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.

My Son is Afraid to Read

My son, who I will call Cooper because that is his name, isn’t really afraid to read. He loves reading. The title of this entry is purposefully over the top because I want you to read it and because I’m willing to bet that there are many kids out there who actually are afraid to read because of the pressures they are under to score well on standardized tests. If you are still reading this after falling for my bait and switch, I hope you ask yourself if your child is one of them.

Cooper is required to bring a book home from his school library in a manilla envelope every night and read it out loud to us twice. This is great, because reading out loud improves fluency. On the outside of this envelope is a place for Cooper to write the name of the book he reads each night and next to that is a blank that says “Score”. The next day, every single day, Cooper takes an Accelerated Reader quiz and his teacher writes his score on the outside of the envelope.

Accelerated Reader (AR) is a program sold to schools and districts around the country by the Renaissance Learning Corporation. AR provides grade level rankings and comprehension level quizzes for those books. Frequently, AR is used as part of an outside reading program that allows teachers to assign reading to students and then check their comprehension with a 5 or 10 question quiz.

Stick to Cheetahs and Turkeys kid.

Normally Cooper scores well on these quizzes and the envelope indicates his 80% or 100% score. However, a few weeks ago Cooper brought home a book on Rainforests that was rated as a 2.6 reading level, which is above his “range” of 1.7-2.0 for non-fiction books. His older brother interrogated him about why he would pick a book outside his range, and I was quite surprised that my sons not only knew their ranges, but could tell me what their ranges were last week, last month and last year. Cooper ended the inquisition by declaring, “I just want to read a book about rainforests.” Satisfied with that answer, we listened to him read it to us and he was able to work his way through the book with some help on the more difficult words.

The next day Cooper brought home the envelope and written next to the rainforest title was a 60% score and a message that read “Pick lower level next”.

Think about this for a second. When kids are required to participate in a read-and-test program such as AR, the books they read are chosen, monitored and limited by a computer. Not only that, but they are also limited by an assessment program that pretty much only measures basic reading comprehension. AR quizzes ask questions such as “What did Baby Bear ask Mother Bear?” (Honey for Baby Bear) and “What did Tom offer to do if Jim would trade jobs with him?” (Tom Sawyer). In other words, AR quizzes check to see if students can remember basic, and often random details of the text. If my son doesn’t remember that Baby Bear asked “Who makes honey?” or that Papa Bear said the forest was too “big” (instead of scary) for baby bears then he obviously shouldn’t be reading Honey for Baby Bear because he clearly does not understand it. Since Cooper did not remember 2 of the relatively random details about rainforests, his score was a 3/5 or 60%.

The next night Cooper brought home a 1.5 level book on Turkeys. It was boring. He didn’t like it. But at least he scored a 100% on it the next day. Upon following up with his teacher, as a concerned parent might do, I had a fantastic conversation about the teaching of reading. She told me about all the ways she teaches reading in her classroom and I loved every second of what I was hearing. Cooper is in good hands. She told me that AR is only used by the school to provide a guide for outside reading and as a means to make kids read. I understand the logic behind this. There simply is no substitute for reading if you want to become a better reader. However, when schools turn reading into a factory-like process of read-test-repeat, our kids are in danger of thinking of books as simply a means to an end, rather than a more meaningful literary experience.

Here’s another totally anecdotal story that illustrates what I mean by that:

This was all that was left in his cubicle.

As an occasional volunteer at my sons’ elementary school one of my duties is listening to students read aloud. Last year I had the chance to read with one young man I’ll call Matt, because that’s not his name. Matt only had about 10 pages left in his book and he wanted to hurry up and finish it because he was going to go down to the computer lab afterward to take the Accelerated Reading quiz for the book. If he scored at least an 8 out of 10 he would get a sticker. It is not unusual for schools to provide incentives for scoring well on AR tests. In the last month alone, my boys have brought home 7 pencils, 3 “Ready Reader” ribbons and a set of Accelerated Reader dog tags that will hopefully allow us to identify Cooper’s body in case he becomes a casualty in the war of College and Career Readiness.

Stephen Krashen, a preeminent scholar on independent reading, analyzed a number of comparison and experimental research studies and concluded in 2003 that,

“research provides inconsistent evidence in support of incentive-based reading management programs”.

He ultimately concluded that providing more access to books and giving students time to read were widely supported by research while incentives for reading may ultimately cause harm. In his words, Krashen lamented that instead of providing students access to high interest reading materials and time to read,

“we rush off to purchase a more expensive, complex package that may have long term harmful effects.”

Back to Matt. We finished the book in the hallway and I’ll admit to becoming more interested in how he was thinking about reading rather than his actual reading. We walked over to the computer lab and he logged on to take the quiz. He agonized over the 10 questions and so did I. He was struggling because the comprehension level questions asked him details about the book that he couldn’t quite recall. The names of characters that were related to the main characters, the reason why the main character lied, the game the children played after school… etc. I was struggling because these questions represented the end of this child’s reading experience with this book.

Under normal circumstances there would be no opportunity for this young man to actually discuss, analyze or evaluate the book he had just read. I personally don’t remember the character’s names, story sequencing, and plot details from the books I read in elementary school. What I do remember about books like The Call of the Wild and Bridge to Terabithia are the lasting themes of survival, strength, and the power of friendship. It saddens me to think that our students may not get a chance to talk about these themes because they will have scored their 8 out of 10 on the quiz, received an honorable discharge from further thought, and moved on to the next book-quiz combo. Coincidentally, one teacher tells me that she is no longer allowed to read Charlotte’s Web to her first grade students after recess because the curriculum overlords have determined that it is too difficult for them to pay attention to longer books while thinking and feeling about enduring themes such as life, death, friendship and sacrifice. It is far better to solve that Honey Bear mystery that has plagued America for generations.

In the end, Matt only managed a 7 out of 10 on his comprehension exam. There was not going to be a sticker in his future. He was visibly disappointed by this and I tried to cheer him up by asking him the questions that a computer is incapable of asking because the answers cannot be measured in multiple-choice format. We talked about the story for a few minutes and I’d like to think he forgot about his missed reward. Either way, he’d have a chance for another one with the next book.

I’ve been stewing about this issue for quite some time, but it was another Cooper experience this past weekend that finally brought me to post this entry. Cooper “accidentally” took a non-fiction 2.7 level book called Henry’s Heart from the book basket in the library that he swears was for books between 1.0-2.0. He is well aware that he is allowed to take fiction books that are in the 2.7 level, but he is only supposed to take non-fiction books that are below 2.0. Somewhere in the bowels of the Renaissance Learning Corporation there is a computer server telling my son what to read. Hopefully it doesn’t become self-aware and morph into the lamest Terminator scenario imaginable.

On 5 separate occasions this weekend Cooper mentioned how worried he was about passing his AR quiz on Monday. He read the book before bed and was fixated on memorizing as many of the details from the text as he could. After he was finished reading he reiterated his concern for passing the quiz and you’d think he was prepping to take the SAT exam or the Bar Exam instead of a 5 question reading comprehension quiz.

This morning I took the AR envelope out of Cooper’s backpack and preempted his anticipated failure by filling in the score blank myself (see picture).

Dad’s Disregard for Cooper’s Career Readiness

Many people might say that this was the wrong thing to do and that I’m sending the wrong message by showing blatant disregard for Cooper’s achievement. I’d prefer to think of it as not allowing a corporate computer that is programmed to see if my 6 year-old can remember cardiovascular anatomy to tell him what to read. My kids, and yours, should not be afraid to read a book they are interested in, regardless of what AR tells them. They shouldn’t have to stammer out excuses when they bring home a 2.7 level book that was accidentally placed in the 2.0 basket. And they sure as hell shouldn’t be held accountable for memorizing the details of a book they chose because they wanted to pursue an interest or because they thought it looked cool.

If we continue down this path, then we shouldn’t be surprised if all of our kids become afraid or resentful of reading. It would be tragically ironic if the long-term effects of a program like Accelerated Reader was an increased ability to comprehend books and a decreased desire to actually read them.

Suggested Reference
Endacott, J. L. (2012, November 6). My Son is Afraid to Read. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/11/06/my-son-is-afraid-to-read/

SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN is Here!

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Dr. P.L. Thomas, an Associate Professor at Furman University and author of Ignoring Poverty In the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education. Dr. Thomas had much to say about the problems that childhood poverty causes in the United States in regards to education. For example, while many European countries that we compare ourselves to with the almighty test score have childhood poverty rates below 10%, the United States has a poverty rate of over 23%. That’s right, 23% of our children live in poverty. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to Finland 5%, the U.K. 12% or Japan 14%, because we are closer to the industrialized powerhouses of Latvia 19% and Romania 25%.

According to Dr. Thomas:

“The central problems we are facing in schools are historical patterns (emphasis in original) – student achievement being strongly correlated with out-of school factors, such as poverty; disproportionate drop-out rates among marginalized populations of students; and inequity of teacher assignments to the disadvantage of students living in poverty, students of color, and English Language Learners.” (p. 5)

Indeed, research has found that the most important factor in student achievement is individual or family background (Sawchuck, 2011), and that the actual influence a teacher has on student outcomes is only about 13-17% (Hanushek, 2010). These are important points that we will refer to in future EduSanity postings, but for now it is important to note that when students live in poverty, the statistics say that they are almost certainly going to struggle in school.

Many people, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, see public education as “the great equalizer”, or the path out of poverty. The belief is that by forcing schools to hold these poor children to higher academic standards, we will drag them from the depths of their impoverished lives and send them off to a better middle class existence. This is a convenient position because thinking about the poverty problem in reverse would be too problematic. Rather than doing something to solve the poverty problem in this country (as the other leading industrialized nations listed above have done), we instead point the accountability cannon at the schools. In effect, we are telling our nation’s teachers that they are responsible for solving the poverty problem all by themselves. And when they fail, which the numbers tell us they almost certainly will in many cases, we will say that they are not dedicated enough or that the standards they teach are not rigorous enough. Myopia.

And then there’s this. My EduSanity colleague enjoys sending me links to articles that will rile me up. He is quite good at it, but a link he sent me on Sunday was so disturbing it literally took me a full 24 hours before I could finish the article and another 24 before I could write an EduSanity post that wasn’t going to be laced with the four-letter words that came to mind immediately after I read it for the first time.

A recent story in the New York Times tells the story of Dr. Michael Anderson of Cherokee County, Georgia, a place in America that suffers a great deal from the poverty problem discussed earlier. Dr. Anderson has decided that since schools either don’t have the resources or desire to do what it takes to help poor kids succeed, he must take it upon himself to prescribe stimulants such as Adderall normally used in treatment of ADHD to students simply because they are poor and are not achieving in school.

From the article:

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

We have sunk to an entirely new low America. We have reached the point where we are actually medicating perfectly healthy poor children in order to help them overcome the poverty that we stubbornly refuse to admit is the problem behind educational achievement despite the overwhelming evidence that shows educational outcomes are strongly connected to socio-economic status.

Wait, it gets better (worse). Also from the article:

Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.

Bring me your poor, your tired, your hungry, your unmedicated.

You can stop looking Secretary Duncan because we have found our new American hero. Dr. Anderson, or should we call him SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN (movie to be optioned soon) has bravely stepped in with his prescription pad where an entire nation of teachers has failed. Hopefully, with SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN’s leadership we can find a way to medicate all of the poor kiddos in this country so that we can stop handing out waivers for NCLB. Teachers here in Arkansas will no longer have to drop baggies full of cereal in their students’ backpacks on Friday afternoon so they will have something to eat over the weekend. They will no longer have to find a way to raise the almighty test scores of children who live in cars. Think of it, a full quarter of American kids can simply pop a pill and make their poverty problems go away while they are at school.

But Dr. Anderson does have standards.

“People who are getting A’s and B’s, I won’t give it to them,” he said.

Finally, we educators have somebody who is respectable enough to decide who needs help in this country. Medical doctors go to school for a long time and they make a lot of money. We should listen to them. I also went to school for a long time but I don’t make a lot of money. In fact I probably owe as much money in student loans to the federal government as Dr. Anderson makes in a few months pushing pills to healthy children. Obviously, “experts” like me and our “experience educating children” should be ignored in favor of those who really know what they are talking about.

Ironically, Dr. Anderson has found a way to force you and I to address the problem of poverty in the United States with our own money. That’s because many of these parents whose children are being medicated by SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN can rest easy knowing that Medicaid covers almost all of the costs involved with paying Dr. Anderson and for the medication itself. That’s right kindhearted American citizen, pat yourself on the back because your tax dollars are financing Dr. Anderson’s medical solution to poverty.

And the kids are grateful:

“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Ms. Williams said, noting that Medicaid covers almost every penny of her doctor and prescription costs.

Why wouldn’t they want to take unnecessary prescription stimulants in order to get better grades? The possible side effects only include growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes. These ADHD medications are classified as Schedule II drugs because they are highly addictive. Other Schedule II drugs include Oxycontin, Morphine, Methamphetamines, and Percoset. But don’t worry, it is perfectly legal for a doctor to prescribe medications on a trial basis, and there’s no way that putting a kid on these drugs and then taking them off would have any detrimental effect. Plus, now we get to add “doesn’t get high enough test scores because he/she is poor” to the list of symptoms. Justice!

Don’t mistake my sarcastic rant as an argument against the prescribing of medication for students who have legitimate cases of ADHD. As a former middle school teacher I saw the enormous difference that medication can make when properly prescribed for students who truly need it, and when the medication’s effects on the child’s overall wellbeing are evaluated closely. I’m not a medical doctor, but I do believe that ADHD is a legitimate diagnosis, which ironically Dr. Anderson does not.

The bottom line is that some of us have flat out lost our minds when it comes to solving the achievement problem for students of poverty in this nation. Unfortunately, as long as we continue to think about the problem as being educational rather than societal, idiotic solutions like Dr. Anderson’s and Secretary Duncan’s will be the best we can do.


Suggested Reference

Endacott, J. L. (2012, October 23). Social justice man is here!. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/23/social-justice-man-is-here/

References

Hanushek, E. (2010, December). The economic value of higher teacher quality. Working paper 56. Washington, DC: Calder, The Urban Institute

Sawchuck , S. (2011). EWA research brief: What studies say about teacher effectiveness. Washington DC: Education Writers Association. Retrieved October 22, 2012, from http://www.ewa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=briefs_effectiveness

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.

***

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.

 

****

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/ ‎

Are Schools Misinterpreting Common Core Standards as Common Teaching?

As a high school English teacher, I taught many things that didn’t excite me or pique my personal interests. That’s part of the job when one is following a curriculum, meeting standards, and working with other teachers. I get that. I never let the students know I didn’t love aspects of the curriculum that the district required all teachers to cover. I taught it to the best of my ability and sometimes, I even surprised myself by growing fond of a certain text or style of writing. What I don’t get, however, is the way in which standardization has been taken to extremes recently, effectively robbing the autonomy of excellent teachers, all in name of the Common Core Standards.Teachers in at least four districts across the state of Arkansas, reported to me that their school districts are requiring teachers to teach in lockstep, not just covering the same content (as would be expected) but also covering it in the same exact way, even going so far as to require the use of the same lesson plan on the same day by, for example, all ninth grade teachers. This is disturbing for any number of reasons, most of all it grinds against the grain of how I understand teaching and learning, as a complex task that relies on teachers’ understanding of classroom context and the needs of their students to dictate, within reason, the way in which content is presented. Teaching is supposed to be about learning and every different class of students is likely to learn at different rates and in slightly different ways.

My first reaction? This is not at all what the Common Core Standards indicate as examples of good teaching. CCS are about interdisciplinary units, teaching for depth rather than coverage, and pushing students towards more critical, analytical, argumentative types of thinking. Every ounce of experience I have tells me that those pursuits take time, differing amounts of time depending on how accessible that brand of thinking is to students. But differentiating the length of time spent on lessons isn’t possible when all of the teachers across a single district are following the same plan. Simply put, no two teachers cover material in the same way and no two classrooms of students, even at the same school, are ever going to be similar enough to be taught in the exact same way, from the same lesson plan. This is a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, perhaps one that isn’t widespread across the country. I hope not.

A principal at one of these districts, when questioned by teachers about why this approach was being mandated, responded by telling them they just need to KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid, when it comes to lesson planning and staying together on those lesson plans. I’m still a little dumbfounded that a school leader would say that publicly; it seems to imply and accept the very worst expectations for teaching and learning. When adults think and speak of the act of education in offensive ways like this, I fear what the future holds. My fears were realized when I visited a different school only to find the lesson plan written and posted on the outside of each classroom door.

This ‘teacher-less teaching,’ has also hit higher education in the preparation of new educators. The Teaching Interns with whom I work in our university’s Master of Arts in Teaching program have explained that they, in some cases, cannot be given the reins to teach a single two or three-week unit of instruction, even a mini-unit of three days unless the entire school or the district follows the same plan. This isn’t to say that experienced teachers can’t learn from new ones—some of the most valuable strategies, methods, and approaches I’ve gained as a teacher were shared with me by my own student teachers. But to force an entire school or district to follow the plans of a single brand new pre-service teacher is nonsensical at best.

The students with whom I’m fortunate to work are some of the best and brightest entering the teaching profession through a traditional program. Over the past five years, the mean GPA of those seeking an MAT in English Education is just over 3.6 on a 4.0 scale. We know that smarter students make a larger positive difference in their students’ standardized test scores (though that really shouldn’t be the only goal we respect) but these future teachers did not sign up to teach from the same lesson plans, the plans their colleagues made or worse yet, the plans an outside group designed. In enacting these requirements, schools are reinforcing the distrust of teachers prevalent in society. By taking instructional planning out of the hands of all teachers, schools can be sure that all are at least teaching average lessons.  Keeping it simple, stupid.  But in doing so, these schools are–unsuspectingly–also affecting the greatest common factor, the talented and effective teachers who now have to teach from the same lessons.

Talented students don’t sign up to become teachers for the money. Talented students recognize the opportunity to maximize their potential in a field that recognizes flexibility, creativity, differentiation, individuality, and the ability to meet the needs of all students.  I fear that the talented future and existing teachers we need in this country are going to flee from the teaching profession if it means following a one-size-fits-all plan and keeping it simple, stupid. Unfortunately, I am seeing some of my future teachers already questioning their career choice when faced with the deprofessionalized classrooms in which they are learning to teach.

My class is reading Dr. Peter Smagorinsky’s textbook Teaching English by Design while experiencing this homogenization in their internships; this week, we discussed several passages that argue for teacher autonomy and illustrate reasons why we should question, challenge, and overthrow teacher-less teaching.

“Teachers ought to consider their own interests and needs when deciding what to teach. They should reflect on the value of their judgment in knowing what students might benefit from studying, even if the students haven’t identified it as an interest. To meet your own needs, think about your interests and knowledge.” (p. 135)

Smagorinsky’s reputation is unparalleled as a teacher, writer, researcher, and teacher educator. He continues, qualifying that teachers should rely on students to guide their instruction, a concept that in the time of standards created by people far away from the classroom and lesson plans created by other teachers, seems completely and most unfortunately, distant.

“Students know when teachers are going through the motions. Many student evaluations of teachers that I’ve read over the years have stressed the importance of teachers being enthusiastic and passionate about their work. Nothing kills enthusiasm like teaching topics and books that you don’t like.” (p. 135)

And perhaps that is what I find most disheartening about all of this, the CCS does not dictate that teachers meet particular standards through particular texts or in lockstep–common–ways. This is death by a thousand compromises and another indication that we are seeing seeds of an implementation problem, a misinterpretation of what the standards are and aren’t, as a response to this nationalized approach to education.

On one hand, the educational climate of 2012, may very well contribute to this oversimplification of teaching and learning in ways like this, taking complex standards and reducing them to a curriculum guide replete with boxes to be checked off at the end of each day. The teachers I’ve heard from are some of the best I’ve ever met and the interns in the teacher education program, as I’ve mentioned, have talents that exceed most of their peers. To enact the CCS appropriately will require truly exceptional–not common–teachers. Most I know are quite capable–or will be quite capable if given a chance to write and experiment with lesson and unit planning–of designing their own path forward.

“Because the teaching profession can often be frustrating, it’s important to have as much control and authority over your teaching practices as possible in order to feel that you are having the effect on students’ lives that you hope for” (Smagorinsky, p. 137).

I couldn’t agree more.

If you are teaching or learning to teach in a lockstep environment like the ones I’ve described, please consider participating in the EduSanity movement by adding your comments, forwarding this to others, posting to Facebook, retweeting, pinning it, etc. It’s time to take back the classrooms.

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suggested citation:
Goering, C.Z. (2012, October 8). Are schools misinterpreting Common Core Standards as common teaching? EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/08/are-schools-mi…ommon-teaching/

Some Quick EduSanity on the Chicago Teacher Strike

Bill Parcells, the legendary NFL coach and executive once expressed his frustration over not being given enough control over his New England Patriots team by saying, “They want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” He was being held accountable for winning with players that he didn’t get to pick.

NFL coaches are in the ultimate “results or bust” profession. They either win or they are shown the door. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to institute a similar system in which the city’s teachers either facilitate the achievement of higher test scores, or they are likewise on the street.

EduSanity wonders what Bill Parcells might think about an urban public school system of do or die. Teachers in Chicago certainly don’t get to “shop for some of the groceries” because they take whoever comes through their door with open arms. They educate the poor, the hungry, the abused, the promising, the dedicated, and the apathetic. As we said in our last post, this is the beauty and the disadvantage of public education in the world’s greatest republic.

Chicago Teachers “turn their back” on their students by taking to the streets.

Not only do Chicago teachers educate many disadvantaged students who are far more concerned with basic survival than trying to eek out another few points on a standardized test that is culturally meaningless to them, but they also teach under some of the most disadvantaged conditions in the United States. Chicago has been a corrupt city for a very long time, but the way the Chicago has managed to outfit some schools with all the benefits of modern resources and technology, while other schools don’t even have libraries, gymnasiums, or air conditioning (in CHICAGO!) is criminal. The result is an uneven playing field between teachers who have students with the ability and resources to learn and those who might as well be attending school in the third world. Chicago teachers don’t get to shop for the groceries and many of them are cooking dinner with the equivalent of a rusty can opener and a broken hot plate.

President Obama has wisely kept his mouth shut while his friend Rahm Emanuel takes on the Chicago teachers unions in the spirit of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s race to nowhere. Obama cannot afford for more teachers to figure out that what is currently going on in Chicago is a direct result of his education policy. Mitt Romney has also wisely publicly expressed his disappointment in the Chicago teachers “turning their backs on their students”. This statement is wise because it is currently fashionable to disparage public education, which will certainly garner him some ignorant votes. It’s not like the majority of educators were going to vote for him anyway; they still believe Obama cares about them.

EduSanitarians know that the vast majority of Chicago teachers are not attempting to protect the status quo or rally behind lousy teachers. The Chicago strike is an effort by educators who are on the front lines of teaching under lousy conditions to stand up for what is right for their students. They want better schools and they want district leaders to realize that educating disadvantaged students, many of whom come from living conditions that Mitt Romney cannot even fathom, means giving kids a safe place to learn, grow and have a chance for the future. These are not educational outcomes that are measured by a standardized test yet they are the most important outcomes that the best Chicago teachers produce. What dangers do these students face if teachers in Chicago become so focused on test scores that they do not have time for anything else? Make no mistake, this is happening all across this country in schools everywhere as principals and teachers feel the pressure to achieve higher test scores at all costs. Not only is it unfair to hold teachers accountable for relatively meaningless educational outcomes with the same cut throat results of professional football, it is flat out wrong for their students. Chicago teachers are standing up for their students, not turning their backs on them. Their success in getting Emanuel to compromise on his accountability at all costs system of teacher evaluation is a glimmer of hope for EduSanity in America.

Public Education is Not Your Enemy

It has become fashionable to hate everything “public” about public education.  We here at EduSanity believe that this phenomena is due to a number of different reasons and over the next few entries we intend to unpack the reasons why the public is so down on education that bears its name.

Before we can do that however, we must present our common sense case for publicly funded education for all children in this country.  Yes, this includes the children of illegal immigrants.  Yes, this includes the children of the elite. If you are a child in this country, we should all pitch in to pay for your education because at the end of the day, it is in everybody’s best interest.

Ever since the end of World War II this country has found a common distaste for anything resembling communism.  Events like the Red Scare of the 50’s and 60’s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, Vietnam…etc, have posited a deep fear of anything to the left of ardent capitalism among us. Calling somebody or something “communist”, or more recently “socialist” has long been a convenient rhetorical trick to immediately create a negative image in the minds of the American people. Capitalism is great and we believe that despite our problems, the United States is the greatest country on the planet. But the Cold War is over, history has proven communism to be an unreachable goal and totalitarian socialism to be an economic failure.  Why are we still afraid of the socialist boogieman?

If only there were a “socialist” institution that could have prevented this.

But more importantly, why have we forsaken our own republican ideal of liberty and justice for all by refocusing our fear of the “socialist other” on the publicly funded and operated institutions in the United States that provide fundamental services like education?  Let’s go back in time to an America that wasn’t yet afraid of socialism by reading the words of Thomas Jefferson, who in a letter supporting his education bill that would provide publicly supported education to America’s children wrote,

“The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.”

We cringe at the thought that the talents and potential of those who might not have the means to access schooling would go to waste if they were arbitrarily left out of our nation’s schools.  If it were not for the public schools that will accept any student living within the geographic boundaries of an attendance area, you can imagine how exacerbated the division between social classes might become. Is that in anybody’s best interest?  How much of a drag on society would a mass of uneducated children become? We cannot allow our schools to become a reflection of a culture based on what’s best for “me” while forsaking thy neighbor and the poor kids down the street.

Granted, the idea of providing education for those who cannot provide for themselves may be considered “socialist” in that resources are redistributed from those who have to those who have not.  However, this idea is also truly republican in nature as well, because the foundation of our society is built upon the principle that power is derived from the people. We return to our nation’s first true Republican, Thomas Jefferson, to support our argument.  It was Jefferson who understood the necessity of educating all those who would be trusted with the office of citizen and would in turn be given the power from which our republican form of government draws.  In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote,

“The less wealthy people,… by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen.”

How can we possibly expect all of our children to become knowledgeable members of society if we do not provide for their education or if we educate them separately from the students whose parents have financial means?

The reality of publicly supported education is the necessity of taxation, and the burden of supporting education in the United States falls primarily to those who own property.  Ironically, those who own property are also more likely to have the means to send their children to private schools, yet they do not have a choice on where their tax money is spent.  That said, public education is not the only tax supported service provided by the government that we cannot opt out of.  There is no option in the United States to receive a “roads voucher” if you don’t own a car, or a “military voucher” if you don’t believe in war, or a “fire voucher” if you decide you’ll extinguish your own house if it catches on fire.  And the reason why you cannot opt out of these publicly funded services is because we all need them.  We need roads, we need a formidable military, we need fire and police protection, and if we had the choice to opt out of them because we felt (foolishly) like we didn’t need them, the infrastructure of this country would disintegrate.

Public education is no different.  You may not like how we educate our students publicly in this country, but keep in mind that there has been, under primarily a system of public education since the mid 1850’s, no more impressive country in the world than the one in which we currently live. Public education is the single greatest thing this country has ever attempted to do. Public education is necessary to protect our interests abroad and to protect us from ourselves.

We dislike paying taxes as much as anybody, but when we reach for our checkbooks (do people still use those?) we console ourselves with one more bit of wisdom from T.J. who reminds us that,

“The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

Americans, no matter whether they fall in the 1% or the other 99%, need public education in this country.  Educating all of our citizens is vital to the prosperity of our country and security of our democracy, and the only way we can make sure that we educate every single child in America is to bite that “socialist” bullet and allocate resources for great public schools. Thomas Jefferson may not have been afraid of the socialist boogieman, but he was rightfully afraid of his own government.  We guess it should come as no surprise that the system of public education Jefferson envisioned as a protection against the tyranny of government has now fallen prey to the most tyrannical federal attack in our nation’s history.  But don’t worry, the marauders aren’t socialists.

 

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suggested citation:
Endacott, J., & Goering, C.Z. (2012, September 7). Public education is not your enemy. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/09/07/public-educati…not-your-enemy/

 

Restoring EduSanity

There seems to be a serious lack of sanity in the education discussion these days. The past ten years of the NCLB era have witnessed a refocusing of American determination to once again be on top of the world when it comes to educating our future workforce.  This is certainly not the first time that we have turned the microscope on public education, as we tend to ratchet up scrutiny whenever the U.S. is viewed as slipping from the top spot in the industrialized world (e.g. the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik or the Japanese dominance of the electronics industry in the 1980’s).  Unfortunately, this time we have managed to lose almost all sense of perspective as the conversation about public education in the United States; productive conversations have been replaced with mud-slinging shouting matches.

It is hard not to notice that public education has been invaded by non-educators from around the country who were nowhere to be found when the quality of a student’s education was understood to be the complex and multifaceted endeavor that it truly is. However, now that educational success has been redefined by politicians as a series of easily measured test scores, public education has become the target of economists, entrepreneurs, think tanks, bureaucrats, and members of the public who have jumped at the opportunity to introduce narrowly focused “reforms” with the sole purpose of increasing test scores. These newly self-anointed “experts” have gained a lot of traction in the public sphere by using ambiguous yet seductive words such as “rigor” and “accountability” to oversimplify, privatize, and politicize the formative years of our nation’s youth. Our children’s education has been reduced to an easily understood metric that can be neatly graphed in the local newspaper and touted or decried by politicians but has very little meaning in the world outside the classroom. How sad.

The status quo is not acceptable either, and it is undeniably true that America’s educational system is in need of improvement.  This has been the case since the first hornbook was used in the first one-room schoolhouse in the first American colony, and if we are to move forward, it should always be the case. Education isn’t a sprint, a race, or even a marathon because there is no finish line that signifies the end of learning in either victory or defeat. That our current educational focus can be summed up with the rhetorical tag line of “Race to the Top,” is unfortunate because it perpetuates the misconception that educating children is a competition that can somehow be won. What happens to the losers of the race?

Of course, not everybody has bought into this modern wave of reform, and many of the holdouts are public educators who recognize that education cannot be simplified as the public has been misled to believe. These educators (authors of this essay included) have pushed back against the tide of misguided reform, resulting in an “us vs. them” mentality usually reserved for the bickering on cable news networks and the halls of Congress. The debate over education is currently framed as the “us”, or every blue-blooded American who favors better schools, rigor, and achievement, against the “them”, otherwise known as anybody who can be portrayed as standing in the way of this very particular brand of progress. And full advantage of this discord has been taken by many politicians and well-financed edu-mouthpieces who have convinced Americans that public educators belong squarely in the “them” category.  When real teachers resist the reforms they believe to be wrong, they are characterized as trying to protect the status quo and standing in the way of progress. We’ll admit there are a few teachers determined to do that, though they are vastly outnumbered by those who resist shortsighted reform efforts for the right reasons. Despite this, it has become fashionable to demonize all things “public” about public education and all too often, attempts at “education reform” are revealed to be little more than thinly veiled efforts to undermine districts, schools, teachers, and by default, even the very students in the classrooms.

EduSanity fears that the characterization of public educators as the enemy of progress combined with a single-minded approach to evaluating the education of young people could have catastrophic consequences.  We will use this platform to call attention to the many issues assaulting American education today, primarily the issues brought forth from outside of the classrooms, issues we consider to be antagonistic attacks on the sanity of education. There are too few voices in the dialogue about public education that are broadly focused, rational, well-informed by various ways of knowing, and truly concerned with making progress in helping our students prepare for life on a local, national and global scale. We aren’t the first to call attention to these issues, but we are in a unique position to use our experience and perspective on educating students to raise a voice of sanity in a country that has lost its EduSanity.

Our mission is to ask questions of current practice and policy and to provide a venue to discuss controversial issues.  We believe that our children are not numbers and that their (and thus our country’s) future should never be for sale, yet we fear that the sign has already been posted in the proverbial front yard of our schools.  We endeavor to support those who have not been buried by the educational antagonism tidal wave of the last decade and to use our voice in opposition of those who we believe have lost their EduSanity, whether they are well-meaning or not.

We welcome your ideas, comments and your criticisms.  It is past time to look critically at the current wave of short-sighted reform by telling the counter-stories and addressing the issues currently underrepresented.

If you want to follow us on Twitter or find our page on Facebook by using the links on the top of the page we will let you know when we’ve tried to restore EduSanity to another issue.

 

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suggested citation:
Endacott, J., & Goering, C.Z. (2012, August 30). Restoring edusanity. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/08/30/restoring-edusanity/