Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Teacher's New Year’s Resolution: Read Aloud Daily

I was treated to a remarkable experience at my brother’s home this past Sunday, where the family was gathered for an annual holiday celebration. My brother came out to the family room where I was sitting taking in a football game and said, “You better look into the den, your granddaughter is holding court.” I went in to check it out and there I saw my twelve year-old granddaughter, Allison Rainville, reading aloud to a rapt audience of her younger cousins, ages ranging from one to nine. The book was The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. Allison’s reading was expressive, even dramatic. I thought, “Boy, this kid would definitely score high on a fluent reading rubric.” I was proud of my granddaughter and pleased that the read aloud of a book had captured the children’s attention away from all of the distractions that electronic games, remote control cars and new dolls can create at this time of the year.

So I got to thinking, what would be a great, easy to implement and educationally sound New Year’s resolution for all teachers to make? How about reading aloud to your students daily? I am taking the pledge, also. Even though I now teach in college, read aloud remains relevant and engaging to my 20 somethings. I resolve to read to them at each class.

In this time of Common Core implementation, runaway standardized testing and teacher evaluation based on student performance on these tests, I worry that the daily read aloud may become a casualty of education reform. The truth is, there will never be a time when reading aloud is not a relevant and effective instructional strategy for students. In case your supervisor does not think so, here are ten reasons that read aloud matters that you can put into your lesson plans.

1.    Read aloud helps children relate to reading as a pleasurable experience.
2.    Read aloud provides a rich aesthetic experience for students.
3.    Read aloud exposes students to different text genres and writing styles.
4.    Read aloud provides students with a model of fluent, expressive reading.
5.    Read aloud increases vocabulary.
6.    Read aloud provides opportunities for the teacher to model comprehension strategies.
7.    Read aloud helps young children make connections between speech and print.
8.    Read aloud engages students in more complex text. Typically, children can listen and comprehend text two years above their reading level.
9.    Read aloud helps second language learners become familiar with the sounds and shapes of English.
10. Read aloud helps students learn to ask and answer questions about text.

What should you read aloud? The truth is any text can make for a good read aloud, but I would encourage careful choices based on high quality or high impact texts. Texts for read aloud should be rich in the quality of language used to communicate a message. For younger children, high quality picture books that tell the story through words and pictures will make good choices. For very young children, cumulative stories like The Napping House, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear are enjoyable and help students develop oral language. Poetry is written to be read aloud and makes a good choice for read aloud at any age.

When reading to high school students, poetry is always a good choice, but I would often find my read-alouds for older students in the pages of the newspaper. I would choose something of local interest or a well-written essay from the op-ed pages to read to the students and often to spur debate. The New York Times gathered a list of recommended articles from its pages for reading aloud to older students. You can find that list here.

So, what do you say? Will you join me in my resolution to read aloud to students every day? It is one of the most powerful uses we can make of our valuable instructional time.

Happy New Year and Joyous Reading to all!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Why Is the Teaching Profession the Target of Reform?

Could it be that the teaching profession is under attack, in part, because it is a largely female profession?

Over the past few weeks, several things have coalesced in my mind to make me ask why teachers are the target of education reform.

First at my office Christmas party for staff of the Education Department at Rider University, it was pointed out to me, as gifts were exchanged, that I was the only male at the party. Then Frank Rich wrote a column in the New York Times called “Waiting for Wonder Woman” about the absence of major action roles in Hollywood with the woman as the central hero. Finally, I watched the DVD of the movie “The Hunger Games” and on reflection I had to note that in this advanced game of “Survivor” the women (young girls) were given no quarter for being female. Would it take a dystopian universe to bring about true equality for women?

Women dominate the teaching profession. Women are still fighting for equality and even in the movies only seem to achieve it in a dystopian fantasy. Could it be that the teaching profession is under attack, in part, because it is a largely female profession?

There are, I am sure, many reasons for the targeting of teachers. My former professor of history, George Turner,  would advise that the wise historian should look for the “multiplicity of inter-causation”, whenever trying to determine why something happens. Some of the other reasons for targeting the profession lie in corporate union bashing; genuine, if misguided, concern for poor and minorities; and greed. After all, the public coffers are the last great frontier for the corporate plunderers. But look at these numbers for professions in the United States.

Women in the legal profession                            33.3%
Women medical doctors and surgeons               34.3%
Women in the teaching profession                      76%

Is it a coincidence that the one profession singled out for a draconian reform movement is the one that is dominated by women?

When education reformers spew about getting rid of “bad teachers”, nearly 8 of the 10 people they are targeting are women. Would that rhetoric be targeted at a profession where nearly 8 in 10 were male? There are plenty of “bad doctors” and “bad lawyers” out there. Where is the outrage? Indeed, where are the value added metrics to evaluate the medical or legal profession? Where are the Medicos for America or the Legal Flaks for America?

Teaching has long been a profession of low esteem in this country. There are many reasons for this. Low pay is one. The perception that “anybody can do it” is another. Perhaps the most important reason, though, is that it has been historically the one profession where women have found the doors open.

The big money education reform movement that seeks to improve education through a “market model” of competition, reward, and punishment is in many ways trying to impose a male vision of what leads to success in business on the social enterprise of schooling. To get what they want, reformers apparently feel they must discredit those on the front lines working very hard to provide the instruction and nurturance that children need. If the profession were more male, would they dare to do so?

Statistics for women in the professions were found through these sources:

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sometimes You Just Gotta Laugh

While there is nothing funny about the education reform movement and what it is doing to children and teachers across the country, sometimes we need to laugh so we don't cry. Here is an end of year collection of my (hopefully) humorous satires from the past year. Have a cheerful holiday.

Are America's Toddlers College and Career Ready

The Seven Blind Mice of Education Reform

A Modest Proposal on Vouchers

Holiday Carols for Education Reformers

The VAM Moose is coming!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Holiday Gift of Poetry

Here is a gift of poetry as a small thank you to my readers. Wishing you all a happy holiday season. Don't forget to read more poetry; it illuminates our lives.

Toward a Winter Solstice
by Timothy Steele (published on the web site poets.org)

Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;                                            
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And centuries of green, yellow, blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Messiah (Christmas Portions)

   A little heat caught
in gleaming rags,
in shrouds of veil,
   torn and sun-shot swaddlings:

   over the Methodist roof,
two clouds propose a Zion
of their own, blazing
   (colors of tarnish on copper)

   against the steely close
of a coastal afternoon, December,
while under the steeple
   the Choral Society

   prepares to perform
Messiah,pouring, in their best
blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
   Not steep, really,

   but from here,
the first pew, they're a looming
cloudbank of familiar angels:
   that neighbor who

   fights operatically
with her girlfriend, for one,
and the friendly bearded clerk
   from the post office

   --tenor trapped
in the body of a baritone? Altos
from the A&P, soprano
   from the T-shirt shop:

   today they're all poise,
costume and purpose
conveying the right note
   of distance and formality.

   Silence in the hall,
anticipatory, as if we're all
about to open a gift we're not sure
   we'll like;

   how could they
compete with sunset's burnished
oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,
   when the violins begin.

   Who'd have thought
they'd be so good? Every valley,
proclaims the solo tenor,
   (a sleek blonde

   I've seen somewhere before
-- the liquor store?) shall be exalted,
and in his handsome mouth the word
   is lifted and opened

   into more syllables
than we could count, central ah
dilated in a baroque melisma,
   liquefied; the pour

   of voice seems
to makethe unplaned landscape
the text predicts the Lord
   will heighten and tame.

   This music
demonstrates what it claims:
glory shall be revealed. If art's
   acceptable evidence,

   mustn't what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?
   The tenors lack confidence,

   and the soloists,
half of them anyway, don't
have the strength to found
   the mighty kingdoms

   these passages propose
-- but the chorus, all together,
equals my burning clouds,
   and seems itself to burn,

   commingled powers
deeded to a larger, centering claim.
These aren't anyone we know;
   choiring dissolves

   familiarity in an up-
pouring rush which will not
rest, will not, for a moment,
   be still.

   Aren't we enlarged
by the scale of what we're able
to desire? Everything,
   the choir insists,

   might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
   quickened, now,

   by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
   Still time to change.

And finally, here is one for all the school children and anyone who has taught them. Not exactly a holiday poem, but fit for the season. This is from my book of children's poetry, There's a Giant in My Classroom and Other Poems from Around School.

First Flakes
by Russ Walsh

Teacher’s saying something,
What it is I wouldn't know,
‘Cause I just looked out the window
And saw some flakes of snow.

I turn to Tommy Mason
And I tap him on the knee.
“It’s snowing out,” I whisper,
And he looks outside to see.

Tommy tells Cassandra;
Cassie fills in Jill and Jim.
Jim calls to Bobby Wallace;
Jill points to Paul and Tim.

Paul informs Matt Miller,
And Matt reports to Jane.
Tim says he is worried
That the snow will turn to rain.

Matt clues in his table,
And Jane breaks the news to Lynn.
Lynn pokes the ribs of Horace,
Who wakes up with a grin.

Ann asks, “How much will we get?”
Mike says, “I hope a lot!”
May cries, “Twenty inches
Is the most we ever got!”

Now everyone is talking
As we gaze upon the snow.
So why the teacher yelled at me,
I really wouldn’t know.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Best Education Books of the Year

Looking for a last minute gift for an educator in your life? Let me suggest the following.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch. The one book that all people who care about public education must read now. You can find my review of the book here. 

Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability without Equity,by John Kuhn. An indispensable history of how the test driven education reform movement in Texas became the model for the nation through No Child Left Behind. You can find my review of the book here.

Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies: Why Expertise Matters, by Kenneth S. Goodman. Robert C. Calfee, and Yetta M. Goodman. A collection of essays by the leading literacy experts in the world discussing the lack of respect for knowledge among education policy makers. I discuss some of the essays from the book here and here.

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. Informed and practical advice to teachers from two long-time experts in the literacy field. The authors take a look at close reading from an entirely different lens than the Common Core proponents. I discuss some elements of the book in this post.

Happy reading and happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Limits of Competition: Teaching and Learning Are Not Competitive Sports

When I served as a supervisor of English/Language Arts for a suburban school district, I infuriated a few teachers when I outlawed the Pizza Hut Book It! reading challenge in classrooms. What I said to the teachers at the time was that reading was not a competitive sport. I wanted the teachers and students to see that reading was not about accumulating numbers of books or pages read, but about the joy of interacting with text. Reading competitions cheapen the intended purpose of reading and pervert the act of reading from a “lived through experience” to a dashed off experience. I didn't want children racing through the pages of a book to earn a free pizza, any more than I wanted them sprinting through the hallways on the way to lunch.

Americans are in love with competition. The evidence is all around us. Whether it is Every-Night-of-the-Week Football or American Idol or Survivor, we seek to slake our thirst for competition in myriad ways. Heck, I love competition myself. I played sports as a student and coached sports as a teacher. The athletic field is a good place to decide who is best on this day and at this time. Competition can motivate people to drive themselves to extraordinary feats. The Olympic Games provide a stage for what elite athletes like Michael Phelps can do in the name of competition and country.

American business, too, is built on the idea that competition serves the country and economy best. We are told that competition leads to innovation, reasonable prices and high quality products and job creation in the market place. “Market forces” are the reason, we are told, for America’s economic leadership in the world. We’ll leave aside for a moment that many successful companies seem to mistrust market forces once they have cornered the market. We must agree that competition has served the American business community pretty well over the years.

Education reformers like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Arne Duncan want to bring “market forces” to bear on education. School choice is one of the hallmarks of this design. We are told that if we allow schools to compete for students, our educational system will improve and so we get legislation and billions of dollars put behind charter schools and voucher schemes.

We are further told that teachers must compete for their jobs. Teachers must prove their “value added” to the educational enterprise through evaluations based on the scores of their students on standardized tests. Students are also brought into the competition. In order for our country to continue its “competitive” edge in the world, our students must be challenged with a more “rigorous” standards based curriculum that will keep us competitive with China, Japan and Finland.

There are three things fatally wrong with this “market forces’ scenario as I see it: 1) schooling is a public trust aimed at creating a knowledgeable citizenry for a democracy, 2) teaching well occurs through collaboration, not competition, 3) learning is socially constructed through the interaction of children, their parents and their teachers. Let’s take a look at these three aspects of the education debate to see where the “market forces” educational reformers group gets it wrong.

In Volume IV of the recently released Program for International Assessment (PISA) report on international education, the authors say “schools that compete with other schools for students do not perform better than schools that don’t compete” (P. 192). This statement was part of a segment on the report providing policy recommendations to educational leaders entitled, Recognize That The Quality of Education Does Not Automatically Respond To Market Mechanisms. Education reformers seem to put a great deal of stock in the PISA results, so I certainly hope they read through Volume IV.

The entire idea of “market forces” in public education is wrong headed. Competition does not and will not make schools better. Schooling is a combined, public responsibility. All charter schools and vouchers do is drain public school districts of scarce resources. The best way to fix a public institution is through a cooperative effort of parents, teachers, educational leaders, education researchers and politicians to help every community get the public schools that they want and need.

Recognizing that poverty is the biggest threat to democracy and long term prosperity would be helpful. About sixty-percent of the variation in student performance in school can be attributed to out of school forces. Another twenty per-cent is determined by in school forces. Only by working to improve the out of school living conditions of children, while at the same time improving the schools that the children are coming to, can we make a real difference in children’s lives. In other words, improving schooling in the United States will take a cooperative effort, not a competitive one.

When I worked as a reading specialist in a K-3 school many years ago, I would lead a monthly “share group” meeting on literacy teaching at 8 AM, forty minutes before teachers were scheduled to report. The meetings were entirely voluntary and very well-attended. At those meetings teachers contributed instructional practices that they were successfully using, discussed books that they were reading with children and shared recent research that they were trying to apply. In other words, teachers were collaborating on their own time to improve their practice.

Teaching well is a collaborative activity. Any new teacher can immediately tell you the teachers who helped smooth over the bumpy beginnings of a career. If we seek to improve professional practice we must foster this collaboration and dedicate resources of time to allow this collaboration to take place. In many school districts now, professional learning communities are forming, either formally under district leadership or informally as I discussed above to improve instructional practice. This movement is very promising, but it is a delicate flower at the beginnings of growth. Draconian teacher evaluation measures based on standardized tests will kill it. If teachers are forced to compete with other teachers for their jobs, the sharing of good practice will inevitably suffer.

I suggest you read some about the atmosphere created at Microsoft by their “stack ranking” practices which were put in place by Bill Gates. Microsoft recently abandoned the practice because it was working against collaboration and innovation, yet education reformers think this is a good way to deal with teachers. As Linda Darling Hammond (2013) has said “New research from the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) shows that educators in every subject area and role are eager to work together to deepen literacy learning…. It also showed that educators are committed to common-sense changes to improve teaching and learning practices” (The Answer Sheet). And it is only this cooperative, change from within model that has the potential to make a real difference in the teaching profession. Top-down teacher evaluation competitions will destroy collegiality.

Learning is socially constructed. It literally takes a village of parents, other adults, older children and peers to educate a child. In school, children learn from teachers and other adults in the building as well as from their classmates. Skilled teachers use their abilities not only to provide direct instruction to students, but also to foster a rich learning environment based on teacher-to-student and student-to-student talk. By collaborating with classmates, students expose their own thinking to the community and their learning is reinforced, modified or re-directed. Knowledge is built through the dynamic interaction with teacher, content and peers. Learning is collaborative, not competitive.

There is only one team in public education and all American citizens are on that team. We pay school taxes whether we have children in the public schools or not. We all benefit from the public school as a center for the community. We all have a responsibility to see that the school is well staffed and has adequate resources for the population it serves. Our public schools are not a place for market force competition. Our schools are places for us to demonstrate our collaborative abilities. A place where we all work together, so that all of our children receive the education they deserve.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

How Michelle Rhee is Failing America’s Kids

Saying you are standing up for America’s kids is very profitable and gets you on Oprah.

In case you missed it, education reformer Michelle Rhee launched a vigorous defense of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in an op ed piece in Politico Magazine on December 12, 2013. The piece was ironically titled “How America is Failing Its Kids.” You can read the piece here. The article is a “woe is me” piece about how we are falling behind other countries based on the recently released results on the PISA international tests and how we have disparity across states and within states in student achievement. Rhee’s solution – the Common Core, of course.

Let’s skip for a moment the fact that Rhee is cherry-picking the PISA results to suit her arguments. We all know that Rhee really, really cares about America’s kids; after all America’s kids have been very, very good to her. Or at least playing the part of someone who cares about America’s kids has been very good for her. It got her a high paying job as chancellor of one of the largest urban school districts in the country despite having very limited teaching experience and no experience at all in school district leadership. After she left that job hastily after 3 years, a voter rejection and a cheating scandal, she set up a multi-million dollar non-profit, StudentsFirst. Saying you are standing up for America’s kids is very profitable and gets you on Oprah.

Rhee started her career in education hurting children as a Teach for America recruit. She tells a “humorous” anecdote about herself putting masking tape on second grade children’s mouths to keep them quiet in the hallways and then watching them bleed as they pulled the tape off. Rhee continues her arrogant abuse of children through the educational policies she supports. Here is how.

1. Ignoring Poverty: Rhee loves to say that all children have the right to a great teacher and a great education regardless of their zip code. Who could not agree with that? What she fails to say is that all children deserve a healthy beginning to life, access to good health care, a stable home environment, rich early childhood experiences and a family that is not debilitated by the effects of poverty. All children deserve to arrive at the school door ready and able to learn. Poverty works against that. By ignoring poverty as the chief cause for children failing to thrive in school, Rhee and her reform compatriots fail children.

2. Demonizing teachers: Rhee famously fired hundreds of teachers and principals in Washington, D.C, including one principal who she callously fired in public and in front of television cameras. After firing the teachers, Rhee told a magazine, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.” She later had to apologize when it became clear that her statement wildly exaggerated the reasons for the firings and that many good teachers were laid off for budgetary reasons. Rhee’s insistent rhetoric about weeding out bad teachers, basing teacher evaluation narrowly on test results, and advocating the abolition of tenure, has left the teaching profession ducking for cover.

This hurts children. Low morale, teaching to the test and yes, even cheating to get higher scores by people who should know better, all hurt children. If we undermine the confidence and morale of the person who spends day in and day out in front of the children, then we are hurting the children. And the truth is, teachers don’t deserve this treatment. The vast majority of teachers are well-trained professionals doing their best for kids. Rhee’s narrative of “bad teachers’ serves her own agenda and fails children.

3. Supporting Charter Schools: Saying that parents need choice, Rhee supports the diversion of public funds to privately run charter schools. Charter schools are a false choice. Parents get the choice to send their children to a charter school, staffed by inexperienced teachers, led by inexperienced principals, subject to high teacher turnover and often run under militaristic disciplinary systems. Is this a choice that parents in affluent areas would make? These charter schools rob money from school districts already struggling to provide the resources children need. You can read about the economic impact of charters on one state here. Rhee’s charter school advocacy hurts children.

4. Falsely Characterizing the Common Core: In her Politico piece Rhee characterizes the Common Core as a bottom-up reform movement. She further asserts that the Common Core was voluntarily adopted by the states. Both these assertions are laughable. The Common Core was developed by a small group of education reformers with very little teacher representation. It was adopted “voluntarily” by the states, so that they could get a waiver for the impossible to meet No Child Left Behind strictures and so that they could get millions of dollars in Race to the Top Funds. That sounds more like extortion than volition. For a good analysis of this, I suggest you read Anthony Cody’s piece in Education Week here. Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute also takes on Rhee’s comments on the Common Core here.

As to whether the Common Core will have Rhee’s desired impact, Rhee has no idea and neither does anyone else because these standards were rushed into place with no piloting or research to support them. Tom Lawless (2012), has discussed the issue of the probable impact of the Common Core in detail here. His conclusion? “On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.

The Common Core, and the tests being designed to measure student achievement and teacher performance that come with it, encourage a narrowing of curriculum and teaching towards the test. Important curricular components like the arts, creative thinking and physical education will fall by the wayside. A narrow, standardized test focused curriculum fails kids.

Michelle Rhee started her career in education by putting literal tape over the mouths of school children. With her rhetoric now, she seeks to put metaphorical tape over the mouths of those who would speak up for fair, equitable public education available to all. Don’t let her get away with it.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Why Tenure Matters: The Teacher as Advocate and Innovator

Tenure is a necessary component for achieving the kind of schools we all want.

Teacher tenure is under attack. Some states have already done away with tenure through executive or legislative fiat. Other states have severely limited tenure rights. Still other governors and legislatures are in the process of revising tenure laws.

By now you have heard all the arguments against tenure. It makes it too hard to get rid of “bad” teachers. Tenure creates complacency because teachers know they are unlikely to lose their jobs. Tenure is not earned, but virtually given away after two or three years of teaching. The process is too cumbersome and too costly, so many administrators do not even bother to try to remove under performers. For a good discussion of the pros and cons of the tenure debate please see this article.

For the education reformers, tenure is a major hurdle in their quest to create schools in their market driven image. In order to put children first, they say, we must get rid of tenure. This argument has great resonance with many in the public who do not have such protections. The problem is that the reformers have this entirely wrong.

While Walmart, Ford and Microsoft may desire dutifully compliant workers who do what they are told and perform their functions as prescribed by their supervisors, that is the last thing we want in education. Tenure is a necessary component for achieving the kind of schools we all want. The kind of schools that take to heart the interests of every child, that have a rich and varied curriculum and that provide engaging instruction for all children. Here’s why.

Think of the very best teacher you ever had. I am willing to bet that that teacher was an innovator, constantly bringing new ideas into the classroom. I am willing to bet that that teacher took risks by creating a variety of engaging and sometimes out of the box lessons that were fun and exciting, if a bit noisy. I am also willing to bet that that teacher was a child advocate, going to bat for kids who might be a little different or a little odd or a little non-compliant themselves. When I was a supervisor, I worked with many very good teachers. The very best of these teachers were innovative risk takers who advocated for students.

Innovation, risk-taking and child advocacy only happen in a secure environment. One way that educational leaders can provide for this environment is by being open to teacher curriculum ideas, supportive of risky lessons created with student engagement in mind and by listening when a teacher advocates for a child. The other way is by providing the protections afforded by tenure.

Innovation is a hallmark of American education. In September 2013, the New York Times, ran an article that discussed how China, that world class test performer, is looking to the US to improve its science instruction through innovative and hands on approaches. Chinese students, it seems know the right answers, but they don’t know the right questions to ask that might lead to scientific advancement. Secure teachers have the freedom to design curricula that will challenge the status quo, get students out of the textbook and encourage critical and creative exploration of a wide variety of topics. Sometimes these topics may be controversial.

I once had my students in a Problems of Democracy class research why the words “under god’ were in the Pledge of Allegiance. The students’ research and their attempts to square those words with the constitutional protections of the separation of church and state made for a lively and open discussion of McCarthyism, the Cold War and religion in America. Some parents were not pleased with my chosen topic and they complained to the administration. Fortunately, my administrators handled the controversy well and the kerfuffle passed by without much notice, but I can certainly imagine a scenario where this did not go well and where, without tenure protections, I would never do the lesson again.

A strong educational system also requires teachers who are passionate advocates for the children they teach. This advocacy can take many forms. It might be the advocacy that gets the ESL student the needed services, an abused child protections from abusive adults, an athlete a chance to compete despite lackluster classroom performance or academic assistance for a hard working student with a learning disability.

Often times advocating for students involves risk. Perhaps an administrator is attempting to keep down special education costs and does not want to add to the growing disabilities roll. Perhaps the school board is thinking of eliminating the elementary music program and the teacher must go to a public meeting and advocate for every child’s need for the arts. Whatever that advocacy situation might be, it is a vital role for the educator to take on. The classroom teacher and the coaches know the children best. They are in the best position to advocate for the child. Tenure protections allow the teacher to provide that advocacy without fear of reprisal.

Yes, removing an under performer should not be as time consuming and costly to a school district as it is currently. That problem can be solved without throwing out the needed protections of tenure. Job insecurity breeds compliance and compliance does not lead to the best teaching. Tenure allows the education professional to fill his/her vital role as innovator and advocate.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Caroling with Education Reformers

For those teacher holiday parties, perhaps some reformy holiday carols to lighten the mood.

Deck the Halls

Deck the halls with tons of data
Fa la la la la, la la la la
Test scores will decide your fate-a
Fa la la la la, la la la la

Don we now our scarlet letter
Fa la la, la la  la, la, la, la
Trolls think this will make us better
Fa la la la la, la la la la

See the Common Core before us
Fa la la la la, la, la, la, la
Crafted by those who ignore us
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la

Follow them, they’ll up the rigor
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la
While poverty keeps growing bigger
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la

Fast away the school year passes
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la
With tests that knock kids on their asses
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la

Sing we now of standard measures
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la
That rob schools of their lasting pleasures
Fa la la la la, la, la, la ,la

The Twelve Days of Ed Reform

On the first day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
A VAM accountability grade.

On the second day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the third day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the fourth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the fifth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the sixth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the seventh day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
7 trolls a-squaking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the eighth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
8 online charters bilking
7 trolls a-squawking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the ninth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
9 Broadies dancing
8 online charters bilking
7 trolls a-squawking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the tenth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
10 Common Core Standards
9 Broadies dancing
8 online charters bilking
7 trolls a-squawking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade.

On the eleventh day of Ed reform that Bill Gates gave to me
11 TFAs a-leaving
10 Common Core Standards
9 Broadies dancing
8 online charters bilking
7 trolls a-squawking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade

On the twelfth day of Ed reform that Bill Gates  gave to me
12 weeks of test prep
11 TFAs a-leaving
10 Common Core Standards
9 Broadies dancing
8 online charters bilking
7 trolls a-squawking
6 kids a-crying
5 Michelle Rhees
4 school vouchers
3 charter schools
2 data walls
And a VAM accountability grade

Woe to the World

Woe to the world, PISA Day has come
Let’s all receive the news.
And Arne starts the spin.
And Arne starts the spin.
And Arne and Arrrrr-ne starts the spin.

Now every reformer says with a tear
"The end is coming near!
You see we can’t compete.
You see we can’t compete.
You see, you seee-ee, we can’t compete.”

We rule the world with free market tools
And soon we’ll rule public schools.
“Our goal’s to privatize.
Our goal’s to privatize.
Our goal, our gooo-al’s to privatize!”

I Saw Arne Kissing Eli Broad

I saw Arne kissing Eli Broad
While plotting how to close more schools last night.
“With my many, many millions
We’ll train more of Broady’s minions
To close all the ‘failing’ public schools
Before they can catch on, those fools.”

Then I saw Arne tickle Johnny King
As they marveled how suburban moms could fight.
“Those mom’s got mighty sore
When we force fed the Common Core
And now they just don’t seem to want
To listen to me anymore.”

Yes, I saw Arne kissing Eli Broad,
And now I hope that they both might get caught.
Cause what a laugh it would have been,
If Barry had only seen
Arne kissing Eli Broad last night.

Here's hoping you all have a happy, healthy and test free holiday.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Seven Blind Mice of Education Reform: A Field Guide

Perhaps you know the ancient parable from the Indian subcontinent, The Blind Men and the Elephant. The story has been told and adapted many times. If you don’t know it you can find a video adaptation here. In a picture book retelling of the story, Ed Young, the Caldecott Medal winning author, recasts the men as mice for The Seven Blind Mice. If you don’t know that story you can find it read aloud here.

The story is the tale of blind men (or mice) who upon encountering an elephant disagree as to what the creature might be based on their own limited experience gained from touching one part of the mysterious creature. In the mousey version, a seventh hero mouse runs all over the whole creature and determines what it truly is – an elephant.

I got to thinking; lots of people are telling educators today what they should be doing. They have identified the problem with their narrow vision and they are ready to tell us how to fix it. To me they are like the blind mice of the tale above, looking at one part of the whole and claiming understanding.  And so I present a new tale intended as a field guide for those who may be invaded by these vermin. I identify each species by its Latin name. A description is followed by recommended reading for further understanding of the type.

Education Reforming Mice, A Field Guide

1. No Excusem Charterus – easily identifiable for his mating call “KIPP, KIPP.” Known to favor harsh climates. Responds only to rigid, ritualistic behavior commands. When one member of this group fails to follow rituals, s/he is shunned by the group and placed in exile in a land called Onthebench. Known to push disruptive or special needs members of the species out of the nest.
            Recommended reading: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

2. Commonus Corpus Colemanus – A close examination of the Colemanus shows a species that was
kicked out of the nest at an early age. Still compensating for early childhood disappointments. Seeks to make sure that all young mice have a similarly joyless youth through slavish adherence to narrowed learning experiences and numerous yearly standardized mazes to run through. When young mice complain of mistreatment replies harshly, “Nobody gives a s**t how you feel.”

            Recommended reading: Are You My Mother?, by P.D. Eastman

3. Scabus for Americanus (SFA) – Bright and enthusiastic, the Scabus for Americanus will dive into the most difficult project with minimal training. Often found inhabiting ivy covered walls. Willing to invade the turf of more experienced members of the species for a warm nest and a small cheese allowance. Known to abandon their habitat after a short tenure for more cozy confines in the hedge or on the ladder.

            Recommended Reading: Teach for Us, Gary Rubinstein's blog

4. Tyranus Rheemus – mutant strain of Scabus for Americanus, this species has over developed ego
and underdeveloped empathic response. Known to sprinkle every communication with trademark call, “I…I…I….” Favors public humiliation of underlings, but abandons post at first signs of distress. Silences critics with masking tape. Approach with caution.

            Recommended Reading – The Prince, Maciavelli

5. Secretarius Duncanus – tallest of the species. Athletic with striking gray coat, but a clumsy communicator. Often seen foraging in public with his foot in his mouth. When cornered will blame any convenient target. Unwelcome in suburban homes and at tea parties. Always ready for a game, he is known to offer bribes to get others to play ball.
            Recommended Reading: The Peter Principle, Lawrence Peter


6. Plutochrus Uberallus – enjoys sticking his nose in areas where he has no expertise. Uses obscene riches
to unduly influence other education reform mice and political mice. Likes to talk about accountability, but accepts none for own actions. Talks about the need for “churn” in the teaching profession. When asked what will happen with teacher mice who lose their jobs says, “Let’m eat cheese.”

            Recommended Reading: Plutocrats at Work, Joanne Barkan

7. Ravitchus Heroicus – The hero of the story. Uses deep understanding of educational issues to see the
whole picture. Battles back at reform mice with books and blogs. Recognizes that ill-advised educational policies cannot overcome the poverty that many mice face daily. Champions teachers, while calling for improvements in curriculum and instruction. Borrows her battle cry from another famous mouse, “Here I come to save the day!”
            Recommended Reading: Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Putting Students First: What Does that Really Mean?

We can see, if we care to look, that the way we treat children – all of them, not just our own, and especially those in great need – defines the shape of the world we will wake up in tomorrow. – Barbara Kingsolver

My wife, Cindy Mershon, and I were talking over lunch about the perceived and real issues related to education. Cindy said to me, “The real issue is that we don’t value children in this country.” While I tried to digest that statement she went to the library to pull out a book. Then she read me an essay, part of which I quoted above, from Barbara Kingsolver’s collection, High Tide in Tucson.  And so, I began to think about the education reformer battle cry, “We must put children first.”

The so-called education reformers like to say that they want to put children first. And so we get organizations like Students First, Kids First, Achievement First, Just for Kids and we get rhetoric from reformers like Steve Perry, who seems to accuse every reform agenda critic of being anti-child and racist. For the reformers, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time” (Edna Bush, 2013). The clear implication is that educators have not been putting children first, or as Steve Perry puts it, they “put jobs first.”

Reformers look at the dire conditions in urban schools and they decide that the poor teaching and intransigent unions are the cause. Citing the oft repeated shibboleth that the “teacher is the single most important in-school factor in a child’s learning”, they base their remedies on so-called “school choice”, staff “churn” and stripping union members of job protections.

Here are the chief tenets of the reform agenda as I can best discern them:

·         Parents deserve choice in the school they send their children to. Children should not be relegated to a poor school because of their “zip code.” Vouchers will allow parents to choose better schools for their children.
·         Charter schools will use public funds to create “healthy” competition with regular public schools and create replicable models for public schools to follow.
·         Teacher accountability measures must be tied to student scores on standardized tests, so that we can make judgments about the most effective teachers.
·         Teachers whose students score well should receive monetary rewards to “incentivize” high performance.
·         Tenure and seniority rights must be stripped from union negotiated contracts, so that “bad” teachers can be more easily removed.
·         Public schools should adopt a business model of “creative disruption”, where staff “churn” is a featured part of improving performance by a regular removal of the lowest performers.
·         States should loosen teacher certification rules, so that more people can come into the profession without the burden of extensive training in teaching.
·         Curriculum should be tied to a set of national standards that will be the basis for a yearly standardized testing regime.

Sound good? Well, apparently it does to many people judging by what is going on across the country in the name of putting children first. What would be funny, if it were not so horrifying, is that all of the things listed above do not put children first. What they put first is a corporate agenda to privatize public education and profit from it. If the corporate reformers were really serious about putting children first, they could look at the thousands of schools in the country that have strong unions and a wide variety of teachers and who are doing a terrific job of educating children, better even than Finland. How is it that so many schools in the country are doing well, if the problem is teaching quality and unions who want only to protect poor teacher’s jobs?

While the United States is leading the developing world with 22% of its children living in poverty, we have wealthy reformers telling us the problem is lack of school choice and poor teachers. Let’s ask ourselves who profits from a narrative that bashes unions and demonizes teachers. Could it be those famous union bashers like the Walton Family and Michelle Rhee and the other plutocrats behind the pillaging of public education? Or how about that “creative disruption” maven, Bill Gates?

In the U.S. our social programs for children are hands down the worst in the industrialized world. – Barbara Kingsolver

What would an agenda that actually put children first look like? (Many of these were enumerated in Diane Ravitch’s excellent book, Reign of Error.)

·         Excellent pre-natal care for all expectant mothers to be sure every child got a healthy start in life.
·         Excellent child care available for every working mother.
·         Social workers and child psychologists available to advise parents on parenting activities that will help prepare the child for learning.
·         Paying working parents a livable minimum wage so that they can feed, clothe and spend time with their children.
·         Universal quality health care
·         Universal Pre-K education
·         Public libraries in every community
·         Health clinics in every urban public school
·         School counselors in every public school
·         Librarians in every public school
·         A rich curriculum for every child in every public school that includes physical education, the arts and lots of after school enrichment activities.
·         A curriculum that is broad, rich and deep and not narrowed by an overreliance on standardized testing.
·         Strengthening the teaching profession by attracting top level candidates, preparing them well in both content knowledge and pedagogy and encouraging them to work in areas of greatest need through competitive salaries and improved working conditions. Merit pay does not incentivize teachers. It has been tried and it has failed. What professional educators desire most is good working conditions. Good working conditions means reasonable class sizes, a workable schedule, a physical plant in reasonable repair, helpful supervisors and friendly, open colleagues.
·         Improving teacher evaluation so that it is a valuable and integrated part of the profession, which provides meaningful feedback that the teacher can use to improve performance. This requires viewing the teacher as a professional and not a cog in a testing machine.
·         Employing sufficient administrative staff, who are experts in teaching and learning, to provide valuable feedback
·         Working with teacher unions to provide needed support to lower performing teachers until the desired improvement is either made or the teacher is counseled out of the profession. (Yes, this can happen and does happen, see Montgomery County, Maryland’s PAR program for instance.)

What we get from reformers is an easy to sell, but deeply flawed narrative that puts children first in words only. If the agenda of the education reformers is to put children first, where is the outcry from these people when budgets for urban education are slashed as they have been in Philadelphia? Or when 30 neighborhood schools are shut down in Chicago? There is no outrage from the reformers because the denial of funds to public schools plays into reformers hands. They can again point to public education and say it is not working. In corporate parlance they are “starving the beast.” And where in any reasonable sense of "putting the child first" would we be subjecting young children to battery after battery of standardized tests? 

If the reformers really wanted to put children first, they would be fighting for every public dollar that could be found to support quality, neighborhood schools for all children and for living conditions that allow every child to arrive at school secure, healthy, well-fed and well-prepared to learn. When I see education reformers fighting for those things that will truly benefit children, and not their own corporate agenda, I will believe they are willing to put children first. The way we care for our neediest children, in and out of school, is the civil rights issue of our time.

[Children] thrive best when their upbringing is the collective joy and responsibility of families, neighborhoods, communities, and nations.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver quotes from “Somebody’s Baby” in High Tide in Tucson (1995). NY: Harper Collins.