worried about all the backlash against high-stakes testing. Lately, I noticed a little spittle forming at the corners of the mouths of the test them to death champions such as those at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Jumping into the fray this past week was one of my reformy favorites and New Jersey's own, Andy Smarick. Smarick brought his own special take on public education to New Jersey as a Deputy Commisioner of Education for a few years, where one of my esteemed colleagues called him "a nice kid who knows nothing about education." Jersey Jazzman has a detailed look at Andy's bona fides here. He is currently a Partner with Bellwether Education, serving on the Orwellian sounding "Bellwether Thought Leadership" committee.

Smarick has decided to bring his "thought leadership" to us all in a recent article in Fordham's Flypaper blog. He worries that recent back peddling on testing by luminaries like Bill Clinton, Bush Era Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, and even Fordham's own "Checker" Finn will lead to a compromise where yearly testing of students is repealed. Heaven forbid, cries Andy. He then offers a point by point rationale for testing kids every year.

I'd like to take a look at Smarick's standardized testing "benefits" a little more closely to see if they hold up. Here is Smarick's list and my commentary.

1. Yearly testing makes it clear that every student matters.

      No, Andy. The only thing yearly testing makes clear is that the education reformers' agenda matters above all. The only reason to give a standardized test every year is to advance the agenda of using test scores to evaluate teachers. If it were truly about the kids, we would stop testing so much and give more time to teaching from a broader, richer curriculum.

2. Yearly testing makes clear that the standards associated with every tested grade and subject matter.

      No, Andy. What would make clear that every standard matters would be a process where teachers were included in the standards formation and delivery. Yearly testing perpetuates the top-down, teacher be damned approach to the Common Core. By testing every year, education reformers seek to force a test driven curriculum on teachers who had little or no voice in the creation of those standards. 

3. Yearly testing forces us to continuously track students, preventing our claiming surprise when scores are below expectations.

      So, if I understand this one correctly, Andy, we need to test kids every year to prove that our tests are showing that a student is under-performing on tests, so that we can redouble our efforts to make sure kids perform better on tests. Or is it that we need to test every year so that we can gather a database of kids scores over time to use in efforts to close schools and fire teachers?

4. Yearly testing gives us information needed to tailor interventions to the grades, subjects, and students in need.

      No, Andy. Actually the information provided by standardized tests does not tell us much about the child as a learner or about how to help that child. Standardized tests may tell us about some broad student strengths and weaknesses, but teachers get much richer and much more actionable information from their own authentic assessments in class. If you want to spend some of that testing money on helping teachers develop classroom based authentic assessments, I am with you.

5. Yearly testing gives families the information needed to make the case for necessary changes.

     So, Andy, we can use standardized tests as a weapon to back up "parent trigger" legislation to close down local neighborhood schools and replace them with privately run charter schools of no better, and often worse, quality. In other words we need standardized tests, once again, to advance the reformer agenda. Of course, we could use the money spent on testing to make sure the existing school has the resources it needs to be successful, but that doesn't fit the agenda.

6. Yearly testing enables us to calculate student achievement growth, so schools and educators get credit for progress.

      How thoughtful of you, Andy. Thanks, but no thanks. I will be happy to celebrate progress in many ways with the students. One way I would get a chance to celebrate, every year, is if we tested only in 4th, 8th grade and 11th grade. That way, my schools and my teachers all get to celebrate, but my kids don't get their brains knocked out by too many tests.

7. It forces us to admit that achievement gaps exist, persist, and grow over time.

      I will tell you what, Andy, I will give you this one. I will admit, lo and behold, that achievement gaps exist, persist and grow. I don't need a test to tell me that. I will also insist, however, that no amount of testing will change this fact. If we want to do more than track the persistence of achievement gaps, we know that we must first address the opportunity gap that is perpetuated by persistent inequity in this country.

8. It prevents schools from "hiding" less effective educators and programs in untested grades.

     So, Andy, we must subject kids to test after test so that schools will be forced to spread their less effective teachers around? It seems a little odd to punish children for the perceived misdeeds of the adults around them. Also, do you imagine that principals and all other teachers don't know and understand that a child's performance on a fourth grade test is the result of the teaching of every teacher that child has ever had? This sounds like just another way to push the test the kids and punish the teachers reform agenda.

Based on Smarick's list of benefits, I would have to conclude that standardized tests are vital to the advancement of the corporate education reform agenda, but not especially useful to students, parents and teachers. Used judiciously, periodic standardized testing can give schools some useful programmatic information. About three times in a student's career seems right. Schools, teachers and children would be better off by far, if the rest of our assessment energies were directed at authentic assessments conducted in the classroom, which yield information that can be acted on immediately.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Percy Jackson, Nancy Drew and Franz Kafka Walk into a Bar...

This week's edition of The New Yorker has an article by Rebecca Mead entitled The Percy Jackson Problem. To the uninitiated, i.e., those of you who don't have a teenager in your life, Percy Jackson is the lead character in a fantasy series based on Greek mythology written by former middle school teacher Rick Riordan. The series has become all the rage with a certain set of middle school readers. I was introduced to the Percy Jackson books when I volunteered to accompany my granddaughters, Kaitlyn and Allison, to a reading that Riordan was doing at the local high school. You would have thought that Elvis was in the building for all the squealing that accompanied every word that Riordan spoke.

In The New Yorker article Mead asks the question,  "Is it OK that kids are reading these admittedly low brow formulaic books or should they be reading richer, more challenging texts?" This question has particular relevance today with the Common Core State Standards call for children to be reading more complex texts in order to be "college and career ready."

Mead cites award winning children's writer Neil Gaimon, author of such popular books as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, who comes down squarely on the side of allowing kids to read what they enjoy. In a speech published in The Guardian he said, "The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them."

Others are not so sure. Mead also refers to an article in The New York Review of Books entitled, Reading Up, by Tim Parks. Parks says, "I seriously doubt if E.L. James [author of Fifty Shades of Gray] is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet." Parks argues that reading genre fiction does not necessarily lead to reading more challenging texts. Many, if not most people, even those who read a lot as school students, do not advance to richer works by Faulkner or Proust, but continue to read genre fiction and fail to stretch themselves as readers.

I think both Gaimon and Parks are correct. First, I believe it is an unqualified good for children to choose to read no matter what the complexity or literary merit of the material. Children could certainly do worse than the Percy Jackson books that have helped my granddaughters to a deep interest in and knowledge of Greek mythology. Among my first forays into reading sixty years ago were the Tom Swift books. Many of my students still report enjoying the Nancy Drew mysteries. But I also believe, as Parks posits, that just because a child reads lots and lots of stuff, we cannot assume this will lead to deeper and richer reading. If deeper and richer reading is desirable, something else has to happen.

Enter the teacher.

The Language Arts teacher must straddle two worlds with children. Those two worlds might be defined as the world of entertainment and the world of edification. One foot, then,  must be in the world of reading for pleasure. Students must be encouraged to read widely in books that they enjoy. Teachers should be introducing these books to children, making sure they have access to these books and giving them time to read them in school.  Let's call this the independent reading part of the curriculum.

I believe that kids that are readers are more likely to be open to reading that may be more challenging. By definition though, this more challenging reading will require teacher mediation. No matter how engaged in Percy Jackson a reader might be, reading Homer is going to need mediation. No matter how much R.L. Stine kids read, they are still going to need help with Kafka and no matter how much they love teen romances, they will still need help with Romeo and Juliet.

Teachers can assist children in making these leaps by connecting the more easily accessible texts to the more obscure ones. The knowledge of Greek mythology gained from a steady diet of Percy Jackson can help students relate to the adventures of Ulysses. The conventions of the teen romance (parents who don't understand, the need for friends to confide in, the desire to escape) can find echoes in Romeo and Juliet. The Language arts teacher would do well not only to know the books in the curriculum, but also the books that kids are actually reading that undergird the curriculum.

Secondly, I think that teachers would do well to read aloud large chunks of difficult text. Through  read aloud the teacher can scaffold the learning through modeling her own thought process, note areas where students are having difficulty and talk the students through obscure passages.

Finally, the teacher should provide opportunities for the students to struggle with some of the challenges presented on their own. Ideally, since understanding is so often socially constructed, this would happen in structured discussions where the students grappled with thorny text problems in small groups to see what best possible understanding they could come up with as a community of readers.

Enthusiastic voluntary reading may not lead to a nation of adults clamoring for the discovery of a new James Joyce novel or T.S Eliot poem, but it is a necessary prerequisite for developing a nation that views reading as a worthy form of entertainment and enrichment. The trick for the teacher is to balance the pleasure of open choice reading with the strenuous effort needed to understand and enjoy richer literature.

Killing the joy of reading in the name of reading texts of greater complexity will be a Pyrrhic victory. Better to focus on nurturing the joy while nudging the complexity along. No matter what the complexity, I have to believe that a reader will be more "college and career ready" than a non-reader.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reformers Say Field Trips Are Good for Kids: Who Knew?

A recent article on the reformy blog, Education Next, reports on a study out of the Walton Foundation funded Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which found many positive learning outcomes from having students attend live professional theater productions. This report follows last year's groundbreaker from the same group that found positive learning outcomes associated with taking kids on field trips to museums. Both these studies fall into a school of educational research that I like to call a "Duh" Study; that is, a study that purports to discover something that veteran teachers have known, like, forever.

The stated goal of these studies according to the authors is "to  broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and in turn policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools." That sounds like a worthy goal. Of course, it has been the reformers who narrowed our view of what a successful school is in the first place, so I take their new found insight with a large pinch of salt. These researchers also worry that "as schools narrow their focus on improving performance on math and reading standardized tests, they have greater difficulty justifying taking students out of the classroom for experiences that are not related to improving those test scores." Gee, really? Is it possible that these reformy types are saying a  focus on standardized tests narrows the currriculum? Maybe they have been reading Diane Ravitch.

But perhaps I protest too much. Any study that will help justify putting money back in the budget for culturally enriching field trips is okey dokey with me. In the recent financial crisis field trips took a real hit. These trips were made vulnerable by the obsession with testing coming out of NCLB and the recession was a death knell for many schools when it came to the expense of a field trip. 

For the record the latest study took middle school children to see a live professional production of either The Christmas Carol or Hamlet. The researchers found that seeing a live production enhanced students understanding of character, plot and other factors related to knowledge of the play. Students who saw the live production also showed higher scores for tolerance of diverse points of view and in reading others' emotions. None of this is surprisising, of course. I can trace my lifelong love of the theater and particularly of Shakespeare to a 9th grade field trip to see a production of The Merchant of Venice. It was the first live professional performance I had ever seen and I will never forget it. I can still conjure the three caskets scene in my minds eye 50+ years later.

The earlier study took children on a field trip to an art museum. That study found that the experience improved student knowledge of and ability to think critically about art. Students also displayed stronger historical empathy, developed higher tolerance, and were more likely to visit such cultural institutions as art museums in the future. Again not surprising, but good news. Maybe Bill Gates can divert some millions from his pursuit of the perfect teacher evaluation design to fund kids going on field trips.

The rich educational and cultural possibilities of field trips were readily apparent to me as a very new, very young social studies teacher back in the 70s. I taught in a working class town in southeastern Pennsylvania where my students parents worked very hard every day to make ends meet. There was little time for cultural activities in these families' busy lives and these 12 and 13 year old children, an eclectic mix of white, Hispanic, African-American and newly-arrived Vietnamese, had limited cultural experiences. 

Every year for several years I took three bus loads of these kids to New York for a visit to the Natural History Museum, a tour of the city landmarks, and lunch in Chinatown. I have many stories from those trips, but my favorite involves a young man named Carlos who had his nose pressed to the window pane of the bus from the moment we left the school's driveway all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike. As the bus was making its way downtown to show the kids the Empire State Building, Carlos peered up at a large clock on a bank building and noticed that the clock said 11:05. ""Mr. Walsh, Carlos asked, "It's 11:05 here in New York, but my watch says 11:00. Are we in a different time zone?" I smiled, pleased that Carlos was at least remembering something from my geography lesson of a few weeks before and explained to him that the clock he saw must just be a little fast.

So yes, field trips matter and they matter a great deal. They create memorable moments of great impact on the lives of young people. They also create joy. Joy is in too short supply in schools these days and the reformy focus on standardized tests and accountability must take responsibility for killing much of that joy. It seems that some reformers at least are beginning to realize it. I suggest teachers use these studies in their requests for funds for educationally and culturally enriching field trips in the future.

What else can reforemrs learn that teachers have always known? The sky is the limit.

Next year I suggest the gang at the University of Arkanas investigate whether or not participation in the band at school enhances a student's appreciation of music, ability to work as a team member and self-esteem. I wonder what they would find. And I wonder if what they discover would lead to a reformy call to ensure that every school child had the opportunity to attend a school with a rich music program.

I can dream, can't I.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How "Well" Is Your Reading Instruction? A Review of Reading Wellness by Burkins and Yaris

In their new book, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, 2014),  Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris want to help teachers keep their eyes on the true prize of reading proficiency: an enriched life. The authors, both former teachers who have become influential voices in the literacy field through their blog, Burkins and Yaris - Think Tank for the 21st Century Literacy, worry that the current mania surrounding standards and accountability will draw teacher's attention away from a broader vision of students as readers and people. They offer up a book of practical lessons and knowing advice to help teachers stray true to their literate selves and true to their students literacy needs in the strange new world that is education in the 21st century.

The authors frame the text around four basic tenets that guide their work with children and teachers and that they believe guide the work of all teachers. They call these tenets "intentions." These intentions are ideals that are universal and that predate the standards movement.
  • Intention 1: We intend toward alignment with our inner teacher - For Burkins and Yaris alignment with our inner teacher will serve as a check to an alignment that is only narrowly focused on standards. This means that we teach with our highest purpose for teaching in mind - a focus on lifelong learning. When we align with our inner teacher,we keep our eyes on what research says about moving children from dependence to independence as readers and learners.
  • Intention 2: We intend towards balance - This intention requires us to balance our attention to the demands of standards and accountability, that is the expectations of others, with our own intentions directed toward life-long learning. Balance requires a marriage of the goals of the inner teacher with the immediate considerations of accountability. A teacher may be required to use a certain curriculum or program, but the teacher must balance these requirements with the bigger picture goals of the inner teacher.
  • Intention 3: We intend toward sustainability - Because we live in a world of constant time constraints, we must prioritize lessons that teach ways of learning that can grow into other lessons. These high value lessons answer the question, "How does this lesson make students more "well" as readers?" In this context, I understand Burkins and Yaris to mean "well" as adept at the skill of reading, but also filled with the will to read.
  • Intention 4: We intend toward joy - If our reading lessons are to inspire lifelong learners they must energize the teacher and the students and fill the classroom with energy and inspiration. Joy is an indispensable ingredient in lifelong literacy.
Moving from this framework, Burkins and Yaris offer clearly laid out and field tested lessons to put their intentions into action. The lessons focus on helping students identify their passions and the books that may feed those passions; the rewards of really hard reading work; the interaction between print and meaning; an approach to close reading they call "mindfulness"; and building reading stamina.

The lessons are creative, thoughtful and would be sure to enhance any teachers repertoire of reading instruction practices. Each lesson is accompanied with a chart that sets out a long and short range purpose, standards alignment, time frame, materials and procedure. While these charts are very helpful, it is important to read the explanations that the authors offer because these explanations imbue the lessons with the spirit with which they need to be delivered.

The final chapter is entitled Joy - Reading More for the Love of It. As I work with teachers around the country, even in a conversation with some teachers in New Jersey yesterday, I hear a consistent fear for the loss of the joy of teaching and the joy of learning. Burkins and Yaris encourage us to reclaim joy. They remind us that reading wellness is more than just about numbers, true reading wellness is about the transformative power and sheer joy that can be provided by a good book. Lessons in this chapter focus on helping children see how reading makes them feel good. If this chapter on joy were the only chapter in the book, the book would still be well worth the price.

Ultimately, Burkins and Yaris, want to help literacy teachers to move beyond the expectations of others - close reading, identifying main ideas, and all the aspects of reading writ small - and to keep our eyes on READING writ large, that READING that enriches our lives and that we hope will enrich the lives of our students.

Buy the book. Try out the lessons. Infuse joy into your reading instruction. Doing so will take your teaching beyond standards and accountability to joy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hangin' at Public Education Nation

Yesterday 200 hundred or so Badass Teachers, bloggers, school administrators, college professors, parents and students gathered at the Brooklyn New School for the first ever Public Education Nation conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education. The theme of the event was "Changing the Conversation," an allusion to the need for supporters of public education to take back the narrative on schools and schooling from the corporate education reform industry.

The event was carried across the nation via the internet on Livestream and further supported by a dedicated group of tweeters who had the event trending #1 on Twitter for most of the day. Chairing the event was public education hero, former teacher and current Network for Public Education board member, Anthony Cody. Cody has been one of the leading voices in the pro-public education battle through his blog, Living in Dialogue.

Prior to the formal program, the Education Bloggers Network, under the leadership of Jonathan Pelto of the Wait, What? blog, met to plot out strategy for further expanding the impact of the many blogs devoted to reporting on and championing public education. Bloggers are having an impact it seems. One of our members, Francesco Portelos, was offered a settlement by his school district if he would only stop blogging. The corporate education reformers and Common Core supporters have felt more and more compelled to respond to the bloggers as our message gets out. As Diane Ravitch has reminded us, Ghandi said that once your enemies feel compelled to fight back you are on your way to winning.

Among the attendees at the bloggers meeting was Ruth Coniff, Executive Editor of The Progressive Magazine, which is teaming with the Education Bloggers Network on an online magazine project, Public School Shakedown. The bloggers group is looking to team with The Progressive to expand the reach of this project. The bloggers also seek to add higher education issues into the mix, especially now that teacher education institutions have become the target of corporate education reform.

The conference itself was divided into four panel discussions and an inspirational wrap up session presented by Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown.

The first panel concerned the Common Core and was chaired by hero principal and dedicated Common Core warrior, Carol Corbett Burris. On this panel, Takiema Bunche Smith argued that the Common Core forced teachers to defend practices that they knew were developmentally inappropriate for young children. She was concerned, as we all should be, that not one early childhood educator was included in the development of the standards. College professor Alan Aja said we need to fight the false conclusion that education reform will fight poverty. The reformers goal is to disrupt our children's lives in order to ensure a conforming and compliant population of workers for the future. Burris wrapped up by saying that we need to get teachers at the center of the conversation on the Common Core, where they should have been in the first place.

The second panel featured Chicago teacher Xian Barrett discussing school closure with Newark, NJ public school student leader Tanaisa Brown and Fairfield University professor Yohuru Williams. Ms. Brown was both passionate and articulate in her criticism of the One Newark plan being forced on the students and parents of the Newark schools by the state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson. She argued that action needed to be taken to the streets because that was the only way the students could get people to listen. Dr. Williams was inspirational in his plea to privilege people over profits. He warned the reformers like Anderson, "We are coming to take our schools back."

Jeff Bryant of the Educational Opportunity Network asked the next panel to answer the question, "Are charter schools doing more harm than good?" Not surprisingly, this panel came down on the side of harm. Karran Harper Royal, an activist from New Orleans, captured the post-Katrina devastation of the New Orleans school system as offering students what amounted to chance, not choice. There is no real choice in New Orleans, certainly not if your choice would be a well-funded neighborhood public school. New Orleans she said, is no model for the country as it is being touted by the reformers.

Investigative journalist Wendy Lecker added that the lack of scrutiny of charter schools has led to outright fraud. She cited many examples from her own state of Connecticut. Charter schools do damage to equity in Connecticut by getting an unequal amount of funding and they do damage to children through the high attrition rates of both students and teachers. On the same panel, teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein said that he has found through personal experience that KIPP charter schools, one of the most prominent charter models, provides a poor instructional model led by inexperienced teachers. Rubinstein expects the charter movement to fall of its own weight as it tries to expand.

The final panel, chaired by Network for Public Education Executive Director Robin Hiller, focused on some genuine success stories in authentic reform. Greg Anrig, Director of the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning and author of the must read book, Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence that Collaboration Builds Effective Schools, discussed the enlightened teacher evaluation model in Cincinnati, Ohio. Anrig said that a top down model of teacher evaluation will fail. The Cincinnati model shows how evaluation can work in a spirit of teacher/administrator collaboration. New York City school principal Phyllis Tashlik discussed her school's model that was based on treating teachers as professionals and working with them to design a performance assessment that works. Brian Jones brought this panel to a close by arguing that "no excuses" educational reform was actually making excuses for poverty.

At the end of the day, Diane Ravitch took the stage to declare. "We are winning!" She said that she wants all of our public schools to be like the schools the rich send their children to. Schools unburdened by standardized tests and Common Core and "no excuses" discipline policies. Schools with small class sizes and teachers who are treated s professionals. Jitu Brown exhorted the crowd to go beyond activism to organizing. Only as a community can we change the conversation. And brought down the house when he said, "This is not intellectual discussion. This is a spiritual discussion. The privatizers crossed a line. We must kill the privatization movement."

And so on this Sunday morning may I say to that, "Amen."

Videos of all the events at the conference will be available on Please watch for them to be posted.

Bloggers Gary Rubinstein, Brian Cohen, Jonathan Pelto
 and yours truly at Public Education Nation

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

21st Century Union Busting Philly Style

At the turn of the last century, union busting often took the guise of a military action. Sometimes legalized thugs like those from the Pinkerton Agency were hired by companies to break some union members heads and end a labor action with violence. Other times federal troops or the National Guard were brought in to do the company's bidding.

In Philadelphia this week, the State Regulation Commission (SRC), which has run the schools in Philadelphia since 2001, is trying a tactic built for a new century - cancelling its contract with the teacher's union. This action apparently came with no warning. It has the full support of Broad Academy graduate and Schools Superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter,  and Pennsylvania's anti-education Governor Corbett.

Make no mistake about it, this action is another in a long line of education reform efforts to blame the teachers for the problems of urban schools. This time instead of shouldering the blame for the poor achievement of urban school children, the teachers are being asked to take the blame for the poor fiscal management of the schools and the high cost of health care in the nation.

What is at issue here? The SRC has unilaterally cancelled the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) while negotiations were on-going. The action was taken so that the SRC can impose its plan for teachers contributing to their health care. Why has the SRC taken this action? Why , of course, for the kids. The district will save money and according to Hite, "put the money right back into the classroom." Governor Corbett said, the action "will effectively close the funding gap and provide the district with the ability to hire new teachers, counselors and nurses, and secure educational resources that will benefit the students of Philadelphia." He failed to mention that it has been his policies, including unilateral reductions in school funding, that have brought the Philadelphia schools to this point.

Corbett and his sycophantic Education Secretary, Carolyn Demaresque, attempted to make the action sound like it was about the teachers and their union accepting that most other public employees are now paying for part of their health care. This appeal may play well with the public, but it also plays fast and loose with the facts.  The health care plan that the SRC is putting into place, outside of any negotiated agreement, is in a very real way, a wage reduction for a group of teachers who are already poorly paid as compared to their suburban counterparts only a few miles away. Not to mention that these teachers work in what is often a very difficult and very stressful environment with children with many educational, social, emotional and physical needs.

A Philadelphia teacher making 55,000 dollars a year (hardly a luxurious wage) will see a reduction in salary of between one and three thousand dollars. The SRC says they are not reducing salaries, but this is disingenuous. The teacher's paycheck will be smaller. It doesn't really matter what column the deduction comes from.

The PFT will challenge the unilateral action of the SRC in court. It is not at all clear that the governing body has the power to void the contract. The best case scenario would be for the courts to rule this action illegal and get the parties back together for negotiations.

Let's be clear about one thing: the fiscal and educational problems that the School District of Philadelphia face are not the fault of the teachers or their union. These problems are rooted in the racism that brought about the "white flight" from the city in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; the poverty that afflicts large numbers of Philadelphia school children; the failure of the legislature to come up with a  viable funding formula for the city's schools; the failed experiments with charter schools that have drained public education funds without any clear benefits; long periods of fiscal mismanagement of the schools; Corbett's budget cutting which impacted all schools in Pennsylvania, but urban schools especially; and the rampant rise in health care costs brought about by greed and bungled regulation.

The SRC, Governor Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and Superintendent Hite seek to blame the teachers and the unions for these problems, created by others and ineptly addressed by others. It is a bullying tactic. Fortunately, teachers know how to deal with bullies. You need to call their bluff.

All who care about public education must all hang with the teachers of Philadelphia or, as that famous Philadelphian, Ben Franklin said, we will surely hang separately.