Tag Archives: Race to the Top

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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A Regent “Responds” to our Social Studies Problem in NYS

Oh where to begin? Now my fight to restore social studies in New York encountered its own Judge Smails.

In the continuing saga about the lack of state testing in grades 5 and 8 in social studies, the New York State Board of Regents managed to whangle Race to the Top money out of  Arne Duncan.  Way to fleece the blind and dumb there, guys!

Now that we had our blood money, I thought we could then proceed to re-establishing the tests that had been abandoned this year for budgetary reasons.  It only made sense, since it was sheer dollars that suspended the tests in the first place.  So I drafted the following to the Regents:

Honorable members of the Board of Regents:

First I would like to congratulate you on winning the Race to the Top Phase II funds for New York State. Even though you had to lie about our assessment data (see page 106 of your application), it was a job well done.

Now that we have Secretary Duncan’s blood money, I hope that one thing can be addressed: When will Social Studies testing in grades 5 and 8 return?

I have repeated sent messages to this regard with no response. Therefore I will be sending you this letter every day until I get a response.

I think the social studies teachers of this state deserve an answer.

 Thank you

This morning, I receive a response from Regent Harry Phillips, III.  Regent Phillips is a resident of the rich suburb of Hartsdale, a Harvard graduate and a successful businessman–everything you’d expect from the rich elite that predominate the board.  His response was the following:

I expect that teachers will give formative tests in all grades for Social Studies.

Harry Phillips

Regent, Judicial District IX

Really, Harry?  You EXPECT teachers to give formative tests?  You think this is Groton, where the old classics are beaten into kids heads because it’s good for them?

This is a response from someone with no experience in a classroom.  I’ve said this repeatedly: if there are no stakes in the game, the game isn’t worth being played.  Teachers will not give social studies the attention it deserves without some form of assessment.  It isn’t out of laziness, but rather time management: with other high-stakes tests to prepare for, social studies takes up too much time if it doesn’t “matter” in the NCLB universe.

So sorry, Harry, but this is a cop-out of an answer.  You can expect all you want, but a mandate would be more forceful, more effective, and more like how a Regent of this great state should act.

If you agree with my assessment of Regent Phillips’ response, send him an e-mail.  Be sure to say I sent you…he likes that.

So, Harry, how about a Fresca?

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The US Education Department’s “Response” to my Race to the Top Inquiry

It seems that not only are Joel Klein and company turning their tail and running from their problems.  It seems the US Department of Education and Arne Duncan are doing the same thing.

Back in late July, around the time I posted this fiery piece on the cancellation of New York State tests in Social Studies for 5th and 8th grade, I had sent letters to the Board of Regents and the US Department of Education’s pointperson for Race to the Top, James Butler.  This is the letter I sent to the Board of Regents on July 20th:

Honorable Members of the Board of Regents,

I write to you to express my disgust and dismay at your recent decision to cut social studies testing in grades 5 and 8.  In so doing, I have written a post on my blog that has been sent to thousands of my readers explaining the plight of this situation, the text of which can be found here:

https://mrdsneighborhood.com/2010/07/20/jim-crow-ism-at-the-board-of-regents-new-york-state-votes-to-end-social-studies-tests-in-5th-and-8th-grade/

I do not want to belittle the fact that in a recession, cuts need to be made.  Of course, costs must be diminished in severe economic times.  Yet I ask you honorable members one question: How is cutting testing in grades 5 and 8 “appropriate and responsible”, in Commissioner Steiner’s words?  If you do care about our high school graduates, who need this knowledge to succeed in the wider world, why take away an effective early indicator of their social studies readiness?  Why take away an impetus for instruction from teachers that understand the importance of history, economics, geography and government.?
Let us be completely honest with each other.  In this world of assessment, if a subject is not assessed in a standardized way, it is not important.  Your action has deemed social studies not only unimportant, but unnecessary.  Social studies cannot be taught out of the goodness of teacher’s hearts: assessment is necessary to make sure children are ready for higher education. Your action will create children so underprepared that it will make New York the laughingstock of the United States in terms of education.

I leave you with a request: please find an alternative solution to this financial problem that does not affect our students.  DO NOT blame President Obama or NCLB, for that is an excuse that is too tired to even contemplate.  What can YOU, as one of the oldest institutions in the state, predating the US constitution, do to solve this problem?

Thank you very much for your time.

I then sent a letter to James Butler at the Department of Education on July 21:
Mr. Butler,

My name is [Mr. D’s real name] and I am a teacher in New York City public schools.  I wanted to bring to your attention an inaccuracy in New York State’s application for Phase II RTTT funds.

In page 106 of New York’s June 1, 2010 application, it states that:

“New York collects yearly test records of individual students under section 1111(b) of the ESEA [20 U.S.C. 6311(b)] program in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as scores obtained on NewYork’s secondary-level Regents examinations (see Appendix C_1_2).”

Yet on June 22, the NY Board of Regents voted to approve the suspension of social studies testing in grades 5 and 8, a serious blow to the achievement of our students.  In a more specific way, however, NY is now no longer compliant with the criteria for funding.  The NY Board of Regents, just like administrators across the country, must be held accountable to their actions.

Please make sure NY does NOT get any RTTT funds unless it returns to compliance and restores full testing on all levels.

Thank you for your time.

To which I received this response yesterday, almost a month after my initial inquiry:

Mr. D’Orazio,

Thank you for your email.  We appreciate your attention to the New York Race to the Top application.  We deeply appreciate the contributions of teachers like you, who are involved in shaping the education system for our nation’s children.  You play the most vital role in ensuring that the next generation is fully prepared for the challenges it will face.  Thank you again for sharing your concerns.

Jessica McKinney

Race to the Top Team

Now, I don’t blame Jessica McKinney.  My guess is that she’s an eager, go get-em intern type that did what she was told and sent me a form letter acknowledging that they did receive my concerns, albeit almost a month late.  She probably’s going off to TFA after her internship is up, so watch out Compton or southside Chicago!

What I am pissed about is that this problem with cutting testing–while at the same time stating the exact opposite on a federal application for funding–isn’t taken more seriously.  Isn’t that perjury?  I mean, New York State outright lied to the federal government.  Yet it seems that the folks running Race to the Top couldn’t care less.

I don’t hate New York: I want it to get the money it should get as one of the larger states.  But damnit, it should be doing it in the best interests of children getting a COMPLETE education.  I urge everyone in the Neighborhood to spread the word about this tepid response to a travesty occurring among social studies instruction in this state and possibly this country.

Race to the Top can be reached at racetothetop@ed.gov.  E-mail Jessica directly and see if it helps.

Still haven’t heard from the Board of Regents, so here’s there contact info one more time:

To contact the Regents as a whole, use the following:

New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Board of Regents, Room 110 EB
Albany, New York 12234
E-mail: RegentsOffice@mail.nysed.gov

The following are the individual Regents and the areas they represent:

2011* Tisch, Merryl H.; B.A., M.A., Ed.D.
Chancellor; At Large
9 East 79th Street, N.Y., N.Y. 10075
Phone: (212) 879-9414    Email: RegentTisch@mail.nysed.gov

2012* Cofield, Milton L.; B.S., M.B.A., Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor; Judicial District VII – Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Yates
98 Hickory Ridge Road, Rochester, N.Y. 14625
Phone (585) 200-6284    Email: RegentCofield@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Bennett, Robert M.; B.A., M.S.
Chancellor Emeritus; Judicial District VIII — Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming
201 Millwood Lane, Tonawanda, NY 14150
Phone: (716) 645-1344    Email: RegentBennett@mail.nysed.gov

2014* Cohen, Saul B.; B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
At Large
14 North Chatsworth Avenue, Apt. 3E, Larchmont, NY 10538
Phone: (914) 834-0615     Email: RegentCohen@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Dawson, James C.; A.A, B.A., M.S., Ph.D.
Judicial District IV — Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Montgomery, St. Lawrence, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington
166 U.S. Oval, Plattsburgh, NY 12903
Phone: (518) 324-2401    Email: RegentDawson@mail.nysed.gov

2011* Bottar, Anthony S.; B.A., J.D.
Judicial District V — Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, and Oswego
120 Madison Street, Suite 1600, AXA Tower II, Syracuse, NY 13202
Phone: (315) 422-3466    Email: RegentBottar@mail.nysed.gov

2013* Chapey, Geraldine, D.; B.A., M.A., Ed.D.
Judicial District XI — Queens
107-10 Shore Front Parkway, Apt. 9C, Belle Harbor, NY 11694
Phone: (718) 634-8471    Email: RegentChapey@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Phillips 3rd, Harry; B.A., M.S.F.S.
Judicial District IX — Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester
71 Hawthorne Way, Hartsdale, NY 10530
Phone: (914) 948-2228   Email: RegentPhillips@mail.nysed.gov

2012* Tallon, Jr., James R. ; B.A., M.A.
Judicial District VI – Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Madison, Otsego, Schuyler, Tioga, Tompkins
United Hospital Fund, Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, 23rd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10118-0110
Phone (212) 494-0777    Email: RegentTallon@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Tilles, Roger; B.A., J.D.
Judicial District X – Nassau, Suffolk
100 Crossways Park West, Suite 107, Woodbury, N.Y. 11797
Phone (516) 364-2533    Email: RegentTilles@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Brooks Hopkins, Karen; B.A., M.F.A.
Judicial District II – Kings
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217
Phone (718) 636-4135    Email: RegentHopkins@mail.nysed.gov

2012* Bendit, Charles R.; B.A.
Judicial District I – New York
111 Eighth Avenue, Suite 1500, New York, N.Y. 10011
Phone (212) 220-9945   Email: RegentBendit@mail.nysed.gov

2013* Rosa, Betty A., B.A., M.S. in Ed., M.S. in Ed., M.Ed., Ed.D.
Judicial District XII – Bronx
Chambreleng Hall, Fordham University, 441 East Fordham Road, Bronx, N.Y. 10458
Phone (718) 817-5053  Email: RegentRosa@mail.nysed.gov

2015* Young, Jr., Lester W., B.S., M.S., Ed.D.
At Large
55 Hanson Place, Suite 400, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217
Phone (718) 722-2796  Email: RegentYoung@mail.nysed.gov

2014* Cea, Christine D., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Judicial District XIII – Richmond
NYS Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities
1050 Forest Hill Road, Staten Island, NY 10314
Phone (718) 494-5306  Email: RegentCea@mail.nysed.gov

2014* Norwood, Wade S., B.A.
At Large
74 Appleton Street, Rochester, NY 14611
Phone (585) 461-3520  Email: RegentNorwood@mail.nysed.gov

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Dear Secretary Duncan: Stop the Rape of Social Studies in America

Dear Secretary Duncan:

(We’re not that formal here in the Neighborhood…is Arne okay?)

You may not know us, Arne, but we do know you.

We know how your corporate mentality, go-get’em attitude and boardroom smile have wowed the spastic, slightly deranged menagerie known as the education establishment.

The goofy minions at Teach for America, the boys who started those KIPP academies, the slack-jawed tweed-types at Teachers’ College all fell for your spell. Lucy Calkins must’ve soiled herself at the sight of you.

We know how as Secretary of Education, you’ve basically continued the half-brained policies of a certain Gentlemen’s C student that we need not mention.  Never mind that those policies have little theoretical or analytical basis, are unrealistic and create a permanent underclass—you’ve got to follow through, just like your jump shots in the vaunted Australian basketball league.

We also know that you’ve got a real hard-on for charter schools (I’m sorry, this is an education blog, we mean “erection”).  We don’t blame you—with little oversight, little control over curriculum and pedagogy, no kids with “special needs”  and no pesky unions to push adequate wages and whatnot, it’s practically a CEO job.  Just give “empowering” goals and let the rest run itself.  That certainly has worked in the past, right?

And speaking of goals, we also know how much you love that buzzword of the moment, “accountability.”  In your world, Arne, that means standardized tests and oodles of data.  Charts now show trends for every stage in a child’s development, in any subject, at any time of day.  Have enough kids fart in the wind or give swirlies to a fat kid in the boys’ room, and you better believe there’ll be documentation on it.   Of course, the teacher’s always to blame.

Finally, we know all about the Race to the Top.  We have to admit, it’s one heck of a devious plot there, Arne.  Only the truly misanthropic and soulless would devise a remake of Glengarry Glen Ross (the movie, not the play) where everyone is Levene and Ricky Roma is already on the board of directors.   So who gets the steak knives?  Does Mississippi get fired?

Yes, Arne, we know a whole hell of a lot about you…but we’re not bastards.  We’re willing to forgive.

In fact, we’re willing to turn the other way on a lot of this, and believe me; it’ll take a lot of effort to do so.

Just as long as you can help us with one little problem.

Arne, stop the systematic rape and persecution of social studies in this country.

I’m guessing you’re like so many of the twits of our educational universe that see social studies—history, geography, government, economics—as subjects best left for secondary school, or best, college where kids with “special needs” won’t have to worry about it.

Social studies is usually the first to be cut, the least of resources, the most crunched in terms of time—and most importantly, the least assessed.

Bet that last one got your attention, Arne, didn’t it.

Yes, social studies does not get the rigorous attention the other “better” subjects get when it comes to the old #2 pencil and scan-tron sheet.  In New York, until recently, there’s only been one state test in 5th grade, then one in 8th grade.  Even these can’t adequately prepare students for the exams in high school.

Now, thanks to our unelected New York Board of Regents, we cannot even administer those last two tests, either.

The Board of Regents voted to cancel testing in social studies in grades 5 and 8 as a cost-saving measure.  We won’t go into the details (you’re a busy man, gutting our public schools and whatnot) except that they saw this as the only alternative to saving testing in the “better” subjects.  Similar votes are probably being conducted in other states as well.

Normally, this would be a state problem, and we wouldn’t be bothering you or cutting into your goofy smiling time.  Yet the Board’s recent action doesn’t jive with a certain application for Phase II funds from a certain contest you’re running.

According to page 106 of New York’s RTTT Phase II application submitted earlier this month, it states that

“New York collects yearly test records of individual students under section 1111(b) of the ESEA [20 U.S.C. 6311(b)] program in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as scores obtained on New York’s secondary-level Regents examinations (see Appendix C_1_2).”

How on Earth does this fit into the Board of Regents’ recent actions?  There’s only one response—they lied to you, Arne.  Because of these cuts in testing, New York State is no longer compliant under the ESEA.  We brought this up in an e-mail to your man James Butler, who’s the point person for RTTT, yet it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Here’s where you can help.

New York was recently named a finalist for Race to the Top.  Great.  We know you also have a bit of a stiffie over New York’s largest city, also named New York.  You love our Oompa-Loompa-like mayor that acts without any thought of popular opinion, and our Nosferatu-esque schools chancellor that dutifully administers policy and takes blame for its failures.

You wouldn’t want them to cut “better” subjects to the kiddies due to lack of funds, would you, Arne?

We think you should really look over New York’s application in this final round.  If New York is to be awarded this grant, it should be on the condition that ALL testing in ALL subjects be restored as soon as possible, preferably by the next school year.  Remember, Arne, that New York is not compliant anymore—hold their ass to the fire because of it.

They lied to you, buddy.  Don’t take that crap lying down.

Besides, pushing for more testing is a win-win for everybody.  You get the data you need to show our kids “progressing”, based on whatever formula your cellar-dwellers devise.  Social studies gets a fair share of time and resources once the fear of assessment is brought back.  Students will learn about their country and its great history—even if it kills them.

Finally, Arne, this action will stop the progressive dumbing-down of our students in terms of their own history , geography and government.  Social studies needs a prominent place at the table of education; don’t relegate it to the kiddie table.

We’ll even sweeten the deal for you.  We’ll get you a cup of coffee—whatever size, whatever blend—on us.

But this comes only after you help restore social studies testing.  After all, coffee is for closers.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Mr. D and the rest of the folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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New York in a “Race to the Top”? See for yourself.

Yesterday the Neighborhood expressed its anger at the NY Board of Regents‘ decision to cut social studies testing in 5th and 8th grade this year.  Let’s contrast this measure with the loft goals specified by the board earlier.

In March, the Board of Regents presented its application as a finalist for federal “Race to the Top” funds.  Attached is the presentation along with the Q & A session that followed.  Notice a couple of things: (a) How the lofty and admirable goals expressed by the Regents are contradicted by their actions; and (b) how little social studies is mentioned as an important subject our students need in their futures.

But wait…there’s more.

Since New York was shut out of Phase I of RTTT, the Regents submitted a Phase II application, linked here, as is the subsequent appendices.  Again, the same litany of lofty goals and rigorous standards, this time backed by charts and graphs.  Please notice page 106, in which New York proudly notes its compliance with federal standards about a statewide assessment and data collection system.  This is an NCLB requirement AS WELL AS a criteria for RTTT funding.  Please notice its response to section 6, as New York responds yes to the following:

“New York collects yearly test records of individual students under section 1111(b) of the ESEA [20 U.S.C. 6311(b)] program in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as scores obtained on NewYork’s secondary-level Regents examinations (see Appendix C_1_2).” ~ Race to the Top Application, Phase II, New York State June 1, 2010, page 106.

Guess what…New York State is now out of compliance.  By not collecting said data through the state testing program in elementary and middle schools, the state cannot in good faith stand by this application.

To be blunt, the New York State Board of Regents is now lying to the federal government.  There, I said it.  Unless the Board of Regents sends an amended application that reflects their change in the testing regimen, New York State should not be eligible for any RTTT funds.

To be even more blunt, put the social studies tests back, and you won’t look like liars and hypocrites.

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Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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