Talk Back, Push Back, Hold On: ATE Returns to St. Louis in Search of Positive Solutions for a Profession Under Attack by Private Interests

Our dear colleague, Dr. Freddie Bowles, posted this piece over at www.corndancer.com, and we thought it was very worthy of reprinting in this space. She’s a foreign language educator and national board member, conference co-chair for the Association of Teacher Educators. To see the full version with more images and graphics, link over to the original

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Talk Back, Push Back, Hold On: ATE Returns to St. Louis in Search of Positive Solutions for a Profession Under Attack by Private Interests 

by Freddie Bowles

I recently returned from the 94th annual meeting of the Association of Teacher Educators in St. Louis, Missouri, where over 900 teaching professionals gathered to discuss, share, and learn about the theme “Advancing Teacher Education that Matters in Teaching, Learning, and Schooling.”

As co-chair for the conference, I felt like a conductor of a collaborative work, holding high hopes that our magnum opus might receive a standing ovation.  Orchestrating such a large event requires the combined efforts of all players, so I must applaud the team effort of a magnificent group of professionals.  President Nancy Gallavan chose an outstanding trio of keynote speakers to support her theme:  Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Dr. Diana Hess, and National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau.

While St. Louis was celebrating its 250th birthday in February, ATE was celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first meeting in St. Louis.  As a special treat for conference attendees, President Gallavan invited all former ATE presidents to speak about their own legacies as association leaders, a choice befitting these historical connections and President Gallavan’s background as a social studies teacher.  Moreover, we honored our Meetings Director, Dr. Billy G. Dixon, who served ATE as president at the St. Louis meeting in 1989.

The Cynical Corporate Move
Toward Profit-Driven Schools

“Advancing Teacher Education that Matters” resonates with those of us in teacher education programs, given the recent campaign to demonize our work as arcane and inept by a host of entities, ranging from corporate sponsors to consortia of privately funded think tanks.  The most recent attack is led by a quasi-professional education group funded by foundations such as Gates, Walton, Carnegie, Gleason, and Joyce.

At the forefront of this coordinated, profit-driven attack on public education is the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a political lobby based in Washington D.C. and founded in 2000 by supporters who “believe the teaching profession is way overdue for significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers” (2014, retrieved from website).  NCTQ pursues a “case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession.”

At the heart of the NCTQ agenda, though unstated, is the cynical mission to privatize public education and shift state and federal funding from the public sector to the private sector, transforming our schools into profit centers for big business.

Dabblers and Busy-Bodies
Undermine Democratic Ideals.

While those of us in teacher education programs welcome constructive feedback as we strive to prepare our teachers for 21st century classrooms, we do take offense when busy-bodies outside the profession deem themselves saviors for our public education system.  (Yes, busy-bodies: a quaint term but appropriate nonetheless.)  It is especially alarming when a large number of the reformers have only dabbled in teaching and hold a surface-skimmer’s view of teachers as babysitters with long summer vacations.

Immense amounts of money and time are poured into criticizing our public education system, which, despite the assault against it, remains a hallmark of long-cherished democratic ideals.  Public schools offer citizens of all hue and home the tuition-free opportunity to become literate, productive members of society.  It’s that simple — and it works much better than critics want the public to know.  However, the stranglehold of faux accountability and punitive intrusions exercised by so-called reformers on state and federal agencies is undermining our best efforts to succeed.

If an equal amount of time and money were invested in improving the infrastructure of urban and rural schools, providing early childhood programs, and supporting curricula that addresses the cognitive, creative, and kinesthetic domains of all children rather than testing them ‘til the cows come home, then perhaps, yes perhaps the corporate meddlers and fast–track teacher-prep programs would fade back into the trendy shadows from whence they came.  But with so much public money at stake, and so many mega-corporations eager to gain a foothold in the revenue stream, that’s highly unlikely.  So we deal with it.

But I digress, I suppose.  I came here tell about the ATE conference in St. Louis.

Propaganda

Dr. Cochran-Smith Deconstructs
The Hidden Agenda of Reform.

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, former elementary school teacher and now the Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools and Director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College, opened the conference with her astute deconstruction of Education Reform’s hidden agenda.  Dr. Cochran-Smith urged us to “talk back, push back, and hold on to what we do well.”

Using the metaphor of an alphabet soup, Dr. Cochran-Smith chose five acronyms that pervade the conversation regarding school reform.

1. ATCP
Alternative Teacher Certification Programs.
Forty-four states have approved programs for some rather unconventional approaches to teacher preparation.  Some require no apprenticeship or internship experiences.  Some are delivered solely through online programs, and others simply ask that your child’s future teacher have a bachelors degree.  I guess that’s better than it was back in the day when the only requirement to be an elementary school teacher was a high school diploma.

2. RRTG
Race to the Top.
RRTG is a federal pilot program, floated much like a carrot leading a cash-hungry donkey, that became de facto education policy.  Dr. Cochran-Smith views RRTG as part of the greater issue of accountability, where learning is equated with test scores.  She reminds the audience that teaching and learning are akin to complex brain functions and cognition.  According to the ED.gov website Race to the Top Fund, “Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.”

3. NCTQ
National Council on Teacher Quality
A research and policy group, it is privately funded by an A-list of corporate players (see the web About NCTQ and then ask yourself where their children go to school).  While the organization purports to “provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations and to build the case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession,” the methods utilized to accomplish this disregard all standards of valid and reliable data collection.

4. EdTPA
Education Teacher Performance Assessment
It’s one more assessment — and costly, too, at almost $300.00 per test — for students who go through traditional teacher preparation programs.  Incredibly, students who opt for ATCP programs and other fast-track teacher prep options would not be required to take this test.  However, students in a traditional teacher education program already have Praxis Core, Praxis Pedagogy, and other Praxis subject-specific tests to “prove” they are qualified to teach.  They are regularly observed and assessed using any number of observation protocols such as The Framework for Teaching by the Danielson Group.  Note that on the web edTPA, the goals include “Improve the information base guiding improvement of teacher preparation programs.”  No mention is made regarding improvement of programs such as Teach for America.

5. CCSS
Common Core State Standards
CCSS is a successful effort begun in 2010 by a group — most are non-educators — to fast-track a national set of standards into implementation by 45 states.  The website prides itself on the fact that “The federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards.  Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.” (See the webState Standards Initiative | Frequently Asked Questions.)  The quoted text does not say that local teachers, principals, and superintendents created CCSS.  They were only involved after the fact.

Dr. Cochran-Smith

Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith

Dr. Cochran-Smith’s articulated presentation of the reform juggernaut reinforced the sobering understanding of the combined effort by reformists and capitalists to paint for public consumption a propagandist’s picture of a failing democratic institution.  Once the public believes that our public schools are awful and desperately in need of redemption, these investors and reformers can “come to the rescue” and create the right kind of training program for the right kind of teacher for the right kind of school using programs and products created by their own publishing arm, Pearson — for the right price, of course!

Alternative Routes ‘Churn Out’
An Unstable Cadre of Teachers.

The second keynote speaker, Dr. Diana Hess, Senior Vice-President of the Spencer Foundation and professor of Curriculum and Instruction at University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on the issue of “short term teachers” as it relates to teacher quality.  Her presentation, “Beyond Churning: How to Keep Strong Teachers in the Classroom,” was a startling reminder of how detrimental it is to our learners when the cadre of teachers becomes an unstable force beset by high attrition and frequent movement from school to school and district to district.

She pointed out a number of factors that pull teachers away from the classroom:  the public’s lack of confidence in public schools, a bi-modal teaching force (younger and older), a loss of teacher leaders, non-competitive salaries, and a lack of retention initiatives.  Dr. Hess also emphasized that the teaching profession is booming with over 3.3 million teachers.  However, many of these teachers enter through an alternative route with little preparation and experience in the classroom, often leaving after their commitment to their program has been fulfilled.  They most often “churn out” after a two or three year obligation.  Public discourse and private disinformation also lead to disenchantment of newly-minted teachers, who face top-down directives and instructional changes initiated from private groups (NCTQ and CCSS) and adopted by state departments of education.

Dr. Diana Hess

Dr. Diana Hess
Photo by David McCarthy

These phenomenal speakers provided a somewhat dire picture of teacher education, but many conference participants chose to counter with a proactive stance, looking for avenues of inspiration and turning the conversation around to positive solutions of support for our professional teachers.  At several committee meetings I heard a familiar and resounding theme in the discussion, focusing on talking back, pushing back, and holding on to what we do best.

Humor, Passion, Enthusiasm
From the Teacher of the Year.

The third keynote speaker, National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau, engaged the audience with humor, passion, and an enthusiasm for the profession that roused a standing ovation.  His presentation was especially appreciated by a number of pre-service teachers in attendance for the special annual one-day conference offered by ATE just for them.

Mr. Charbonneau teaches at his alma mater, a small school in Zillah, Washington.  He teaches chemistry, physics, and engineering — and then he enters stage right to teach drama, and then finds time to guide journalism students on the yearbook — and like many rural teachers, takes on a number of extra-curricular activities in school and in the community.

His goals for students are “to understand a challenge and learn the method of accomplishing something, and then to be a problem solver.”  His motto is “What if?”  Jeff shared a “what if” story of how he modeled problem solving with his students.  First they raised enough money from the town’s people to buy 100 robots and start a robotics program at Zillah.  Then they shared the finished products, the robots, with other underfunded schools, giving the machines away each year after the annual robotics competition.

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama

Jeff Charbonneau with President Obama
Image from a Video by Tch, the Teaching Channel

Making Standards Work

Mr. Charbonneau listed five attributes of success he teaches to his “kids.”

  • Confidence…. Teach them to be self-sufficient so they can become group sufficient
  • Courage…. Teach them to stand firm and make good choices so they are good PR Professionals.
  • Legacy…. Teach them the history of their school and community.  He led the yearbook staff in a project to scan every yearbook from 1919 to the present and make the scans available to the school.
  • Citizenship…. Teach them to be good citizens.  He tells his students that when they see a job that needs doing, make it happen.
  • Overcoming obstacles…. He asks us to help every child figure out what the obstacles are and give them the tools to overcome them.

Mr. Charbonneau disagrees with critics who say our public school system is broken.  The real problem, he said, is that teachers are just really bad at PR.  He encourages us to turn our strengths into a stronger system that values experience, gives support to students and administrators, remains flexible and teacher driven, and showcases the many accomplishments of our kids and the schools that nurture them.  He added that the real impact of great systems is giving students HOPE!

He finished by asking, “What do we teach?”  His answer?  Success!  “All students of all backgrounds and abilities need to be successful no matter what the circumstances.”  And why teach, he asked.  “I do this because I am creating the NEW US.”  How?  “By creating relationships first.”

With over 900 in attendance and 400 plus sessions and presentations, the 94th ATE Annual Meeting offered everyone an opportunity to create and solidify professional relationships, share their own teaching successes, and build a community of learners to support our efforts in creating the NEW US.

Should parents opt their students out of the 11th grade literacy exam?

Reposted from the Arkansas Times this morning:

There’s a dirty secret in the hallways of all public high schools in Arkansas this week—the state is giving a bogus test to all eleventh graders on Tuesday and Wednesday: The Arkansas Grade 11 Literacy Exam. That’s right, for parts of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, your 11th grader is going to spend time under high stakes testing pressure, chained to a chair, unable to so much as use the bathroom for large chunks of time all for no good earthly reason. Subjecting your students—who by the way have been tested more than any students in American history—to another test is asinine and here’s why.

What’s transpired is that the state of Arkansas adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010 and the teachers in the state are teaching to those standards. CCSS has replaced the previous standards, the Arkansas Frameworks, but there are holdover tests from the previous testing regime brought to us by No Child Left Behind (or untested). Rather than take a year off from testing until the new tests aligned with CCSS are introduced, the state is making its juniors first and then grades 3-8 later take batteries of meaningless tests. This is wrong.

I’d love to tell you more about why all of these tests are actually an awful idea, about the adverse physical and emotional reactions that students have to them, the mountains of research demonstrating that our culture’s obsession with testing is netting us next to nothing, and the fact that standardized tests have and are being used to punish schools and districts where economically disadvantaged and racially diverse students live. I could share with you the analysis I completed with a colleague in 2008 about how the Grade 11 Literacy Exam itself was and is actually a bogus test prior to this clear mismatch between standards and assessment. In short, about 60% of the Literacy Exam is made up of questions that are simple while the ACT, a much better test, is all about questions that require critical thinking. In other words, Arkansas’ own test—if we are to believe that teachers were or are teaching to it—could be holding back students who want to go to college.

Nonsense.

If your child’s math teacher made your son study for a math test and then when he arrived, gave the class a test on an obscure detail of US History, wouldn’t you—dear parent– make that math teacher’s email, cell phone, and ears ring like Saturday night in Las Vegas?

Testing math students on their knowledge of history wouldn’t be fair. Giving an old test to students learning in new ways isn’t fair either. And if you agree with me, contact all of the 11th grade parents you know and share these simple steps to opt their daughter or son out of the Grade 11 Literacy Exam. Civil disobedience and challenging clear and unjust wrongdoings needs to be a lesson that the students in Arkansas learn firsthand this Tuesday and Wednesday.

I urge you to take a stand on behalf of your student but more importantly, on behalf of all students in this state and send a clear message to Little Rock and Washington D.C. that their obsession with testing, while wrongheaded, does not override your parental rights. Regardless of how you feel about this or any standardized test, I feel 100% confidence in saying that you, as a parent, should and do have the right to hold your students out of things at school that you deem to be inappropriate or harmful.

Act now by following these five steps:

  1. Talk to your student and ask whether or not this test is something meaningful to them.
  2. Familiarize yourself with resources available at Edusanity (: http://www.edusanity.com/2013/04/26/does-educational-testing-interfere-with-parental-rights/) and the United Opt-Out movement (http://unitedoptout.com)
  3. Discuss this with other parents of students at your local school; there is power in numbers.
  4. Contact the school and tell them that you plan to opt your student out of the exam.
  5. Complete the following form letter and send it, along with your 11th grade student, to school tomorrow.

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Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the Grade 11 Literacy Exam being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time. The U.S. Supreme Court supports a parent’s right to guide their child’s education as an ‘unwritten liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Student Name _______________

Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my daughter/son to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test, especially this bogus assessment tied to old frameworks.

  • Doodle on a piece of paper for the two days. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.
  • Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.
  • Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.
  • Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.
  • Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.
  • Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.
  • Catch up on homework.
  • Shoot baskets in the gym.
  • Nap.

 If you attempt to use scare tactics to threaten my child, I’ve instructed him/her to audio record anything and everything you say to be used at a later date. Thank you for  respecting my wishes for the well-being of my child.

Repost: Does Educational Testing Interfere with Parental Rights?

Originally appeared at EduSanity on April 26, 2013.

I write today to express my deep concerns that you, parents of Arkansas and America, have unknowingly lost your rights. Specifically, you have lost the right to make a decision about what is best for your child when it comes to standardized tests, a fact I believe requires your immediate attention, ire, and action.

I started thinking about this issue two months ago, immediately in advance of my state’s benchmark examinations mandated by the No Child Left Behind (or untested) act of 2002. Because America is a big believer in the power of tests, students not only have benchmark examinations in the spring but also endure End of Course examinations in Biology, Geometry, and Algebra, the Grade 11 Literacy Exam, and in many cases, individual schools have signed up for outside, for-profit companies to come in and test the students as many as twenty additional days each year. Since we have new standards and new tests on the way, I asked myself why in the world we were still taking tests written to now outdated standards/frameworks. It seems ironic that over-testing and standardization is blamed for the failing of No Child Left Behind so our national response is to replace the old with new standards and tests.

What?

Whether or not you’ve turned on the news in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about Common Core Standards. These are different than the previous standards and have setup a most unfortunate situation for your students this year: students in Arkansas and across the country were forced to take standardized tests over old standards while being led towards new ones. In Arkansas, third through eighth grade and eleventh grade students in the state were unfairly and unjustly tied to a desk (not really but sort of) for five straight days on April 8-12, taking tests that absolutely, positively no longer matter: the Arkansas benchmark exams.</p>
<p>Next year, we are told that the brand spanking new and improved tests will be here—I can’t wait.

Our country’s obsession with standardized tests is unhealthy and what I’ll shout from the rooftops is the fact that continuing to test students over something to which they are not being taught makes about as much sense as building boots with spoons. It is nothing short of educational malpractice to continue to test students with a test created under old standards while many/most teachers are teaching to new standards.

Given this deplorable situation, I started wondering what could be done about it and if I recommended parents remove their students from this nonsense, just what would happen to the students, parents, or schools (or me). Being conscientious objectors to things, after all, is the very foundation on which America was built. For example, if you, dear parents, don’t want your student to read a certain novel in eleventh grade English class, you have every right to remove your student from what you perceive as harmful or objectionable. The same goes for other subjects in school and aspects of content in social studies, science, etc. I submit that the battery of tests could hurt your student far more than Holden Caulfield.

If the parents of Arkansas—or any state—all stood up to the big bad testing bully in the room and said, “ENOUGH,” the students involved would learn many good lessons about being American: the importance of standing up to senselessness, the power of protest, and the responsibility as students—with your assistance—to take charge and advocate for their own learning. What did your student gain from sitting and taking that test for five straight days? A sore rear end and an increasing distaste for school?

But can the tests be stopped?

There is an organization that supports this general idea called United Opt Out, a group opposed to all corporate education reforms (corporate education reform—think standardize, drill, test, quantify, repeat). In digging around their site, I’ve found that there is a multi-family complaint issued with the ACLU about testing and opting out of testing. Arkansas and other states seemed to think of people like me—status quo disturbers—when they crafted a policy delineating punishments for those students who opt out of the standardized tests in the state.

From Arkansas:

If you decide to opt out, there are consequences for Benchmarks, End of Course Geometry and Biology and Grade 11 Literacy – student will need to have Academic Improvement Plan and be remediated under the law. (the reason is that the student will have no test to show s/he scored proficient.)  With End of Course Algebra a student must pass the examination in order to get credit for the course (must have passing grade too).  Algebra 1 is REQUIRED to graduate.  So, without it, you can’t graduate.

If remediation (sic) does not occur child can be retained.

As I read this and thought about the ramifications of it, the skin on my face and ears started to burn. Seriously? Parents can and should have the right to pull their students out of this or any kind of testing. Groups in other states are starting to wake up to this chilly reality.
Whether you agree or disagree with the current testing, you probably agree that you—as a parent—should have the ability to remove your student from a harmful situation at school. Let’s say the tests were great, transformational learning experiences for students, parents should still be able to say, “no thank you,” when it comes to their child.

Let’s stop this nonsense and I need you, dear parents of Arkansas and America, to help in this action. Let’s contact state legislators immediately and demand a bill that returns these rights to the parents. And if they don’t follow through (insert joke here about the inability for any legislative body to accomplish something), let’s all simply pull students out of the standardized tests for the 2013-2014 school year. We could save the states a coal car full of money, perhaps money they could put to positive uses in education. Burn the cash in the schoolhouse chimney for all I care but give parents back their rights.

To let the lawmakers of the state know we are serious, here’s a release letter we’ll use next year.

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March 10, 2014

Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the ___________________ (standardized test) being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time.

Student Name _______________
Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my son/daughter to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test.

*Doodle on a piece of paper for the week. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.

*Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.

*Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.

*Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.

*Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.

*Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.

*Catch up on homework.

*Shoot baskets in the gym.

*Nap. Seriously.

Whatever you, dear parents, decide to do, I encourage you to take back your rights from the policy makers in this state/country. I took the Iowa Basic Skills test twice and the ACT twice in my 12-year educational career. That’s right, four standardized tests in 12 years. Your student may take four standardized tests in three weeks and what are they really learning? Checking in on students a bit more often isn’t a horrible idea, but I honestly think students are learning less today because of the unhealthy focus on tests in this country.

It is time that the parents of Arkansas and states around the country see these issues for what they are and to take back the schools. Testing, testing, and more testing will lead to unhealthy competitiveness, public shaming of school, students, and teachers, and a narrowed curriculum that won’t benefit anyone but those interested in destroying public education. The time to act is now. Contact your legislators. Contact me. I’d love to support you in these efforts. Report your experiences and the experiences of your son or daughter in the comments section attached to this article.

Your parental rights were taken away by failing educational policy and there isn’t a single good reason we can’t take them back.

Bill Gates Wants You to Believe His Lies About CCSS

 “Don’t believe the Devil
I don’t believe his book
But the truth is not the same
Without the lies he made up

Don’t believe in excess
Success is to give
Don’t believe in riches
But you should see where I live”

-U2 “God Part II”

The other day one of my colleagues gave me a hard time about referring to Bill Gates as a “shyster”.  Fortunately, only a couple of days after I wrote that post, Mr. Gates has presented me with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate why I believe he deserves the “shyster” label.  Gates recently wrote an op ed piece for USA Today in which he “dispels” three common myths about theMjAxMy0yZjRlNDU4YWFhZmY4Nzll Common Core State Standards.  Here I take a look at Gates’ arguments and explain why they are lies of omission.

Gates Myth #1: Common Core was created without involving parents, teachers or state and local governments.

In fact, the standards were sponsored by organizations made up of governors and school officials. The major teacher unions and 48 states sent teams, including teachers, to participate. The Gates Foundation helped fund this process because we believe that stronger standards will help more students live up to their potential. More than 10,000 members of the general public commented on the standards during drafting. Each of the 45 states that have adopted them used the same process used to adopt previous standards.

What Gates Conveniently Left Out:

While the initiative originated with the National Governors Association, a ridiculous amount of private money used to create and influence the adoption of CCSS, especially funds originating from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation granted millions of dollars to the American Federation of Teachers and the national Parent Teacher Association, two groups that would have been the most likely opponents of national standards. The largest recipients of Gates’ money were the organizations primarily involved in the creation of the CCSS, including Achieve, Inc., The Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.  Simply put, these monies amount to little more than bribes for buying into the new standards.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s education policies for Race to the Top (RTTT) monies and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers left states without a REAL choice when it came to adopting CCSS.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the federal government limited eligibility for RTTT awards and NCLB waivers to states that adopted a common set of “college and career ready standards”.  In other words, if states wanted to avoid the penalties of NCLB and keep the federal pipeline of education dollars flowing they had no choice but to adopt the CCSS or create their own “college and career ready” standards.

What Mr. Gates won’t tell you about the process of creating the CCSS is that the two primary writing teams for the standards included only 25 members, a pathetically small number of people for a task of this magnitude. Even worse, membership in the working groups included six test-makers from the College Board, five from test publisher ACT, and four from Achieve Inc., but did not include any classroom teachers.  Teachers were allowed to “provide feedback” on the draft of the standards.  10,000 responses did indeed flow in, and the CCSS authors somehow managed to read and give thorough attention to all of them in the TWO MONTHS between draft and final copy. Right.

The CCSS did not undergo extensive field-testing or validation, and in some cases the CCSS are actually inferior to the existing state standards they replaced.  In fact some state education officials were actually urged to adopt the CCSS before they had even been written.

That’s not exactly “the same process used to adopt previous standards”.

Gates Myth #2: Common Core State Standards means students will have to take even more high-stakes tests.

Common Core won’t necessarily add to the number of annual state tests students take. States will introduce new math and language arts tests based on the standards to replace tests they give now. Most states are taking a cautious approach to implementing the new tests, giving teachers and students time to adapt before scores lead to serious consequences. What’s more, unlike some of today’s tests, the new tests will help teachers and students improve by providing an ongoing diagnosis of whether students are mastering what they need to know for success after graduation.

What Mr. Gates Conveniently Left Out:

The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests do not actually exist yetThey are being created and tested on kids while states continue to have students take the existing state tests.  Heaven forbid we have a year without a standardized test.

There may not be an increase in the number of federally mandated standardized tests students take, but there is no question that the overall number of tests students take is increasing at a dizzying pace.  In order to prepare students for the tests that don’t exist, schools have been ramping up their test preparation with – you guessed it – more tests.  The same testing companies that benefit from the creation of the CCSS are selling school districts any number of CCSS “pre-tests” designed to give these anxious school officials an idea of how their students will perform on the “test to be created later”.  As if that’s not enough, school districts are also creating an avalanche of new “benchmark exams” that they give across the school district – sometimes on a weekly basis.  If you doubt it, call or email your child’s teacher today and ask them about “benchmark” tests.

As for Mr. Gates’ claim that these new tests will prepare students for what they “need to know for success after graduation” – you have to keep in mind that this magical body of knowledge is only what Gates and his corporate cronies BELIEVE students should be able to know after graduation.  In fact, the CCSS don’t actually place any premium on knowledge at all.  The CCSS are a skill/aptitude set of standards, and it is entirely possible to master tasks under the CCSS without learning a bit of knowledge.  I’ll have an example of what I mean by that next week (stay tuned).  The bottom line is that the CCSS and its tests are only based on the “knowledge students need for the world after graduation” because rich white guys tell you they are.  Of course, they’ve pretty much been running things for a while, so maybe they’re right.

Gates Myth #3: Common Core standards will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

These are standards, just like the ones schools have always had; they are not a curriculum. They are a blueprint of what students need to know, but they have nothing to say about how teachers teach that information. It’s still up to local educators to select the curriculum.

In fact, the standards will give teachers more choices. When every state had its own standards, innovators making new educational software or cutting-edge lesson plans had to make many versions to reach all students. Now, consistent standards will allow more competition and innovation to help teachers do their best work.

What Mr. Gates Conveniently Left Out:

This one is almost laughable.  I won’t bore you with the details of the differences between standards and curriculum, but here Gates is either lying or is just plain ignorant.  In this case, it really could be the latter.  Even if the CCSS were not intended to be a written curriculum for schools that’s exactly what is happening in classrooms all across the country.  It is really simple to understand.  The tests I mentioned earlier will be the measure by which the government hands out “serious consequences” (Bill’s words, not mine) for failure.  Schools and teachers will be judged primarily on the basis of their success or failure on these tests.  The tests are based directly on the Common Core State Standards.

So, the rational individual says to themselves, “Well if that’s the case, and if I want to feed my family next year, then I better make sure that my teaching prepares students to take these tests.”  And that’s exactly what’s happening.  Teachers read the standards and make lesson plans directly from them.  In other places, school districts get together to create lessons from the standards and force every teacher in the district to teach them verbatim.  When these things happen then the national standards are very much a national curriculum.

As to the innovation Mr. Gates is talking about?  Please.  With a proverbial gun at their heads to have high test scores no matter what, schools and teachers aren’t looking for innovation, they are looking for safety.  Nothing is safer in a climate of high stakes accountability than doing EXACTLY what somebody in power tells you.  Lessons are being scripted for teachers all across the country by companies selling packaged CCSS units and some school administrators are actually punishing teachers for deviating from scripted lessons.  This is hardly “innovation”.

As one teacher who took part in our recent research study put it,

“I feel as though I am simply a placeholder.  My individual worth and creativity has no value in this climate of “teach-by-numbers.”

Think about it for a minute.  It makes sense.  If somebody tells you that your job is on the line,  you are going to make sure that you do exactly what you are supposed to do in order to survive.  If you are in competition with your peers (such as being compared to other schools and teachers) then why would you actually want to HELP them?  If anything, this atmosphere stifles innovation.  The irony is that you’d think that Gates would know this since his former empire Microsoft actually abandoned his system of accountability because it inhibited innovation and teamwork.  Let’s not forget that Microsoft under Bill Gates was responsible for the Zune.

Innovation! CCSS style.
Innovation! CCSS style.

Bill Gates may be a lying shyster, or maybe he’s just ignorant.  Either way, he’s hardly qualified to tell you or me anything about teaching and learning.

Does Educational Testing Interfere with Parental Rights?

I write today to express my deep concerns that you, parents of Arkansas and America, have unknowingly lost your rights. Specifically, you have lost the right to make a decision about what is best for your child when it comes to standardized tests, a fact I believe requires your immediate attention, ire, and action.

I started thinking about this issue two months ago, immediately in advance of my state’s benchmark examinations mandated by the No Child Left Behind (or untested) act of 2002. Because America is a big believer in the power of tests, students not only have benchmark examinations in the spring but also endure End of Course examinations in Biology, Geometry, and Algebra, the Grade 11 Literacy Exam, and in many cases, individual schools have signed up for outside, for-profit companies to come in and test the students as many as twenty additional days each year. Since we have new standards and new tests on the way, I asked myself why in the world we were still taking tests written to now outdated standards/frameworks. It seems ironic that over-testing and standardization is blamed for the failing of No Child Left Behind so our national response is to replace the old with new standards and tests.

What?

Whether or not you’ve turned on the news in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about Common Core Standards. These are different than the previous standards and have setup a most unfortunate situation for your students this year: students in Arkansas and across the country were forced to take standardized tests over old standards while being led towards new ones. In Arkansas, third through eighth grade and eleventh grade students in the state were unfairly and unjustly tied to a desk (not really but sort of) for five straight days on April 8-12, taking tests that absolutely, positively no longer matter: the Arkansas benchmark exams.

Next year, we are told that the brand spanking new and improved tests will be here—I can’t wait.

New Tests? I. Can't. Wait.

New Tests? I. Can’t. Wait.

Our country’s obsession with standardized tests is unhealthy and what I’ll shout from the rooftops is the fact that continuing to test students over something to which they are not being taught makes about as much sense as building boots with spoons. It is nothing short of educational malpractice to continue to test students with a test created under old standards while many/most teachers are teaching to new standards.

Given this deplorable situation, I started wondering what could be done about it and if I recommended parents remove their students from this nonsense, just what would happen to the students, parents, or schools (or me). Being conscientious objectors to things, after all, is the very foundation on which America was built. For example, if you, dear parents, don’t want your student to read a certain novel in eleventh grade English class, you have every right to remove your student from what you perceive as harmful or objectionable. The same goes for other subjects in school and aspects of content in social studies, science, etc. I submit that the battery of tests could hurt your student far more than Holden Caulfield.

If the parents of Arkansas—or any state—all stood up to the big bad testing bully in the room and said, “ENOUGH,” the students involved would learn many good lessons about being American: the importance of standing up to senselessness, the power of protest, and the responsibility as students—with your assistance—to take charge and advocate for their own learning. What did your student gain from sitting and taking that test for five straight days? A sore rear end and an increasing distaste for school?

But can the tests be stopped?

There is an organization that supports this general idea called United Opt Out, a group opposed to all corporate education reforms (corporate education reform—think standardize, drill, test, quantify, repeat). In digging around their site, I’ve found that there is a multi-family complaint issued with the ACLU about testing and opting out of testing. Arkansas and other states seemed to think of people like me—status quo disturbers—when they crafted a policy delineating punishments for those students who opt out of the standardized tests in the state.

From Arkansas:

If you decide to opt out, there are consequences for Benchmarks, End of Course Geometry and Biology and Grade 11 Literacy – student will need to have Academic Improvement Plan and be remediated under the law. (the reason is that the student will have no test to show s/he scored proficient.)  With End of Course Algebra a student must pass the examination in order to get credit for the course (must have passing grade too).  Algebra 1 is REQUIRED to graduate.  So, without it, you can’t graduate.

If remediation (sic) does not occur child can be retained.

As I read this and thought about the ramifications of it, the skin on my face and ears started to burn. Seriously? Parents can and should have the right to pull their students out of this or any kind of testing. Groups in other states are starting to wake up to this chilly reality.

Whether you agree or disagree with the current testing, you probably agree that you—as a parent—should have the ability to remove your student from a harmful situation at school. Let’s say the tests were great, transformational learning experiences for students, parents should still be able to say, “no thank you,” when it comes to their child.

Let’s stop this nonsense and I need you, dear parents of Arkansas and America, to help in this action. Let’s contact state legislators immediately and demand a bill that returns these rights to the parents. And if they don’t follow through (insert joke here about the inability for any legislative body to accomplish something), let’s all simply pull students out of the standardized tests for the 2013-2014 school year. We could save the states a coal car full of money, perhaps money they could put to positive uses in education. Burn the cash in the schoolhouse chimney for all I care but give parents back their rights.

To let the lawmakers of the state know we are serious, here’s a release letter we’ll use next year.

****

March 2, 2014 

Dear teacher, principal, or other test-administrator, please release my son/daughter from the ___________________ (standardized test) being given at __________________ school this week. It is my parental right to protect my child from dangerous, harmful, and senseless behavior and from my perspective, this test is not the best use of my child’s time. 

Student Name _______________

Parent/Guardian Signature ___________

During the time that other less fortunate students are taking this test, please allow my son/daughter to perform any or all of the below-listed activities, any of which would be more educationally beneficial than sitting through another standardized test.

  • Doodle on a piece of paper for the week. One never knows, a new pattern or perspective might be gained free of the limits of bubble sheets.
  • Read a book or two or three. Research actually supports this as educationally valuable as opposed to what the state is attempting to do to my son/daughter.
  • Write a story about their friends whose parents didn’t get the message and are suffering through a pointless test. Creative, meaningful writing has been all but lost from the curriculum.
  • Play video games on a phone or personal electronic device. Even that would be more educationally beneficial than taking this test.
  • Help the secretarial or custodial staff complete safe tasks around the office or building.
  • Be released to attend a lower grade and provide free tutoring for students.
  • Catch up on homework.
  • Shoot baskets in the gym.
  • Nap. Seriously.

Whatever you, dear parents, decide to do, I encourage you to take back your rights from the policy makers in this state/country. I took the Iowa Basic Skills test twice and the ACT twice in my 12-year educational career. That’s right, four standardized tests in 12 years. Your student may take four standardized tests in three weeks and what are they really learning? Checking in on students a bit more often isn’t a horrible idea, but I honestly think students are learning less today because of the unhealthy focus on tests in this country.

It is time that the parents of Arkansas and states around the country see these issues for what they are and to take back the schools. Testing, testing, and more testing will lead to unhealthy competitiveness, public shaming of school, students, and teachers, and a narrowed curriculum that won’t benefit anyone but those interested in destroying public education. The time to act is now. Contact your legislators. Contact me. I’d love to support you in these efforts. Report your experiences and the experiences of your son or daughter in the comments section attached to this article.

Your parental rights were taken away by failing educational policy and there isn’t a single good reason we can’t take them back.

What I Learned in First Grade on Monday

Six words I thought I’d never say: On Monday, I taught first grade.

Actually, last week was one of those interesting and unusual weeks where I found myself in a multitude of teaching situations. In addition to my students at the university, I taught the aforementioned first grade class, alternative high school English, a group of twenty-five teachers, a class on disciplinary literacy for graduate level pre-service teachers, and finally a methods class for future English teachers. All of these teaching situations were tied together with respectful dialogue and conversations about ideas and text.

But it was those first graders who inspired this entry.

What a fabulous start to the week (i.e., learning experience) these students provided me. I learned that one can’t be “stingy” with their learning, an idea repeated by several students in an attempt to encourage their classmates to talk in our discussion. I also learned that in first grade, one has to get their ideas out there so they shouldn’t raise their hand in order to talk. I witnessed respect and compassion from these small but mighty people.

I was invited into their classroom by their teacher to help lead a Socratic Circle, a text-based conversation strategy that I learned from Matt Copeland. Matt wrote what I consider to be a fantastic book on the Socratic teaching strategy back in 2005. In addition to being a gifted teacher and author, Matt also taught down the hall from me and became one of my mentors and best friends while I was learning to how to be a teacher.  With his support and the support of our mutual friend who taught history, I started using Socratic Circles in my classroom on a Tuesday morning about 12 years ago, finally mustering up the courage to empower my students to talk. On my mentors’ recommendations I decided that the “The Pledge of Allegiance” would be my first Socratic Circle with students because it is a short yet surprisingly complex piece, one that students had rarely paused to think let alone discuss analytically.

Then during second hour, the second class of Socratic Circles I’d ever led, Matt knocked on my door and interrupted class.

“We don’t know what’s happening, but a plane just flew into the World Trade Center in New York.”

The horror that unfolded the rest of that day was temporarily shut out as I listened to ninth graders talk about “The Pledge of Allegiance.” My head was spinning—I was 23 at the time—as I wondered if our country was under attack, whether this was the beginning of a war in which I’d be called to serve or worse yet, a war that might claim the lives of students sitting in my classroom that day. Watching television or listening to the radio was banned as our school was under strict orders to maintain business-as-usual, so when I sat down on my couch at 4:30 that evening, I sobbed as the stunning images of that day were played over and over again on the news.

One of the lasting impressions of that first day of Socratic Circles was that my students were not used to having civil discussions with each other. Before the announcement, the first class of students nearly broke out in a skirmish of their own. This is a trend we can easily see beyond our classrooms as well.  Anyone can turn on the news—even ESPN—and see antagonistic debates and arguments about almost any topic. Instead of a country living in dialogue where disagreement and debate can happen in productive ways, we seem to be a country living in divisiveness. Soledad O’Brien constantly and consistently raises her voice on CNN (I’ll not bother to discuss the MSNBC/Fox News tomfoolery) and shows that promote this behavior are frighteningly popular. Their popularity attracts advertisers, which then leads to the creation of more shows that reward talking heads with the loudest voices and most pathetic rhetoric. Maybe I’m old fashioned because I don’t want to be yelled at when I flip on the TV but I can’t stand it.

And we carry this behavior into the conversations we have in our own lives, especially those that happen online where anonymity often leads to behavior that many people would never actually display in the “real world”.  For example, last Tuesday I read a piece by a colleague on the Get Schooled blog from the Atlanta Journal Constitution in which anonymous responders attacked him personally and professionally in the comment section for no other reason than they disagreed with his views. Scroll down to the comment section of almost any article posted online and you’ll see the same thing—vitriolic rage motivated by political or other beliefs. Is free speech destroying our country in this age of anonymity? Perhaps the online world needs to have the white sheets pulled away from the angry virtual faces.

But there is hope and it resides in little Americans who are too young to have been tainted by our addiction to being right at all costs.

Throughout this past week, the 1st graders’ voices stayed strong in my memory. They showed such support for each other by using sentence frames like, “Building on what Ariana said…,” and “Similar to Jack’s idea…,” actually furthering the conversation we were having about an article on wind energy. The patience they showed while waiting for their peers to find the words to say what was obviously spinning around at lightning speeds in their heads stayed with me. Their ability to listen to each other and wait before blurting out the first idea that came to mind are skills I fear they’ll be forced, maybe even encouraged, to lose.

And as I worked with the other groups throughout the week, I brought up these stories as a reminder of what school, learning, and discussion could look like. For the alternative high school students, it served as a positive memory of school. For the teachers, it served as an example of what productive discussions and a culture of learning can mean when students are unfettered by rules and procedures and are trusted to talk. For the future teachers, it served as an example of how first graders could engage in a productive discussion meaning that older students could as well.

But what we can learn as a nation from these first graders could be paramount to our very survival. Take just a cursory glance around the world right now to see what happens when nations are divided. While we don’t have literally warring factions yet, there are threats of that very thing being murmured in the name of our president, guns, and immigration. The demise of those other nations should serve as a reminder that the level of animosity towards our fellow man, the constant bickering and belittling of one another, and the serious lack of honest, civil, and respectful dialogue in our country must be reversed. Those first graders are counting on being or becoming Americans and contributing to a potentially great country, not being forced to shed their respect, dignity, and civility as part of growing up.

Some “Feel Good Friday” Reading

Last week I published a post about the quality of candidates who eventually become teachers.  This was a timely topic in my own life because I just wrapped up interviews for candidates to our Master of Arts Program in Teaching at the university, I read an article about how Bill Gates is paying for a new measure to “grade teachers and help students”, and I was treated to a story from one of my current pre-service teacher interns about an experience she had in a local school.

First, some back story. Our M.A.T. program requires students to complete a minimum of 33 credits of coursework that include classes in instructional methods, classroom management, literacy, educational measurement and research among others.  In addition to these requirements, students must complete an undergraduate major in the content area, and in the case of social studies, an additional 12 courses that span the social sciences, history and education.  The students take these graduate courses while also interning at full time at 3 different middle and high schools, at least one of which is in a rural and high needs area.  They intern all day for 26 weeks from Monday through Thursday and then come to campus on Fridays for a marathon of classes where we pile on the theory to go with their practice.  Whew.  Just making it through this gauntlet is an accomplishment in itself.

I try to eat lunch with my students on Fridays whenever possible, and whenever they aren’t too cranky with me for putting them through the wringer.  We discuss their experiences in the schools, they ask me questions, I give advice, and we talk about their research projects.  A couple of Fridays ago one of my interns, who I will call Andrea because that is her name and she is awesome, told me a story about her last day at her first rotation that I want to share with our EduSanity friends (with her permission of course).

“It was the last day of my first rotation internship and my students had gone out of their way to let me know how much they were going to miss having me as their intern teacher.  They made me farewell cards, baked me cookies and even brought donuts to the class to celebrate my last day. I was so happy to know that I had made a difference, even if it was a small one, with that many high school students. It wasn’t until 7th period that I realized how much I had positively influenced my students, one specifically.

I had already finished the attendance when one of my students Gabriella (not her name) walked in about 15 minutes late. I asked Gabriella why she was so late and she told me that her one year-old daughter was sick so she had been absent from school the entire day. Once we started talking I realized she had a gift bag behind her. Gabriella told me that she had asked her mother to drive her to school just so she could bring me my farewell gift because she knew it was my last day at the school. I opened the card, which was not an ordinary card, it was in the shape of a snow globe, and it played Christmas music.

Inside of the card it read,

“Dear Ms. ———-, I am going to miss you dearly, I have spent my only savings allowance to get something special for you. And I wish you a Merry Christmas and love you Ms.———-. Have a great life and I wish you nothing but the best.”

After reading the card, I could not hold back my tears. Gabriella then told me to open up my present, (I could tell she was really excited about it) and inside of a white box, she had bought me a beautiful onyx ring. I insisted that the card was plenty, but she told me that she had seen the ring at the store and that it looked like something I would wear, so she had spent her savings on it. After I finished opening my gift, I went outside and met her mother and her daughter. Her mother let me know how much she appreciated me teaching her daughter and how she had heard nothing but positive things about me.

It was at this moment, that I knew that I had made the right choice about my future profession. If I can make that much of a difference, even in one student’s life, that is enough satisfaction for me. It also made me realize that yes, teaching content is extremely important in being a teacher but there are also many other factors that go into being an overall successful educator.”

At at time in which the right to “grade” our teachers is being purchased by our nation’s elite, it is worth stopping to think about EVERYTHING that teachers do throughout the day.  For every story like Andrea’s there are a million more out there that teachers across this country could tell.  Ironically, many of the ideas that Bill Gates envisions for teacher evaluation make a lot of sense.  Probably because he had a couple thousand teachers help him design it.  He didn’t get rich by being stupid.

That said, when it comes to spending money to determine who can and can’t “make the grade”, I’ll always be more impressed with Gabriella’s last $30 than Bill Gate’s next $30 million.

 

 

New Year, New Resolutions, More Sanity

It has been a while since our last entry, which we blame on the holidays, work obligations and tragedy. The holidays are a ubiquitous excuse that need no further explanation. As for work, the two of us are both college professors and in our corner of higher education you are measured primarily by what you publish. Even though there are literally tens of people who read EduSanity every time we post a new entry, the winter break is typically a time in which professors spend their “free time” writing fiendishly for scholarly journals so that we can publish articles that even fewer people will read. Even EduSanity can’t rationalize that one.

Then there was the Newtown tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, which also needs no further explanation but made us both feel like we were in a balloon that was void of oxygen. We considered writing an EduSanity piece about the Newtown tragedy, especially in the face of myopic calls to arm teachers across America, but in the end we decided that this issue was just too insane and hardly merited an entire entry since our response could be summed up in a single word. Idiocy. And quite honestly when 20 kids and 8 adults are killed in an elementary school, nothing else really seems to matter that much.

But it’s the new year and while we are a bit late with this entry, we would like to posit a few new year’s resolution for EduSanity. Hopefully our faithful readership will hold us to our goals. Thanks Mom!

In 2013, we here at EduSanity resolve to:

  1. Be more positive – Most of our entries take a somewhat negative tone, which can be easily explained by Jason’s unhealthy attraction to sarcasm and Chris’ weakness for moral outrage. That said, there are many positive things happening in American education today and we endeavor to seek them out and bring them to you.
  2. Share our research on the Common Core State Standards – Recently we have begun to survey almost 7,000 teachers across our state about their experiences with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. We have received over 800 responses so far and the results are very interesting. Since we love data, we’ll break some of that down for you on these walls.
  3. Write more often – Excuses all stink like a 9th grade boys locker room. We WILL write more of the same but also shorter, less formal pieces and keep something coming at you about once/week. The community that this site developed in a relatively short time is humbling, and we must keep it rolling.
  4. If Chris’ tactics of coercion work like we think they will, we hope to feature a few more guest writers in 2013. This isn’t an open call but we are well aware of some of the sharp voices out there in the what we’ll call “the good fight,” and we want to feature others’ ideas and thoughts on education for the benefit of all involved. The one guest writer from 2012, P.L. Thomas, marked our second biggest day in web statistics.
  5. Develop a way of more consistently sharing the wonderful pieces written about education on other sites and in other venues. So much of what others say feeds us and beyond the occasional retweeting, we’d like to establish a blogroll of other like-minded thinkers.
  6. Promote a clear progressive vision for education while unapologetically exposing the flawed logic and thinking behind so much of what people refer to as “education reform.” As the standardize at all costs business model cements itself in higher education, we anticipate dedicating at least a few entries in that direction.
  7. Stay focused on teachers and positive about teachers. Teacher antagonism will be recorded in history as one of the defining characteristics of this time period, at least educationally speaking.
  8. Add a few reviews of other longer works to the mix–films, books, and even lectures.
  9. Feature more multimedia by either creating it and/or reacting to it.
  10. Be sure to avoid cliches like lists of things that are exactly ten items long.

Those are our ideas and chances are if you are still reading, you’ll note that we’ve had several ideas over the past six months. Our most popular story of 2012–in terms of web statistics–was Jason’s piece about his son’s reading. It started a tradition of being reposted by our friends over at the National Center for Education Policy and helped cap off a month that saw 1800 visitors. We hope our foray into the conversation about education so far has only whetted your appetite and that you keep coming back.

In addition to looking back and forward, we must end by saying thank you to our EduSanity collaborator and master of the tweets, Ginney Wright. Ms. Wright is currently working on a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Arkansas under the guidance of Jason. Without her considerable knowledge and skills with social media, we’d only be a fraction of our current selves. Thanks Ginney.

Here’s to the New Year and to you, dear readers,

Jason and Chris

The Stickerification of Teachers

I value and appreciate the opportunity to share ideas on teaching with teachers at professional development meetings and conferences. It is something I’ve actively pursued as a teacher and now teacher educator for over a decade. Towards the end of one of these conference presentations in Somewhere, USA (names and places changed to protect the guilty) a few weeks ago, my co-presenter stopped with about ten minutes left in the session and asked if the audience members had any questions.

A lone hand shot up immediately, and I waited for an insightful question about classroom application of the ideas or more background or a challenge or something warranting the pensive hand in the air. Instead, the teacher asked, “When are we going to get the stickers?”

“When are we going to get the stickers?”

My head and heart sank. This was the first question asked after what we thought was an insightful and practical presentation, one that several other attendees claimed as the best they attended during the two-day conference. And while other questions were asked, answered, and posed, I could not stop thinking about what that first question represented to the larger picture of teaching, learning and teacher learning.

What’s the deal with the stickers?

The Somewhere Department of Education requires each teacher in the state to obtain 60 professional development hours each year. Mostly, these hours are accrued through activities within each local district. In order to have hours from other types of professional development—like attending conference presentations, for example—count, teachers must provide documentation of those hours.

In an effort to satisfy the Somewhere Department of Education, The Conference, an annual affair for about 1200 math, science, English, and social studies teachers, awards stickers to teachers for attending each hour-long professional presentation. These stickers, along with a sign-in sheet, verify attendance of sessions and vis-à-vis represent teacher learning, the only proof that this learning occurred.

Enter: Stickers. 

When I first attended The Conference in 2007, I was struck and a bit dumbfounded by the sticker verification of teacher attendance and learning. Receiving a sticker at an event like this was a foreign concept to me and it grated against every bit of my professional being, one that is built on the idea that professional educators should be treated like members of a profession. Duh, right?

And beyond the notion that teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, what message does the sticker requirement communicate about teaching, teacher learning, and professionalism?

About teaching, the sticker structure says that anyone can do the job because it literally only requires the ability to fog a mirror held in front of one’s face—the ability to exhale hot air—to successfully attend a teaching conference presentation.

About learning, stickers for teachers tell us that anyone present is likely to gain from the experience. This reminds me of the fallacy perpetuated by movies like Waiting for Superman that teaching is simply opening craniums and pouring knowledge into the open minds of eager young people. This would only make sense to someone who has never stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher. Stickers tell us that learning is simple and that anyone can do it by just being present.

 

About teacher learning, stickers devalue professional development efforts by reducing the outcome to attendance. A sticker says nothing about what could be learned by attending a session or how a teacher organizes new knowledge gained with experience and other existing knowledge. That aspect of learning is not addressed through the careful dolling out of stickers. Nothing is ever known of how a teacher implements a new idea or strategy in her or his classroom and whether there is any transference of learning from the presentation to practice. In this sense, a sticker only represents the presence of a teacher in a session and thus sets a low bar to clear.

But the very premise of sticker-based learning concedes a wholehearted distrust of teachers and a further undermining of the concept of teachers as professionals. The Somewhere Department of Education does not trust teachers to actually attend sessions when they go to professional meetings. In my experience, we teachers are hungry for new ways to teach and rarely get to leave the classroom to interact with other professionals, the typical education conference is packed with eager attendees. Yet the irony here is that the sticker structure ignores what a person is actually learning or applying to their own classroom applications because only the most basic measure of attendance, actually putting one’s butt in a seat—is verified.

What a sad state of affairs. Let’s recap what sticker-based professional development essentially says to its participants:

·      Teaching is so simple that anyone can do it.

·      Learning is something accomplished by occupying a chair.

·      Teacher learning is simple and requires only sitting and listening to some supposed expert (like me).

·      Teachers should not be trusted, let alone be treated as professionals.

While I have no delusions of grandeur of being suddenly charged with overhauling professional development for a state, I would take five immediate steps to do exactly that if given the opportunity.

1.     Social learning–Base professional learning experiences on group-based activities. Rather than punitive accountability measures (like giving individual teachers stickers for attending single sessions at a conference), make these learning experiences social in nature. Teachers in my state would form groups ahead of a conference and attend sessions together and then share the contents of a session with members of the group who didn’t attend. Collaboration time would be built into the schedule of every conference in the state. These groups of people would reflect, discuss, and begin to process the new ideas, strategies, and concepts.

2.     Professionalize–Trust teachers to do the right thing, to act as professionals. The old adage of people acting like they are treated rings true here. If an entire state expects less out of its teachers and their learning, we should not be surprised by urgent questions about sticker distribution. If that is the burning question on the mind of the participants, the game is lost.

3.     Inquisitive–Base professional learning on essential questions formed in the individual classrooms of the teachers. By creating insightful questions, a sense of inquiry and discovery would drive the professional learning. It would, in essence, act as a thesis statement to an essay, giving purpose to each session, new learning experience.

4.     Sustained Learning–Hold me (the presenter) accountable. While the sessions I’ve proposed and presented at this particular conference have been tied to the state’s adopted standards for teaching and have been reviewed and accepted by a committee of peers, I’ve not been held accountable to help teachers engage the ideas I’ve presented following the conference. It has been demonstrated that one shot, inoculation style PD doesn’t have any lasting impact on teachers, much less their students’ learning.

5.     Social responsibility–Any teacher attending a professional conference must share their learning in some formal or informal ways with other teachers. This could take myriad forms: posting to a website dedicated to accounts of the application of ideas gained at conferences; brief presentations at faculty meetings; writing a blog post reflection on the experience; leading a reading group at their school, etc.

Stickerification reduces teachers, teaching, learning, and teacher learning to the lowest common denominator—getting a sticker—in the name of accountability. The message is loud and clear: teachers are not to be trusted. And until we trust the teachers in this country to do the right thing, any hope for educational improvement, innovation, or achievement should be kindly placed on the “never going to happen” pile.

Fortunately for my sanity, “The Conference” in balmy Somewhere, USA, is the only one I attend hellbent on stickerfying attendees. The act of handing out stickers after each session might not be as frustrating or infuriating to others. To me at least, it is a symbolic denigration of teachers, teaching and learning, and teacher learning–a slap in the face of what should be a proud profession.

The Delusional Contradictions of “No Excuses” Reform and Poverty

EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.

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There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”

The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.

Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Final Words of Advice: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.

• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.

• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.

• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).

• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.

• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).

• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.

• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choice. Charter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.

 

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suggested citation:
Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/09/the-delusional…rm-and-poverty/ ‎