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.

Siding with the powerless: What happens when you tie teachers’ careers to test scores

Thinking about so much this week. I am so incensed reading about the collapse of the Philadelphia school system due to Corbett starving the district, while at the same time, finding out how the new teacher evaluation system will actually play out in my school. (Check out this great article about Ravitch Vs. Rhee and Philly schools. )

As a quick reminder: 20 percent of teacher’s evaluations are now based on test scores. 60 percent is based on observations. The remaining 20 percent is based on a “local measure”. It turns out that contrary to what we were led to believe, our school has almost no say in choosing our local measure ( 20 percent of a teacher’s rating), and that as a result, 40 percent of our rating will be tied to both third grade test scores and to reading levels in each class. This has already led some teachers to consider assigning students lower reading levels so that they show enough growth by the end of the year, because both special needs students and high level readers are less likely to jump many levels over the course of the year. And, as I mentioned last week, even teachers who do not teach third grade math or ELA will get rated based on these scores. This is clearly unfair, and more important, is not at all constructive. That the union let this materialize is a travesty and makes me wonder if the UFT is surrendering in the wrong battles. Giving principals more leeway in hiring and firing is much more appealing to me than the havoc this system is going wreak in classrooms across the city.

In doing some research, I found this post by Carol Burris about yet another way that the new system lacks common sense. To summarize, new and developing teachers and extremely likely to be terminated as a result of this system, which could lead to extremely high turn-over and instability in schools.   The real flaw in this new system, however, goes beyond the clear lack of thought that went into creating it, beyond unfairness and impracticality.  Rather, the real flaw is that the new system is tied to test scores in the first place.

Why is it such a problem for teachers to be evaluated based on standardized test scores?

First, the tests are developmentally inappropriate for elementary school students. It is a rare 8 year old that can sit and focus through almost ten hours of testing over three days. On top of that, any parent can tell you that kids develop at different rates, and what one child is ready for at 8, another won’t be able to do until 10.  And then, of course, the actual tests are developmentally inappropriate and removed from any real life experiences kids have had or will have. One section from the third grade ELA test last year, the test that kids tanked on, involved close reading of an absurdly long and  boring story about going fishing and then answering at least 10 questions about it, including remembering specific kinds of fish mentioned in the passage. Successful, employed adults I know had a hard time answering the questions. This also illustrates how tests are often biased against urban students: it is a rare Brooklyn kid who has heard of trout, pufferfish, pike and whatever else was included in the “story.”

Second, tests are created for adult ease of use, not to allow kids to truly show what they know. It requires much more thought, creativity and organization to address an open ended math or writing prompt than to select one of four answers and color in a bubble. Teachers who observe and conference with their students daily know so much more about their strengths and weaknesses than a test could show. But it is easier to grade bubble tests than assess open ended work or talk to students. On top of that, pencil to paper tests only evaluate a fraction of the skills and knowledge that students possess and simultaneously devalue the artistic, musical, kinetic, and creative talents of students and teachers by prioritizing linguistic and mathematical intelligence.

Third, tests and consequently, the new teacher evaluation system, are biased against low-income urban students. Think lots of questions about farm animals and going fishing. Also, and most important, the main determinant of a child’s test score is family income level: AKA poverty. So by tying teacher ratings to test scores, the new evaluation system is punishing teachers who choose to work with low income students, and may keep teachers from even applying to these schools in the first place. It’s already difficult working in a Title I school because the students demand so much more work and attention than their privileged counterparts. Now, teachers in low income schools may be forced to grapple with tremendous job insecurity from year to year. Likewise, low income children can be expected to experience more instability as well, with new and developing teachers being terminated and then replaced again and again.

And why can’t teachers in low income schools just work harder to boost test scores? Well because that is test-prep, not teaching. We want students to be happy, successful, productive problem solvers and innovators- you don’t get that by spending all day writing reading responses and completing math worksheets. And sadly, that is already happening across the city in both charter and DOE schools. Here is just one example: the new, untested, not NCTM approved Haughton Mifflin Go Math curriculum that NYC recommended this year for elementary schools features lots of circling and bubbling in, and very little actual problem solving or mathematical reasoning. More on this curriculum later- I’m only two weeks into teaching it, and already tearing my hair out, especially when I think about how much money it cost and all the things that those funds could have gotten into schools ( social workers, art supplies, trip funds, parent outreach?)

So what should be done? Forgetting the possibility of opting out of the common core and testing all together,(ah the dream) here is what Carol Burris suggested:

“First, get rid of the points and move to a professional evaluation rubric system, like the one adopted by Massachusetts, which does not insist that test scores trump all.  That system was approved by Race to the Top. Their system is designed to improve teachers, not fire them. “

There are of course some bad teachers out there, no one is denying that. There are less than competent people in every field. But tying their futures to test scores won’t make them any better. Doing so might even make them worse. Instead, evaluations and assessments should be tools for learning and reflection. Evaluators should be looking at classrooms and in student portfolios, meeting with teachers, children and administrators. That is how you find and cultivate exemplary teaching.

Moreover, if you want better teachers, put the pressure on the institutions that train and certify teachers, rather than scarlet lettering poorly trained first year teachers with a demoralizing ‘ineffective’ rating. Hire people with masters degrees from good schools, who student taught in multiple classrooms for a year and wrote critical theses about issues in education today, people who are in education because they are passionate and hard working, because they want to grow as educators and have a love of learning, not because they weren’t sure what to do after college.

What else can we do?

Well, in an article about teacher courage, Alfie Kahn wrote: “It pains me to say this, but professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions—even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to implement them. ”

It is painfully true. I’ve seen so many teachers shrug their shoulders and hunker down with each new absurd decree or system, including this one. No one wants to lose their job, but at the same time, no one goes into teaching for the money or the glory. We do it because we believe in ideals, because we care about children and the future. We need to start thinking more universally and critically and act on our principles.  Teachers need to start standing up for themselves and what they believe in. We need to start standing up for our students. I believe that teaching is a political act, and teachers and parents need to take action together to fight for what children need and deserve, including making it clear that schools need more than good teachers to be effective- we need funding, and resources, spaces, social workers, art, music and PE, science labs, literacy and math specialists, community outreach and support, better housing policies and so much more.  We need to recognize that there are countless amazing educators out there who have knowledge and experience of how kids learn, and instead of devaluing their experience and ideas, we need to lift them up and use what they know.

It takes courage to speak the truth to parents and administrators, to be open about what we know and believe. We need to shed the mentality of passive acceptance, of thinking about our own lives and our own jobs and that’s it. We can’t rely on the union anymore to address all the issues we hold dear. This isn’t just about teachers, it is about children and the heart and soul of education, about making sure that low-income students don’t lose their teachers every year.  Big things are happening.  SPEAK UP.

Freire quote of the day:

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”

There is, in fact, no teaching without learning. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

It’s been a week, and such a relief to be able to worry about children instead of politics. I am never so focused as I am in the first weeks of a new school year. I put everything else in my life aside, because I know I will be working 12 or 13 hour days and forget to do anything that is unrelated to my classroom. This year, my first week was lovely.  For the first time I felt calm and confident in what needed to happen. Its only been a few years, but I feel I am at least at the point where I know what I need to work on, whereas in previous years I was trying to survive.  I was able to actually enjoy the kids, to delight in getting to know the strange and wonderful little people I am going to spend my year with. It already feels like we have a little community and we’re in a groove. Of course, I can already anticipate a multitude of challenges; in my second grade class we have students who don’t even know the alphabet, and students reading at a third grade level. We have students with supportive parents and a student whose mother seems to forget to bring her to school every few days. But so far, its been nice.

Lucky for me, the school I work at endorses the responsive classroom approach to the beginning of the school year; heavy on community building and teaching routines and social skills, rather than diving into academics. Instead of addressing behaviors as they arise due to frustration, stress, or attention seeking throughout the year, we work proactively to at once create a learning community in collaboration with the students, while also explicitly teaching all the non-cognitive skills that our students will need to handle the challenges that academics will bring.( For example: how to be a good partner, what to do when you feel upset, what kind of voice to use to help a friend)  We’re learning what they’re good at and what they are excited about- whether it is sharks, sunflowers, animals, field trips, the forest, jet planes, trains, singing or dancing. We’re making them feel important and heard, so they know they belong and can loosen up and take risks.   I am all about it. Of course, their are many policy makers who would rather I stand in the front of the classroom on day 1, give a variety of commands and have my students copy something off the board.  And in fact amidst this first week honeymoon, impacts of the inanity of New York education politics have managed to rudely tarnish my excitement about a new class and a new year. We found out yet another absurd manifestation of the new teacher evaluation system, and I voted in a mayoral primary election with a dearth of meaningful education platforms.  But before I eventually tackle the absurdity of the new teacher evaluation system, I need to lay a little groundwork.

This week as I was thinking about how to create a productive community in my classroom, while meeting my students and already seeing their strengths and where they need support, I thought about what students and teachers share. Teaching is a learning profession. Freire again- “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”  No matter how experienced you are, you can always get better, no matter how much you know, you can always know more, no matter how many students you’ve worked with, they should all feel brand new and revelatory. Kids’ and teachers’ needs are not all that different. And sadly, the new teacher evaluation system in New York  is a mirror image of what ED reform is imposing on our kids- top down, narrow, inappropriate and arbitrary assessments to as a way to improve “performance.” When really, teaching and learning is not a performance, but a process. Nor is it something that improves merely by virtue of being assessed, ( particularly when the assessments are developmentally inappropriate and only serve to breed frustration, dissatisfaction, and disengagement on the part of both teachers and students.) We are all learners. We are all in process. We learn through each other, we learn by being supported and empowered, by having colleagues or friends we respect notice what we do well and offer suggestions for what we find hard.

Teachers don’t need to be evaluated, they need to be cultivated. Any good teacher knows that when a student is struggling, you don’t put them on probation, and you certainly don’t do so when they’re actually doing great, but had a hard time with one test.  Good teachers, good learners and good colleagues are reflective, they consider the whole person in context, they problem solve, they offer encouragement and support.  The new teacher evaluation system does the opposite. And of course, the people it will hurt the most will be children, especially, as with this whole movement, low-income and minority children. Who’s going to want to teach them? Either you spend years adhering to mind numbing and developmentally inappropriate test prep curriculum, or you strive to inspire and cultivate and you get booted and diminished when your students struggle with the dense 10 hours of testing they are forced to endure each year.

In the new system, every teacher gets a rating that is based on a score out of 100. PE, Art, Music and Science teachers get their rating in part based on 3rd-5th graders scores on the ELA test. So, even though they don’t teach ELA, a part of their rating derives from those scores. There’s more. Early childhood teachers, ( pre-K to 2) also are rated in part based on performance on the 3rd grade test. I know. Fortunately for the advocates for this system, the monster they’ve created is so weighted with jargon and provision within provision, that no one understands the process enough to oppose it. I’m going to do some research and then present a fuller picture soon. How does this thoughtless means of evaluation serve teachers and learners? How does it help teachers to be reflective and critical, to grow professionally?

I hate to end with negativity so here is a counter snapshot: A guided discovery in my classroom of plants and natural objects like shells, feathers, pine cones etc. One special needs student with memory and aggression issues, sitting quietly by herself and petting a blue rabbits foot fern while quietly singing to it to help it grow. At another table, a student who didn’t realize until the boy sitting next to him mentioned it, that pine cones originated in trees. The huge smiles on my kids’ faces as they jumped up and down when we sang the popcorn song for the first time during morning meeting. POP!

That’s all for now.