Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

Mercedes Schneider was invited to contribute to the Néw York Times’ blog “Room for Debate.” The subject was “What Makes a Good Teacher?” Eric Hanushek said evaluation must be tied to retention and rewards. Amanda Ripley said that teachers’ colleges must be more rigorous and selective. Jal Mehta said that teacher education must be like a medical residency. Kaya Henderson said that the key to great teachers is respect.

Mercedes said that it was time to stop punitive evaluations and let teachers focus on their students, not their scores. She was the only classroom teacher in the debate.

Dawn Neeley Randall is a fifth grade teacher in Ohio. She speaks forthrightly on behalf of her students. She asks: Why are we inflicting this barrage of deceptive, confusing, demoralizing testing on our children? Parents need to know that today’s tests are not like the tests we took in school when we were children. They take time away from instruction–lots of it. They are designed to fail most students. They will crush the children’s spirits and their interest in learning.

 

“Probably the bravest thing I’ve done in my entire 25 year career. Let the chips fall where they may.

 

“Blubbered on the way home after the first round of English Language Arts testing today. Got pretty choked up in the back of the room during the test itself and I think the principal who was in the computer lab administering the tests probably wondered if she was going to need to deal with a full-fledged teacher meltdown (I worried about that myself). This is just all so, so wrong. This is only Day 3 of testing and we still have months to go. Some districts (not mine, thank GOD) in our own state are bullying parents who are refusing to allow their children to sit through tests. Some superintendents (again, NOT mine!) are getting their messages out loud and clear to teachers that they are not to talk about this testing situation with parents. Some schools are making students “sit and stare” after finishing testing in order to make them work longer during the tests. Some schools are offering incentives to students testing (like gift cards and trips to a water park), but disqualifying students whose parents preferred them not to take take these tests and now they will be left behind from a day with their peers.

 

“A teacher in another county told about her third grader crying during yesterday’s test and a local principal told about his child awaking in the middle of the night with anxiety about the upcoming tests. Why are we allowing this? I’ve been begging for help from legislators since last March. I’m done with that. As much as I hate to see myself on video (oh, boy, do I)…I’m going to try to do the bravest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career and tell you how a teacher truly feels. I bet there are a whole lot more out there feeling just like me.

 

Susan Barber, chair of the English department at Northgate High School in Coweta County, Georgia, wrote a letterd to State Superintendent Richard Woods.

 

Her message: “Please protect my instructional time. I want to teach my students…..”

 

“I love students, and I love teaching. I want to be a teacher who is “part of the solution and not part of the problem,” which is harder and harder to do in education today. While I have little control over decisions on a large-scale, my mind is continually thinking on and dreaming of ways to make my classroom, and our system, better.

 

“I believe the greatest and most under tapped resource in Georgia’s education system today is Georgia teachers, but the good teachers are starting to leave….

 

“If I am going to be measured on how well my students read and write, I need more time to teach them to read and write. Some days I feel I spend more time getting my plans properly formatted, administering standardized tests, and going to professional development meetings on the state evaluation system or Georgia Milestone than I do teaching. These things are needed and necessary, but when they interfere with my ability and time to teach, there is a serious problem.

 

“Please protect my instructional time. I want to teach my students.

 

“My students need me to teach them. Please protect our administrators’ time by allowing them to be about the business of curriculum planning, strategic and long-term goal setting, and spending quality time with teachers and students.

 

“In addition to instructional time being used for testing, the amount of money devoted to testing is mind-boggling. Almost $108 million has been designated for the Georgia Milestone assessment. As department chair at my high school, every year I have to tell my team that we will once again not get new textbooks. We have been through three adoption cycles now without new books. I beg that state money will be funneled to where it is most needed – students.

 

“Students do not directly benefit from testing, yet that is where the money goes. I understand this is a complex issue with federal and state requirements to be fulfilled, but our students are suffering while political gains are being made. We must put a stop to this.

 

“Testing does offer some advantages. I am not a proponent of throwing out tests all together. Schools should be held accountable on student learning as well as teacher instruction, but we have swung so far to one side that there is no longer balance in the system.

 

“Testing does not measure a student’s growth in his or her love for learning or the development of grit. Testing does not measure a student’s thought process or style of writing. Testing does not measure the ability to apply knowledge or creative problem solving. I would like to think that these are some of the most important skills students learn in school today, yet they count for nothing in regard to my evaluation or my school’s performance.

 

“The system today is defined by terms such as CCSS, TKES, LKES, CCRPI, GHSGT, GAPS, SACS, CRCT, GMAS, SGAs, SLOs, yet all I want to do is teach SCHOOL. Give me and my colleagues the freedom to do what we are trained to do and what we love doing.”

Kevin G. Basmadjian, Dean of the School of Education at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, wrote a powerful article in the Hartford Courant in collaboration with other deans from across the state.

Connecticut’s students are among the highest on the NAEP, yet its policymakers insist that its schools and teachers are unsuccessful. The politicians want more charter schools and Teach for America.

He writes:

“As a nation and a state, we have clearly failed to address the inequalities that disproportionally impact many urban school districts where kids are poor and segregated. Sadly, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students now come from low-income families. But instead of addressing this crisis, we have demonized teachers for failing to solve problems our government cannot, or will not, solve. Poverty, homelessness and the dangerously high levels of emotional and psychological stress experienced by low-income students — these are the problems many of our nation’s public school teachers face every day.

“Our nation’s obsession with standardized test scores will not solve these problems, and they put our country at great risk intellectually as well as economically. As educational researcher Yong Zhao writes, countries with which we are often compared — such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea — are moving away from a focus on testing in their public schools. Why? Because they have learned from the history of the United States that a great education and nation is one that rewards creativity, originality, imagination and innovation….

“The most recent scapegoat for our nation’s shameful achievement gap is teacher preparation programs, for failing to produce a steady stream of what the U.S. Department of Education abstractly calls “great teachers” to work in our neediest public schools. By blaming teacher preparation programs, the department can yet again divert public attention from the most crucial barrier to achieving educational equality: poverty.

There is a need for more “great teachers” who will commit themselves to our state’s neediest public schools. But achieving this goal will take more than naive slogans or punitive measures levied against teacher preparation programs that do not successfully persuade graduates to teach in these schools. The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed regulations for teacher preparation — with its emphasis on standardized test scores — work against this goal because of the overly technical, anti-intellectual portrait of teaching they endorse. We in Connecticut need to make these jobs more attractive to prospective teachers through increased respect, support and autonomy rather than criticism, disdain and surveillance.”

Melissa McMullan, a teacher in Long Island, explains in this comment how deeply insulting Governor Cuomo’s plan for teacher evaluation is. Will he listen to reason? Will he insist on crushing the morale of every teacher in the state? Why?

McMullan writes:

“I have been a teacher for thirteen years. I graduated with highest honors from Rutgers University, earned my masters degree from Queens College, graduating with honors and begun work on my PhD to help me become a better teacher. The teacher I am today is not the teacher I was yesterday, nor is she the teacher I will be tomorrow. I learn every day from students, families, colleagues, professional development, research and my own mistakes. In thirteen years, former students of mine have become writers, teachers, philanthropists, doctors, nurses, mechanics, beauticians, small business owners, etc…

“My employment as their teacher has been carved from a relationship I have built with the district that employs me. The district I graciously serve. I am a public servant. I do not take this assignment lightly.

“Governor Cuomo is holding state aid to public schools hostage. His ransom? Using eleven hours of tests, that the state scores, and converts to teacher ratings, assigning a great many teachers, including myself, ineffective. One score. Six days of testing to remove a teacher who works 12 hours a day, gives her students her cell phone number so she can help them with homework at home and invites Spanish-speaking parents in to the classroom to explain, in Spanish, the value of reading and writing. A teacher who will stop at NOTHING to push her students forward. Passing rates on the state test vary year to year from 72% to 83 % depending upon how the state wants teachers to be perceived from year to year.

“Governor Cuomo and the New York State Board of Regents want to use test scores it assigns to my students, against me, their teacher. This is not the role of assessment. Assessment has a single purpose – to inform instruction. Its responsibility is to let students, teachers and families what students know, and what they do not know. Under the Governor’s proposed plan, these scores would warrant my removal from the classroom, violating the agreement that my school district and its community have established with me, by using children as its weapon of choice.

“We get no feedback from these scores. No view into what our students know or don’t know or what we as teachers have taught well nor what we have not. But it costs millions of dollars to implement each year.

“As a mother, I will not permit my own four children to be used as pawns against their teachers. The only way we can stop this abuse of power is to refuse to permit our children to be used as pawns.

“The cornerstone of public education in the United States is the local community school district. Allowing scores the state assigns our children after six days of testing to be used to remove teachers we have placed in their classroom is an unacceptable, egregious overstepping of power. We have power as parents to protect our children from harm, and we have an overwhelming responsibility to keep the over-reaching powers of the state from reaching into our children’s classrooms.”

Samuel Abrams, who directs the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, recently published a study comparing the conditions of teaching in the United States and other OECD nations. Abrams here summarizes the study and corrects an article that appeared in Slate about it.

 

He writes:

 

 

All studies are necessarily open to interpretation. What I concluded in a recently published study of teaching time, entitled The Mismeasure of Teaching Time and posted on the Web site of the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, should have been straightforward but clearly was not. Slate came away with a surprising take, from its provocative headline claiming “American Teachers Might Not Work Such Long Hours After All” to its conclusion regarding the effectiveness of U.S. teachers.

The study may be summarized as follows:

  • Because of an error in data collection, the U.S. Department of Education has significantly overstated teaching time in its annual reports to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has, in turn, published this erroneous information every year since 2000 in its frequently cited digest of educational statistics and analysis, Education at a Glance (EAG).
  • According to the latest data in EAG, U.S. teachers spend 49 to 73 percent more time leading classes than their OECD counterparts. In reality, the difference is about 15 percent, which is still substantial but far less significant than the differences in teacher pay and the structure of the school day.
  • A central problem with this overstatement of U.S. teaching time is that it has distracted scholars and journalists from the more pressing differences in teacher pay and the structure of the school day.
  • The differences in teacher pay are indeed dramatic and telling. U.S. upper-secondary teachers, for example, earn 70 percent as much as their college classmates while their OECD counterparts make 92 percent. In absolute terms, U.S. teachers earn about the same as their OECD counterparts, but it is relative pay that truly matters. Because of less income polarization in other OECD nations, teachers abroad typically have far more purchasing power than here. And inadequate purchasing power makes any profession more stressful.
  • The differences in the structure of the school day are likewise dramatic and telling. In the United States, in contrast to many other OECD nations, the school day has been driven by the demands of high-stakes testing. These demands have boxed out time for music, art, drama, and recess, exacerbated the assembly-line pace of the school day in the United States long ago documented by Raymond Callahan in Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962), and moreover placed tremendous and unnecessary pressure on students, teachers, and administrators alike.

 

In today’s contentious climate of education policy, where teachers are readily blamed for everything from subpar student achievement to disappointing national economic productivity, it is imperative that technical distinctions in academic studies are properly understood.

U.S. teachers indeed work long hours. I know this too well as someone who was a high school teacher for 18 years. Prepping for class and grading papers can be consuming activities, taking up time in the evening and over the weekend. This is true for teachers in other OECD countries, as well, even in the pedagogical heaven that is Finland. What is not true, however, is that U.S. teachers spend as much time leading classes as reported by the OECD and repeated by scholars and journalists.

Steve Strieker writes a blog called “Imagine Wisconsin.” Last year, after the teacher-bashing reached new heights in his state, he felt defeated. He was in a state of grief. All year, he was so disheartened that he wrote only two posts for his blog.

Over time, with the help of family and friends, he pulled himself out of his despair, and he felt revived, personally and professionally.

He writes:

“During the peak of the grief, however, I questioned my ability to teach. I thought about taking an extended absence. As the school year started, I didn’t know how I would survive. How could I meet the needs of my students when I was so needy myself?

“Through this despair, I have come to realize how strong I used to be and how much I give psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually to my students. After the fog lifted, I could see more clearly now how much strength is actually required to help needy students on many levels. Teaching is not an easy gig.

“Like Boston Strong in the wake of the 2013 marathon bombing, Teacher Strong is my new mantra for 2015. Teaching comes easy to me when I am healthy and strong. I have been fortunate to have been mostly healthy and strong during my professional career.

“Teachers serve students, parents, and our communities in powerful ways. Teaching takes profound strength to serve an increasing number of students with significant socio-psychological needs.

“My period of despair has left no doubt. To teach, you have to be Teacher Strong. What teachers do is important and matters. What I do matters and makes a difference. In 2015, I will not take being strong and healthy for granted. What is my nature will now be nurtured.

“Goodbye 2014. Goodbye Grief. Hello 2015.”

Paul Karrer, a veteran elementary teacher in California, likes to read David Brooks, even when he disagrees with him. But he was taken aback recently when Brooks said that the teachers’ unions are the biggest impediment to education “reform.”

 

Karrer knows that education reform is not what it appears.

 

He explains to Brooks, as if Brooks might read his column:

 

So far Ed Reform has been a nightmare, a massacre, a coup de grace on democratic public education institutions. Ed Reform has plundered the public sector, crushed teachers’ souls, and offered virtually no positive improvement even when measured by the right’s own yardstick. The right benefits on many levels in its relentless assault on public schools.

 

First, privatization feeds the Republican DNA of the government’s role as an agent of profit for business. Public education viewed through Republican eyes is viewed as a feeding trough opportunity of financial benefit. Hence, the many hedge funds lauding, testing and assessment companies, charter corporations and publishing empires whose spread will fattened wallets.

 

Virtually every mantra about Ed Reform is false or basely wrong. Charter schools do not perform better when equal measure are used. Rather, often worse. End of story. They skim the best, the brightest the motivated. And they boot out those who don’t behave.

 

Those attending charter schools have parents who have guided them to charters. Many of my students have guardians. There is a difference.

 

Because he respects Brooks, he invites him to his classroom to learn about what really matters:

 

So friend David Brooks, I invite you to spend a few hours with me at my poorest of the poor schools. Run a lap with my fifth-graders and me in the morning, see what it’s like in the mucky trenches of gang-infested poverty. Then just sit and watch, no principal, no superintendent present, observe 30 fifth-graders and their old teacher. We’ll talk, later, about the subtractive brutality and injustices of ed reform.

 

Your words carry great weight. Please be careful how you [use] them.

 

Elizabeth Green recently published a book called Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). It has been widely and favorably reviewed. I have known Elizabeth for about ten years, when she was covering education for the now defunct New York Sun. I like her, and I consider her a friend. Elizabeth is cofounder of Gotham Schools, which is now called Chalkbeat. It is a publication that covers education issues in New York City, Tennessee, Indiana, and Colorado. Chalkbeat is funded by a large number of foundations and individuals, many of whom are prominent in today’s charter school movement (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and some board members of the hedge-funders’ Democrats for Education Reform).

 

Since I know Elizabeth, I have decided to review the book as a letter to her. Somewhat unconventional, but let’s see how it works out.

 

 

Dear Elizabeth,

 

Thank you for sending me galleys of your book. I am sorry to be so late in reviewing it, but better late than never. There were things about the book that I liked very much, and other things that I found puzzling. I will be as honest with you as you would expect me to be.

 

To begin with, you are certainly a skilled journalist. I like the way you effortlessly weave the stories of individuals into larger themes and use those stories to make a larger point. The book is very well-written, and you manage to inject liveliness and high interest into pedagogical issues, which is no small feat.

 

You begin the book by strongly asserting that good teachers are made, not born, and that it is a fallacy to believe that some people are just “natural” teachers, while others will never learn no matter how hard they try. Your goal, clearly, is to persuade the reader that anyone, armed with the right training and preparation, can become a good teacher. You had me convinced until you got into the lives of the people you highlight as heroes—like Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Magdalene Lampert—who do seem to have been born to teach, not products of a specific pedagogical training program.

 

The book seemed to me to be two different books. The first book tells the story of the search for a research-based approach to teaching teachers, drawing on the work of John Dewey, Nathaniel Gage, and Lee Shulman. I thought I knew where you were going. I thought you would visit not only Japan but also Finland, to learn how thoughtfully their teachers are prepared to teach. I liked this book, I was sure it would end up with recommendations for higher standards for entry into teaching, for practice-based internships, for mentors for new teachers, and other ideas that would send new teachers into the classroom with both knowledge and experience, as well as support for them in their early years as teachers.

 

But suddenly the second book emerges, and the second book says that the problems of teaching are being solved in charter schools run by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial sector, in your telling, is doing what the researchers, academicians, and university-based scholars hope to accomplish, and the entrepreneurs are doing it without the benefit of any study of education. This line of thought threw me for a loop, because the teachers in the entrepreneurial sector enter teaching with little or no preparation (i.e., low standards or no standards), just the assurance that they are really smart because they graduated from an Ivy League college or some other top university. Somehow this smacks of class bias. Most of them are in Teach for America, which means they start teaching with only five weeks of training. I got confused. There is no profession that can be entered into with only five weeks of training.

 

You also have many pages about the “no excuses” charter schools, which you treat with ambivalence. On the one hand, as we are assured by people you quote, the children they enroll—black, Hispanic, and poor—need the tough-love discipline, the rules that can never be broken, the fear of suspension or exclusion or stigma. This boot-camp discipline, they say, makes it possible for the children to learn. On the other hand, you quote graduates who speak of the demoralization of students, who know that the school intends to crush their spirit, and who “hated school.”

 

What often appears to be an admiring portrait of the “no excuses” charter schools is tempered by this statement about Academy of the Pacific Rim:

 

“The first year, Doug Lemov and Stacey Boyd had started out with a class of fifty-five or so seventh-graders. But by the time that class made it to senior year, only eleven students remained. And three of them had only joined later on, in ninth grade.” (p. 203) Elizabeth, you recognize the problems and contradictions, but you render no judgment other than to include facts like these. A graduating class that contains only 8 of the 55 students who started is hardly a portrait of a model school or a beacon for American education.

 

I may have missed it, but I didn’t see data on teacher attrition at either “no excuses” charter schools or charter schools in general. From other sources, we know that teacher attrition is high; the teachers are inexperienced, and (as you point out) the hours are exceptionally long, set with the assumption that teachers do not have families or personal lives. We know that TFA corps members are typically gone after three or four years. How, under these circumstances, can entrepreneurial charters—with their high teacher churn—be seen as laboratories where excellent teaching is being developed and is, in fact, already happening? If it is happening, why do as many as 50% of the teachers leave some of the most successful charters every year?

 

What seems strangest about the book to me is its detachment from the real world of mandates and demands by federal and state authorities, punishments and rewards, school closings and political interference with teaching. Your account does not reflect the atmosphere of teacher-bashing, the hunt for “the bad teacher,” the demoralization that so many teachers express today. Nor does it dwell on the current obsession with test-based accountability that has made many teachers feel that they are disrespected and are not allowed to exercise any professional judgment. You set up a dichotomy between accountability and autonomy, but surely you know that the scales are heavily weighted by federal policy against any autonomy for teachers. A profession that lacks autonomy is not a profession.

 

Elizabeth, I hope you will not be offended by my candor. I found the book well-written and engaging. I was hoping that you would make a case for developing a stronger teaching profession, but that is not what the charter sector will produce; it relies on a constant turnover of low-wage teachers, and whatever they learn in the classroom will be lost when they move on to a different career. I appreciated your footnote at the bottom of p. 156, where you write that “Multiple studies of charter school performance have shown that the schools often perform just as poorly as the district-run schools they seek to outdo. And across the country, charter schools have been the victim of the same inefficiency and corruption challenges that plague neighborhood public schools.” That’s almost right. I don’t know of any public school superintendent or principal who has built a multi-million dollar mansion in Palm Beach like a certain charter entrepreneur in Pennsylvania or acquired a multi-million yacht like a certain charter entrepreneur in Florida. Absent regulation and oversight, there is even more corruption in the entrepreneurial charter sector than in the public schools.

 

In the end, I don’t think you demonstrate how to build a better teacher. You show that a lot of people are trying to do so. You show that there is a longing for a coherent system of standards, tests, and accountability, but behind that longing is the behaviorist belief that teachers should teach to the same standards, and students will do well on the tests. If that’s coherence, it’s pretty well played out. That’s what we have been trying to do since No Child Left Behind was passed, and after 13 years, it seems to be a dead end. I have no doubt that we need better teacher preparation at the university level (Finland requires five years of teacher education, and a master’s degree for every teacher). But even with a long period of preparation, I doubt that every teacher will adopt and implement the same methodology. What strikes me, as I reflect on your very provocative book, is the urgency of establishing professional norms that protect teachers against legislators, politicians, philanthropists, for-profit entrepreneurs, and non-educators who want to play school.

Mike Rose has written a thoughtful critique of “school reform” in The American Scholar. The title of the article is “School Reform Fails the Test.” The subtitle hits a bullseye: “How can our schools get better when we’ve made our teachers the problem and not the solution?”

Think about that question. If “teachers are the problem,” the problem will never be solved. It will not be solved by Teach for America, which accounts for less than 1% of all teachers. It will not be solved by putting former TFA into positions of leadership, as we can see by the disruptive and demoralizing experiences of John White in Louisiana and Kevin Huffman in Tennessee. No one, with the possible exceptions of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, would point to these states as models for the nation. For five years now, since the introduction of Race to the Top and the release of “Waiting for Superman,” the “reformers” have been obsessed with the hunt for bad teachers. They have been persuaded by Eric Hanushek’s views that our economy will soar by trillions if we regularly fire the bottom 5-10% of teachers, bottom meaning those whose students don’t increase their test scores.

Here is a taste of Mike Rose’s long and pensive essay:

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.

School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of education, the most notable of which, A Nation at Risk (1983), warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools, is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.

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