Follow the Money

This article is a must read.

My school and every school I have worked at in NYC raises supplemental funds (thousands) to be able to pay for field trips, art, music and after school programs. The so-called “best schools” in NY raise millions of dollars so they can hire additional teachers and assistant teachers and pay for special programming. Charter school networks can raise millions to make co-teaching models, tech resources, and school in summer possible. The only schools that don’t have access to this bounty are low and middle income public schools. Some of these schools receive title-1 funding designated toward constrained uses, but even that falls short compared to the hundreds of the thousands of dollars wealthier schools raise through parent foundations and/ or property taxes. Meanwhile school budgets are tied up in testing, expensive consultants, the latest tech, and new curricula thanks to ever shifting education policy that favors testing and tech companies over schools. This is not equitable.

So, who should be held accountable for failing schools? Local and federal governments who pass the buck on funding and scapegoat teachers. Follow the money.



Let’s Be Real: Testing Is All Year Long

People are arguing about whether testing in NY state conforms to Obama’s theoretical 2% cap on testing time.

But let’s be real. At most schools testing takes time away from real learning all year long. Test prep starts on day 1, with jam packed, common core test aligned, “rigorous” ELA and math curricula. This includes test prep oriented curricula and actual testing. Starting in the first week of school, students take formative assessments, summative assessments, benchmark assessments and more on a weekly basis. And of course, from September through May, art, science, social studies and anything creative is relegated to the back burner- taught at most once a week.

And then testing season comes. At my school, starting in February, test prep takes over completely and suddenly the 3rd and 4th graders are anxious, frustrated and bursting in to tears at random moments. This is two months of explicit test practice almost all day every single day. Two months of no field trips, no science, no social studies and lots and lots of practice tests.

To be clear, I do not blame any of this on the teachers I work with. They kick ass and do everything within their power to make learning fun and meaningful for their kids. The power of testing over schools comes entirely from on high- from Cuomo, from Obama, from Gates and the other rich people who think they are experts at everything.

But if you ask a teacher how much time testing and test prep really takes from their teaching, you won’t hear 2%. If we’re being honest, at a typical school- without a strong opt out culture- testing takes around 60% percent of instructional time. If we were to talk about student learning time- including homework and weekend test prep boot camps, that number would go even higher. And then if you consider that nowadays, art teachers, PE teachers, science teachers and early childhood teachers are often asked to integrate the language and values of tests into their teaching every day, the number rises again. I would put my money on this statistic: In most schools,  75% of all learning time is devoted to, guided by, or limited by testing.

If we’re being real, bringing that percentage down to 1 or 2% means tossing out the the whole system. Testing will never occupy such a small portion of the school year when test scores are tied to teacher evaluations and student promotion and the tests themselves are wholly inappropriate. So, please, powerful people out there, either stop pandering to voters with these mythical tiny percentages or actually do something to fix the system you destroyed.

WaPo article on testing time in schools


Reclaiming “Choice” for Progressive Education

In the world of education, school “choice” is a destructive illusion. Disenfranchising, underfunding and shutting down community public schools to pave the way for highly authoritarian charters does not offer a real choice for families. Do you want to eat or do you want to go hungry?  Choice is yet another word used to veil the real beneficiaries of school reform: charter networks, corporations and politicians. The concept of choice and charter schools is not inherently wrong, but it is a concept that has been coopted by the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

In fact, it is often the charter schools who really make the choices by excluding children with disabilities and weeding out other high need students. These children typically have the fewest choices already, and education reform only exacerbates the challenges families of children with disabilities face. I taught in a charter school and one of my students who in retrospect was probably on the autism spectrum, was “counseled out” of our school and into his zoned public school. What kind of choice is that?

I say we reclaim the word choice for progressive education. Picture this kind of choice- a school community in which parents, students, teachers and administrators are all empowered to make real choices. Teachers choose how to teach and choose and design meaningful, child centered curriculum. Families, teachers, and school leaders choose to include the arts, physical education and sciences in the school day and families choose from a menu of enriching after school programs and workshops for caregivers.  Teachers and students alike choose what and how to learn, instead of blindly adhering to top down test oriented directives.  Students, families and teachers choose whether or not to have homework and whether or not to take tests. Families choose from a wealth of services for students with disabilities. This is a school deeply rooted in the community, a school with resources and flexibility in how to use them, a school that empowers leaders, teachers, students and families to make choices that matter.

Summer Reflections or How Education Reform Messes with One’s Head

In took a month for me to realize my that my greatest success last year was letting kids play. But at the time, it was my greatest source of doubt. This is a product of the current culture in eduction: our priorities are so skewed, so perverted by the false necessity of ‘rigor’ and the corporate ed agenda, that we forget what real learning is.

Exploring ecosystems, pretending to be squirrels digging for acorns, working together to build trees from recycled materials, observing hissing cockroaches, making birdfeeders, singing – kids made the decision about what to do and when to do it. What number could I assign to the experience they were having at that moment? None. But I do know, at least now, that they were making an emotional connection to science. They were making discoveries. They were having fun. And they were learning. But there I was, nervous I would get caught.

It started in desperation. Having never taught kindergarten before, I needed to figure a way to keep them engaged for a whole science period ASAP.  So, I introduced new  stations each week and let the kids choose their science activity. All the activities were hands on and revolved around a theme depending on what we were studying. The idea was for the activity to be self directed and continuous, not something quick that the kiddos would finish in 2 minutes and then run up to me with cries of “I’m done, I’m done!”They could try something new, or they could return to a station they had already visited. Most students got to try every activity, but some did not, because they weren’t ready for some of the more sophisticated or stimulating stations or because they loved one center so much that they wanted to return again and again. Although this was working in the sense that the kids were highly engaged and always excited to explore, a part of me felt like this approach stemmed from a failure on my part- I couldn’t “control” the class in the same way that other teachers could in order to teach with a more traditional approach. The children weren’t writing  every day, they didn’t have folders, our time on the rug was brief, usually consisting of a song or movement activity and modeling a new activity.

After an observation by my principal, I was told that  the activities were great, but she suggested that maybe the kids could bring a worksheet to each station to record what they did. So in an effort to “get ready for first grade” I introduced folders and the kids started doing some writing and drawing. It was fine, but it is only now in the depths of summer that I realize how foolish the whole “get ready” mentality is, and that I didn’t need those worksheets- that I was doing exactly what I believed in and exactly what is appropriate for 4 and 5 year olds. Choice based, hands on, multi-sensory, play based activities should be part of kindergarten every day. I was scared to get “in trouble” and worried that they weren’t learning what “they were supposed to” but they learned so much more that that. In fact, I was astounded by how much they remembered at the end of the year, how almost all the students knew the parts and life cycle of an insect, could recognize different types of trees, how they talked about centers from months before- “remember when had the water center?” They may not have each had exactly the same measurable experience, but they were all thrilled to explore science and had acquired a wealth of knowledge about living things.

And they were learning more than just science content. As I modeled each new center, I had opportunities to model sharing, problem solving, communicating and helping others. Because not every student did the same thing every day, students always had the option to collaborate or work independently. And because so many of the activities were play based, most of the times the children worked and explored together. And it paid off.  After my second observation, my principal also commented on the tone in the room- she said that she saw the same class in another setting and in my room they were calmer and kinder to one another. And I was so worried about what I thought I was doing wrong, that her compliment barely registered. Meanwhile, the kids were happy and they were practicing valuable social skills instead of being pushed to “get ready” for academics that they were not, in fact, ready for.

Going into this year, my goal is to bring this approach into all my classes. I remember yelling at a 3rd grade class last March and feeling like I was being tough, just like the other teachers. I used to never yell, but there was so much tension around me that I lost my bearings and thought I was doing right by shouting at kids who were not engaged simply because they were exhausted, alienated in their own classrooms and because I had absorbed the false idol of “rigor” and planned something boring and too hard.  Now, after the summer to reflect, I realize I need to bring a little more of what I did with kindergarten into every class- more choice, more hands on, more play, more collaboration. They are, after all, all children. And all children need learning to meaningful, developmentally appropriate, fun and empowering.  I hope I can carry this conviction with me into the new year, in spite of everything.

Why I might leave

Despite all research, despite all evidence, despite years of accumulated wisdom and experience on the part of actual educators who have dedicated their lives to helping low-income students and their families the myth persists- that the teachers are the problem, that we are failing.

This culture of blame and shame has been seeping into schools so that every day when I walk into school I feel on the brink of disaster. Despite working 12 hour days, despite knowing that my students love coming to my classroom, that parents value what I do, I still feel like a complete failure, that I can never be good enough, that my fate will be decided at random, that no matter how hard I work, my students will eventually become disenchanted with learning, and alienated from their school through years of brutal and degrading test-prep, that I will make mistake after mistake and always be told what I’m doing wrong. In what career other than teaching are practitioners expected to be perfect, to be superhuman, to have their every interaction scrutinized and criticized according to so many standards, to never stop for one minute to get to know the people they work with? No matter how hard I work there is always more to do, and even as I throw myself into my teaching, into working with colleagues, planning school wide events, assuming leadership roles, the message I keep getting is that it is not good enough, I am a failure.

But it is not us. It is segregation, poverty, housing insecurity and lack of healthcare. We know that it is not us, but we still feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, we still feel the blame and we work harder, and longer, and try to be everything- teacher, parent, social worker, data analyst, curriculum writer, coach, fundraiser, planner,  web designer, therapist, artist, mentor. We try to teach meaningfully while being compelled to adhere to inane curriculum and standards, we try to prepare our students for what lies ahead, to help them get through each day, to help them love learning, and all we hear is that it is not good enough because now tests will determine not only our children’s futures but our careers, there is always more we could do and we know it and we burn ourselves out.

Instead of encouragement or recognition, we are handed itemized analyses of our performance, and teaching feels more and more like a performance- something we pretend to do so that the right boxes will be checked off on each list. Just as our students are constantly being evaluated, we too are under constant scrutiny. Just as our students are given less and less choice, so too, we are given less and less opportunities to be creative, to be authentic, to be agents of change.

This is my fourth year teaching. No matter what, working in a low-income school is going to be hard. When your students are hungry, when they are tired and cold, or come from unstable or even abusive families, you can never do enough. There are days when you cry after school, when you cry during school. With experience, it is supposed to get a little easier. But each year, I feel more and more like I am failing, like I am neither important nor capable, like no matter what I do, no matter how much my students have learned and grown despite a million disadvantages, the system around me does not have my back.  The problem of poverty runs deep and teachers can’t be expected to face it alone. In this climate of teacher baiting, of blame and constant evaluation, I’m not sure I can face it at all.

If reformers succeed in implementing their full agenda, who will be left? I’m not sure I will.

Why I Voted Against the UFT’s New Contract

New York City teachers just voted on the proposed new contract and I voted no.

Why? Because this contract did nothing to address any of the sweeping, systematic mandates that are alienating students and teachers alike. Although the proposed contract may reduce the amount of paperwork involved in the new teacher evaluation system, it does not challenge the more egregious components of the new system, most notably, the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. System wide, test scores correlate to income or lack thereof. Thus tying teachers’ careers to test scores will drive teachers in low-income communities to either wholly abandon meaningful learning in favor of test prep or to leave struggling communities for higher income, aka higher scoring schools. Neither of these outcomes is good for the children we teach, nor for the profession we’ve chosen. If we don’t take a stand, who will?

Standardization, Assessment and Differentiation

These past few weeks were almost entirely consumed with the process of assessment, report card writing and parent teacher conferences.  Part of why I couldn’t write is there was too much to write about. But throughout the process, I was thinking about three buzzwords in education reform: assessment, standardization and differentiation. These are the terms  that principals and ed reformers throw around when they talk about improving instructional “rigor,” another buzzword.

Let’s start with assessment: I cannot tell you how many interviews I’ve been on where most of the questions centered on assessment. On those interviews, I always answered that well, there are so many ways to assess children and discover their needs and interests.  However, assessment in ed reform speak does not connote observation, actually conversing with your students or looking at student work on a regular basis. What they are really asking about is pencil and paper testing, usually in a standardized form. That’s what they mean when they use the word assessment- formulaic, color in the bubble multiple choice tests with the occasional “higher order thinking” wordy question thrown in. This kind of assessment is all the rage because pencil and paper assessments generate data, and the more spreadsheets and pie charts you can create the better you are at teaching, presumably.  In today’s educational climate, the generation of data takes priority over  the quality of children’s learning. If it’s not measurable via a pencil to paper multiple choice test, it’s apparently not worth teaching. Forget intimately knowing your students, strengths, hopes and dreams, forget talking to your students to get to know them, taking notes in, horror of horrors, a notebook , or looking kids in the eye when you talk to them. Education is a business- we poll our target audience and then use that information to figure out how to package what we’re selling. We’re standardizing and streamlining, not because it helps kids learn, but because it allows testing companies, educational boards and politicians to easily evaluate schools without ever having to set foot in a classroom.

Similarly, standardization makes things easier for the test-makers instead of children. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in South Dakota or in Washington Heights- it is easier for policy makers to show that schools need more or less funding, or that teachers are to blame for all the ills in education if everyone takes the same test, in the same way. Thus, every lesson needs a common core standard and teachers are creating fewer and fewer of their own assessments while schools spend thousands of dollars on pre-packaged curricula. Think of all the money schools could save if teachers were trusted to create curriculum. We could have smaller classes, hire literacy and math coaches, buy more books and art supplies- the list goes on and on.

Then there is differentiation; a noble concept if there ever was one. Teachers are expected to differentiate instruction according to student needs, abilities and interests. Differentiation is good teaching, and it happens more naturally in student centered progressive classrooms. Differentiation stems from the knowledge that all children, all people in fact, are different and should not be treated in exactly the same way. Not all children need to do the same math activity, or write the same stories, or pursue the same projects. Moreover, experiences in the classroom should be hands-on, meaningful and creative enough to appeal to many learning styles and interests. This is all lovely. But how do you differentiate when what you teach and when and how you teach it is completely standardized?  If all the teachers on my grade level are supposed to be “covering” the same teaching points on the same schedule, how can we adjust what we’re doing to meet our students’ needs? Standards and standardized tests are an anathema to true differentiation.

There are too many examples from my teaching experience that illustrate this contradiction. Here are just a few.

My school, unfortunately, uses the DOE recommended Haughton-Mifflin Go Math curriculum. It is 85% workbook worksheets, 15% problem solving and games. The materials are visually confusing and overwhelming, the directions and word problems overly complex and wordy. It has its own internal logic and language which constantly trips up our English language learners and children receiving speech and language services.  Fear not, critics of poor quality, untested curriculum, Go Math comes with two assessment handbooks and a differentiation kit! In the differentiation kit there are more worksheets, because apparently if a worksheet isn’t helping a child understand a mathematical concept, a different, slightly easier worksheet will help them get there. And then of course, there are pre-assessments that you give before starting a unit as well as two days of end of unit  assessments- a multiple choice test and a language heavy “performance task,” designed to show problem solving skills.  Meanwhile, the multiple choice test, which incidentally, is 6 pages long,  gives us a good sense of who can sit still for 45 minutes and not get bored with rote questioning.

I’d love to create our own assessments, where kids are doing something instead of just filling in the blank, something that demonstrates their thinking rather than their language struggles or short attention span. But we can’t differentiate how we test, and we are limited in how much we can differentiate how we teach.

The sheer volume of the assessments is a problem on its own. In math, we are spending three whole days per unit solely on testing. That’s about 27 lessons a year where my poor seven year students are sitting silently, getting frustrated and answering boring test questions instead of engaging in meaningful explorations and activities. And what do we do with all this data we accumulate? Well, we do try our best to use it as well as our informal assessments to differentiate. We create math games, we make math groups and teach each group differently, we try to provide opportunities for open ended problem solving and hands-on work. At a certain point, however, we need to hand in our checklist and move on to the next chapter. I have 4 students in my class who entered second grade lacking basic counting skills, one-t0-one correspondence and simple addition. We have been working with them in a small group on those pre-K and K skills. They are learning and working hard. But on their report card, we had to give them a demoralizing 1. In other words, we had to quantify what they are doing because it is easier to scan a list of numbers than read through the comments that go with them. Again, good for test-making and grading adults, not good for kids.

Even a high quality test is mostly valuable for adults, not for students. How much time do we want to take away from learning for something that does little for our kids? There are so many other ways to assess children’s abilities. You can  conference with them while they are working, look at the work they produce, listen in on conversations, notice student behavior, have them reflect on their learning, or even better, collaborate on meaningful projects where kids need to use what they know toward a real-life purpose.  You could even video yourself teaching. These forms of assessment can happen while kids are actively engaged in meaningful work or play, so you can measure skills in context rather than measuring their ability to sit still and focus. If we want to truly differentiate, we should be able to assess different children in different ways, and teachers should be able to create their own tests.

Here is another example of the incompatible priorities of the ed reformers. One of the standardized curricula we are supposed to use is Fundations. Fundations is a phonics program that includes a daily script. Some people swear by it. My co-teacher and I had recently decided that it wasn’t working for our class, although we are officially supposed to use it every day.  It was not differentiated and was either too easy for the kids who were already strong readers or not helping the kids who struggled. So we decided to create word study groups based on an assessment. Hooray assessments guiding instruction! Unfortunately for my co-teacher, our principal happened to walk in while she was teaching fundations- as we’re are supposed to do. Weeks later, when we received our formal observation feedback, we were critiqued for not including higher order thinking questions into the lesson.  This is indicative of a larger problem- the contradictory priorities of Ed Reform. How can higher order thinking, or as they used to call it, critical thinking, be fostered in an atmosphere of standardization and uniformity?

Final example: I recently went to a wonderful professional development day at Teacher’s College on reading intervention.  I’ll be honest, my experiences with Teacher’s College in the past have been pretty negative and I am not a  fan of Writer’s Workshop in an early childhood context. This workshop, however, was both inspiring and affirming. Much of what we learned, sadly, can never be implemented in schools dominated by the teacher evaluation process and the obsession with generating data. In summary, the presenter argued that you don’t need a checklist or a list of prompts to teach reading. Rather, kids need to have authentic experiences with good books, they need to talk about their reading and learn to self monitor as they read.

The presenter also spoke about the importance of affirming student voices by making eye contact when they talk to you and prompting them to discuss their reading using open ended questions rather than asking test-driven questions about the main idea or what happened first. Yet many teachers are told that they need a checklist in front of them at all times with which to mark whether students have acquired certain skills. As you would expect, that makes children nervous and communicates that we don’t really care about what they have to say. Imagine if you met a friend for lunch and throughout your conversation you were checking off items on spreadsheet instead of genuinely responding to their ideas. Students need opportunities to have real conversations with their teachers and peers about books, to hear stories read aloud, and show that they comprehend a story in a way that suits their learning style.

She also pointed out that sometimes, it’s the assessment, not the child, that is the problem. A child can understand a story without being able to immediately find the main idea or retell it in order. How often do adults read a book and then retell the entire story in sequence? Almost never. We respond to what we read on a more personal level. We talk about what we found interesting- what connects to our own ideas and experiences. Children deserve to do this too. Instead, much of what we’re assessing is test driven- we’re looking for skills needed for test taking, not for reading.

With the pervasive demands of testing and standardization, it is no wonder true differentiation falls by the wayside. A few days ago, I commented to two third grade teachers at my school about how far ahead they were in the math curriculum. They replied that many of their students “aren’t getting it,” but they need to get through a certain number of units before the test in April. Too often, our hands our tied- we assess and assess in every way possible,  but we still need to cross off the next teaching point on our curriculum maps and we still need to follow whatever script we’re given- at least officially. Good teachers are confident and sneaky enough to slow things down or speed them up, to hide their Fundations materials in the closet and created differentiated word study activities and groups, to secretly create math games and find Marilyn Burns lessons online to use in the place of yet another worksheet, to launch projects that are meaningful and student driven in spite of the social studies textbooks collecting dust on the shelves- but when we teach like that, we are taking a risk. We risk a negative evaluation, we risk bad test scores, we risk getting chastised and we risk alienating colleagues. There is also the risk of failure, a risk fewer and fewer teachers are willing to take. But ask anyone, and they will tell you that to be a good teacher, you need to be able to fearlessly try a thing out and then learn from it when it doesn’t work.

Some people like tests. They like spreadsheets and pre-packaged curricula. They like not having to take risks and differentiate in a meaningful way. But even those teachers need a sense of ownership over their teaching as well as opportunities to bring themselves into the classroom. Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from differentiation. Teachers, like their students, have different strengths and interests. I, for one, can’t follow a scripted program for the life of me. But with the new teacher evaluation system, it seems that the craze for data has spread to teacher evaluation too. Instead of a conversation with a constructive mix of positive and negative feedback, we get a 2 page checklist weeks later, and a feeling of dread whenever we talk to administrators. We know that good teaching is personal- it is differentiated in the sense that is has to do with who the learners really are. But, when teaching and learning are subjected to standardization on a national level, assessment becomes something you do for your boss, not for your practice, and differentiation remains an elusive dream you wrestle with each day as you open up your teacher’s guide and grade the latest test.