Tag Archives: Standardized Testing

What’s in a Test?

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Supporters of the Common Core have to reckon with one immutable truth: testing does not measure everything. Whether or not it measures anything important at all is up for debate. The fact that it does not measure everything is beyond dispute.

Last year I had a student in my 11th grade United States History class. Let us call her Tammy, which is not her real name. Tammy’s grades on homework assignments and exams were not the lowest and not the highest. From September until June she maintained a fairly average grade. I do not recall her bombing any exams or missing an appreciable amount of homework. She was consistently in the middle of the pack.

Tammy is a fairly typical student as well. She is into the same teenaged things that her peers also enjoy: the urban slang, the fashion, the music and everything else right on down the line. She strikes me as a student who, typically, sees school as something that people just do. I would imagine the prospect of going to school every day does not necessarily fill her with joy, nor does it fill her with dread.

In other words, Tammy is what you might call a kid who flies under the radar.

By the end of the year, however, she did break away from the pack in one important respect. Like many other history teachers, I try to infuse some current events into each lesson. Usually, this means shedding light on a particular modern-day problem which is a holdover from the past. This is a way to show students that history, especially American history, is not a neat straight line from barbarism to civilization. Not everything that happens is a step in an enlightened direction. Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. While this might be true, this arc is made up of small zig-zags and dead ends. These are the things to which I try to draw my students’ attention.

As time went on, Tammy seemed to really start to care about the problems that comprise the zig-zags and dead ends of the moral arc. She would ask questions that demonstrated this. Hers were not questions meant to clarify what was going to be on the next exam. Instead, she asked questions that showed she was starting to plumb the depths of the problems of the world around her. She seemed genuinely interested in injustices like poverty and racism that still dog the United States today, despite the portrayal in most textbooks that we have reached the end of history where these problems really no longer exist. Her mind seemed to be opening up to the world around her, which is always my number one goal for my students.

When it came time to take the United States Regents Exam in June, Tammy passed quite easily with a good grade. The only problem was that she had never passed the Global History Regents Exam from the previous year. She took it at the end of 10th grade, then in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, then in the middle of the 11th grade and then at the end of the 11th grade and she failed each time. In each case she got a grade in the lower 60s, which is to say that she barely failed.

The Global exam is a little tougher than the U.S. History exam. It tests a two-year curriculum as opposed to the one-year curriculum in U.S. History. It also demands a little bit of knowledge about every place in the world, as opposed to U.S. History that demands knowledge about one country. Students generally receive lower grades on the Global exam than the U.S. exam.

Unfortunately for Tammy, the Global exam is a requirement for graduation. She has completed every other class and Regents test required for graduation except for this one. This past summer, as she was waiting to take the latest version of the exam, I saw her in the lobby of the school with flash cards. It was obvious that she had been studying. It was also obvious that the exam was weighing heavily on her mind. She seemed genuinely concerned that she would not be able to graduate due to this test. She has two more cracks at this exam before she is scheduled to graduate in June. It would be a shame if one silly exam in one subject held her back from moving on.

Tammy’s situation is a perfect example of what is wrong with the obsession over standardized testing. Thanks to the Common Core and the Race to the Top teacher evaluations, students in each grade stand to be tested several times a year. These tests do not exist to help schools or students. They only serve to punish them. Students will be left back and teachers will be fired if kids fail these exams. It is the stick of education reform promising to beat us all over the heads.

How can you test the fact that Tammy started to gain an appreciation for American History? How can you test the fact that she started opening her mind to the world? In 5 or 10 years, Tammy might become deeply involved with some cause or dedicate her life to bettering the human condition in some way, all because of a seed that was planted in high school. There is no way to test that.

The corporate purveyors of standardized exams and the Neoliberal cheerleaders of Common Core do not care about any of these things. One can only surmise that they do not want teachers to plant seeds. Testing will do nothing but turn schools into test-prep centers. It will encourage no other goal than gaming the next exam. Despite their claims of preparing kids for the “21st century”, the Arne Duncans and David Colemans of the world only wish to prepare our kids for the next round of bubbles to be filled in. They only wish to encourage the type of myopic, short-term thinking that led to the Wall Street crash in 2008.

Just like the Common Core encourages kids to do, the Wall Street banksters who tanked the economy never looked beyond the slips of paper that were in front of them. Context and how their actions might be affecting the wider world did not register at all. The types of seeds their greed might have been planting were irrelevant to them. The education reformers, many of whom are straight from the financial world, wish to train the next generation to be exactly like them.

I sincerely hope Tammy is able to eke out a passing grade on the next Global exam. She should know that the fact she has not been able to reach some arbitrary cut-off number on a three-hour exam does not speak to her ability as a student or as a human being. It speaks to the twisted incentives put in place by those who run our education systems. She has done her part by coming to school, studying and waking up to the world around her.

Unfortunately, this testing craze is just beginning to heat up. The reformers are salting the earth to ensure that no seeds will ever be able to grow again.

The Power of Opting Out

There is always a choice.

There is always a choice.

This piece was originally written for Schoolbook who did not see fit to pick it up. Why let it go to waste? 

Opting out is becoming a form of educational civil disobedience.

Certain school districts in upstate New York are starting to opt out of the new teacher evaluation system mandated by Race to the Top. A group of courageous parents in Washington Heights recently opted their children out of a standardized exam that was being given for no other reason than to evaluate their teachers. A nationwide opt out movement has been afoot for some time as a response to the testing mania that has accompanied the current wave of education reform.

Opting out is empowering because it shows the rest of us, whether we are parents, students or educators, that we still have choices in an era of so much top-down control of our education system.

Teachers should take heart from these examples. I teach history in a solid public high school with wonderful students. The new Race to the Top evaluations are subjecting my students to more testing than ever before. It breaks my heart to see them spending so much time filling in bubbles when they can be in a classroom engaged in actual learning.

As teachers, our ratings and livelihoods hinge upon how our students fair on these exams. On top of this, our administrators have to observe our teaching more than they ever have before. Many of my colleagues have been scrambling to bring their teaching in line with the new evaluation regime. For my part, I have decided to opt out.

Sure, I cannot prevent my administrators from walking into my classroom to observe me. I cannot prevent my students from wasting their time taking exams. But I can prevent myself from scrambling to conform with a system that I know for a fact to be odious and destructive.

Teaching is the only career I have ever had. All of my teaching years, 14 to be exact, have been spent in New York City’s Department of Education. My methods have been informed by the veteran teachers who took the time to mentor me when I was green. My style has been shaped by the countless students who have let me know, one way or another, what works and what does not work. If not for my colleagues and my students, I would not be the teacher that I am today.

This is why I have decided to make no compromises with the new evaluation regime. I will not allow the regime to change a single thing I do as a teacher. I owe it to my colleagues to opt out in this way in order to give them hope that we do not have to give ourselves over to this new system. I owe it to my students to shield them, as much as possible, from the odious effects of this so-called “reform”.

This does not mean that I will not take risks with new materials, assessments or approaches to teaching. It is quite the opposite. A good teacher modifies and refines their style all of the time. What it does mean is that the changes I make will in no way be informed by the new system. Instead, I will continue to listen to my colleagues and students the way I have been doing for the past 14 years. This is what opting out means to me.

Bureaucracies, especially one as unwieldy as the Department of Education, have a tendency to make us feel as if we do not have choices in what we do. There are always choices. Sure, all of us have to make certain compromises in order to get along in the system. I have made the decision to make as few compromises as possible when it comes to the quality of education my students receive. This new system requires too many unacceptable compromises of me. Therefore, I will merely opt out of this system by pretending it does not exist in my classroom.

If this results in me being rated “ineffective” then so be it. At least I can sleep at night knowing I did right by the students I serve.

How New York City Can Rid Themselves of the Race to the Top Evaluations

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson's rubric.

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson’s rubric.

Teachers at my school keep asking me: “What is the union going to do about this new evaluation system?”

My response is: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

This new evaluation system is brought to you by our union. It was Michael Mulgrew, president of our beloved UFT, who accompanied Andrew Cuomo to Washington, D.C. when New York State was applying for Race to the Top.

It was Michael Mulgrew, as well as NYSUT president Richard Ianuzzi, who negotiated the framework that mandated 40% of our evaluations be based on standardized test scores. We were assured by UFT leadership, including Leo Casey, that collective bargaining would cushion the blow of this framework at the local level.

When collective bargaining broke down earlier this year over Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg’s inability to agree on a “sunset clause”, it was Mulgrew who signaled his willingness to abide by any system that State Education Commissioner John King saw fit to foist upon us.

Every step of the way, Mulgrew and Unity leadership were there telling us how great this new system would be. They told us it will be “objective”, thereby preventing abuse by administrators. They said it would give us valuable feedback about our teaching practices.

The bottom line is: our union has been complicit in this evaluation system. They have cast their lot in with this evaluation system. How likely will they be to do a complete 180 and say “sorry, our mistake”?

Not bloody likely at all.

Some teachers in New York City have been heartened by the prospect of a new mayor, one who promises to be more sympathetic to public workers. While all signs point to a Bill de Blasio mayoralty, which would be a major improvement after 12 years of Pharaoh, do not fool yourself into thinking that this new system is going away.

There are two reasons why I say this. First, the evaluation framework is state law, something over which New York City mayors have no say. Second, our union will not fight to get rid of this framework since they helped give birth to it.

Some teachers envision Mulgrew and de Blasio sitting down at contract negotiations next year, exchanging laughs and slapping each other on the back. They envision retro pay, a cost of living increase and an end to this evaluation system. While the former two things might happen (indeed, they might be the only things to come out of negotiations), the latter will not happen.

Michael Mulgrew will never push de Blasio to do away with the system he helped conceive.

If we want a chance to do away with this system, there is only one way to go about it: fight.

The rank and file of the union has to band together and move the Unity leadership of the UFT to change things, at least the things about this system that can be changed at the local level. We can start by signing the petition being passed around by MORE.

This, unfortunately, will not be enough. Even if we push the UFT to fight against this system, it is still state law. That means a bigger grassroots effort will be necessary.

We can start with administrators. Many administrators throughout the city are not happy with the new evaluation regime. Not only does it give them more work, those who are veteran educators generally feel demeaned by the deskilling of their job implied by the so-called “Danielson” rubric. Grassroots teachers must make common cause with administrators, even if it means holding our noses in some cases.

While we engage administrators, we also must engage parents. This will be much more difficult. Many of our parents are disengaged. Some of our parents want more testing. Most importantly, many of our most savvy and vocal parents send their children to charter schools, where this new evaluation system does not affect them. We can at least make common cause with sympathetic parent organizations, like Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters and the feisty Change the Stakes group.

Even if we pull all of these things off, an unlikely scenario under the best of circumstances, it still will not get the state law repealed. The reformy money wields too much influence in Albany and Cuomo is too infatuated with his self-image as a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer and a “lobbyist for children.”

So why do all of this?

Recall earlier in the year when Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg reached their impasse over the sunset clause. It looked like NYC would not have a new evaluation system after all. That is when John King stepped in and threatened to withhold Race to the Top money, as well as Title I money.

Grassroots pressure from teachers, administrators and parents will not work on the Albany crowd but it might just work on Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a public school parent, he might come to oppose all the new testing mandated by this evaluation system. Even if his son, who attends my alma mater at Brooklyn Tech, would be shielded from these tests, he might sympathize with other parents whose children come home from school with testing anxiety. With enough public pressure, he might be the one to pull NYC out of this system.

Predictably, King will huff and puff about withholding funds. Let him huff and puff. Those Race to the Top funds are only enough to pay for new testing anyway, so he can keep it. When he threatens to cut off Title I money, let him be sued by the union and every major civil rights organization with a chapter in the State of New York. Not only will he eventually be forced to fork over that Title I cash, he will ruin his own and Cuomo’s reputation to boot.

As far as I can see, this is the only formula for totally getting rid of this evaluation system. If it seems far-fetched, that is only because it is. The moral of the story is that these evaluations are here to stay until our union or our political landscape change radically.

The First Day of Philosophy Class

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As some of you might already know, I’ve been teaching an elective philosophy class at my school for the past 8 years. We meet every Wednesday afternoon for 8 weeks. After that, the students choose another elective and I get to teach a whole new group. Our first class of the year this past Wednesday reminded me why I chose to teach philosophy to high school students in the first place.

I came in that morning to find the roster for the philosophy class in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, my eyes started to scan down the list of students to get an idea of the type of class I could expect. Only students in grades 10 through 12 get electives (that is to say, no freshmen), so chances are I would know most of the names even if I never previously taught them. It was a relatively huge roster. There were exactly 30 students listed even though our electives usually top out at around 20. Out of those 30, 25 of them were students to whom I had taught history in years past. At least I would not have to spend too much time introducing myself to them and catching them up on class rules. It was a class I was looking forward to meeting.

What was especially heartening was the fact that many sophomores I taught last year as freshmen had signed up. This was the first time in their high school careers that they had the opportunity to choose an elective and they chose philosophy. What did that mean? I was probably going to start to find out once class started.

The bell rang and they started filing into the room. At this point it would be my usual practice to direct the kids to take seats towards the front. I did not even bother this time because practically every chair in the house was filled before the late bell rang. There was a thought question on the board for them to answer: “what do you think philosophy is?” There were many great answers that I listed on the blackboard. As we wound up this initial discussion, I noticed a look of disappointment on some of their faces when I informed them that the point of philosophy was to ask better questions. I told them that if they left this class thinking they know the meaning of life, then they are doing philosophy incorrectly. Instead, they should leave here knowing which questions are appropriate to ask. This bit of advice seemed like a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

They started to perk up however when I told them that our first lesson of the year was going to be about how to make people look stupid in a debate. That is how I sold it to them anyway. This is my usual springboard into the lesson on how to construct an argument. We took a tour through the usual introduction to philosophy fare: syllogisms, premises, conclusions, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and straw men. While all of these are powerful concepts, they seemed to really take to the discussion we had on the difference between lies and truth.

One of the syllogisms we studied was: “Paul never lies when he speaks. Paul is speaking. Therefore, Paul is speaking the truth.” I asked them whether or not this was a valid argument. Practically everyone agreed that it was. As they thought the case was closed and sought to move on to the next syllogism, they sensed that I was not totally buying their answer. I asked them why this argument might not be valid. When a senior raised her hand to say “just because Paul is not lying does not mean he is speaking the truth”, one of those “a-ha moments” on which we teachers thrive rippled through the room.

It was at this point that we started discussing truth. Can there not be a rather large space between lies and truth? What is more: is this not the space that most of us (and the rest of the world) occupy? This was their first encounter with philosophical grey area. I informed them that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfort might call this space “bullshit“, a tidbit that never fails to cause chuckles. We went through a few daily examples of bullshit that they would know well, like commercial advertising or when teenagers try to deceive adults. Many knowing grins lit up across the room once the kids heard an example of bullshit with which they were able to identify. If we had time we could have even discussed the quote from the great diplomat Talleyrand (one of my favorite historical figures) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Towards the end of the period we started discussing hidden premises. Most arguments they will encounter in real life are not going to be cut-and-dry syllogisms. People are always injecting their biases into things, and these biases are their assumptions. They seemed to be taken with the idea that they might be able to learn how to recognize someone else’s assumptions. However, what I really believe they learned was the fact that assumptions existed. The bell rang just as we were going to go in depth on the matter. I suppose this is what next week will be for.

I believe this particular class taught me a thing or two about today’s teenagers. They seemed to genuinely appreciate the discussion on bullshit and hidden assumptions. This can probably partially be explained by the fact that they recognized themselves and their own thought patterns in these things. However, I think they also recognized that the world around them, the world of school, pop culture and Facebook, is laden with hidden biases and outright bullshit. They have a general sense that they are being lied to but have not been able to really pinpoint how. By the end of the class, I believe they started to stir with the idea that they might end up being able to expose the world around them for what it really is.

These students have spent most of their school careers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education. They have been bombarded with standardized exams and sanitized curricula for most of their lives. School to them has been a series of fill-in-the-bubble exercises. They have to fill the bubbles in on exams. They have to carry out the appropriate work units in their classes to get good grades. If their grades are lacking, they just ask for extra work units that will help them fill in the gaps until they reach a number with which they are satisfied. On their own time (and even on school time), they fill in the bubbles on their Facebook profiles, Twitter updates and text messages.

All of their time has been spent on exhibiting the appropriate outward behavior. They have learned that certain types of behaviors yield them certain rewards, like good grades or enhanced social status. The obsession with “achievement” and “success” in Bloomberg’s DOE is echoed in society at large. People only seem to care about what they do. However, philosophy reveals to them what they are.

Most importantly, philosophy is one of the only times in their school careers when they will honestly be challenged to question everything. Why are you required to do certain things? Why do you believe you have to do certain things? Why do you believe school/society wants you to do these things but not other things? It is an exercise in critical thinking. It is an exercise that is dangerous to the people in charge.

The overwhelming turnout for this first philosophy class of the year was a sign. Their general enthusiasm on the first day of philosophical discussion was a sign. How they received the ideas of bullshit and biases was a sign. Our children thirst for something higher. They thirst for it because they have never been encouraged to explore it. The school system is doing a bang-up job of extracting the curiosity, the thinking, the discovery and the fun out of learning. The reformers of the world want our children to be disengaged students because disengaged students become disengaged citizens. They are being molded into non-citizens.

By the end of this philosophy course, I hope the kids are able to discover why questioning is much more valuable than answering. Perhaps instilling within them a knack for questioning now will keep a fire burning within them that no amount of bubble-in exams can extinguish.

SEVEN SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE FOR NYC PUBLIC SCHOOLS

New York City teachers come back to work tomorrow after an early Spring Break. Just in time too because rumblings of change are everywhere here in the city. The nation should have its eye on what happens in the New York City school system over the next year or two.

Together, the 7 Seals of the Apocalypse are on the horizon for our education system. This doesn’t mean that I think NYC public schools will disappear. It means that, if they were to disappear, these would be the things that will do us in.

First Seal – False Prophets 

“I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”

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Elections for new leadership in the union will take place shortly after we return to work tomorrow. The Unity Caucus, who has had a stranglehold on power from its inception, is facing a challenge from MORE this year. Don’t be surprised if MORE has some measure of success in this election.

The Unity Caucus has been running a non-campaign: not engaging with or acknowledging MORE in any way and not taking any public actions or stances recently so they don’t risk alienating more teachers. If we hear anything, it will be about how Unity brings us “experienced” and “competent” leadership.

Michael Mulgrew and the rest of Unity are the false prophets upon our land. They will speak about how they did not cave to Pharaoh Bloomberg’s impossible teacher evaluations, then they will cave soon after the elections are over. Unity will play nice with teachers over the next month, then will do a whole bunch of selling out once elections are over. Seeing as how they have three years before they face another election, they will try to get all of their selling out done over the next two years in order to give us a chance to forget before the 2016 elections.

Second Seal – War 

“Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.”

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New Yorkers will be voting for a new mayor this year after 12 years of the Reign of Pharaoh Mike I. The Democratic Party in NYC is locked in a battle over who will win the nomination and, thereby, the Mayoralty. Presumably, the favorite is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the woman responsible for allowing Bloomberg’s illegal third term to sail through the City Council. She is the person who many New Yorkers just assume to be a BloomClone.

The Red Horse of the apocalypse is supposed to be a good guy, but the red warrior in this election is most definitely fighting for the dark side. Quinn is the quintessential political operator who believes in nothing and stands for nothing. Her plan for the schools is Bloomberg Lite. She went out of her way to block the paid sick leave bill and then reversed herself when some of her biggest endorsers threatened to retract.

If Quinn ends up winning the war, our schools will not have proper leadership for the foreseeable future. This is the woman for whom the UFT wants us to wait because she would give us a “fair” contract, unlike Bloomberg. Unity’s entire “wait for the next mayor” approach to contract negotiations under the guise that the next mayor is going to be our Great White Hope is laughable.

Third Seal – Famine

“Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’”

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The “economic crisis” is a term that hangs over us with a sense of permanence. Despite the fact that the federal government and private industry are throwing more money into the education world than ever, the poor state of the economy will continually be used as an excuse as to why less and less money finds its way into our classrooms.

We have seen the deterioration of most after school programs outside of bare sports funded by the Public Schools Athletic League. Art and music have been nixed, foreign languages are starting to feel the pinch and the handwriting is on the wall for Global History. Our curriculum will be streamlined based upon what is tested and the only subjects tested are the subjects that will keep us “competitive” in the 21st century. Everything will be cut away except testing and STEM subjects. The specter of “budget cuts” will be the handmaiden facilitating this bare-bones education.

Fourth Seal – Pestilence 

“I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”

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The plague of standardized testing promises to grow and deepen over the next few years. A vast amount of resources have already been spent on reorienting the entire education system coast-to-coast around standardized exams. The richies who have plunged billions of dollars into the emerging testing economy will not abandon their precious investment without a protracted fight.

For high school teachers here in NYC, the new scoring policy for the Regents Exams will ensure chaos. Most importantly, it will lead to an across-the-board dip in all test scores. In his final year as the “Education Mayor”, Pharaoh Bloomberg will once again be embarrassed when the test scores by which he used to measure his own “progress” end up showing exactly the opposite. It will be a fitting kick in the pants for Bloomberg on his way out of the door.

On the other hand, it will be a sad development for the teachers who remain in the system because the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse is:

Fifth Seal – Martyrdom 

“When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of The Word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’”

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Once UFT elections are over, you can be assured that a deal for a new evaluation system for teachers will be squared away. Although we can’t know the details, we do know for sure that it will cause an unspeakable amount of suffering everywhere in the city.

Teachers will be judged by their students’ test scores or, more accurately, by how much “value” they “add” to the learning of their students. We will also be forced to conform to the “Danielson” rubric, named for its inventor who has a questionable education background and questionable motives for pushing her rubric. Combined with the dictate that two “ineffective” ratings in a row is grounds for termination, many good and dedicated teachers in New York City will lose their jobs.

These are not even the things that concern me the most about the evaluation system to which our union leaders agreed. The most disturbing part is how it weakens an already anemic system of due process for teachers. Restoring the integrity of due process (making it harder for principals to trump up charges against teachers, making teacher investigations open and fair and having a rational standard for handing out penalties as decided by fair labor arbitrators) should be among the highest priorities of our union leadership. Instead, they have proven willing to allow due process to rot away until we are as protected as teachers in “right to work” states.

Sixth Seal – Signs from Heaven

“There was a great Earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.”

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It looms on the horizon like a conquering army. Every teacher in New York City knows that “Common Core” is coming in 2014. Everyone inside of every school building in the vast majority of the country will have felt Common Core’s presence by then, if they have not done so already. We did not ask for it. Parents were not necessarily clamoring for it. But, like every seal of the apocalypse, it came despite our wishes.

Some people like the Common Core and others believe it is a tolerable system. No matter what you think of the content of the Common Core, the intention is obvious: to institutionalize the standardized testing regime on a nationwide basis. Imagine a uniform standardized exam that every child in the country has to take every year? Can you imagine the windfall for companies like Pearson and Wireless Generation (whatever it is called now)?

The idea of national standards for public schools has traditionally been a goal of progressives. It was a policy originally devised to motivate states to uplift their worst schools to the level of their best schools. Despite the long-time progressive pressure for national standards, it only became a reality when businessmen realized there was money to be made and a working and consuming population to be dumbed down as a result.

Seventh Seal – Trumpets of the Apocalypse 

First Woe – “And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth.”

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Michelle Rhee recently invaded New York with her lobbying firm, “Students First”. Their machinations can be found behind the law empowering the State Education Commissioner to impose a new teacher evaluation system on NYC. They will continue to ravage our land no matter who the mayor or governor happen to be.

Second Woe – “It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million. I heard their number. The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breast plates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur.”

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The troops with the multicolored breast plates are obviously a metaphor for computers. 200 million is the amount of computers that stand to be manufactured if the idea of “e-learning” gains any more currency. The horses who blow fire and sulfur are the online classes that purport to “educate” students.

Learning is at risk of being perceived as something that can be done on the fly, at a distance and on the cheap just like “e-shopping” and “e-mailing”. Education is being commodified like cosmetics and fast food. First it was the boutique charter school with the hyperbolic name. Now, it is the online learning program marketed as a replacement for flesh-and-blood teachers.

In NYC, e-learning is the serpent that lays close to the heart. Programs like I-Learn are increasingly being used by schools as a cheap way to give quick credits to students who need to graduate on time. Very soon people will start to say, “if computers can help make up credits, maybe they can do everything else.” The destruction of public schools as a physical place will not be far behind.

Third Woe – “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet (see articles in our Prophecy section). They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day.”

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By the time all of the seals of the Apocalypse have set in, New York City schools will be ripe for the taking. The culprits will be “the Kings from the east… performing miraculous signs…” They will be the richmen who will reduce education to a series of prompts from the internet, a model which stands to make them a lot of money.

Online learning will be said to “perform miracles” with graduation rates and test scores. We will be told that the best way to get bang for our tax bucks is to shut down all brick and mortar schools in favor of online academies. We will also be assured that private firms will run these academies for less cost than the government can run them.

And then the destruction of New York City’s public education system will be complete.

While it is unlikely that all of these things will happen as I say it will, what is not arguable is that all of these forces will greatly reshape our schools over the next two years.

By the end of 2014, our children and our teachers will be operating under a whole new different set of rules than the ones in place today. It is up to us to make these rules as unobjectionable as possible.

HOW MANY INEFFECTIVE TEACHERS ARE THERE?

teachingmistakes

This is a question we hear being asked with greater frequency. The structure of the question is telling about the climate of teacher bashing in which we currently live. It assumes that there is some sort of numerical answer, either in a percentage or an absolute value. It assumes that we can reliably arrive at this answer. Most importantly, the existence of the question itself assumes that the “ineffective teacher” is a problem, one that presumably has a solution.

Let us say that we can arrive at a numerical answer. What do you do with that information? Do you identify the “ineffective” ones so they can be better trained? Do you merely fire them? A bit of both perhaps?

Assuming there is a core of intractably awful teachers who should be fired, what do you do next? From whence is the next generation of superstar teachers coming? This is the problem. The question of how many ineffective teachers exist is part of a wider discourse that has been inhospitable to teachers. Teacher unions are breaking, if not totally broken. We have a proliferation of new standards, uniform exams and other measures designed to hold teachers “accountable”. And make no mistake about that word “accountable”. It is not being used as a promise to better inform our practice or the quality of service we deliver to our communities. Instead, it is being brandished like a noose by a lynch mob, a mob that has been stirred into an anti-teacher frenzy by a well-funded media campaign orchestrated by so-called “reformers”. We will be held “accountable” right up until the moment our necks snap.

In an environment like this, who in their right mind would want to be a teacher? What kind of person with a 4.0 GPA would want to dedicate their life to a profession accorded so little respect? Where are these great teachers for whom the way will be cleared once we fire all the ineffective ones?

Those today who ask the question “how many ineffective teachers are there” automatically disqualify any plausible solution. It is born out of a teacher-hating environment  that discourages the potentially “effective” teachers of tomorrow from entering the profession. Add to this the rising cost of college and the raising of the bar of entry into the teaching profession (including a teacher “bar exam” here in New York State, an idea that has been supported by Randi Weingarten) and you have an environment perfectly suited towards driving anyone in their right minds away from the profession.

The foregoing assumes that there is a way to identify ineffective teachers to begin with. Reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assume they have found a way: teacher evaluation schemes that rely on student growth on test scores. Despite the fact that this has been tried in major cities like Washington, D.C. with disastrous consequences, Duncan has been scaling up the standardized testing regime with his Race to the Top program. States like New York will now judge their teachers’ effectiveness with “value added” data that have such wide margins of error as to make them useless.

The consequences of this are predictable. Teachers will merely “teach to the test”. Those who dare teach students with learning disabilities will be at greater risk of being rated “ineffective”. Teachers in Long Island will be held to the same standard as teachers in the South Bronx, despite the fact that they receive generally less funding and have more “externalities” to overcome. There will be an exodus of teachers to school districts with lower rates of poverty, crime and learning disabilities.

So why the narrative of the ineffective teacher? If we don’t even have reliable ways of identifying ineffective teachers, how do we know there are any in the system, let alone an amount that warrants wholesale reform of teacher evaluations?

It has currency with the general public because most people have been to school at some point. This fact alone seems to cause people to believe that they are some sort of authority on matters of education. Moreover, everybody is a taxpayer and, therefore, the boss of every public school teacher out there, or at least the teachers in their district.

Sadly, most of these people in the general public seem not to remember their teachers with fondness. They probably did not learn a whole heck of a lot in school, or only did so despite their teachers. I can say that, throughout my public school career, I did not learn much myself. In these instances it is easy to blame the teachers. People brandish the accountability noose in revenge for all of the crappy teachers they had when they were in school.

However, just because we did not learn much in school does not mean our teachers were ineffective. First off, I have been a student in many schools and I do not really recall any teachers who did not try to teach. There are people who seem to think that teachers drink coffee and sleep at their desks all day, even though this clearly runs counter to even their own experiences. Therefore, our not learning anything certainly was not due to our teachers not trying. So if they tried to teach us, why did we not learn? Sure, it is easy to say that they were boring. Their methods did not capture our attentions. They did not seem to care about us as people. Maybe this is true to an extent but it leaves out one thing: our own complicity in not learning.

I did not learn in school because I did not pay attention most of the time. I did not pay attention most of the time because there were other, more exciting things in the world to think about other than grammar and algebra. My mind was swirling with so many disorganized thoughts and so many fleeting desires. After all, I was a kid. Furthermore, I was a kid growing up at the end of the 20th century. There were all types of toys, commercials, television shows, popular music songs and technology out there geared specifically towards me. These were usually the images and the sounds that were dancing in my head while the teacher was talking about stuff like the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder I did not learn anything.

Yet, here I am typing away using vocabulary, sentence structure and organized paragraphs. If I did not learn anything, how did I learn how to communicate in the English language at all? I know that it was at some point in kindergarten that I was introduced to the alphabet and how to use it. I will be damned if I remember how it was taught to me. But something stuck. Many things apparently stuck because I somehow ended up knowing stuff by the time I graduated high school. Sure, maybe I did not learn the type of detail that some of the gifted students learned but there was and still is stuff in my head. I learned and I did so despite myself.

It would be easy to chalk up my ignorance to my teachers. They did not “get” me. They were “lame”. Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe there is also truth in the idea that I was a spoiled brat who took for granted an education that children in other nations would die to have. Alas, it is uncomfortable for people to actually believe that they once were, or still are, a bunch of brats. Politicians and education reformers certainly are not going to tell them that. So blaming teachers is easier. It lets us off the hook for our own shortcomings.

The other part to the teacher -bashing has to do with unions. Apparently, most Americans are miserable at their jobs and have the fear of being fired dangling precariously over their heads. They believe that teachers, these lazy and ineffective bums that did not “get” them when they were in school, are not miserable or insecure enough. Coming from a school of thought that holds the specter of poverty and homelessness makes workers better, people have had an obsession with eliminating “tenure” under the false impression that it means a job for life. Somehow, if teachers do not have the protections that allow them to advocate for their children and are held to accountability standards that measure how many bubbles their students fill in “correctly” over the course of 3 hours, schools will “improve”.

It is a sign of a selfish, petty and downright fearful society when one group of workers does not feel that another group of workers is suffering sufficiently. Apparently, they see no connection between stripping one group of workers of its due process rights and the deterioration of their own working conditions. It used to be that teachers were pitied because they pulled in long hours without making much money. Now they are envied because they make too much money and have some tepid job protections. Rather than attempting to get “tenure” for their own lines of work, they would rather engage in a race to the bottom where nobody has any job protections anywhere.

And this is supposed to keep the “effective” teachers while attracting more “effective” teachers in the future? I hope that people eventually think about the implications of what they are saying and realize the reformers are prescribing educational poison. You think schools sucked when you were a kid? Just wait until every teacher in America has to turn their classroom into a 180-day test-prep session.

THE MARCH OF THE DATA

What is there to be afraid of?

What is there to be afraid of?

They are there every year. They have been there for the past few years, starting their high school careers with faces anxiously upturned. I give them the run-down: the historical eras we will cover, the class routines, the homework policy and what will be expected of both them and myself.

In many ways they are just like the freshmen I taught when I started my career 13 years ago. They are introverted, extroverted, pleasant, cruel, motivated, sedated. They embody all of the contradictions of humanity, all in one room. And why not? After all, they are human beings.

Yet, on another level, they are very different from the freshmen I taught 13 years ago. Or maybe it is me who is different. Or maybe it is both.

I sort of remember the first high schoolers I ever taught. I would ask them a question, they would go beyond it. They would ask a question and bring to the class a new level of understanding. Sometimes, they would bring me to a new level of understanding as well. Their essays easily regurgitated the facts necessary to pass, but there was more. They saw connections. They synthesized. They reasoned inductively and deductively to give their writing a coherent feel. Above all, they were curious. Their minds were reaching for ever-higher regions of understanding.

Perhaps these are just the ramblings of an old man who remembers some halcyon days that never quite existed. Perhaps my first students had such an impression on me because I was more impressionable. Yes, one can still be impressionable at 21 years of age in a way similar to a child.

And I still see these same qualities in the students I teach today. They are still precocious because that is the mind of a human child, of children of most any species.

Those qualities are there but they are muted. They still ask questions. They still go beyond what is asked of them. They still help me develop new levels of understanding. They still do these things, but do them less frequently than the teenagers of old. Instead, they do certain other things more frequently. These things, I don’t know, they just don’t seem healthy.

We have students that pay attention to everything. By the look on their faces, you can tell they are following along with the lesson. They may not say anything but you just know they are absorbing history like a sponge. Then they approach you after class. Are they going to ask a question about history? Is there something they need clarified?

Then they open their mouth and ask: “what grade do I have for this class?”

It’s the middle of the semester. They received a progress report a month ago. They have received a grade on every homework assignment and exam. They know how classwork is graded. In their possession is a trail of numbers they can use to get an idea of how they are “doing” in the numbers sense of things.

But they want to know how they are doing now, right at this very second. They want to know how the last number they received has gone up or down.

It used to be that when a student asked me a question after being in rapt attention during class, they would ask something about the lesson. They wanted to know something that wasn’t necessarily covered in class, something that had been burning a hole in their brain for the past half-hour.

Today that look of rapt attention doesn’t necessarily mean they are paying rapt attention. It means they are looking for their opportunity to pounce to ask that one question that has been burning a hole in their brain: what is my grade? Sometimes they ask it in the middle of the lesson, the suspense being too much to hold in.

There are the students who complete one handout in class, then turn to me and ask “am I passing now?” For many of them, it is like they wish to know the exact moment their grade reaches an acceptable level, however they define “acceptable”.

This never used to happen. Grades were something that usually came later. They were something to be discussed during parent-teacher conferences or during moments you had set aside for students one-on-one. It was a conversation that took place once or twice a year for each student, if even that much.

Now, it is something that happens all of the time. Is this the result of the online gaming generation where achievement is measured in an ever-rolling number at the top of the screen? Every level passed or enemy killed, as it were, causes the number to go higher and higher.

Nah, I don’t think so. If anything, video games have become less beholden to scores and more about completing a digital story.

The students who have been entering high school lately are part of the Reform Generation. They have come up through the ranks of a school system that has been thoroughly “reformed” by our saviors in government and business. They are the No Child Left Behind generation, the Mayoral Control Generation, the Standardized Testing Generation, the Race to the Top Generation. They have been reared on a steady stream of data. Their learning measured in a number from 0-100.

Education for this generation is not a matter of learning stuff. It is a matter of doing stuff. It is a matter of doing enough stuff to get their desired grade. For them, school is a series of mechanical processes: filling in the right bubble, filling in the blank with the right words or doing enough assignments to keep their head above water. Sure, there is internal growth, spiritual growth. But the growth they are most concerned with is the growth of their number.

For the student of old, it seemed that learning was an intrinsic thing. A new idea sunk into their brain. It either deepened, contradicted or displaced some other idea they already knew. This would cause them to ask a question or to find a new synthesis or do something else to adapt the new idea into their existing (sorry for using this educationist term) “schema”.

For the student of the Reform Generation, an idea sinks into their head. They stick the idea somewhere in their brain because they were told it was going to be on a test. There are many ideas already in their brain that contradict the new idea, but that is of no bother to the Reform Generation. It is not about how an idea affects you and helps you evolve. It is about how an idea can be stored and retrieved like a data file. What the new idea does to them, how it might deepen or undermine their entire world, is lost. Either the idea does not affect them in any way or the effect the idea has is secondary to its use as a knowledge widget for future regurgitation.

This is the data-driven Reform Generation. People are trained to act like computers. The technocrats and bean-counters who run our school system are succeeding in fashioning the next generation in their own image. They are training the next generation to think, feel and measure everything in numbers. They are training the next generation to think that intelligence is a binary code.

Are these human children? Sure. Like I said earlier, they are still curious like all human children. But as a teacher of teenagers, which is a stage of life where the indoctrination of their past schooling competes with their natural, child-like precocity, I see where these teenagers are tending. I see the sheen of a computerized, technocrized, numberized adult starting to cover the wonderfully chaotic soul a child. I see the silverish shell of a robot starting to grow over the flesh-and-blood human child.

No, I will not tell you your grade now. You will have to wait until report card time. I will not give you a number for every little thing you do and don’t do. I will not put every little assignment, every little breath, every last piece of work you do into an online grading spreadsheet so you can learn the lesson that education means nothing unless there is a number attached. Your education is not a number. Your education is your growth as a human being. Not only is it your growth between September and June, it is your growth forever and ever. Not everything in life has a number. In fact, the most important things in life don’t have numbers.

When you get married, why don’t you ask your spouse for a number to describe how you’re doing?

When you go to holiday dinner with your family, why don’t you ask them for a number to describe what type of relative you have been?

When you go to your place of worship, why don’t you ask your deity to give you a number describing how good a life you have led?

Numbers are for computers, technocrats and bean-counters. You’re a human being. Education is your growth as a human being. I’m sorry but, as your teacher, I have an interest in keeping you human. When I see that silver shell growing over you, it is my job to give you the tools to crack out of it. How can you even breathe in that thing?

Let the computers compute and the bean-counters count beans. You are a human being. The best lesson you can learn as a human is that you can’t be boiled down to a number. Once you allow yourself to become a number you become another bean to be counted, thrown in the pile with millions of other beans.

Our job is to ensure that the reformers’ reforms never amount to a hill of beans.