Tag Archives: Student

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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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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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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