Tag Archives: Leadership

Ready for Inspection! The Problem with “Quality Reviews”

“No matter how nitpicky, how fastidious a reviewer can be, he (she)’ll never, ever come close to what you actually do in your classroom.”

Some time ago, an acquaintance I knew from the Department of Education, a science specialist, told me this when I was complaining about State Quality Reviews (SQRs).

As true as this is (and he should know—he actually does SQRs for the district), it still doesn’t explain how a two-day beauty pageant defines years worth of expertise and academic achievement.

In New York State, that’s exactly what an SQR does.

For those in the Neighborhood living outside New York, you may have something similar. They come under various names: reflections, reviews, audits, analyses. Here in the Empire State, these inspections are known as Quality Reviews, with the appropriate air of a Dickensian workhouse.

These official reviews are masked as “learning experiences” meant to provide “reflective feedback” on our practice. After you choke a little bit on your own vomit, you’ll realize their true purpose: to make sure schools do exactly what they’re supposed to do in the manner expected from the state education department—or at least to the whims of the pack of inspectors sent to your school.

The reviews come in multiple levels. The peer review, a less invasive but no less insidious device, involves groups of teachers and administrators rating each other. The educational equivalent of a gladiatorial contest, the peer review is usually less intense since fellow teachers and admins rarely want to crap on their own brethren.

The State Quality Review, or SQR, involves a pack of reviewers from a mix of different places, from the district to the DOE offices in Tweed to the state offices in Albany. A two-day affair, the SQR usually is triggered if a school suffers a drop in their rating or is rated a School in Need of Improvement according to No Child Left Behind.

Even this level of review comes in different degrees. For example, if your school dropped in ranking due to poor test scores in targeted areas, such as English Language Learners (ELLs) or Special Education Students, the review will most likely focus on the school’s work in that area. Otherwise, in case of a monumental screw-up, the entire school apparatus is put under the microscope.

My school recently had the former: a review based on our supposed lack of progress in ELLs and Special Education. Even so, the entire school was mobilized. Reams of assessment reports, data reports, student diagnostic reports, spreadsheets, graphs, charts, lesson plans, rubrics, student work, teacher evaluations, curriculum maps—all of it gets collected into a series of massive binders. These binders are designed for a dual purpose: to provide adequate evidence that we’re doing our job even without making educational targets; or to overwhelm the reviewer with work to the point that they just assume the school’s doing a thorough job without cracking open these three-ring behemoths.

Rarely does the review not go past the binder stage.

After a day of sifting through numbers and charts, day two features the classroom visits. In theory, the visits are supposed to be “random.” Therefore, every class is spruced up, cleaned up, papered with new charts and new student work (with appropriate rubrics and task cards). In practice, however, since the visits target certain populations, it is often the classes with said populations that get visited—and are often prepped ahead of time.

The result is a series of visits into model classrooms in the vein of Disney World’s World of Tomorrow rides. Bulletin boards stand as monuments, replete with student work, carefully labeled with comments, a rubric and task card (never mind the mind-numbing hours spent preparing these works ahead of time). The charts around the room carefully detail every minute movement in the academic process (usually after re-doing and sprucing up charts the teacher has used for years).

Even the procedures need procedures—such is apparently a “well developed” classroom. I’m surprised there are no charts detailing how to effectively utilize the lavatory (Lord knows they can use it).

The children sit in their seats (the more impossible ones are either conveniently absent or not-so-subtly convinced/cajoled/threatened to behave) and stage a performance worthy of Broadway. While they are listless, lethargic or outright defiant most of the year, the SQR somehow summons articulate, well-mannered, enthused children gleefully engaging in one of your “A” lessons (a little coaching certainly helps.)

All the while, the reviewers (some blasé, some meticulous, and even a few true-believers with Nazi brutality) ask the teachers and children questions about their learning, mostly to figure out if the little whelps are actually paying attention. It’s a scream when they go off-script. One year, a boy was asked his favorite subject. He replied, “Home.”

Some of the questions teachers get can be downright insulting. One teacher was asked to show her lesson for that day. She was asked to show the lesson’s objective (which is clearly marked on most lesson plan books, which seemed to go above the head of this reviewer). After pointing to the lesson objective in her plan, she was then asked, “Why is that the objective?”

Hmmm…how about because that’s what the phony-baloney curriculum map they had to make (and could barely read) says to do.

Even the tone of that question—and I wasn’t present to hear it—would suggest that the reviewer was not among academic professionals but rather a pack of chimps that still needed Jane Goodall to teach them how to poke at anthills with a stick.

In the end, the review usually comes with a long checklist of positive points and things to work on (NEVER negative points, because the word “negative” doesn’t exist in a well-developed classroom *vomit*). The negatives rarely carry much substance, but rather focus on how to create MORE useless paperwork to make the appearance of learning.

Sometimes, they even suggest to return to methods and theories that were discarded during the LAST quality review.

After coming out of the subsequent scotch fog, I had some serious questions about the SQR process. Why the reams of paperwork? Why collect data that often says little and means even less? Why ask children for answers who are notoriously honest—even in the best schools?

Most importantly…how does a quality review help children learn more?

I’m looking really hard, and I haven’t the foggiest.

The window dressing, the bulletin boards, the charts—they are only as effective as the teacher behind them. Any trained animal can clean up well enough to perform a show.

The “evidence” question doesn’t wash with me. Most of a teacher’s best work is done without a ream of paperwork or forms to complete. Effective professionals know what data works and what data is simply filler for a spreadsheet. More data doesn’t necessarily mean improvement.

Thus, if reviewers are really looking for reams of evidence, are they viewing teachers as professionals? Or are teachers more like Goodall’s chimps, according to the state?

Therefore, maybe that’s how the education reform crowd, the NCLB nancies and TFA fops, views all of us who chose education as a calling: a pack of trained animals that can’t be trusted to make intelligent decisions and need a zookeeper to collect the feces.

Which leads back to the earlier quote. My friend was absolutely right. The quality review can’t scratch the surface of what a teacher does in the classroom. Yet the very existence of such a review undermines the status of professionals whose talents and achievements far exceed any binder of data.

So if the state continues to treat me like a chimp…well, let’s just say chimps are marksmen with their bowel movements.

 

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Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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Good News for New York State Social Studies Tests

English: New York State Education Department o...

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In the last few years, social studies has taken a huge hit in states across America.

So any glimmer of hope–no matter how faint–is worth celebrating.

In late October, the New York State Education Department released a Notice of Intent informing testing companies and providers that the NYSED will be issuing a request for proposals for upcoming science tests in grades 4, 6 and 8 as well as a resurrected state social studies test in grades 6-8.  According to the statement, the tests will be developed in the spring or summer of 2012, with field tests ready for 2013.  The entire system is targeted for launch for the 2013-2014 school year.

A big kudos to New York’s Education Commissioner John King for addressing a major injustice done in 2010 for budgetary reasons.  As followers of the Neighborhood are aware, the fifth and eighth grade social studies tests were suspended in 2010 due to financial constraints.  When I wrote to then-Senior Deputy Commissioner King, he informed me there was no set timetable for these tests to return.

Although it is an initial step, this request for proposals is a definite step in the right direction.

Best of luck to Dr. King and the folks at Albany in creating authentic, rigorous assessments for middle schoolers in science and social studies.  Hopefully, this will lead to an eventual re-instatement of an elementary level social studies test which is absolutely necessary.

That, however, remains for another day.

 

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Some Fun at Parent-Teacher Conferences

This week, schools in New York City will have the first parent-teacher conferences…or as we in the faculty lounge like to call them: “The Crying Game.”

This cartoon showcases not only parent denial, but also teacher intransigence.  Lets hope our conferences this week are more productive.

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1816: The Year Without a Summer

Mt. Tambora and its surroundings as seen from ...

Mount Tambora, site of the 1815 eruption, seen via satellite. Image via Wikipedia

Those of us sucker-punched with snow this weekend can take heart that the temperature has returned to a semblance of normal.

New Yorkers two centuries ago were nowhere near as lucky.

The year 1816 would be forever remembered by many names: The Poverty Year, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, and most famously The Year without a Summer. It would be most known as the time when a perfect storm of low temperatures, a lull in solar activity and a supercolossal volcanic eruption caused one of the most tragic epidemics of famine and destruction in Western history.

Those events of two centuries past still haunt us today—especially when human beings are altering the atmosphere more so than ever before.

In April of 1815, Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, erupted for approximately ten days. The explosion measured a 7, “or “supercolossal” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index—an intensity only seen about once in a millennium. Massive volumes of volcanic ash and dust spewed into the upper atmosphere.

It could not have happened at a worse time.

The Tambora eruption aligned perfectly with a lull in solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum. During this lull, temperatures around the world (already low due to Little Ice Age) further dropped from about 1790 and 1830. Furthermore, other large eruptions between 1812 and 1814 added even more volcanic material to the air, creating a further temperature drop known as a “volcanic winter.”

The atmospheric disturbance produced brown and red snows in Central and Southern Europe. The erratic, freezing summer temperatures led to crop failures, famine, epidemics and food riots from Shanghai to London.

Yet the widest social and cultural effects were in the northeastern United States.

In May of 1816, frost killed off the newly planted crops in New England, and the cold snap would grip the region by June. Snow—often of a foot or more—was reported from Quebec City to Pennsylvania between June and August. Ice floes could be seen as far south as the lower Susquehenna River. Temperatures would rise to normal summer temperatures and drop to below freezing within hours. In the winter of 1817, temperatures dropped to -26°F in New York, freezing the upper New York Bay solid.

With the destruction of the New England harvest, grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, went from $0.12 a bushel to $0.92 a bushel in one season. Corn, wheat and other grains also spiked in price, creating national food shortages, hoarding and price speculation.

The most dramatic effect, however, was the actions of the survivors of 1816.

Although the western expansion of the United States was in full swing even twenty years before, the 1816 disturbances began a mass exodus from New England. Thousands of now-destitute farm families picked up sticks and moved west, to upstate New York and the Northwest Territory, today the Upper Midwest of the country. Vermont alone dropped almost half its population after 1816.

Two survivors of the Year without a Summer still affect us today. One of the families that left Vermont in 1816 were the Smiths. They moved from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York, where their son, Joseph, would engage in a series of events that would eventually lead to his founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The other is definitely more apropos to today’s holiday. A group of friends had to spend their summer vacation in Switzerland indoors due to the bad weather. To pass the time, they started a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The host, the great poet Lord Byron, wrote a poem aptly titled Darkness. Another, John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre.

Yet the clear winner of this contest, at least in the modern age, was a woman named Mary Shelley, who decided to pen a ditty with the second title of The Modern Prometheus. You know it better as Frankenstein.

It is altogether fitting that we end with this story of freakish science gone horribly wrong. If 1816 came about due to natural phenomena, then can we expect something similar with our filthy mitts in the atmosphere?

Will our meddling with the environment cause the next Year without a Summer?

Time will tell.

 

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Hatchets, Boardwalks and Demon Rum: Learning about Prohibition

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcoh...

Image via Wikipedia

I share my birthday with a rather prophetic event in American history.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. With Utah’s ratification vote, the failed social experiment known as Prohibition was killed, and Americans could once again belly up to the bar free of prosecution.

Yet the effects of that 13 year era still linger, both in our national consciousness and our collective imagination. Film and television have done much to pump up the mystique.

Yesterday, two programs dealt with Prohibition—one a multi-layered morality play, the other a social-science documentary. You can guess which is which by the networks they were on: few fact-based documentaries of glacial speed exist on Home Box Office. On the other hand, PBS rarely has a massive volume of exposed breasts and gunplay.

While Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition may seem altogether different, in fact they approach the Noble Experiment in two important directions—and one cannot exist without the other.

The Ken Burns documentary, a format familiar to many, lays out the larger issues of the era and the main characters involved in a familiar maudlin motif. In the first episode, alcohol takes its place as a prominent American beverage since the colonial period—only reaching crisis mode as distilled spirits become the drink of choice in saloons during the mid 19th century. The negative effects of drinking (the violence, indolence, illness, etc.) touched women and children the worst, especially at a time when their voice was largely silenced.

The groups formed to combat the spread of “Demon rum”—the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—grew out of a larger social reform movement for abolition, workplace reform, and especially womens’ suffrage. It further split Americans along regional, class and ethnic lines: Protestants against Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans, Native-born against immigrants, rural versus urban.

Yet where the documentary works to establish the greater framework for the era, it is difficult for stills and voiceovers to create an ethos or soul.

Boardwalk Empire is now in its second season on HBO. A dramatic series based loosely on real events and characters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, the program follows county treasurer and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life boss “Nucky” Johnson) as he navigates his empire of graft and corruption—an empire grown richer thanks to Prohibition. Along the way, mobsters, mistresses, lackeys, and rival bosses struggle in the wake of Nucky’s machinations.

It is these struggles that are an important piece of the Prohibition puzzle—a piece, so far, absent from the PBS documentary.

Even in future episodes, as the rise and collapse of Prohibition is laid out in detail, Prohibition is no catch-all synopsis of the entirety of the dry days. The voiceovers, narration, grainy stills and grainier silent films of the era give much authenticity—much, but not all.

There is something in scripted drama that truly establishes an ethos, even if that ethos is almost a century in the past. Prohibition was more than just laws, agents, mobsters and speakeasies. At its heart, it was about ordinary Americans forced to make choices in a time of tremendous upheaval—a conflict well-founded in the HBO series.

Boardwalk Empire shows, in the daily conflicts of people high and low, the tough choices Americans were forced to make. Politicians like Nucky Thompson made choices that compromised morality, legality and even personal loyalty. Law enforcement officers, like sheriff Elias Thompson and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, made choices that conflicted their sense of duty with their need for material security. Ordinary citizens, people who were once law-abiding, had to make the difficult (or often not so difficult) choice to break the law in order get even a little bit of comfort.

Like any era in history, Prohibition cannot be encapsulated in one source. Even a library of material could not encompass the necessary scholarship that defines a time in the past. In this case, however, a good basic grasp of the period requires two hands instead of one.

Documentaries provide solid material, underlying conflicts, primary sources—basically the big picture. Yet do not count out historical fiction entirely, especially if it’s done well.

Using both, you may get a more complete picture than you realize.

Enjoy them both…the next round’s on me.

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Will 9/11 Become Just Another Holiday?

I once heard a comedian on cable say that in a few years, people will celebrate 9/11 with parades and barbecues.

I really wish it wasn’t true…even if history bears out his theory.

Like all civilizations, American society has, at least for itself, a very acute sense of amnesia.  No, there weren’t always sales and days off during Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the like.  There was a time when these days actually meant what they were supposed to mean: days of remembrance for those who served and died for their country.

Yet along the way, the original purposes of these days has tended to fade, and in the vacuum comes the parades, the holidays, the outings to the shore, the midnight blockbuster sales and the 24-hour oldies nostalgia countdowns on the radio.

More than ever, they are days that delineate less about sacrifice, and more about our excesses.

September 11, a day that brings little joy to anyone, shouldn’t suffer the same fate.  Yet at one time, Memorial Day and Veterans Day (or Armistice Day, in its original form) wasn’t that joyful either…and look where they ended up.

Today, I made it a point to not watch anything related to 9/11.  It was not out of disrespect–my own story of that day is very personal and painful.  It certainly was not out of creating a false holiday for barbecues and such.

I was afraid–deeply afraid–that the events of that day, raw as they were, would somehow morph into the nostalgia that provides a veneer to other holidays cheapened by merriment and shopping sprees.

Yes, the wounds are only ten years old.  Yet the memory of the American people is short and selective.  It shouldn’t be.

This day is not like any other day.  Nor should it be like any other HOLIDAY either.

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