Saturday, November 21, 2009

There Ought to be a Law . . .

This could be a lot of fun. Send in your new laws and we'll post them.

There ought to be a law that says that if you have a teaching license and are assigned to a school, you must teach children in some capacity every day.

There ought to be a law that requires that school principals spend at least one full day per week in a classroom and that school administrators and school board members spend at least one full day per month.
There ought to be a law that stipulates that teachers alone are responsible for the content and design of their professional development meetings and workshops, instead of administrators.
There ought to be a law that eliminates standardized testing and its attendant punishments.
There ought to be a law that states that if a school meets 36 out of 37 NCLB criteria it will be labeled a success instead of a failure, as is now the practice.
There ought to be a law that requires that candidates for any administrative position in the public schools have at least 10 years of classroom teaching experience before applying for the job.
There ought to be a law that allows students to choose which language they are tested in instead of being forced to take tests in English only, especially when taking the tests in their native language would result in higher test scores for the student and for the school.
There ought to be a law that requires state legislators, school administrators, school board members and other policy makers who are complicit in the culture of testing for punishment, take the 5th grade standardized tests and that the results of those tests be published in the local newspaper or online.
There ought to be a law that assures that families of public school students without internet access be given that access at home, along with the necessary hardware and software, until the student graduates or until the family can afford the access themselves.
There ought to be a law that says that those who demand supplemental or redundant data from classroom teachers be the people who collect it and enter it in the appropriate data bases so that teachers can be teachers instead of data entry clerks.
There ought to be a law that requires that school based teachers with a license but no classroom assignment, such as instructional coaches and district content coaches, be placed in classrooms to relieve overcrowding before established classroom teachers are transfered to other schools.
There ought to be a law that clarifies the mission of the public schools as the education of the whole child first and preparation for the workplace a distance second.
There ought to be a law that forces the federal government to take into account factors such as household income, parents' education levels and home language before punishing schools for not making adequate yearly progress.
There ought to be a law that prohibits the local Chamber of Commerce from meddling in the affairs of the public schools.
There ought to be a law that public education be fun, relevant, data lite and student centered, instead of boring, irrelevant, data heavy and adult centered, as has been the trend since the passage of NCLB.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

No News is Good News

If your local newspaper is anything like mine, there are two types of news stories that are invariably negative in tone and content: any story about Africa and any story about education.
Regarding the former, I've just about given up hope. I have lived in both East and West Africa and can tell you that 90% of what happens in Africa on a daily basis is good. Unfortunately, our press focuses exclusively on the other ten percent.
The same is true of education. Although most of what happens in any classroom or any district office can be characterized as good, or at the very least not bad, what gets reported in the local press are the one or two things that went awry last week. And if your local paper is suffering from the inevitable slow news cycle that occurs each year during summer vacation, look for an increase in educational muckraking just to sell papers.
It didn't take long for our local paper to dig some dirt, and when they did, they splashed it on the front and editorial pages: "Poorest Schools Get Lowest-Paid Teachers" and "Investment in Teacher Career Ladder Hasn't Paid Off." What these two articles very strongly implied, with little or no proof, was the following:
  • The three tier teacher salary scale ($30,000, $40,000 and $50,000 base salaries for Tiers I, II and III respectively) was set up to raise student test scores.
  • Tier III teachers leave schools because they don't want to teach low income, minority children who produce low standardized test scores.
  • Tier III teachers are more capable of raising test scores than teachers at Tiers I and II.
  • Standardized test scores are an accurate measure of a teacher's talents and expertise or of his or her students' levels of academic achievement.
  • Grade level or more than grade level gains by students, as measured by classroom based assessments, are irrelevant as long as the student does not also achieve the level of "proficient" on standardized tests.
  • Middle and upper income students with high test scores have their teachers to thank for their "achievement" whereas lower income students with low test scores have their teachers to blame for their "failure."

In response to these unsubstantiated assertions, here are some questions I would like the authors of these articles to answer:

Where is the proof that one of the rationales for establishing the three tier licensure system was to raise students’ test scores? The Public Education Department states that the system was instead established in order to recruit and retain good teachers.

Where are the statistics that prove that teachers leave schools because of their students’ low test scores, ethnicity or income? More than often it is because of the boxed, “drill and kill,” highly scripted and therefore woefully uninspiring curricula the schools are forced to adopt in order to comply with the punishments meted out to “low performing” schools by No Child Left Behind. Because teachers are forced to implement these curricula to the letter, schools become oppressive, unprofessional and disrespectful environments for many teachers. It’s no wonder they leave.

Where is the data that demonstrates that Tier III teachers are more capable of raising scores than teachers at Tiers I and II? In fact, the opposite may be true, since, unlike veteran teachers, new teachers (post NCLB) have been assaulted from day one by test improvement rhetoric and training.

Where is the high quality, investigative journalism that calls into question the validity of the tests themselves? In other words, why are the tests always unassailable while our schools and their hard working teachers and students are consistently the targets of negative reports in the local and national press?

Where is the recognition of the incredible academic gains of many students who begin the school year two years behind and finish the year almost on grade level, but because they are not on or above grade level according to standardized assessments, their achievements go unrecognized and are even labeled as failure?

Finally, where is the evidence that the higher test scores enjoyed by students in mid and upper income schools are due to their teachers’ tier level or teaching expertise instead of their parents’ income and level of advanced education, or their fluency in English? These three factors will remain major players in low test scores unless and until poverty is addressed thoroughly and comprehensively by the public and private sectors of our society.

The questions above remain to be investigated by members of the press who are both conscientious and responsible, qualities that of late are sorely lacking in our local paper. Nonetheless I, for one, would welcome broader and more comprehensive scrutiny of our public schools, instead of the usual scrutiny that prefers to lay the blame of all that is wrong with education at the feet of the students and their teachers.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Testing Part 1: Welcome to Hell

(Note:  This post and the two that follow are about what it is like to be a teacher or student in the classroom during the spring testing frenzy.  It is not about testing politics, a subject worthy of a book of posts.   For info on testing, see or For information on how teachers, students and parents can opt out of the tests, see  Finally, for a musical commentary, listen to Tom Chapin sing "Not on the Test.")

Forget April's Fool's.  Forget the Final Four.  Forget Tax Day and Earth Day.  Forget Shakespeare's Birthday and Armenian Independence Day (April 23 & 24!).  If you're a public school teacher where I live, April is testing month, and believe me, that's nothing to celebrate.  
By the end of the first week, teachers know the politics and procedures of testing so well we hardly talk about it anymore among ourselves.  With a simple nod of the head or facial grimace we can acknowledge how meaningless, wasteful and demeaning the tests are to all those involved.  In fact, after that first week, most of us are focused on simply limping across the finish line three weeks hence so we can get back to genuine, quality instruction; ironically, the very thing standardized testing preempts.  
But what is so obvious and routine to teachers is not necessarily so to everyone else.  Within the last week I have had conversations about testing with a professor, a contractor, a lawyer, a meteorologist, a doctor, a nurse and a journalist.  All are parents of children who attend the local public schools.  However, none of them has a real clue as to what they are sending their kids off to every day during testing month.  And though I haven't spoken recently to any politicians or other educational policy makers—the only people who have the power to stop the tyranny that is standardized testing—unless they are also teachers in our public schools, they are equally clueless as to what they are subjecting our students to.
Therefore, in the interest of educating the public of the realities of standardized testing, I submit to you a three part description of what teachers and students might aptly refer to as Testing Hell.
It starts with a basic understanding of what the test results are used for in the first place: punishing schools who don't progress beyond an invisible and arbitrarily set achievement bar known as AYP (annual yearly progress), a bar that gets raised every year until, by 2014, it will rest at 100%.  That is, by 2014, all students attending U.S. public schools—rich and poor, black and white, regular and special education—must be deemed proficient according to annual off the shelf standardized tests, and these tests alone.  
We know this is statistically impossible and grossly unfair, but it is consistent with the idiocy of the Bush Administration from whence the policy emerged.  In the meantime, punishments of all kinds (too numerous and varied to be mentioned here) will be meted out to schools for not making AYP, no matter how much academic progress their students have made towards the bar, and no rewards will be issued to schools other than the vicarious and fleeting satisfaction that the school has escaped punishment for one more year.  
Incidentally, this strategy of punishment, combined with no rewards for success, creates a situation where teachers and students, and to a lesser degree parents, become the unwitting and unwilling instruments of their own punishment. The punishments are based on test results.  As long as we administer the tests, and as long as students take them and supply us with results, those results will be used to punish us.  Period.  I can think of no better definition of insanity than that of the punished supplying the punishers with the instruments of punishment. 
What's more, each school's test results aren't delivered to the schools until November of the following school year.  This renders them statistically invalid because the results don't take into account the academic growth that has inevitably occurred since the students took the tests in April.  Receiving test results seven months after the test was administered renders the results worthless to the students' current teacher since it was last year's teacher who taught the material on which their students were theoretically tested.  Teachers need fresh data generated by their current students in order to accurately assess areas of need and to adjust their instruction accordingly.  
Finally, it is worth noting that teachers administer classroom-based assessments all the time, assessments that can actually help teachers improve instruction and, consequently, student achievement.  Most teachers consider them far more accurate than any government mandated off-the-shelf standardized test.  However, they are completely ignored by No Child Left Behind.  One step forward, two steps back.  (End of Part 1).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Testing Part 2: The Ten Commandments

Here are this author's Ten Commandments of Testing Protocol, complete with editorial comments at no extra charge!  (All of the "commandments" below were true as of the date of this post.)
  1. Teachers shall not talk about any test item with other teachers or with students.  If they do, they risk losing their teaching license.  (Ironically, this might actually be a good rule, since there are far more worthy causes over which to lose one's license!)
  2. Teachers shall not leave the room for any reason unless there is a certified teacher available to replace them.  If a teacher does leave the room and leaves a non certified but competent adult in charge, every test in the room could be invalidated.  (Now there's an idea!)
  3. Students shall not, under any circumstances, leave the room and return to continue on the same subtest.  If they do leave the room and resume testing, their test could be invalidated.  (This is likely based on the paranoid assumption that the student's motive for leaving the room is to reach a secure location where he or she can send a text message to a student in another room in order to give them the answer to test question #6!)
  4. Students shall not go to the bathroom until after they finish a subtest, only one at a time, and only with an adult escort.  Violating this commandment could lead to test invalidation.  Get out the kitty litter!  (Perhaps this commandment was written in order to make sure students are not secretly meeting in the bathrooms to discuss test questions. Imagine that!  What could be a more titillating bathroom discussion topic to a third grader?!)
  5. Students shall believe with all their hearts that the tests actually matter; that doing well will bring reward and that doing poorly will invoke disagreeable consequences.  (In reality, those who do well and those who don't are punished equally when the school inevitably fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a fate that awaits all but approximately 10% of America's schools by 2014.)
  6. Students shall not have any breaks whatsoever during the administration of a subtest, even if the test lasts two or three hours due to a few slower or more meticulous test takers.  (Is this a test that measures academic achievement, or one that measures physical and mental endurance under stress?)
  7. Students shall waste enormous amounts of time waiting for the last classmate to finish the test.  The tests are untimed.  Therefore, the testing session is over when the last student in the room has finished. Those who finish long before the last student is finished are in a sense held hostage by the last finisher since they must do nothing but read for possibly the next 1 to 2 hours.  (While this is in some sense an improvement over the timed tests of the past—when teachers were instructed to literally rip an unfinished test out of a student's hands when time expired—it also has negative repercussions.)  
  8. Students shall read and read and read again.  If a student finishes early, his or her only option is to read. Never mind the fact that all they've been doing prior to finishing the subtest is read, even in math.  You must read a book!  (If a student finishes early and, God forbid, begins drawing a picture or designing a plan to halt global warming instead of reading a book, this could result in the invalidation of every test in the room!) 
  9. Students shall not arrive late to school on testing days.  This will result in the student spending the entire morning in the office with nothing else to do but keep an eye on the office staff and the principal to make sure they do their jobs! The student must make up the test later that day in an isolated room while the other kids are in their classroom, once again engaged in meaningful learning activities.
  10. Nobody shall criticize the tests without running the risk of being labeled non compliant, uncooperative, disobedient, obstructive, old fashioned, selfish, subversive, or a bad sport.
(End of Part 2)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spring Testing Part 3: O Recess, Where Art Thou?

When all is said and done, however, Testing Hell might best be illustrated not by what is done to us, but what we do to ourselves. Take recess for instance.  At many schools, including ours, morning recess has been effectively cancelled or at least delayed and shortened for third through fifth grades, the grades that take the tests. This may seem necessary due to the fact that the tests are untimed and will therefore not necessarily end before the beginning of morning recess.
In an odd and somewhat cruel twist, outdoor morning recess at our school for kindergarten, first and second grades has also been either cancelled or delayed, both out of "solidarity" with the test takers as well as to not disturb the students who are testing.  While this could be construed as an admirable and even thoughtful gesture, it is draconian and unnecessary. The few distant, joyous voices from the playground that happen to penetrate the classroom walls will hardly distract most kids from their testing. They are used to far greater visual and audial distractions while they work on classroom assignments throughout the year.
And while it may be true that reducing distractions can help children academically, where is the reduction in distractions during the rest of the year when teachers are trying to teach the content that the standardized tests ostensibly assess?  Why don't we prohibit classroom phones from ringing, intercom announcements, recess bells, fire drills and hallway distractions during the rest of the year when concentration is no less important than during testing month?  
But the most important question is:  why are we punishing young children who are not even taking the tests?  Won't they be punished enough when they get to third grade?  Do we now feel we have to take the kindergarten, first and second graders through punishment training?  Is it so they will be better adapted to withstand even more punishment when they reach third grade?!  Are we so incredibly brainwashed by the national testing frenzy that not only do we willingly submit ourselves and our intermediate students to Testing Hell and its inherent punishments, but we also feel obliged to train their primary level counterparts for the punishment they will receive in the future?
Testing is, well, hell.  The flames are hot enough.  The devils in charge of fanning the coals and feeding the fires do not need any help from us.  Wake up teachers.  Wake up parents.  Wake up administrators, school board members and politicians.  It's time to grab the firehoses and extinguish the fires of hell once and for all.  Our children and our schools deserve it.  (End of Part 3.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sink or Swim

  Part 1
Like all veteran teachers, I occasionally encounter situations where I am reminded how long I've been teaching.  This is especially true each time it is brought to my attention that many of my colleagues began teaching after No Child Left Behind became law. The law went into effect in 2002, but for some new teachers, that was an entire career ago.  These teachers know teaching only within the context of the new world order established by the law. Due to no fault of their own, they lack the perspective another educational paradigm would afford them, a perspective necessary in order to accurately judge the merits of the post NCLB world.  When my younger colleagues struggle to fully understand my frustration and anger over this law, I try my best to explain what it was like before the law was enacted and how we got where we are today.
A long time ago, before schools were punished for their test scores; before program fidelity; before boxed curricula, scripted lessons and pacing guides;  before design teams, Baldrige, and Response To Intervention; before disaggregated data, data collection frenzies and talk of vouchers and merit pay; before these and other draconian measures were applied to education in an attempt to fix it, there were good teachers, bad teachers and a lot of average teachers.  I estimate the proportion of good and bad teachers at about 25%, respectively, with the middle 50% representing average teachers.  And the 25% of good teachers weren't just good; they were very good.  Likewise, the 25% of bad teachers weren't just bad; they were likely doing damage to their students' overall education.  And the 50% in the middle were teachers who virtually no parent would complain about.
How did the good teachers get so good and the bad teachers so bad?  When I was a new public school teacher in the late 1980s, I entered a classroom not unlike those of 50 or 60 years before; that is, a classroom virtually devoid of instructional materials.  What passed for materials were, as you might guess, shelves and shelves of bland, sterile textbooks.  In this environment, a new teacher was likely to either sink or swim.  That is, a teacher could choose to swim to the highest levels of instructional creativity by shoving the textbooks aside in favor of developing curricula and materials on her own.  This would necessitate working hundreds of hours beyond the duty day and spending hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars of her hard earned money on materials.  But the result was invariably an accomplished, creative, enthusiastic teacher whose dedication to teaching and effectiveness as a teacher were directly proportional to the degree of ownership she believed she had in the instructional process.  
The logical alternative to swimming was, of course, to simply sink slowly into the void of professional and material support while relying on textbooks as instructional life preservers. This choice resulted in a corps of bad to mediocre teachers who felt no ownership of the educational process and whose instructional practice was consequently as bland and sterile as the textbooks they felt obliged to use.  
As we all know, the largest group of teachers, the middle 50%, practiced some combination of sinking and swimming.  Call it treading water.  They mostly turned out to be teachers who weren't all that bad . . . . nor all that good.  
Part 2
In 2001 the Bush administration set about to correct what it considered a sorry state of affairs.  Its core strategy, which was based on the belief that most teachers were bad and that bad teachers were the problem in education, was to offer private school vouchers to students who wanted an escape plan from bad or average teaching.  That way the government would not have to actually fix the problem;  just offer a privatized alternative to it, privatization and deregulation being the Bush administration's cure du jour for most of our country's ills, from education to war.  Much to the administration's dismay, however, the voucher provision was jettisoned at the last minute in order to garner votes from Democrats.
The law's new focus became the establishment of minimal teaching standards and curricula for all teachers so that, at the very least, no child who found herself "stuck" in the public schools would be obliged to be the victim of bad teaching; that is, so no child would be left behind in the classroom of a bad teacher.   
This was, incidentally, just shy of the administration's dream solution:  marginalizing teachers altogether and delivering instruction directly to students.  But of course, as things are currently structured, instruction can't yet be delivered directly to students without teachers.  So the federal government has done its darndest since 2002 to cultivate a corps of compliant, non combative teachers and administrators in order to further its agenda.  The federal government has already completely circumvented America's teachers when it comes to the administration of standardized tests.  Circumventing teachers in order to implement the government's preferred curricula is not inconceivable.
At any rate, these new minimal teaching standards and materials emerged from the obedient and autocratic design teams as low level, prepackaged curricula that were so basic and foolproof that essentially anyone with a college degree (or less) could read the instructions and carry out the activities. Furthermore, they were designed to sit neatly on the line that separated the 25% of bad teachers from the 50% of average teachers.  That way, the government could rest assured that the teaching standards and materials would be within reach of even the worst teachers. 
The final step in this solution was to apply pressure to the bad teachers in order to force them to either buy into the plan or get out of teaching altogether.  If they choose to stay and were competent enough to read the instructional script and carry out the prepackaged activities, they would be magically transformed into average teachers:  teachers no parent would complain about.  Problem solved. 
Part 3
Well, sort of.  When one lowest common denominator is established and enforced for all teachers, it is obviously positioned below the competence levels of most of the average teachers and far, far below those of the best teachers.  And since, like bad teachers, these good and average teachers are subject to the same rigors of program fidelity, they too are forced down into the lowest allowable levels of acceptable teaching practices.  All instruction is essentially dumbed down because no one is teaching outside the box anymore.  This is exactly what is happening today.  The result is a national teaching corps that, overall, is destined to be worse than that which existed prior to NCLB.  
  This movement downward in teacher competence and autonomy consequently creates a rapidly shrinking cadre of good teachers who question and resist the new order (or who have gone completely underground) but who, because of their reduced numbers, can be successfully marginalized and labeled as disgruntled old fogies who have lost the ability to change with the times.  With good teachers marginalized and all teachers forced into lockstep obedience to low, generic teaching standards and practices, the administration can claim a double victory: saving children from being victims of the worst teaching practices while gradually steering public schools to such low levels of instructional competence that private schools and their vouchers will remain palatable to politicians and the public for a long time to come.
Since NCLB has partially succeeded in establishing practices that virtually guarantee that new, good teachers will neither develop nor thrive, does that mean that in order to turn back the damage that NCLB has inflicted means necessarily returning to the pre NCLB world of sink or swim, where at least there was some guarantee that some good teachers would emerge?
Of course not.  Instead, it calls for a reasonably differentiated teaching corps whereby those who need basic support and materials in order to survive for their first few years are provided with what they need, while those who don't need it any more, or who never needed it in the first place, and who have demonstrated that they are far more effective teachers without the constraints of prepackaged lessons and the expectation of fidelity to the program, are encouraged to draw from the well of professional creativity and teach the way they know is best. (Thanks to Tom Keyes at the University of New Mexico for the kernel of this idea.)
As we frequently tell our students, equal isn't always fair.  To treat teachers at all levels of experience and talent as beginning teachers, as NCLB does through its various "solutions," is insulting to veteran teachers and discouraging to intermediate teachers.   But is it especially disheartening to beginning teachers as they watch their intermediate and veteran mentors work overtime to undermine federal mandates while they simultaneously slog toward a sad and anticlimactic retirement whose original promise of blissful relaxation has been transformed into a burning desire to simply stop the pain.  
This is the story I tell new teachers.  One lesson we can draw from the story is that we can both acknowledge the shortcomings of the past while valuing its successes.  The lesson from the other story, the one told by NCLB, is that throwing the good teachers out with the bad is a viable solution. When you do that, when you throw the baby out with the bath water, you are left with nothing but a soggy yard and an unhappy baby; a baby who, now deprived of water altogether, will never learn to sink or swim, but will forever tread the dry sands of mediocrity.