Friday, February 26, 2016

Who Holds Success Academy Accountable for Child Abuse?

Nadya Miranda. the mother of the first grade child berated by her teacher in the infamous video published by the New York Times, has spoken out for the first time by giving an interview to the Times. In the interview she reports how she has withdrawn her child from the school and how she felt her child had been robbed of her confidence as a learner in her Success Academy classroom. She also expressed her frustration that she only received an apology from the school and the teacher after the video became public and that her child had never received an apology from the teacher, Ms. Dial. Ms. Miranda feels like Success Academy rallied to the defense of the teacher and ignored the impact of the verbal abuse on her child. Please read the article for a sense of the shattered hopes and dreams of Ms. Miranda and her daughter.

One thing that stood out for me in the article was this paragraph at the end of the piece.

Seeking to hold someone accountable for what happened to her daughter, Ms. Miranda went into a Department of Education building in Brooklyn to ask about filing a complaint, but was told that Success was independent from the school district. She said that Ms. Nicholls, the principal, had given her information about how to reach Success’s board of trustees, and that she had sent a letter, but she was not optimistic that she would get a response.

Ms. Miranda went to the public school authority where she was told they could not help her. Her only recourse was to go to the Success Academy Board where she rightly was not hopeful for a response. Why would she expect a response from a board led by CEO Eva Moskowitz, who had already sided with the teacher and not her child in this controversy? I wonder if Ms. Miranda and the other parents who send their children to Success Academy and other supposedly "public" charter schools knew they were giving up their rights to file a complaint with the public school overseers.

So when the question comes down to who holds Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy juggernaut accountable for systemic child abuse, the answer turns out to be Eva Moskowitz and her hand picked board of directors including such enlightened luminaries as former TV anchor person and current teacher basher, Campbell Brown and failed Newark mayoral candidate and current charter school shill, Shavar Jeffries. Talk about leaving the fox in charge of the hen house!

Beneath this tragic story of one child's abuse at the hands of a teacher, lies a broader concern. Who holds charter schools accountable for their actions? In any public school, a publicly elected school board has responsibility and must, by the very fact of being elected, be responsive to that public, however imperfectly at times. In the world of the charter school, apparently, while the public supports them through tax dollars, the public has no voice in what goes on behind those walls financially, instructionally or socially and emotionally.

The great irony, of course, is that while reformers cry for all kinds of accountability measures for traditional public schools and certified public school teachers, there is no such outcry from them about accountability for a supposedly public charter school and its uncertified teachers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Accountability in Public Schools: The Three-Legged Stool

My uncle was a dairy farmer in North Carolina. In the fifties, before automation hit the dairy industry, I used to watch him drag his old, wooden, three-legged stool from cow to cow and deftly milk each cow with a steady, rhythmic motion, as streams of milk splashed into his milking can. Occasionally, he would allow his "city kid" nephew to sit on the stool and give it a try. In many ways that stool - sturdy, steady and reliable- was the foundation on which my uncle's business was built.

The educational age of accountability, which Hoffman and Pearson in the book Research-Based Practices for Teaching the Common Core (2015), identify as beginning in about 1985, was built on a three-legged foundation as well. The original formulation of accountability called for

  • Holding students accountable for learning content and processes
  • Holding teachers accountable for student learning
  • Holding states and policymakers accountable for providing the resources that would create the opportunity to learn (Hoffman and Pearson, 2015).
Early on in the accountability movement there seemed to be a recognition that there was a quid pro quo to requiring student and teacher accountability. If students and teachers were to be held accountable, then the states must provide the resources to achieve the desired instruction and learning. Somewhere along the way, however, this third leg of the stool has gone missing.

The age of accountability has led in subsequent years to the establishment of state learning standards, later considered to be "watered-down" and replaced by the "more rigorous" Common Core State Standards. As a result of the George W. Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), standardized tests have proliferated as a measure of student accountability, school accountability and finally teacher accountability in the form of value added measures (VAMs), which tied teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores. With Race to the Top (RTTP) the Obama administration doubled down on accountability by tying waivers from the impossible to achieve NCLB strictures and increased test-based teacher accountability to much needed cash bribes grants for schools.

So the first two legs of the stool have received plenty of attention. Standards have been established and revised, then thrown out and replaced. Standardized tests have proliferated, so much so that students are taking these tests yearly starting in third grade and the tests are being tied to promotion and graduation decisions. Most states have passed statutes requiring teacher evaluation be tied, in some degree, to student test scores. Yes, the policymakers have done a bang up job of holding children and teachers mightily accountable. 

As to the policymakers own accountability though--well, not so much. The third leg of the stool has been ignored. Providing the opportunity to learn turns out to be costly. Providing the opportunity to learn turns out to require a full frontal assault on poverty, including wrap around health and counseling services for the 25% of American children living in poverty. Providing the opportunity to learn requires high quality preschool and high quality childcare options for working families. Providing the opportunity to learn means repairing or replacing long ignored, decaying public school buildings. Providing the opportunity to learn means providing enough staff for reasonable class sizes and smaller class sizes for at-risk children. In other words, providing the opportunity to learn costs money and so the policymakers and state leaders have backed off their quid pro quo commitment.

Instead of providing the financial resources needed for good teaching and good learning to take place, policymakers have tried to get the desired results on the cheap by offering "school choice" in the form of vouchers and charter schools. Ignoring for a moment that charter school and voucher programs have shown little ability to improve performance, we should first look at what the whole "school choice" movement is. It is, first and foremost a way for policymakers at the state and national level to avoid taking responsibility for their commitment to provide the opportunities to learn for children. Rather than find the funds to make learning happen in the traditional public schools, they have thrown up their hands and said to charter and private school operators, "Here, you do it."

As my long ago college history professor, Dr. Benjamin Powell, used to tell me, "if you want to understand history, follow the money." The history of recent educational reform is an object lesson. The first two legs of the three-legged accountability stool offer corporations an opportunity to make money and advance their privatization agenda. Entrepreneurs can make money by opening cheap to operate cyber-schools or by opening a chain of charter schools where teachers are underpaid and overworked and children are provided a curriculum aimed at making them compliant worker bees in a corporate dominated society. Publishers can make money by creating "Common Core aligned" textbooks and instructional materials. Test makers can reap huge profits by designing brand new "Common Core aligned" tests that are supposedly holding students and teachers accountable. For the really deft corporations like Pearson, Inc., profits can be made on both ends by supplying the materials and the standardized tests in a perfect little scheme to monopolize the market, maximize profits and control what is taught and learned. Yes, the two legs of the stool involving student accountability and teacher accountability are money makers.

The third leg of the stool, however, costs money. Overcoming the debilitating impact of poverty on the opportunity to learn is expensive. There is no money to be made from it. It requires a long, consistent ongoing expenditure of time and money -- perhaps even increased taxes on those getting wealthy from school reform. And so the third leg of the stool is ignored, and without that third leg the entire foundation of reform collapses. And that is why, no matter what accountability and school choice schemes the overzealous reformers come up with, the stool can't support improved educational performance. The stool falls over; the milk is spilt; the children go hungry.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Importance of Making Mistakes

The vile video of Success Academy teacher, Charlotte Dial, berating a first grader for making a mistake on her math paper, reminds me of something I have been saying to teachers for years. "Value student errors, because those errors are our best window into what a child does not know and, therefore, they tell us what we need to teach next." Because we teachers are human we sometimes fall into the trap of bemoaning student errors. We think, "Gee whiz, I just taught that, but they still didn't get it. What is wrong with them?" The truth is, though, that there is a gap between what is taught and what is learned and student errors give us the information we need to reteach or teach in a different way to fill that gap. I often joke that we should all be grateful that students make errors, since if they got everything right we would be out of a job.

My favorite story about student mistakes comes from my time in the early 1970s when I was teaching geography to 7th graders. This was during the time that the former East Pakistan had won its independence and renamed itself Bangladesh. After a unit on South Asia, instruction in the historical, political, social and religious importance of the region and considerable map study, I gave the students a test. On the test I asked a fill-in-the-blank question, "The former East Pakistan has recently won its independence and been renamed __________." One student, no doubt struggling with the difficult pronunciation and spelling of Bangladesh, answered -- "Balderdash!" I gave full credit for the answer because it was a good effort and because it gave me a great story to tell in the teacher's lounge.

The distinguished literacy researcher and theorist, Ken Goodman, helped change my thinking about student errors. Goodman uses the term "miscue" to describe what happens when a child makes an error in reading. If you have ever played any pool, you will find the description apt. More often than I would like to admit, I miss the center of the cue ball with my cue stick and the ball goes skittering away in a direction I did not intend. On the next shot, I make a slight adjustment and try again, usually with better results. And so it is in reading, when faced with a challenging word, children take their best shot and if they "miscue", we try to help them make adjustments.

Importantly, as we listen to children read, it is not all the words they decode accurately that give us information about their reading, it is the miscues. If a student reads "house" for "apartment", we know that the student is reading to make sense and has simply substituted one type of dwelling for another. This is a "high level" miscue and may not need our intervention. On the other hand if the child reads "money" for "monkey", the miscue would tell us that the student is not reading for meaning and not looking effectively at all the components of the word. This is a more concerning miscue and may help us to determine some next steps in reading instruction.

I think it is useful to think of all student mistakes as "miscues." Most mistakes contain an element of understanding and misunderstanding in them. As we look for ways to help the student clarify and correct, we need to use the part of the error that shows some understanding to correct the misunderstanding. For example, in writing, if a student attempts parallel structure, but provides a faulty execution, we can celebrate that the writer has learned that parallel structure is a powerful tool for the writer and also help the writer refine the use of parallel structure.

Learning is a risky business. If we help students understand that errors are valuable and provide opportunities for continued learning, they are more likely to take risks. If we constantly bemoan errors, children will be less likely to take those risks that lead to learning. Certainly the children in Ms. Dial's Success Academy classroom are unlikely to take any risks.

In the 1990s, I was working in an elementary school as a reading specialist. I will never forget one struggling 2nd grade reader, Danielle,  who was having a terrible time with reading. Slowly, through her hard work and persistence, she improved. At Christmas time she handed me a handmade card with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on the front. Inside it read, "Dear Mr. Walsh, Thank you for hleping me rede. Love, Danielle." Best Christmas card I ever got. It also gave me some useful information on a new teaching target for Danielle -- spelling.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fear and Learning at Success Academy

On Friday, the New York Times ran an article and accompanying video showing a Success Academy teacher berating a young child, ripping up the child's work in the child's face, sending the child to the corner and loudly accusing the child of "confusing everybody" and "infuriating me." On the same day Success Academy CEO, Eva Moskowitz, held a news conference, with the teary-eyed teacher, Charlotte Dial, standing at her side, in which Moskowitz defended the teacher, her schools and her policies, berated the New York Times for coverage bias, and described the incident as an "anomaly."

First of all, let's understand that the incident was anything but an anomaly. The reason an assistant teacher in the room surreptitiously shot the video was because she was concerned about this teacher's "daily harsh treatment of children." Secondly, we need to understand that this type of teaching is rewarded in the Success Academy. Ms. Dial was considered so effective that she was promoted to a position where she could model practice for other teachers. Thirdly, we need to understand that this is a pattern that is repeated over and over in Success Academy schools, where one principal kept an infamous "got to go" list of struggling learners he targeted for removal from the school and where harsh discipline and instructional practices have been well documented.

One thing that surprised me in these articles and in the comments that people left online in response, was how so many people see the teacher's behavior not as the child abuse that it appeared to be to me, but as a necessary part of the discipline practices needed for children to learn. One mother of three Success Academy children said, "I think discipline is necessary." One online commentor said the incident wasn't worth an article in the New York Times and we need to stop "coddling children." Another parent said, "I wish my child could have a math teacher like Ms. Dial."

I agree that discipline is a necessary part of learning. Children learn best in an environment that is calm, consistent and well-ordered. But discipline should not and cannot be equated with fear. Fear does irreparable harm to learning. The Times article quotes Dr. James P. McDonald, professor at NYU, who, after viewing the video said,

Because the child's learning is still a little fragile - as all learning is initially - she made an error. Good classrooms (and schools) are places where errors are regarded as a necessary byproduct of learning. But not here. Making an error in (Ms. Dial's) classroom is a social offense." 

He says that the classroom is likely full of fear and that children will likely not feel safe making mistakes.

In his book, The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning (ASCD, 2009), Bob Sullo dedicates the first chapter to eliminating fear in the classroom. He says that "fear remains one of the most widely used strategies for managing student behavior and encouraging academic achievement", but "fear compromises our ability to learn." Learning is risky business. As Dr. McDonald says, learning is fragile. Children will not and cannot take the risks necessary to learn in an atmosphere of fear. Why would any child in a classroom run on fear take the risk of asking a question for clarification? Why would any child raise her hand to answer a question if there was a good chance the answer would be greeted by public ridicule?

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010) says that

It is essential that that children have safe, secure environments in which to grow, learn and develop healthy brains and bodies. Science shows that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong effects on brain architecture.

I believe that it is safe to say that many of the children who attend Success Academy schools come from neighborhood environments where fear and chronic anxiety are the norm. The Success Academy school, rather than providing a safe haven for these fragile young learners, doubles down on fear and anxiety and introduces it into the learning environment as well.

There is no excuse for using fear to intimidate or motivate children. It is simply unacceptable and abusive and ultimately counterproductive to learning. Success Academy can boast of its high test scores, but any serious educator must ask the question, "At what price this very narrow success?"

I cannot help but notice in the video that this white teacher is belittling a young African American child. I am put in mind of the plantation of the Antebellum south, where instead of ripping up a child's paper, the master meted out forty lashes with the whip.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Want Great Literacy Instruction? Trust the Teacher

In the final chapter of the book, Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, James V. Hoffman and P. David Pearson take an historical perspective on where trust is placed in the teaching of reading. Summing up more than three-hundred years of literacy education history, the authors conclude that education policy has consistently put its trust in programs rather than in teachers. Hoffman and Pearson believe this has been a mistake of historic proportions. I agree.

Teachers have rarely been given the respect they deserve as the knowledgeable professionals they are; as the persons in the best possible position to make the instructional decisions on the fly that will assist the developing reader to become a literate individual. Throughout education history all sorts of programs have been touted as "teacher proof" systems sure to bring students to literacy if compliant teachers just implement them with fidelity. And so we have seen one program after another: the alphabet-spelling method, the "look-say" method, the Dick and Jane basal readers, phonics driven Direct Instruction (DISTAR), etc., etc., etc. Interestingly, no independent research has ever found one reading program to be superior to another. All have strengths and weaknesses and all seem to serve some children well and others not so well.

The solution to the problem seems obvious to Hoffman and Pearson and to me. We have largely wasted our time investing in programs when we should have been focusing on teachers and this focus on teachers is not about training them to deliver a scripted program faithfully, but is about engaging those teachers in a professional dialogue aimed at delivering the best possible literacy instruction to children. The real answer to the literacy issue in American education is to shift our trust in literacy instruction from programs to people, from teacher proof material to teacher developed instructional plans.

Hoffman and Pearson don't mention it, but there was one brief shining moment when some teachers in some schools across the country took control of literacy education. This was the whole language movement of the 1980's and 90's. I have dealt with what killed the whole language movement in another post here. For now let it suffice to say that whole language lost the war to the interests of corporate education reform. Whole language, which focused on good literature and teacher and student decision making, was an existential threat to the large textbook and reading materials publishers. Imagine if schools shifted from spending money on basals and workbooks to buying real books! To head off the economic threat and to appeal to that group of policy makers who believed phonics instruction to be the one true way, politically motivated, supposedly "scientific" research was touted as proof that phonics worked and whole language didn't.

Hoffman and Pearson see the Common Core State Standards as an opportunity to shift away from placing trust in programs and toward a trust in teachers. The standards state that they "leave room for teachers, curriculum developers and states to determine how these goals should be reached" and the standards authors seem to wish to empower teachers to make decisions on the appropriateness of reading material based on "professional judgement, experience, and knowledge of their student and subject."  But Hoffman and Pearson also see indications that the implementation of the standards shows that they are just another wolf of a scripted program in the sheep's clothing of teacher empowerment. Specifically, the Publisher's Criteria that accompany the Common Core and direct the development of materials to support the Common Core, contains such "highly specific instructional guidance" that it "can quickly erode teacher prerogative."

And so despite the hopeful note sounded by Hoffman and Pearson, it appears that the "chief architects" of the Common Core don't trust teachers either. In my years as a curriculum and instruction supervisor, I like to think that I empowered teachers to teach. I firmly believe that the best instructional decisions are made by an informed, reflective, responsive teacher using her knowledge and experience to guide children into literacy. Not all the teachers who worked with me shared that perspective. I vividly remember one teacher saying to me, "Just give me the book that tells me what to teach and I will do it." I told her there was no such book. I told her I knew what to do based on my teacher education, my professional reading, my experience and my knowledge of the children. I told her to read the professional literature I provided and then watch the children and they would tell her what needed to be taught.

I believed then and I still believe that it is the classroom teacher who is best positioned to make those critical instructional decisions. Programs do not teach children to read. Teachers, in collaboration with those children and the parents of those children, bring children to literacy. If we wish to make real improvements in literacy instruction in this country, we need to stop looking for the "teacher proof" program and start trusting our teachers to design the curriculum and deliver the instruction that will make literacy happen.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Common Core and the "Stuff" Curriculum of E. D. Hirsch

In many ways, I see the adoption of the Common Core State Standards as the ultimate victory of E. D. Hirsch and his idea of "cultural literacy." I do not think that it is a coincidence that Hirsch advocates for a "core knowledge" curriculum while the standards are called the Common "Core."

I am far from the only one to make that connection. A while ago, Politico came out with its list of  50 "thinkers, doers, and dreamers who really matter", and there at number 8 was Hirsch side-by-side with the "chief architect" of the Common Core, David Coleman. Over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Common Core cheerleader, Robert Pondiscio notes that while you won't find Hirsch's name on the Standards "his thumbprints are there, if you care to look." Pondiscio thinks this is a good thing. I don't.

Those Hirschian thumbprints that Pondiscio finds on the Common Core are perhaps most clearly found in the percentages of non-fiction texts that are prescribed at each grade level, and in Common Core "aligned" curriculum such as the Core Knowledge driven curriculum adopted in New York that has first graders studying Mesopotamia and Hammurabi. 

I like to think of Hirsch's Core Knowledge as the "stuff" curriculum. For Hirsch, all we need to do is decide what "stuff" to teach and then "stuff" it into kids heads. Hirsch, of course, then creates a list of the stuff all kids should know, and lo and behold, the list reflects a bias toward a particularly conservative Eurocentric view of what we need to know, the literature we need to read and the principles we need to embrace. Hirsch's ideas about education in general and about literacy in particular are clear and simple. And like all easy answers in education they are clearly and simply wrong.

In literacy, Hirsch extends his "stuff" curriculum to reading comprehension. For Hirsch, reading comprehension is simply a matter of knowing enough "stuff." If we stuff kids heads with enough information and vocabulary, they will be able to read and comprehend at high levels. There is a kernel of truth here. Reading comprehension is, of course, highly influenced by prior knowledge. Where Hirsch goes wrong is in over-stating the relationship to the exclusion of everything else we know about reading comprehension.

As Louise Rosenblatt has shown, reading comprehension is a complex transaction between the writer and the mind of the reader. Prior knowledge plays a part in this transaction, but so do the strategies the reader uses to understand a text, the context in which the reading is taking place(a class assignment, personal choice reading, studying for a test), and the qualities of the text itself (textbook, poem, primary document). From literacy researcher P. David Pearson, we know that comprehension strategies (predicting, questioning, summarizing) can be taught to students and applied to reading. We know that students who use strategies skillfully read and comprehend better.

The truth is that today's literacy teachers are preparing readers to comprehend texts that contain information that has not even been thought of yet. As the internet expands, information explodes and the easy availability of information grows. No one can accurately predict what that information might be, but we can all predict that readers of the future will have to be critical consumers of all information because so much of the information they will read will be of dubious reliability.

The Common Core, with its roots in the cultural literacy ideas of E. D. Hirsch, is one of those pieces of information that must be comprehended with a critical eye. Hirsch's simplistic (mis)understanding of reading comprehension is reflected in the Common Core call for "more complex text" and more informational text. As Sandra Stotsky has said in critiquing the Common Core and championing more literature in the schools, this focus on "stuff", may lead to a "reduced capacity for analytical thinking." Analytical and critical thinking must be the goal of a reading curriculum.

Hirsch's ideas on education are regressive. It is small wonder that his ideas have found resonance with Common Core champions. The Common Core itself represents a regressive "back to basics" approach to teaching and learning. Instead of packing kids heads with stuff, we need to equip readers with the skills to deal with an ever changing and growing body of knowledge.