Don’t Stop Good Teaching

This is a video I created for a school reform project last semester. The premise is that our nation’s over-emphasis on testing and accountability is not only failing our schools and students in terms of their basic skills, but is also stifling teachers’ ability to expand on students’ creativity, self-perception, and critical thinking.

Chicago Massively Expanding its Charter School Presence

I am behind the 8 ball a bit on Chicago news it would seem.  And although everyone seemed quite ready to post about Kuma’s Ghost burger, last month I saw nothing about the fact that Chicago has decided it will be opening 52 new charter schools over the next couple of years. (proposal for new charter schools) This is partially because it was inconspicuously posted on the CPS website with absolutely no fanfare, probably because they know it looks fishy.  Chicago Public Schools found 54 neighborhood schools were being underutilized and needed to be closed last year.   They displaced 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers.  And now they are just going to open charters with a bunch of 22 year-old teachers in their place (charter schools in the city are notorious for employing predominantly recent TFA corps members)?  Shouldn’t this have been big news?

In any case,Chicago, it seems, is giving up on public education.  If the city decides to close 50 more schools a year and gain 50 charter schools, we can just completely eradicate CPS from existence.  Which I suppose would be fine if opening a bunch of charter schools was actually a viable solution.  What I am not understanding is how we possibly had 54 schools that were “underutilized” enough to warrant closure, but we have enough resources and students to make all of these new schools a great idea.  The point is supposedly because schools in the northwest and southwest sides are overpopulated and they want to give people options.  What I don’t understand is why instead of charter schools, we can’t open new public schools.  Why are we so willing to just pass on the responsibility of fixing public education?

Charter schools are a great solution for Mayor Emanuel.  They cost less because they are partly privately funded.  They are governed by their own networks and they have a constant stream of rotating employees that CPS doesn’t have to worry about paying and providing benefits for.

There may have been a time I would have been behind the idea of charter schools.  Although I’ve always seen them as a means of siphoning funds and higher achieving students from already struggling public schools, the initial intention of allowing them to open was in hopes that they would try out new programs and ideas that could possibly later be transferred over to the public schools.  In the name of genuine innovation, I think they might have had potential.

In reality, what we consider “highly successful” charter schools are predominantly military-style discipline camps that may have raised a few test scores, but are teaching kids to follow orders, take tests on basic skills, and regurgitate jargon (and downright ridiculous chanting) in the name of success.   I am not saying this is not better than some of the alternative public schools these students have as an option, where fights break out constantly and the average proficiency rate on the PSAE is around 5%.  But let’s not label slightly better than the bottom as good.

Also, when I am talking about the charter schools considered “highly successful”, I am talking about a serious minority of charter schools.   Of the 22 high school charter networks in Chicago, only 1 has significantly higher performance on standardized tests than CPS (with average PSAE proficiency at 52% compared to the CPS average of 20%).  Aside from the Noble St schools, there is also significant variation among charter school networks themselves so even within a network, most do not have a stable model.  Several charter schools are actually scoring far below the CPS average on the PSAE exam.     (When we take the Noble Network out of the average, the charter average is 18% proficiency).  So I’m literally ONLY talking about the Noble schools when referring to what constitutes “highly successful” here.

Politicians love to hail charter schools as “innovative”.  I think it’s time we redefine the meaning of this pretty word.  At the Noble St schools, and all of the Chicago charters trying to be Noble St, the environment is sterile.  The closer to silence you have, the “better” you are doing. If your observers walk in and your “scholars” are silent and looking at you… super awesome. If they are writing something down for the  “PDN” (Please Do Now – cultspeak for an assignment you do upon entering the classroom) so you can assess their “mastery” of a “measurable standard”, you must be a spectacular teacher. If students cross the “threshold” still talking, you are a weak teacher who does not write enough demerits. If you do not stop your lesson to write a kid a demerit for his undershirt being the wrong color, you will be talked to about that in your debriefing regardless of whether or not your lesson was the greatest thing ever.  The focus is on discipline first, higher order thinking last (if you have time to get to it at all).

Personal story time.  One day toward the end of the year, I basically decided I was done with College Readiness Standards (this was pre-Common Core, so our “standards” were written by the ACT organization and were literally just explaining ACT questions like “identify and correct redundancy in a sentence” – because that’s a useful real-life skill), and I wanted the final project to be something my students could really own. We were finishing reading Devil in the White City, a 400 page book we had to read aloud in class because we could not afford enough copies for students to take it home. We had successfully finished the major research paper, and we had done so in half the time the previous year teacher took so I was feeling pretty good. My favorite project in college (where I actually majored in High School English Education – what a crazy thought!) was a multigenre research paper. This type of paper encompasses a wide variety of skills and can be done at any level. You develop a thesis or a purpose and rather than just write an expository piece, you prove it through a multitude of genres. Poetry, news articles, art, themes, symbols, letters, journal entries – whatever you want.  It allows students to draw on personal strengths and push their creativity while analyzing the material at a deeper, and often more personal, level.  I was going to give my students complete freedom to choose any thesis (“claim” – sorry, not using appropriate “Toulmin Model” language here) based on the book, and we’d spend the last quarter proving it. So I was going to teach them symbolic poetry, news writing, etc. We were going to look at the real themes of the nonfiction book. I was so excited. To introduce this gigantic project, I talked with students about genre (after a PDN asking them to explain genre and the benefits of using multiple genres of course). I had them read the lyrics to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and then we watched the video (great because of the many different themes and pattern throughout it). We talked about how the different aspects came together to create a whole feeling much moreso than just reading the lyrics did. My students were engaged; they were excited – they couldn’t wait to come up with their own projects. Some already were asking me questions. “Can I focus on the usage of the color blue?” “Can I write a rap from the point of view of Dr. Holmes?” I have never felt like I had done my job as a teacher more perfectly.

I was observed twice during this lesson by my “instructional leader” and the principal. They came in with their little notebooks and glared at me, making the tension in the classroom rise as it always did when they were around. During the debriefing of the lesson, not once was I commended on the engagement level of the students, or the fact that they clearly were grasping the bigger themes of the lesson. NOT ONCE was it acknowledged that I had come up with a really creative project based on a really challenging text or that my students were truly responding to me. In the debriefing all I heard about was “Exactly what standard were you trying to assess?” and “You did not write Marquan a demerit. Did you not even notice that he was chewing gum?” “You did not redirect Amaya when she was looking out the window during the PDN.” “Maybe next time you can try to use 100%.” “You need to unpack the standards.” It was all a bunch of jargon. All my administration knew how to do was quote textbooks, really a textbook, which makes sense given that every single person in my administration was brand new to their position.

The point is, this is the education students get in many of these “highly successful” charter schools. They are not writing 15 page papers analyzing their personal theory of humanity based on their analysis of Freud, Plato, and Erikson combined with Christology and morality as I had to my junior year of high school. They don’t have extensive reading and writing homework challenging them to really think about the issues.  They aren’t reading to learn more about themselves and the world around them. They have test prep. They have teachers who are praised for enforcing rules while students in upper middle class schools talk and have music in the hallways, get to take electives, and join any extracurricular they like.

The teachers my administration lauded were already studying for their LSATs and applying for jobs in business and engineering in October. They knew to keep their classes quiet, to write a bunch of demerits, and to make sure each lesson was based around a standard. They used the right buzzwords, put on the right face and did their job in a way that would not get them fired. We had each others’ backs when sneaking around to interviews. This is not my idea of a “highly successful” school. I wouldn’t want to go to one; I wouldn’t send my kids to one. But I won’t be living in the inner city… so I won’t have to worry about it, right? And neither will the people running the charters. And neither will anyone who graduated from TFA. It wouldn’t be OK for our kids, but as long as it’s someone else’s… I guess this is an acceptable definition of success for the city of Chicago.

Oft-ignored fact about charter schools is that they heavily rely on an unsustainable workforce.  Charter school teachers rarely have lives outside of school.  Having children is almost impossible.  What teachers in comfortable suburban jobs get paid extra to do (run a school newspaper, hold after school study groups, attend constant professional development, etc.) charters expect for free.  Charter schools pay, on average, 20% less than than Chicago Public Schools to new teachers.  This gap would widen significantly over the years, except that it is actually really rare to see a long-term charter school teacher.  Because CPS salary information is public and charters are not, I do not have data to represent later pay scales, but I will speak to what happened in my own.

We were told we would receive merit pay based on our evaluations.  Because we did not have testing data available, evaluations were based on very specific rubrics (mostly containing a whole lot of jargon related to our network’s slogans and methods).  Unfortunately, at the end of the year, the school did not actually have the money to give people their warranted raises.  Teachers made base raises that when accounting for annual inflation, actually counted as a pay decrease, regardless of their actual evaluation.  In fact, we ran out of money to pay substitute teachers in April and basically were just told not to get sick.  If you were sick, you needed to get other teachers to cover for you during their planning periods.  They were not paid for losing their planning time.  Luckily, my school didn’t have to worry about paying too many veteran teachers.  The turnover rate was about 70% annually and TFA always has a new batch of fresh-faced idealists ready to fill the vacancies.  That also makes it really easy to fire people left and right for nominal infractions.  Well except Special Ed teachers, because those are hard to find (admitted by my principal when she made a joke about firing a Sped Teacher and quickly said, “No just kidding – you’re special ed.  We can’t replace you.”).

I don’t want to give the impression that I think every single charter school is a horrible place.  In many cases, these no excuses environments are sadly still better than the neighborhood school.  And maybe this really is a great education for some students.  But the term “highly successful” is deceptive and unfair.  It’s unfair because this is not the education that leads to real critical thinking, holistic development, and leadership skills that children of wealthy families are introduced to.  They may send kids off to college, and some will succeed – but this is due to their own resilience in these settings.  I don’t know why we are giving up on public education.  I don’t know why the idea of paying trained teachers to work in publicly funded schools is something we’re moving away from.  I don’t know why we think charters are the answer to our problems.   And I think our politicians need to start spending a lot more actual time in the schools they are affecting.

PS- A student wrote to me recently with a link to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video and a note that said “I think about your class often and refer back to the lessons you taught.  This day was my favorite.”  At least my teaching style was approved by someone, and I’ll take that over writing extra demerits for a higher evaluation any day.

I am Mad at the Government.

Image

The government shut down today.  I don’t even know what that means.  How can you just shut down a government?  How can a bunch of supposedly intelligent, accomplished individuals use a stare-down contest as a means of getting something done?  They’d be better off playing paper scissors rock.  But that’s another story.  Because today, I am not mad at the government due to their shutdown.  I am mad at the government for failing yet again to learn a lesson or to have to be held in any way accountable for their own failures.

I read a piece by Linda Darling-Hammond titled, “From ‘Separate but Equal’ to ‘No Child Left Behind’: The Collision of New Standards and Old Inequalities”.  In it she explains why although perfectly well-intentioned, No Child Left Behind was a major failure because of unintended consequences supposedly “never envisioned” by the authors of the act.  The narrowing of pedagogy and curriculum; the dumbing down of standards; the most struggling schools losing desperately needed funds; the vast failure rates of a majority of schools; a move toward privatization; deflection of resources for teachers and schools to be spent on testing, ranking, and lawyers fees; and essentially, the leaving behind of the very students it aims to assist are just a few of the shortcomings Darling-Hammond explains.  She adds that “some of the act’s most important and potentially productive components such as the effort to ensure that all students have highly qualified teachers and successful educational options and supports are in danger of being extinguished by the shortcomings of a shortsighted, one-way accountability system that holds children and educators to test-based standards they are not enabled to meet, while it does not hold federal or state governments to standards that would ensure equal and adequate educational opportunity.” (Darling-Hammond, 2004).  She explains what educators have known all along – that the No Child Left Behind Act was going to do more harm than good and take American education backward rather than prepare students for success in a global economy.  Regardless of what we feel the purpose of education should be, the seemingly unanimous consensus in Washington and across that nation is that No Child Left Behind did not succeed in meeting it.

It should feel somehow vindicating to hear Arne Duncan announce on The Colbert Report that “No Child Left Behind is basically broken,” although that insinuates it was ever functional.  It should feel good because teachers, administrators, and education professionals across the nation have known it was a failure since the moment of its inception.  We’ve been saying all along that this was a harmful policy that encouraged cheating, teaching to the test, turning children into numbers, etc.  We’ve always known it was fundamentally flawed.  That claiming to raise standards while taking away any opportunity to meet them was not going to work.  We should get to scream “I TOLD YOU SO!” in their faces.  But all I can do is be mad.  Because they should have been listening to us in the first place.

The Darling-Hammond piece I just read was not published this year, as we approach the 2014 proficiency deadline and can accept that our scores have not risen at all despite all effort to make that happen.  It was not a summative piece on the unforeseeable ramifications of the act.  The piece was written in 2004.  It declared NCLB a fail in 2004.  It explained why it was not going to work nine years ago.  And yet nobody in power was willing to listen.  What seemed so blatantly obvious to me, a 20 year-old at the time, was not obvious to the much more highly educated authors of the act or the Congress or presidents who kept it in place for over a decade.

I went to undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio from 2003-2007.  These were prime NCLB years and fascinating ones during which to be studying education.  As a former private school student, I had managed to avoid the testing mandates in my own high school experience, but suddenly, I was in a world where learning to be a teacher meant having to “Cover Your Ass” at all times.  I observed in schools where I was told not to discuss the themes of the story we read aloud, but instead to have students answer multiple choice questions, as that was what they would be asked to do on the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT).  I student taught in a school where we had multiple pep rallies to prepare for the OGT.  We had to do several OGT prep tests throughout the semester.  Teaching test-taking skills was expected.  What I was seeing in the classroom was a far cry from the incredible education I myself received where the only standardized tests I took were the ACT and SAT (and even those were optional) and where I was constantly asked to expand my view point, to read more, to write more, to challenge myself more.  It was far from what I was learning in my classes where my professors had real high school teaching experience and were exposing me to ways to improve rigor in the classroom, reach students at varying levels, and develop my own individual teaching style.  Frustrated by what we were seeing happening in schools because of NCLB, some dedicated friends and I founded No Child Left Behind Reparation, an organization looking to amend the act.  We researched, we spoke at conferences, we held demonstrations.  I was chosen to represent the student body on the con-side of a community wide debate alongside professors and professionals.  The point is, we knew then that it was a failure.  And anyone who had anything to do with actual schools knew it was never going to work.  And now what?  Over a decade later we scrap it, rewrite it, reauthorize ESEA with new mandates that get rid of the old ones.  So much for the schools that we “turned around” that are still failing.  So much for the students who suffered through the dismal programs.  So much for the teachers who lost their jobs.  For the schools that did not get funding.  And why should the government care?  Who is holding the government accountable for their own failed acceptability system?

No one.  We’re just making new laws and yet again using the nation’s schools as guinea pigs.  I want to see the government “turned around” when they don’t fix the economy every year.  I want to see them have to prove what they have accomplished and be held accountable for what they have not.

Why did it take the government over a decade to admit they were wrong?  Why couldn’t they see what it was doing?  And worse yet, why can’t they see that they aren’t fixing it now?  Secretary Duncan and President Obama can talk all they want about putting opportunity into the states’ hands.  But when they incentivize their new standards by saying exactly what schools have to do to get funding, there is no innovation.  Raising the charter cap is not sparking innovation.  Restructuring teacher and principal evaluation systems so that they are tied to student test scores is NOT innovation.  And measuring whether or not schools are meeting the standards on more standardized tests is ABSOLUTELY NOT innovation.  Why have we not learned anything?  Why are we about to make the same mistakes we wasted a decade and billions of dollars on already?

“Raising the standards” and holding schools accountable without giving them the necessary tools to get there is not going to produce a miracle spike in test scores.  You may as well tell someone not to get sick and say you will beat them if their temperature goes over 100, but do nothing to keep them healthy beyond the threat.  You can say to someone “lose fifty pounds or we will put you in jail,” but if they don’t have access to healthy food or a workout plan, or have any idea how to lose weight, it’s still not going to happen.  Raising standards would be a fantastic solution if the reason schools were failing was simply that teachers and administrators were too lazy to do the work that they needed to do.  If they actually knew how to combat the fact that most of their students come to school hungry, sleep-deprived, or dealing with problems they themselves have no idea how to cope with.  If teachers secretly knew how to make sure kids knew they were important and capable despite everything the world around them is telling them.  If teachers knew how to make their students feel safe in the classroom and work with the fact that they are coming into school suffering from PTSD on a daily basis, living their lives in constant fear.  If they knew how to get students up to speed who came into Kindergarten already years below the proficiency levels of their suburban counterparts.  If they knew how to combat the lure of gangs and drugs for their students who have no other concept of family.  If they knew how to teach kids some standards despite all of this and so much more and were choosing not to do so because they did not have enough incentive, well I guess Common Core and Race to the Top will solve everything.

I am mad at the government.  I am mad at the government for putting a bandaid on a bullet wound and acting like it’s enough to fix schools. I am mad at the government for blaming teachers and schools for our nation’s racial and social inequities.  I am mad at the government for not listening to people who spend their lives fighting for social justice, who know what it is like to fight insurmountable obstacles every time they go to work (and for the students who do so every time they go to school).  I am mad that the government put out another incentive based on their weak and unfounded idea of accountability and for actually believing it is going to work this time.  I am mad that the government holds up the exception and acts like anyone can make it the rule simply by following suit without taking care of the individual circumstances that plague every school.  I am so mad that the government refuses to listen to the people who actually get it because they are THERE.  ImageHere are my friends and I holding an Anti-No Child Left Behind demonstration at Miami University, October 2006.  I still have the pamphlet we handed out.  It was all true then, and it’s all true now.

This Guy May Have Just Fixed Education…

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/09/11/03thigpen.h33.html?tkn=TVYFID7VsB5nfaXaQEfHoffPyRMZzzXIK4IV&cmp=clp-edweek

 

In the above article, Tyler S. Thigpen articulates a simple, though somehow radical new approach to education.   In light of recent reform movements structured around a higher emphasis of STEM subjects, paying and evaluating  teachers and administrators on purely Value-Added measurements, and lauding schools where discipline is the highest priority, Thigpen centers his ideal of schooling around building relationships and solving real-world problems.  If we look at what we want schools to accomplish, who should our students be upon graduation?  Is the most important goal of schools to create young people who are exceptional at test-taking and who are entering college, or are we trying to create students who are civically responsible, culturally aware, and independent-thinking?  Personally, I favor the latter.  What good are test scores and college entrance if students do not know how to solve real-world problems, communicate effectively, or participate in the greater whole of society?

Though it may be more difficult to measure these characteristics, the goal of education should absolutely be to create more holistic students, and this is an entirely possible approach to education.  According to Thigpen, our teacher training institutions need to be focused more on training teachers to incorporate real-world situations into the classroom so that students can apply skills to relevant situations.  Students should be scaffolded toward success not just on subject-matter, but on their ability to approach and solve problems.  This includes collaboration, competition, and innovative thinking.  it also enhances the chance that students will take ownership of their learning by connecting it to life outside of the classroom.  So often in our classrooms we hear, “But when am I ever going to use this?”  With Thigpen’s relationship-centered approach, that question would be self-evident.   So why is this so hard to accept?

First of all, it means a much greater change in the way we structure schools.  Teachers would have to be more collaborative and interdisciplinary.  It would require constant research and current awareness to be able to manufacture the situations students would be working with.  It would also require a lot of foresight in knowing how to appropriately scaffold students to success.  It may mean moving away from six hours spent in building shuffling between subject-specific classes.  This may be a challenge, especially given that it would be much harder to measure than test-friendly basic skills.

But as a teacher who went through what I felt was a rather involved teacher-training program, I was always taught that bubble-choice tests are the easy way out.  You don’t have to do near as much grading if the computer can do it for you.  But what is a better way to gauge student understanding of the themes in a reading?  A multiple-choice exam or an essay where students have to articulate their thoughts and explain their rationale?  What about a multi-step project that requires time, foresight and often collaboration?  Clearly, the second two will tell us more about what students actually know, and this is why teachers lean toward these methods for real understanding of what their students know.  Unfortunately, these methods do not garner quick data responses, and without a fast way to look at data and objectively tell exactly which students have proved mastery of a basic skill, how will we ever know that students have learned anything?

Just because test scores give us a quick way to look at learning, they do not tell us near enough.  If we move toward a more relationship-centered approach to schools, the public would have to put their trust in the teachers that students were learning.  It would be much more difficult for the government to know what students were learning and whether or not they were improving.  But the results would be obvious when students went off to college prepared and entered the workforce with reasonable approaches to situations.  If we keep training students that there is always one right answer, and that there will always be four options to choose it from, and that all knowledge comes down to is measurable skills, they will in no way be truly prepared for the world outside of academia, or even high school.  They will have mastered simple skills in lieu of deeper ones, and they will be left to their own devices to succeed.

We are failing our students by not giving them relevant, real-world training in the classroom.  School is about development of so many things.  Personal relationships, self-awareness, collaborative ability, basic skills, problem-solving and analytical skills, and so much more.  When will our schools start preparing students for what they are really going to need?  Our school reform movement is actually going backward right now.  With carrot and stick initiatives, all learning is placed in a neat little box in such a way that young people will never see again when they leave school.  I’m sorry that we can’t use data and value-added measures to predict the entire world, and I realize that economists really hate this, but sometimes, you just have to go with your intuition.  Teachers know when their students are learning.  Schools know when they are succeeding.  Communities know when they have a great school.  We don’t need bubble exams to teach us this.  We just need to start training our teachers and administrators for a more 21st century approach to learning.

Common Core: Miracle Cure or the Next Passing Fad?

As a policy student, I have to read a lot of, well, policy initiatives.  I also have to evaluate them.  It is difficult for one to evaluate a policy while only reading one side of the story,  or only reading polarized sides of the story.  If you read the pages on the official website, corestandards.org, for example, you’ll see what amounts to basically a lot of propaganda.  On the flip side, you have outspoken education voices like Diane Ravitch advocating against them.  What I’d really like to do here is gain some authentic perspective on the Common Core “State” Standards and the effect they are really having in the classroom.   I have “state” in quotation marks because these are actually federal standards that were in no way written at the state level.  In fact, they were not written by anyone who has much of anything to do with the field of education.  That much is fact.  What remains to be seen is how these standards will affect the future of American education.  Are they a step in the right direction to ensuring equal education to all Americans regardless of socio-economic status, race, and other factors?  Or are they just the next “big thing” to be washed out in a few years with some new initiative?

My gut, admittedly cynical, tells me it is the latter.  I don’t feel like this has to be the case.  A national curriculum, developed with the purpose of education in mind has some serious potential.  Of course that begs the question: What is the purpose of education?

I have personally always thought of education as a means by which we learn how to learn.   If we give students the tools to learn on their own, they are prepared for civic responsibility and a life of success.  Do we really care that much if a kid knows calculus?  Probably not, as only a select few will ever actually put that knowledge to use.  But it serves as a solid expansion of the brain’s capability to understand numbers.   When I have my students write an analysis essay on a fictional character from The Crucible, do I expect them to hold some belief about John Proctor throughout their lives?  Of course not.  The goal is for them to learn how to make evaluations, apply universal themes, and logically defend an argument – basic skills that will indeed carry them through life.  If we guide our students through the process of building on one’s knowledge, we will hopefully leave them with the tools to apply their knowledge in the greater world in new contexts.  The problem is, this is hard to measure.

If the Common Core stands as a basic roadmap to guide curriculum, then I say it is a positive thing.  It is vague in terms of how the material needs to be taught, which leaves the necessary room for autonomy in the way the teacher presents the material to his or her students.  While many people fear too much government control over schools, I feel this could be a safe compromise.  A set of basic skills and core competencies that students should know as Americans, leaving the rest up to the schools and teachers to figure out at the local and state levels.  It has the potential to go very well.  If schools were presented with this basic curriculum, first of all, most teachers would already be aligned with it in terms of their goals.  They could set benchmarks for where their students are, and where they want them to be.  For many new teachers, it would provide a framework on which to base their year.

Unfortunately, I see major flaws with the implementation of these standards.  Most of the 46 states that have adopted them have done so as part of the Race to the Top initiative, which is a state competition to use federal funds and close the achievement gap while raising overall scores.  Certainly sounds great in theory.  What I do not like about it is that it is a competition.  In competition, there is too much room for cutting corners at the expense of genuine progress.  In competition there are winners and losers and the idea that someone is better than someone else.  In schools, this should not be the case.  There should be encouragement, collaboration, and support from all angles.  And while the initiative claims to be seeking innovation and change in schools, it does not actually leave them room to do so.  Participating states have a very strict set of guidelines to adhere to including:

  • “Develop teacher (and principal) evaluation systems that substantially rely on measures of student achievement and growth.  States thus promised to develop strong data systems that would enable them to assess progress and achievement and to evaluate teachers based in part on these data, using “value-added” measures that purport to assess teachers’ impact on student learning, distinct from other factors. These systems would eventually collect data based on the new, higher standards that states also had to adopt: 40 points out of the 500 were contingent on developing and adopting standards based on the Common Core State Standards, and RTTT is widely credited with spurring rapid adoption of the Common Core across almost all states (40 states competed in the first round of RTTT).”
  • “Strengthen teacher preparation programs and improve access to and quality of professional development programs.”
  • “Identify alternative routes to certification in order to remove barriers to teaching for potentially strong teachers who might be impeded by existing systems or processes.”
  • “Identify and turn around the lowest-performing schools, using one of several strategies along the lines of federal school improvement grants. Strategies include firing the principal and/or much of the staff, turning the school over to a charter or other outside manager, or closing it altogether.”  (Weiss 2013)

So basically, states had to adopt the standards, adopt the data and evaluation measuring systems (and for clarification, “value-added” is a misleading term meaning “test score gains”), and then use federally mandated (or really private-organization mandated) “strategies” to turn schools around.   To me, it’s kind of saying “close public schools, open charters, hire Teach for America and other alternatively certified teachers because our nation’s teaching programs aren’t as good as theirs, and whoever shows the biggest test score gains wins.”  I’d be open to hearing other interpretations.

Here is the problem with this.  Closing large public schools displaces students.  Students are forced to either a) enter the lottery for the charter that replaced their school or b) find a way to get to a much farther school.  Even this being a small consideration, there is no guarantee that the new school is going to be any better.  We tend to confuse the word “innovation” with “improvement” and assume that just because something is new, it will be better, or that it will work at all.  Just because someone has enough vision to start a new school or to turn it around, does not mean that it will be a success.  Vision does not equate actual leadership.  We continually watch charter schools open, and stay open, despite abysmal test scores just like their public predecessors, and because a very select few have proven to be successful, we suggest “raising the charter cap” as the solution to our disparity and achievement gap while ignoring numerous other factors.  I’m not saying that every charter school is bad, or that no charter schools should exist.  But the way they are being hailed now as a panacea to education disparities is a bit pre-mature.

My second major issue with the implementation on the Common Core goes back to this idea of “Value-added measurements”.  Although we have all but full-on admitted that No Child Left Behind was and has been an epic failure, we are still relying on the same methods that it has proven do not work.  What is a standardized test able to really measure?  How many math problems a student can do in a given amount of time?  Whether a student can ascertain exactly what a test question is looking for (which is not the same thing as real reading)?  Whether they can outsmart the grammatical errors and correct them in a bubble of options?  Isolating these basic test skills is not the same thing as really being able to read, understand complex math concepts, or write effectively.  It does not contribute to the holistic growth of a student or prepare them for life beyond the classroom.  As I have a lot to say on this particular issue, I am going to leave it alone for the moment and save it for a later, more in-depth post.  Suffice to say, if all that having a great education system means is raising test scores, we should replace teachers with Kaplan.  Or better yet, computers.  I raised my GRE score a whole lot this way!

I would personally be more in favor of the Common Core if the standards were handed to the states to be used as a guideline and then schools were encouraged to authentically integrate them into their curriculum.  As it stands now, many students and schools are too far behind the suggested benchmarks to even dream of reaching them and unless we started the process with a set of kindergartners and watched them progress over time, we cannot be sure whether or not it is really working.   We need to find better systems of evaluation.  Just because something is the easiest way to measure something, does not mean it is the correct way or that the results are really what the program is going for – but again, this is a whole other post.

What I would like to hear is: teachers, are you being encouraged to incorporate these standards into your curriculum but still able to teach in your authentic style?  Administrators, does the Common Core work as a roadmap for you or it is too micromanaging and unaligned with your personal goals for the school?  Students, do you feel like you would have had a better education if there were more rigid expectations for exactly what you were supposed to be learning?  Or if you happen to be a current student who came across this blog, do you feel that the Common Core standards have had a noticeable difference in your own education?

Why High Teacher Turnover is a Major Problem in Education

Motoko Rich recently wrote an article in the New York Times that is garnering much attention in the education world.  It is not the fact that Rich points out the notoriously high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools, but the fact that school leaders do not seem to think high turnover rate is a problem that is so upsetting.  Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, even so boldly claims that teachers get enough training in the strongest schools that they “become great even in their first and second years.”  Wait, what?  This is appalling, and I would like to say laughable, except that clearly there are people who buy it.

In what field can we say that someone becomes great in their first and second year?  If you are wrongly accused of murder, do you want a lawyer who has been in practice for two years?  If you are having an open heart operation, do you want a doctor that has been in practice for one or two years unsupervised?  Do you want a whole hospital or law practice full of these new practitioners?  Heck, if you are getting a drastic haircut, do you want someone brand new on the job?  To join a plumbers’ union takes four years of training and yet our education system somehow thinks that “training” some recent college graduates for five weeks, giving them a bit of guidance for the next year or two and sending them off is enough for educating children.

And not just any children.  Because everyone knows which children get these new teachers who are often more interested in the next steps of their lives than truly becoming great teachers.  Go into a suburban school and you will find a wealth of experience.  It is children whose parents see charter schools as a beacon of hope by allowing them to avoid dangerously underperforming, and often downright dangerous public schools who get these inexperienced teachers.

I guess Wendy Kopp is right if teaching is actually an assembly line profession where one learns to output techniques X,Y,and Z and get great results.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  And what works for one teacher will blow up in another’s face.  Developing one’s own teaching style is absolutely crucial to his or her career because only through testing one’s own wings does someone find out what works best for him or her.  Teachers learn through the years how to develop a rapport with their students, how to manage a classroom, how to meet a wide range of skills through differentiated instruction.  By following the examples of experienced mentors, teachers learn new tricks and gain ideas.  Very few people are even comfortable standing in front of a room their first year of teaching.

I agree that new teachers are often very enthusiastic, regardless of why they went into the profession.  But this enthusiasm dissipates rapidly when one settles into a job where they are told what to do and how to teach according a style and manual that is disingenuous.  And once they realize that they will be treated better in another school or another profession altogether, while being paid higher salaries and being more respected by society, there is little incentive to stay.

Accepting the high turnover rate of charter schools is just an easy way to deal with the fact that the real issues are much harder to control.  If we can believe that a two year teacher is “highly qualified” to teach the neediest children, then we can ignore the fact that there are very few incentives to do these jobs.  If we believe that two years of teaching is enough to raise test scores, we can ignore all of the ways that teacher may not be reaching their students in deeper, more important aspects.  If we believe that two years of teaching is enough experience to become a principal, then we do not have to worry about fighting for what is best because we will have a constant stream of bubbly new college graduates every year to replace them when they fail.  This is not acceptable regardless of whether schools have predominantly TFA corps members, traditionally certified teachers, or other alternative program members.  And charter schools have this turnover rate regardless of their dominant teacher pool of choice.

When I returned to a large upper middle class suburban school after my year at the charter school, I was reminded of so many of the reasons experience is valuable.  I watched my coteacher relate to students in a way I had not developed.  Maybe I was better at English grammar or got higher test scores, but when a student in our classroom was acting out, it was my coteacher who got him to open up about all of the issues he had going on at home.  She was the one with the patience and understanding to guide him and support him through the year in a way only experience gives one the comfort to do.  She didn’t have to write detentions because students knew to respect her.  She gave them no reason not to.  They trusted her.  I doubt she had this power in her first two years of teaching.

I am not naive enough to say that experience means everything.  Of course there are some very burned out teachers who just show up to get paid.  But charter schools burn teachers out at a much faster rate.  The high turnover rate is not because teachers had such a joyous experience that they want to quit while they are ahead.  They leave because they are exhausted.  Because they are sick of being abused by a system that demands the impossible and makes them feel worthless when they fail.  They leave because they went in at the top of their class and they know that they can have another job that will make them feel respected and will pay them higher and generally, will give them back their life.  Enthusiastic?  Go visit the average charter school in February and let me know what you think of the “enthusiasm”.  When you have a group of twenty somethings working day in and day out to raise scores on a test that determines all of their lives while somehow managing to test very little of importance and they get back the results that say their numbers haven’t changed at all.  When then they walk back to the classroom to hear that one of their students’ siblings was shot last night or one of their parents was arrested and they are supposed to teach them mastery of some common core standard.  You let me know how enthusiastic people seem.  And this is healthy for children to be around?  Teacher enthusiasm is contagious, but it happens a lot more frequently in a positive overall environment, which is rarely a charter school.  Maybe the goal should be avoiding burnout.  Challenging teachers as they gain experience.  Reminding them why they went into teaching in the first place.  Making the workplace a decent environment.

People who laud alternative certification and cite its success ignore the fact that programs like TFA get the highest performing of applicants.  These are people that would succeed in any given field, but with the promise of a gold star on one’s resume and a tuition stipend, why not try teaching?  Why are we not trying to get the highest applicants to go into teaching in the first place instead?  Why are we not working to make this a desirable career that our nation’s strongest students want to not only try out, but make their career for life?

This profession should not be the back up plan for someone who decided to do something noble for a year or two before embarking on their “real” career.  It should be a first choice.  It should be an honorable choice.  A profession that people are proud of.  The nations we are competing against do not hire teachers who majored in accounting with the plan of leaving in two years.  They do not focus solely on test scores to prove the success of their schools.  They train teachers extensively and focus on a strong curriculum knowing that they have produced quality teachers who are ready to teach it however they feel best fit.  Why aren’t we doing this?

Why are our politicians chastising unions and retirement packages and downgrading the profession rather than working to attract our nation’s best teachers to our most struggling schools?  There is a high turnover rate at charter schools because they have the option of overworking and underpaying their employees.  They have the option of cycling through them as though the individuals themselves are meaningless.  Mere machines pushing test-taking and basic skills into receptacles.  How is it possible that this is being encouraged?

There is something to be said about going back to your high school knowing your same teachers are still there.  Knowing they love what they do.  Talking to a graduate years later and saying, “does so and so still work there?”  There is something to be said about being at graduation and having teachers that were with you all of those years be smiling up at you.

When we accept high turnover rate, we accept mediocrity.  While we should be giving teachers the highest and best training programs with a strong focus on development with a mentor BEFORE solo classroom entry, we are throwing them into the shark pit to sink or swim, or get eaten altogether.  When we see no problem with disrespecting teachers by replacing them like mechanisms on an assembly line, we shatter a profession that should be exalted.  And until we realize this, I don’t care what a few test scores say, our education system will be a failure.

The following link is to the original New York Times article that sparked this post.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/education/at-charter-schools-short-careers-by-choice.html 

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