Tag Archives: NCLB

The FY’2013 Federal Budget Proposal–and its Implications for Social Studies

It seems the one truly bipartisan agenda in Washington today is duping the American public.

The bailout, the modest job increases, the upswing in the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones, even the rebound in the mortgage bond market are all spun to make it seem that things are actually getting better for average Americans.

The same is true for American education, and no more so than social studies—the sacrificial lamb to the altar of “interdisciplinary” or “integrative” studies.

Back in 2011, the federal budget for the fiscal year 2012 saw hatchet-like slashes across federal agencies, cracking off limbs where pruning would suffice.   In education, the ax fell on programs that were needed for its stated mission of a literate citizenry by 2014.  Suffice to say the boughs that needed most attention were left untouched (boughs with branches in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example).

The Teaching American History (TAH) Grant program, of which I am a big fan, lost its funding for FY 2012, signaling to one and all Washington’s contempt for a quality education for our citizens.  In the 2013 budget released on February 13, the program’s woes would continue—the lost funds would not return.

Furthermore, most of the 2012 cuts have remained in place for 2013.  Although the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would receive a modest $8.2 million boost, most agencies saw a leveling off or a reduction in funding. 

The real insult, however, is how the Obama administration’s Department of Education views the role of social studies in future national plans.

Once again, the DOE proposes to scrap traditional K-12 history education and fold it into this new educational Leviathan named “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.”  According to the National Coalition for History, the program aims to:

“support competitive grants to States, high-need LEAs, and nonprofit partners to develop and expand innovative practices to improve teaching and learning of the arts, foreign languages, history, government, economics and financial literacy, environmental education, physical education, health education, and other subjects. There would be no dedicated funding for any of the disciplines.”

To add insult to injury, this boondoggle has also felt the sharp edge of Obama’s ax: from $246 million in FY’12 to an astounding $90 million in this current budget.  Even the Administration has lost faith in their own proposal, to the tune of an over 63% reduction in funding.

If the federal government doesn’t even believe in this idea, why should educators buy into it?

In this endeavor, social studies educators should be joined with science faculty, teachers in foreign languages, physical education teachers, athletic coaches and others in common cause.  As much as integration is a valuable tool in the classroom, it is not a silver bullet for the ills of education—any teacher will tell you that. 

There are certain skills, concepts and facts that require the concentration, focus and expertise of a dedicated subject.  Thus, funding should also reflect the continued necessity of subjects/content areas by allocating monies to science, foreign languages, the arts and especially the social studies.

This program is dependent on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which governs K-12 education.  Since it’s an election year, and the ESEA is mired in Congressional deadlock, then nothing much can be done on this in the coming session.  Yet that gives that much more time to express our opinions on the matter.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of collective action—too much of the Beltway cynic in me.  However, this can be driven in the right direction given the right buttons are pushed. 

Here is the link to the members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.  Also included is the members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (phew, that’s a mouthful).  Take a little time to let them know that “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education” is nothing but a front to destroy our educational system.  It will make a mockery of our system, dragging us even farther behind other countries in every category.

Furthermore, even the Administration has shown its reluctance by slashing its funding—so Congress should devote those funds to more worthy educational endeavors.

Please contact your local Congressman, at any rate…and as usual, make sure to let him/know the Neighborhood sent you.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce

John Kline, Minnesota
(Chairman)
Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California
Judy Biggert, Illinois
Todd Russell Platts, Pennsylvania
Joe Wilson, South Carolina
Virginia Foxx, North Carolina
Bob Goodlatte, Virginia
Duncan Hunter, California
David P. Roe, Tennessee
Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania
Tim Walberg, Michigan
Scott DesJarlais, Tennessee
Richard L. Hanna, New York
Todd Rokita, Indiana
Larry Bucshon, Indiana
Trey Gowdy, South Carolina
Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania
Kristi L. Noem, South Dakota
Martha Roby, Alabama
Joseph J. Heck, Nevada
Dennis A. Ross, Florida
Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania

George Miller, California
(Senior Democratic Member)
Dale E. Kildee, Michigan
Donald M. Payne, New Jersey
Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia
Lynn C. Woolsey, California
Rubén Hinojosa, Texas
Carolyn McCarthy, New York
John F. Tierney, Massachusetts
Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio
Rush D. Holt, New Jersey
Susan A. Davis, California
Raúl M. Grijalva, Arizona
Timothy H. Bishop, New York
David Loebsack, Iowa
Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii
Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Tom Harkin (IA) – Chair
Barbara A. Mikulski (MD)
Jeff Bingaman (NM)
Patty Murray (WA)
Bernard Sanders (I) (VT)
Robert P. Casey, Jr. (PA)
Kay R. Hagan (NC)
Jeff Merkley (OR)
Al Franken (MN)
Michael F. Bennet (CO)
Sheldon Whitehouse (RI)
Richard Blumenthal (CT)

Michael B. Enzi (WY) -Ranking Republican Senator
Lamar Alexander (TN)
Richard Burr (NC)
Johnny Isakson (GA)
Rand Paul (KY)
Orrin G. Hatch (UT)
John McCain (AZ)
Pat Roberts (KS)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Mark Kirk (IL)

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Calling out all Teachers “converted” by Public Education!

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.

At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Burns, Booze and Sweat: A Recap of the 2011 SOS March in DC

Matt Damon at the SOS March, July 30, 2011 - Taken with my crappy Blackberry camera

Nothing is more awkward than confronting about a thousand people with nametags…and you don’t have one.

To be honest, I didn’t get to the SOS Conference at American University until Day 2, on Friday. Careening into the AU parking lot at quarter to ten in the morning, my mind was awash with witty remarks to excuse my lateness…

(“After the trooper guffawed in laughter, I got a warning and here I am!”)

Yet I just caught the end of the opening remarks as a wall of people collided with me. A mix of earnest do-gooders, professional malcontents, old gray-haired 60’s Bolshies, young teachers confused about education, old teachers distraught about education, as well as assorted writers, journalists, bloggers and support staff.

This was my introduction to the Save Our Schools Conference and March. It was a whirlwind of a weekend, exhausting, exhilarating, exasperating all at once.

And yes…there was heavy drinking involved.

Other journalists and bloggers—many far more creative than I—have already written volumes about the weekend. To wit, take a look at James Boutin’s posts on An Urban Teacher’s Education to get a good overview of the daily flow. So, rather than go over a blow-by-blow of the happenings over the weekend, here is a summary of the good, the bad and the embarrassingly ugly of this past weekend:

The Good

Meeting New Folks (and cyber-folks in the flesh) – The great part of this weekend, for me anyway, was the people. I met so many concerned teachers and parents that my head was spinning. Although there was an overwhelming number of folks from Wisconsin (for obvious reasons), there were pretty much marchers from all over the country. In a short list, I met Floridians, Chicagoans, Californians, Ohioans, Wisconsinites, Bostonians (and other Massachusetts folks), Carolinians (North and South), Coloradoans, Washingtonians, New Jerseyans and New Yorkers.

Also, it was wonderful meeting people I only knew in the cyber world, such as Jonathan from jd2718, James Boutin (mentioned earlier) and Sabrina Stevens Shupe, who I knew only from Twitter and whose posts actually roped me into going in the first place. It was a blast meeting all of you.

Sharing reports about the state of education – In our own districts/neighborhoods/towns, we can get very insular about our issues. It was good to see that certain gripes and problems were universal across the US. Overcrowding, overtesting, micromanaging, and lack of support seem to be recurring themes from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

One particularly great workshop I attended (I went to only one…the drive forced me to the pool and the bar later) concerned Teach for America. It featured two former TFA-ers who left the organization due to differences between the TFA doctrine and the realities of urban education. This is the kind of information that needs to be more widespread. I even gained some sympathy for those TFA-ers struggling through their tenure while their students suffer.

Trading New Ideas – Mind you, this was an activist conference/march, not one about pedagogy. There was very little in the way of new teaching ideas, but a lot of new thought in the realm of activism and publicity about education. In particular, Boutin and I came up with an idea I will share next time—an idea that could really help the cause.

Some of the Speakers – At the march, the usual cast of characters showed up: Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Maier, Jonathan Kozol, and of course Diane Ravitch. They spoke with the usual verve and academic command of material. As the patron saints of the anti-NCLB movement, Kozol and Ravitch got a huge pop, even though Diane seemed a little out of place rabble-rousing—like the Duc d’Orleans inciting the Paris mob during the French Revolution. Hope she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Yet two speakers in particular struck me. One was a superintendant of a school district in Texas (I forgot his name—I must’ve been hung over and sunburned) who railed about the need to teach all children. It was great to hear such passion from an administrator for a change. The second, funny enough, was Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s son, Matt Damon (yes, that Matt Damon). He gave a heartfelt, down-to-Earth speech rallying the troops and demonstrating support for teachers. It wasn’t completely polished (remember he started at Harvard and never finished) but it didn’t have to be. Great job.

The Bad

Some of the Other Speakers – this is where the cynical, jaded Mr. D rears his ugly gin-soaked head. As much as I appreciate music and poetry, there was a whole lot of it going around on Saturday—a little too much for this Republican. Some of the truly great poems were the topical ones: a testing rant by Jose Vilson, Taylor Mali’s ode to teachers, and Marc Naison’s rap on education “reform.” Yet the rest…well…let’s just say it wasn’t my taste.

Some of the other speakers on the docket, however, seemed to submarine the cause more than uplift it. One or two speakers in particular called for creating a new party of “workers”, the kind of talk that drives most parents in Middle America into the arms of the Tea Party. Some of the speeches kept straying from the “combating poverty” script and were creeping precariously close to the “class warfare” script.

I know the organizers wanted a variety of ideas and viewpoints, but their goal of 50,000 participants may not be reached with rhetoric like this.

The “Fringe” groups – this is a common phenomenon: whenever a demonstration is held in DC, fringe political groups swarm the outskirts peddling their wares. Socialists, anarchists, Marxists, even the LaRouche people came out of the woodwork. Now I have a trained eye and can spot (and avoid) these guys pretty easily. Yet they did a good job bombarding the other marchers with rhetoric and material, something that Fox News or Reason.com can easily use as an excuse to pigeonhole the movement as a leftist pipe dream.

Furthermore—and I know this was in the best of intentions—the decision of the organizers to allow a certain number of tables to these groups was not the wisest move. It presents the Save Our Schools movement with a big image problem. Even if the goal was to allow the most voices to be heard, the perception (and perception is EVERYTHING in DC and beyond) is that SOS is allied with the “lunatic” fringe.

The Interviews – I took a look at the taping of a few interviews by different media outlets. The CNN interviews were actually pretty refreshing, and somewhat even handed—painting the march as a lighter, festive affair. Others, like reason.tv, took a different approach. They were asking tough, often leading questions about the financial aspects of educating a child—much like a libertarian outlet would be doing.

I’m not knocking the interviewers. Reason.tv has a point of view, and they were looking at the march through their lens. Same with CNN, though they are loathe to admit it. The problem, for the most part, is the interviewees. God bless them, they really showed their passion and drive to save public education. Unfortunately, they also showed their lack of chops when confronting a camera, and it played right into the hands of the enemy.

Reason.tv’s coverage was a case in point. If you looked at their interviews, the crew made a point to find those folks with the most provocative posters (it makes for good TV, after all). Yet often the reasoned argument stopped there. When an interviewer asked an exasperated marcher how much should the government spend on a child’s education, she exclaimed “There should be no limit! A billion dollars…”

Sure, there shouldn’t be a limit on a kid’s education. But an emotional response is what these people want—to paint the Save Our Schools movement as a bunch of ideological intellectual blowhards without common sense. Matt Damon, as heated as he was, I think gave a better response to reason.tv. It was more measured and ultimately more instructive to those who will make the real decisions on education.

The Ugly

The weather – Even the Founding Fathers knew better than to stick around the malarial swamp of the District in July and August. Unfortunately, this is no fault of anyone, just a sad accident of history. Thomas Jefferson convinced (or cajoled, or hoodwinked, or bamboozled) Alexander Hamilton over dinner in 1790 to move the capital to the pestilent shores of the Potomac in exchange for Hamilton’s debt-assumption plan (always about debt).

Since most teachers can only travel in the summer, any march for education usually occurs at the worst time in DC—the true dog days of summer. It was great that the local teachers union provided fans and water for the event. True to my word, I sweated my nuts off—and some other body parts, too—along with adding an additional layer of carcinogen to my West Coast-sunkissed exterior.

The previous night’s tippling certainly didn’t help. Some advice for next year: bring water, sunscreen, and a stiff hair-of-the-dog to chase the shakes away before marching on the Mall to the White House.

Like I said, this wasn’t exhaustive. Yet it pretty much covered my thoughts and observations on the weekend. Next time, we’ll look at possible “next steps” in moving forward from here.

Whew, that was a lot. Another drink, everyone?

 

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The Dos and Don’ts of the Common Core Standards

Lately, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) has taken a good piece of my life.

First, it was the beginning of the year meetings that introduced us to the CCLS (then called the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) and how they will impact our instruction. Then came the periodic meetings evaluating student work, supposedly using the CCLS (but often not).

Now, in a frantic pace to stay on the CCLS bandwagon, I’m involved with not one, but two taskforces attempting to integrate social studies instruction and museum education into the new standards.

During the whole time, I didn’t even attempt to read the standards. Maybe it’s time that I did.

The Common Core Learning Standards were part of a two-year long initiative by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Their goal was to provide a uniform set of standards for reading and mathematics nationwide, supplementing the various state benchmarks and standards that had been implemented in the early stages of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The CCLS was rolled out in 2010, and immediately many states jumped aboard. Washington had much to do with the enthusiasm: Race to the Top grants were determined—de facto, if not de jure—through swift and thorough adoption of the CCLS. To date, 48 of 50 states have jumped on the initative (except Texas and Alaska) and 47 of 50 have adopted the standards (Virginia chose not to).

On the surface, the CCLS is a noble idea. It would be an incredible leap for our educational system if a child were held to the same standards in any part of the country—the same way other, smaller countries handle it.

Looking at the standards themselves, however, leads me to believe they are not the silver bullet everyone makes them out to be.

I decided to see how the Common Core stacked up against the old standards used in New York City up until now. Here’s the first elementary standard for reading in the old system:

“E1a: The student reads at least twenty-five books or book equivalents each year. The quality and complexity of the materials to be read are illustrated in the sample reading list. The materials should include traditional and contemporary literature (both fiction and non-fiction) as well as magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and on-line materials. Such reading should represent a diverse collection of material from at least three different literary forms and from at least five different writers.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

It’s what we expect from standards: broad, verbose, and so cumbersome that any set of criteria could fit in here. A combination of Marvel comic books, Mad Magazines, the Onion, the history textbook and some selection from the class library should do the trick. By the way, this is what you’re expected to do once you reach sixth grade.

The CCLS addresses this standard differently, as it does with others: instead of one culminating indicator, there are benchmarks for each year from Kindergarten to 5th for elementary, and from 6th to 12th for secondary. In first grade, the similar CCLS standard for reading would read like this:

“RL.1.10. With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

By fifth grade, the same standard reads like this:

“RL.5.10. By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

It appears that the Common Core has won this round—after all; grade scaffolding seems more palatable than a one-shot deal. Yet look at the old standard compared with the one above: other than the quantity constraints of the old standard, don’t they look suspiciously similar?

Let’s try a writing standard now. In the old standards, we have:

“E2a: The student produces a report that:

• engages the reader by establishing a context, creating a persona, and otherwise developing reader interest;

• develops a controlling idea that conveys a perspective on the subject;

• creates an organizing structure appropriate to a specific purpose, audience, and context;

• includes appropriate facts and details;

• excludes extraneous and inappropriate information;

• uses a range of appropriate strategies, such as providing facts and details, describing or analyzing the subject, and narrating a relevant anecdote;

• provides a sense of closure to the writing.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

The fifth grade standard in the CCLS for report writing is as follows:

“W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

Again, apart from a difference in vocabulary, these two standards bear a striking resemblance.

The Mathematics standards, on the other hand, seem to be a real improvement. Here’s the old standard for 5th grade for using base ten number systems:

“5.N.3 Understand the place value structure of the base ten number system” ~ NYS State Education Department Mathematics Standards

We could all agree that’s pretty lame, even by the already-low standards (no pun intended) of the authors of these standards. The CCLS version gives much more detail:

“5.NBT.1. Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.2. Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10.

5.NBT.3. Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

• Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

• Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.4. Use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

So the new standards are pretty hit-and-miss. There’s a lot of good stuff to get out of them, but also plenty of pitfalls along the way to implementation—and especially assessing them.

First, realize that, especially in English, the CCLS is largely a re-packaging of the standards we have already used—standards that lack much substance to begin with. So for all the hoopla of newness and scaffolding, in the end the final benchmarks will not be so radically different from before.

Second, the “Common” in Common Core is a real misnomer. Many states, including New York, are allowed to tweak or alter the standards to meet the needs of their particular groups of students. This is important, to be sure, but then it no longer makes these standards very “common” anymore. How is this any different from the old state standards?

Furthermore, don’t expect to see a massive overhaul of the standardized testing situation because of these standards—at least not yet. It is claimed that full implementation of the standards, with new assessments, curricula, etc., will be in place by 2015 the latest. I’m guessing we’ll see the new assessments sooner than that, because there will be little new about them. If the CCLS is a re-packaging of the old, then wouldn’t the new tests be a re-packaging of the old, as well?

Besides, if you fuck with those tests too much, Pearson and McGraw-Hill will have a serious chat with you.

Finally, the CCLS does not even address content areas, science and social studies, until the 6th grade, and then it is merely a test of “Literacy in Science/Social Studies.” Those standards are a re-packaging of the re-packaging: a reformation of the English standards to make them more content-specific. Yet no actual content standards are addressed: what actual stuff do kids need to know?

It’s nice how we focus on the process, the skills, the strategies, but without the actual stuff of learning the CCLS—like any set of standards—is really meaningless.

So what can we get from this new initiative foisted on most of us in this country?

Not much, but that’s okay.

To those who are getting their shorts in a knot over the CCLS…relax. It’s not as big a deal as even they think it is. These standards are no more rigorous than the personal set of standards any good teacher uses throughout his/her day. It’s simply a new paper trail for what you already do.

Hopefully it’ll lead to changes for the better. Probably, it won’t.

Just grin and bear through the workshops, lectures, symposia and focus groups—knowing that the next “silver bullet” is coming right around the corner…

…and it’ll be just as effective as the last one.

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How’s this for “Full Disclosure”? A Counterproposal for Publishing Teacher Data

It seems my worst fears have been realized, albeit in a delayed form.

Last year, like so many others, I sounded the alarm on the so-called “rotisserie league” system of teacher evaluation, using stats like baseball cards to determine effectiveness.  At the moment, I thought my lesson had been learned, at least when using Alex Rodriguez as an example.

(By the way, he again is a failure this season, according to NCLB standards)

The recent release of teacher data by the Los Angeles Times has shown the ghastly effects of such unscrupulous shaming.  Morale is at a new low.  Attrition is rampant.  Few would want to enter a school system where taking the courageous stand of teaching children with special needs could land you on the front page with a noose over your head.  Most shockingly, one teacher committed suicide over perceived low scores, even though colleagues and administrators alike touted him as an exemplary teacher.

Now, the grand poobahs in New York City want the same thing.

Last week, the UFT went to court to stop the New York City Department of Education from publishing Teacher Data Report scores for 4-8th Grade teachers in the city.  The TDRs, as they were called, were a program designed to show teachers—and only teachers—how their students have done over time via standardized testing and other assessments. 

The move is so controversial that even the CSA, the principals’ union, broke ranks with the DOE and sided with the teachers.  When the TDRs were implemented last year, principals explicitly told their teachers that the data would be for their eyes only.  Publishing these scores would not only undermine teacher morale, but also the integrity of administrators citywide.

Yet even with the injunctions, motions, stoppages, etc. teachers may probably still face the prospect of public data reports.

Harping about the validity (or lack thereof) of the data or the data collection will do little good.  Nor will the constant chirping of union reps and teacher advocates, since the education reform crowd has already labeled teachers as the enemy.

What’s needed now is a counter-proposal. 

If the city is going to publish teacher data, it must publish student and parent records alongside each teacher’s evaluation. 

If the city wants to make everyone accountable in education, then all the cards should be face-up on the table.  Let’s make data evaluation truly public—after all, we know all the intangibles and background that surround the stats in baseball, basketball, football, etc.  There’s the differences in field surfaces, in flooring, in wind directions, fan attendance: all of which add up to some effect on the overall performance of the individual athletes.

The same could be said for teachers.  If a teacher has a class that cannot read at their grade level, show the records that indicate their improvement, as well as any individual needs, problems, situations that help or hinder the classroom experience.  If a teacher misses some phony cutoff in test scores for bonuses or whatnot, make sure the record shows the anecdotals of the little bastards who never do squat in the room.

Parents shouldn’t be off the hook, either.  Alongside the data reports should be the page upon page of meeting notes with parents—parents who never show up for meetings, parents who get belligerent, parents who “yes” the teacher to death in order to get her off their back.  Yet also show that parents who genuinely try to help, but are often frustrated with the curriculum themselves.  The problem rarely just stops at teacher and student.

Thanks to privacy laws, this proposal will probably never see the light of day.  Yet what makes teachers so worthy of exemption from professional courtesy?

 It can’t be because of our status as public employees: no other public agency would allow such open pillorying of their staff.  Nor is it because of our special relationship with children: parents have an even more intense bond, yet their results are hardly scrutinized in public.

Perhaps it’s because the inhuman, artificial nature of data allows administrators to show that they care about children without ever being involved with children.  It’s like the old line about the imperious city planner Robert Moses, “He loves the public, but he hates people.”

Publishing student and parent data, while a pipe dream, can be an even better way to evaluate a teacher’s performance.  It provides a holistic, broad-based picture of the circumstances each teacher must deal with.  Then, and only then, should test data be considered.

After all, how can you score a baseball game if you haven’t watched a single inning of it?

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Why Cynicism is Necessary in Education Today

“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.” ~ Stanley Kubrick

People need the swift kick in the ass just as much as the pat on the back.

I realized this when I began meandering through the turbulent seas of Twitter.  To be honest, there were selfish motives behind my entry into the Twitter-verse: mostly, to get more people to the Neighborhood.  There must be more people like me that love history, teaching, and the occasional swear word.

Along the way, I stumbled upon internal chats among educators.  It was a potential minefield; a conversation amongst teachers can range from the banal to the caustic.  This one in particular, on the surface, wasn’t too bad: teachers, parents, administrators trading articles, ideas, resources, webpages, etc.   Great stuff, I thought, exactly the thing Twitter excels at: easy transfer of ideas and information.

However, along the way some “tweets” began to sound like the following (I left out the usernames to protect the hopelessly guilty):

“An inclusive classroom is one that includes everyone in learning.”

“Teacher must use creative means to motivate students.”

“We all here know what we need to do. We’ve got to model it and share it and make it ‘the norm.’”

Students need to know what is expected of them, their effort is worthwhile & feel they will benefit from performance.”

“CREATE TEACHABLE MOMENTS with ur kids and grandkids”

“Classroom should be about freedom to learn as needed when needed”

Teachers don’t create learning, but can create effective learning environments. That’s the challenge.”

“Any book/poem/doc. can be analyzed deeper w/carefully crafted, probing questions to ‘enrich.’”

“Best teachers have engaged students because they themselves are engaged in what and who they are teaching.”

“If educators don’t like being judged by test scores, we need to devise alternate data forms. The days of teaching by feel are over.”

(The last one is particularly galling…I’ll bet an unsatisfactory rating thanks to Johnny getting a low reading score will change his tune.)

These are the people I fear and hate in education.  Every one of these statements—every one—is one that is repeated over and over in textbooks, scholarly journals and articles.  I learn nothing, absolutely nothing, from them.    These statements are banal, insipid, and pedantic.  Their authors seem to treat teachers as if they were brain-damaged children.

Worst of all, the education establishment actually leans on these balloonheads for leadership—mostly due to their perfect parroting of the party line.  All the terminology, the buzzwords from “accountable” to “verbalize” (a word I personally detest), thrown up right back at the admins to their devilish glee.

The proof is also in the packaging.  The NCLB crowd loves these yahoos because they convey a “positive” attitude.  It shows in their saccharin-sweet pep tweets on Twitter: “Way to keep it positive!”  “Good positive discussion about our practice.” “Positive attitudes to help all learners.”  The Duncan/Rhee crowd loves these idiots because they package their nonsensical theories with smiles on their faces.

Well, I’ve said this a thousand times: people who smile too much are either insane or up to no good.

Children’s education, especially as children grow older, does not need the constant ray of sunshine.  Sometimes, the dark clouds of cynicism and sarcasm can teach a child far more than the ray of hope behind them.

I’m not saying that teachers need to be loathsome misanthropes, nor should cynicism be applied uniformly: being brutally honest with a kindergarten class will leave a lot of crying eyes and soiled bottoms.  Yet cynicism does have an important place in education, especially amongst students in “disadvantaged” or “economically-depressed” areas (more terminology I loathe).

While the positive idealist (for lack of a better term) makes sure everyone feels “safe” and “involved,” the cynic “keeps it real.” – This is the problem of “candy-coating”, the need to soften the blows of everyday life in order to keep students happy.  It may work with little kids, but the older ones know better: do not try to bullshit the bullshit artists.  If there is bad news, if something happened in the community, I confront it honestly and directly.  Don’t try to placate students with the platitudes of the TFA/NCLB crowd: be honest about the obstacles that students face in this world.  The students respect you more because of it.

While the positive idealist brings out the positive contributions in the past, the cynic displays the past—warts and all. – Nowhere does this crop up most than in social studies.  I see the young go-getter types use social studies and gloss over the dirtier details to get to the points needed to pass the test (since the scores are all they care about).  What a crock.  You want to make kids engaged in history?  Describe in gory detail the lower holds of a transatlantic slave ship, the filthy streets of colonial towns, a Civil War surgery table, or a public execution.  Blood, guts, sex and bodily functions are what make the past exciting and interesting.

While the positive idealist constantly finds the bright side of the problem, the cynic points out what is clearly wrong with the situation – This ties with the need to candy-coat; the positive types who love to “look on the bright side” and see the good in the bad.  Sometimes there is no good.  Sometimes the problem is too obvious or direct that no justification will make it go away.  Cynics are painfully aware of the problems around them, and can conceive a clear diagnosis as to what is wrong.  Yet too many do-gooders see this as being insensitive and not-caring.  Would we care if we didn’t dwell on these problems?

While the positive idealist tries to find “out of the box” solutions, the cynic gets solutions that actually work – Stop reading the education journal, and put down the textbook.  Teachers have been around long before there were even schools of education to warp our minds.  If there is a problem that requires an “out of the box” solution, then it’s probably something that’s beyond your control—besides, it’s important that everyone is accountable for school problems, from Arne Duncan to the little shit in the fourth row who still doesn’t do his homework (and you won’t like my solution to that problem).

In terms of standardized testing, the positive idealist makes it something that it isn’t, while the cynic is brutally honest – Many teachers and principals would be shocked that I would share my honest opinion about standardized tests.  This is due to the unfounded notion that understanding the reality of testing will make students apathetic and not care.  I am very upfront: standardized tests measure only how well you do on a test.  They are not measures of your intelligence.  In my world, there would be no standardized tests.  But that is out of my hands, and out of yours.  The state has decided that these bubbled pieces of paper are what determine your advancement to the next grade, so it’s best for all of us to do our best and get it over with.

(Please let me know of any scoundrel who dares tell a child that a standardized test determines how smart they are.  They will be getting the thrashing of a lifetime from yours truly.  No jury would ever convict me.)

This doesn’t mean that a classroom can’t be a happy, positive place.  It also doesn’t mean that students cannot reach for their dreams and goals.  What the cynic does is place an action plan on the goals/ideas using the critical eye.  You may plan route A, but the curmudgeon in you understands the pitfalls and suggests route B is the better option.  Its realism for the classroom, and can easily coexist with the positive vibes most teachers want/need in their rooms.

In closing, I want to clear up a misconception about us, one that comes up a lot in the Twitter chats and the speeches of “reformers.”  Many people seem to think that because a teacher is cynical, they are automatically selfish and don’t care about their students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I love my students, every one of them.  I care deeply about their education, about their future, about their growth into adulthood.  I may not use the ho-hum terminology reformers like to throw around, but I care.

I’m not in this profession to get high test scores, to create numbers on a chart or an upward-turning graph.  All that is bullshit.  I’m not in this so that my students can do just well enough to get a high school diploma.  I’m not in this to build “lifelong learners.”  A bum on the street can be a “lifelong learner.”  I’m not in this to “activate the intelligences of each child” or to “engage every learner.”

My motives are more lofty—and to Arne Duncan and company, much more sinister.

My goal is to walk into a lecture hall in any Ivy-League university or equivalent (that’s right, Ivy League, not community college) and see my students in the class taking notes.  The lily-white and Asian students may be clutching their purses and wallets at the sight of them.  As my students are called, they dazzle the class with deep, thoughtful and cogent arguments and knowledge—so dazzling that the other students shit in their pants at their aptitude.  They will go on to positions of power and influence in our society: positions once held by children of the highest classes.

It’ll make the upper-class elites in America’s universities tremble.  It’ll give pride to communities like the South Bronx that desperately need real-life heroes.

Most importantly, it’ll finally destroy the NCLB dream of burying working-class advancement under the tyranny of standardized testing.

That is why a cynic named Mr. D is an educator.

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The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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