Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

You don’t have to look far into the future to see the technology sector circling the schools, giving generously to elected officials, hyping the wonders of computers instead of teachers (so much cheaper, and computers never need a pension), and gently persuading legislatures to add online courses as graduation requirements. Consider the federally-funded tests for Common Core: all online, all requiring a massive investment in equipment, bandwidth and support services. The Golden Fleece: replacing teachers with computers.

 

Laura Chapman writes:

 

 

 

Latest Bamboozlers are the “on-line only” promoters of “learning,” no need for teachers.

 

In a press release dated February, 3, 2014 KnowledgeWorks and The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) announced their shared agenda for federal policies that would change “our entire K-12 education system” to fit a student-centered learning environment with demonstrations of competency, free of traditional notions of schools, teachers, and student learning.

 

The policy report addressed to federal officials calls for the status quo on requiring students to meet college-and career-ready standards, but these standards would be aligned with specific competencies mapped into the idea of optimum trajectories for learning that will lead to graduation. Individual students would be tracked on the “pace” of their mastery through the use of on-line and “real-time” data. The data for each student is supposed to inform the instruction, supports, and interventions needed by each student in order to graduate.

 

This vision requires competency-based interpretations of the college-and career-ready standards and measures of those competencies. It requires a recommendation system (data-driven guide) for prioritizing required learning and ensuring continuous improvement in learning until graduation.

 

The vision calls for federal funding to states and districts for developing “personalized learning pathways” (PLPs) for students along with the infrastructure needed to produce real-time data for just-in-time recommendations for the interventions and supports needed to move students to college and career readiness.

 

The system in intended to build reports on the progress of individual students relative to mastery, or a high level of competency, for the college and career readiness standards.

 

In addition to keeping individuals “on-pace” in demonstrating standards-aligned competencies, this entire system is envisioned as offering “useful information for accountability, better teaching and learning, and measures of quality in education.”

 

In effect, programmed instruction is the solution for securing student compliance with the Common Core State Standards, assuring their entry into college and a career, with “instructional designers and programmers” the surrogates for teachers. Teachers are not needed because the out-of-sight designers and programmers build the recommendation systems for needed “interventions,” also known as “playlists.”

 

This is a souped-up version of vintage 1950s programmed instruction amplified in scope and detail by technology–on-line playlists and monitors of PLPs–personal learning plans–available anytime.

 

In fact, students get one-size-fits education, at the rate they can manage. The rate learning is optimized by computers programmed to lead students to and from the needed playlists of activities (e.g., subroutines that function as reviews, simple re-teaching, new warm-ups for the main learning event or subsets of methods for presenting the same concept). The student does what the computer says and the computer decides if and when mastery or some other criterion for competence has been achieved.

 

The selling framework is for “personalized, competency-based student-centered learning in a de-institutionalized environment.

 

Out of view are scenarios where all education is offered by “learning agents” who broker educational services offered by a mix of for-profit and non-profit providers. Token public schools remain in the mix, but are radically reduced in number and the loss becomes a self-fulling prophesy justifying radical cuts in state support. Profit seekers, together with volunteers and “20-year commitments from foundations” provide for “students in need. This is one of several scenarios from KnowledgWorks.

 

 

The quest for federal funds is found here at http://knowledgeworks.org/building-capacity-systems-change-federal-policy-framework-competency-education#sthash.Nr0OpfWq.dpuf

 

See more at the CompetencyWorks website http://bit.ly/cwk12fedpolicy

Peter Greene noted that Minneapolis followed the terrible examples of Los Angeles in 2010 and New York City in 2012 and published teachers’ value-added ratings in the newspapers for all to see. Even Bill Gates objected to this practice and said in a New York Times article that it would harm the relationship between supervisors and teachers to publish job ratings in the paper. Gates said that publishing VAM scores was an act of “public shaming” and no good would come of it.

 

Greene writes:

 

As promised, this morning brought the publishing of teacher ratings, including VAM scores, with a map and a pearl-clutching interview with the district’s superintendent. The gap is shocking, alarming, inexplicable.

 

I’m speaking of course of the apparent gap between Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s brain and reality. How does somebody with this gigantic an inability to process data end up as a superintendent of a major school system?

 

Superintendent Johnson is shocked– shocked!!– to find that under this evaluation system, it turns out that all the worst teachers are working in all the poorest schools! Hmmm– the poorest schools have the worst results. What’s the only possible explanation? Teachers!! [Pause for the sound of me banging my head on the desk.]

 

“It’s alarming that it took this to understand where teachers are,” Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said Friday. “We probably knew that, but now have the hard evidence. It made me think about how we need to change our staffing and retention.”

 

No, Superintendent Johnson. What’s alarming is that you don’t understand a damn thing.

 

Here’s what you have “discovered.” If you rip the roof off a classroom, the teachers that you send to teach in that classroom will get wet when it rains. You cannot “fix” that by changing the teacher.

 

But apparently that’s the solution being considered. “Okay,” says Superintendent Johnson. “Over here we have teachers who stay dry and their students stay dry, so we’ll put this dry teacher in the classroom without a roof and have a dry teacher for the wet rooms. That’ll fix it.”

 

And Superintendent Johnson appears willing to go further. “Maybe we just need to fire the wet teachers and replace them with new, dry ones,” she may be thinking. [Sound of me banging my head against the concrete slab of my basement floor.]

 

If you want a dry teacher in the room, build a damn roof on it.

 

Look. Look look look look look. We already know that poverty absolutely correlates with test results. Show me your tests results and I will show you where your low-income students are. Poverty and lack of resources and underfunding put these students in a classroom without a roof, and anybody you put in there with them will be a wet teacher.

 

Build a damn roof.

 

Minneapolis public school officials say they are already taking immediate action to balance schools’ needs with teachers’ abilities. The district has created programs to encourage effective instructors to teach at high-needs schools and mentor the newest teachers. District officials say they are providing immediate training for teachers who are deficient. And last year, the district fired more than 200 teachers, roughly 6 percent of its teaching staff.

 

Wrong. All wrong. In fact, worse than wrong, because you are now in the position of saying, “Hey, over here we have a room with no roof on it, and if you teach in there and get wet when it rains, we intend to punish you. Now– who wants to volunteer to teach in the roofless room?? Also, we’ll probably smear your good name in the local paper, too. Any takers?”

 

And to the students, sitting in that roofless room day after day, shivering and wet as poverty and lack of resources and insufficient materials and neglect by the central office rain down on them, this sends a terrible message. “We know you are sick and wet in your roofless room,” says the district. “So we are not sending a roof or even ponchos or an umbrella. We’re not going to spend a cent more on you. We’re just going to stand a different teacher up in front of you, to see if she gets wet when it rains.”

 

 

Nancy F. Chewning, an assistant principal in Roanoke, Virginia, eviscerated TIME magazine for its cover story about teachers who are allegedly “Rotten Apples.” This impassioned article went viral.

“Have you characterized doctors or nurses on your cover as Rotten Apples? You have not. Is the government setting impossible benchmarks for doctors and nurses to make to correct this problem? No, they are not. Why? Because money talks in this country. The American Medical Association spent $18,250,000 in 2013 and $15,070,000 so far in 2014 lobbying our government; in fact, they rank number 8 in terms of organizations lobbying our government for influence. The NEA isn’t even in the ball park with the AMA, as they rank 221st.

“As Senator Elizabeth Warren has so aptly stated, “The system is rigged,” and it is definitely rigged against public education. In the latest Gallup poll, 75% of American parents said they were satisfied with the quality of education their child was receiving in public schools. However, the latest Gallup poll showed that only 14% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. Have you done a cover calling Congress Rotten Apples? Why no, you have not. In fact, I checked your covers for the last two years and not once have you said a disparaging word about Congress on your cover. Yet, the approval rating for teachers is 75%, and you have chosen to go after them. Why is that? Is it because as Gawker revealed earlier this year that your writers and editorial staff are required to “produce content that is beneficial to advertiser relationship”? So, was this attack on teachers really about pleasing advertisers and perhaps a billionaire from Silicon Valley with deep pockets as well?”

She notes that no teachers were interviewed for the story.

Jose Luis Vilson is a math teacher. Not just any math teacher. He is also a poet, a blogger, an activist, an outspoken professional. His blog, thejosevilson.com, is immensely popular. I am writing about Vilson today because I hope you will read his book. This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.

The book is an autobiography, but it is also—as the subtitle says—a reflection on race, class, and education. As you read it, you have the opportunity to walk in Vilson’s shoes. To understand where he came from and how he became a teacher. He grew up in a mixed-race family (a Haitian father and Dominican mother), so he is both black and Hispanic. He was raised by a single mother; when a new stepfather moved in, he was often beaten for little or no reason. The family moved to the Lower East Side when he was a child, and he became accustomed to seeing rats and roaches as part of everyday life. And yet, despite all adversities, despite a deck that was decidedly stacked against him, he exuded confidence, confidence in himself and in his ability to succeed. His mother was determined that he would get a good education, and Jose took to education naturally. He loved learning, and he excelled in school. He went to PS 140, a neighborhood public elementary school, where his teachers encouraged him, then to an independent Catholic middle school (Nativity Mission School on the Lower East Side, where he had a strong mentor), and to Xavier, a Jesuit high school, where he was one of a small number of students of color. There, the issue of race became important in discussions of who would be included, who would participate, who would be slighted. In each of his schools, he remembers the teachers who touched his life and changed it.

Vilson went to Syracuse University, where he intended to become a computer scientist. Even as he studied his major field, he had some concern about spending the rest of his life staring at computer code. After he graduated, he decided to try teaching. He applied to Teach for America, but was rejected. Then he applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows, another alternate program but one that (unlike TFA) prepares teachers who are likely to make a career in the classroom. He was accepted, worked with a cohort, and eventually earned a degree from City College of New York.

The balance of the book describes Vilson’s experiences in the classroom. He is assigned to a middle school where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. He identifies with them. But beyond identifying with them, he must teach them, get their attention, persuade them about the importance of mathematics, deal with angry and belligerent students, figure out how to respond to students who challenge him with humor or ridicule or hostility. If you want to know what it is like to teach in an urban school, read this book. Vilson does not spare himself. He is honest about his mistakes and celebrates small victories. He has no great love or respect for “the system,” but it is just one more obstacle to overcome as he concentrates on teaching the students in his care.

Through the book runs references to rap music, to Hip-Hop, to other cultural references that flow naturally among those a generation far younger than mine and in a culture that is not mine. And yet, of course, it works for Vilson, because it is his generation and his culture. These references help to illustrate one of his central themes: that teachers must be able to identify with their students to understand them, to get below their surface, to make connections beyond academics, in order to reach them and teach them. He cares deeply what his students think and feel.

He admires Jaime Escalante, the math teacher who inspired Hispanic students in Los Angeles to excel in math. When he gets word that the administration of his school is planning to give him a U (unsatisfactory) rating (which is likely to end his career as an untenured teacher) because his bulletin board was ordinary, he hangs a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”) on his classroom desk, reminding him to feel no fear. He did not get that U rating.

As Vilson becomes a more confident teacher, he becomes a more outspoken activist. He is not shy. He advocates for more teachers of color in the classrooms where children are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. When he attends conferences, he often finds himself the only person who is black (or Hispanic), and he makes sure to make enough noise so that next year’s conference will include more teachers of color, so that the issue of diversity becomes important to the conference organizers. He becomes an advocate for “teacher voice,” aware that most decisions about how and what to teach are all too often made by people who never set foot in a classroom or did so years ago.

He offers tips to other teachers: Get your students’ respect; “don’t try to change them, try to know them”; show up to student activities, like basketball games, talent shows, to show your support; talk to them; humble yourself; “celebrate and accentuate the positive”: most of your students are trying hard and want to succeed; celebrate their achievements.

When Jose Luis Vilson starts his blog, he gains a national following and finds himself invited to national conferences. He uses his new-found acclaim to advocate for kids and other teachers.

Yes, he has written a new narrative on race, class, and education. But he has also written an inspiring account of what it means to teach. He loves teaching. It defines him. He writes:

“Teaching grasps the soul like a finger probing, not clenching, the heart. It begs you to advocate on behalf of the children, even when you least expect to. Teachers learn to be selfless, to deliver sincerely no matter what’s happening in their personal lives. Despite my difficulties with my homeroom, my administration, or other teachers, when I walk into my classroom I’m given another reason to love what I do. I rarely ever have two bad days in a row (or else!). I love walking into school knowing that it’s not going to be the same exact job it was a day, a month, or a year ago. A student always finds a way to inspire me or crack me the hell up. The only real feedback I need is from the students in front of me.
“Teaching has given me no choice but to activate my best inner qualities and to accept and embrace that I will never stop being a student myself. I love that every day there’s a new set of problems for me to solve. Even as I’m teaching my kids math, I’m learning along with them…..

“I hope that becoming a key player in the lives of hundreds of students a year will fuel your fire—knowing that it’s not enough to simply do, but that you must leave a legacy of doing. As a teacher you will play such an important part in your students’ lives that even when they forget the specifics of what you taught them, they’ll remember the feelings and life lessons you left them with, the impression that someone other than their parents (if applicable) cared enough to spur them toward their own success.

“You can make the difference.”

Jose Luis Vilson gives his readers a heavy dose of honesty, self-reflection, and insight. He cares passionately about his students. He fights for them (and occasionally spars with them). He loves his work. How many people can say, as Vilson, does, that they love what they do? That is what the detractors of teachers never understand; it is a joy that they will not experience. Vilson shares his joy and his experience.

Greta Callahan’s article about teaching kindergarten in Minneapolis went viral. She wrote her article in response to one that appeared in the same paper asserting the “worst teachers are in the poorest schools.” She teaches in one of the poorest schools, and she tells her story.

 

To those who parrot the false claim that low test scores are caused by “bad teachers,” she offers a counter-narrative. She explains the burdens suffered by her students and the stress of being evaluated by a rubric that makes no sense.

 

Let’s start with what it means to be a “good teacher.” As the article says: “The district uses three different tools to evaluate teachers: classroom observations, a student survey and student achievement data.” Let’s put that into the perspective of a Bethune kindergarten teacher.

 

• Classroom observations: We have four per year. The teacher receives points based on standardized criteria; the feedback is generally helpful. But these observations also involve the observer walking up to students and asking what they are doing. Even my 5-year-olds, who may have just started school, get asked this question. The student is supposed to regurgitate the “I can” statement that correlates to “Focused Instruction.” The usual response, though, is something along the lines of “math” or “Jaden took my crayon!”

 

If you were in my room, observing an observation, you would laugh. I promise.

 

• Student surveys: I administer a student survey once a year. My 5-year-olds have to circle their responses (even though they can’t read) to questions about their teacher and school. Have you been around a 5-year-old? They are adorable, spacey, loud and unfocused — and under no circumstances does this student survey make sense for them or to them.

 

• Student achievement data: Two to three times a year, our students are pulled out of our classrooms and tested by a stranger from the district. When she asks our kids to go into a separate room with her and gives them a test, most of them shut down. It’s intimidating to them. Some are asked to take this test in the middle of breakfast; others are tested right after recess. The inconsistency of when our children are tested creates a test that isn’t being measured consistently or accurately, in my opinion.

 

These are the “achievement data” that are referenced in the article. The scores are often low and rarely reflect the students’ actual achievements. My fellow teachers and I have plenty of conflicting and affirming evidence to support our students’ actual achievements, growth and knowledge. But this evidence is not considered when determining the effectiveness of a teacher.

 

Recruiting and retaining teachers at a high-poverty school present unusual challenges:

 

The retention rate of teachers at my school and others like it will not go up unless we have more incentive to stay — and more assistance to attempt to give our students an even chance.

 

At Bethune, many of our students are what most Americans would define as starving. At least a third are HHM (homeless/highly mobile), see violence in their homes or neighborhoods regularly and come to school with baggage many of us couldn’t imagine, let alone at age 5. Yet they are expected to meet the standards of kindergartners at upwardly mobile neighborhood schools like Burroughs and Hale. As far as the tests are concerned, a teacher is a teacher and a student is a student.

 

There are plenty of reasons why a teacher might not want to teach in a school like Bethune. Say, physical safety. Within the last two weeks, I have been slapped so hard in the face by a student that I had to seek emergency care; have been threatened by a student who said he was going to go home, come back and hurt me, because I wrote him up for hurting one of my kindergartners, and have broken up numerous fights. My fellow teachers and I have had parents threaten our safety more times than I can count — threats delivered on school property, in front of students. And, lest anyone be misinformed, there is no combat pay for working at a school like mine.

 

My children are happy to come to school and they are eager to learn. But sometimes they just lose it. A student will throw a chair across the room, or scissors at other students, or kick and punch me. It takes time, love and energy to find out why they are doing this. Many are imitating behaviors they see at home. Sometimes they have bottled-up feelings about something they have experienced and don’t know how to handle their anger. So, I teach them. I love them. I’m consistently there for them. I report their situation to Hennepin County all too often.

Many of our children do not have someone who will look over their work with them at night or take them to an activity. Our parents are generally very young and trying their best. It takes a village, but our village is poverty-stricken in every imaginable way.

 

Please read Greta Callahan’s article. She says succinctly what most teachers experience and know: Teaching is hard work. Low scores are caused not by “bad teachers,” but by terrible life circumstances that harm children and families. Of course, teachers should be evaluated, but not in the idiotic way she describes. Teachers who flounder need help and peer assistance. If they can’t teach, after sustained efforts to help them, they should leave teaching. But the narrative of “bad teachers cause low scores” is wrong. It ignores the effects of the single biggest blight on our society: growing poverty and inequality.

 

One of our regular readers posted a comment lInking to this blog post by David Cohen. Cohen is a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of a group in called Accomplished California Teachers. He teaches high school students in Palo Alto. He takes teaching very seriously. He took off this year to travel the state and document the work of excellent teachers.

In the post, he describes an exchange he had with Wendy Kopp on public radio. Here is the key part of their exchange:

“I put in a call myself, and was on the air in the final eight or nine minutes of the program if you care to listen to the audio online. Paraphrasing myself from memory here, I tried to make the point that TFA corps members are generally sent to low-performing schools that suffer from a lack of stability. There, more experienced teachers devote a great amount of time and effort to help train and support their new, TFA colleagues, even though TFA is not really dedicated to the idea that their corps members should remain in teaching as a long-term career. (I’m not arguing that they’re against that idea, but their vision is about seeing their alumni distributed throughout the education and political system). I expressed my concern that the TFA model does not concern itself in promoting stability in the schools that need it most. I passed along what I have read and heard about TFA teachers being under intense pressure to generate great results, to the point that they make a fetish of “achievement” data. To me, it looks like a recipe to produce a younger, cheaper, and more compliant teaching force, while logic, models from other professions, and any international schools comparison would suggest that we need to cultivate a stable, experienced, professional cadre of career teachers.

“Wendy Kopp’s reply came in two parts. One: “Read my book.” Two: it’s unfortunate that the education reform debate has resulted in people resisting innovation.

“If either of those parts of her reply really answers my questions about TFA, I fail to see it. Her book may or may not answer my question, but she had the microphone and the time to make the case to me and the listeners (how many of whom do you think have read the book?). Instead, she ducked the question. The suggestion that my comment was about resisting innovation was just a nicer version of “if you disagree with us then you support the status quo.”

This conversation reminded me of the time I debated Wendy Kopp at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011. Given the nature of the crowd (very pro-TFA, pro-corporate reform), I felt like someone thrown to the lions in the Colosseum of Ancient Rome.

Wendy said that TFA had proven that it was possible to close the achievement gap, that success was not elusive, that TFA had proven “it can be done.” Her three examples of districts where TFA had closed the achievement gap were New Orleans, New York City, and the District of Columbia. None of this was true, but arguing with Wendy, I found, was like trying to grab hold of Jello. No matter what evidence I put forward, she blithely ignored it and stuck to her talking points. TFA was a huge success because she said so. End of story.

This is a short documentary about teachers made by Education International. It shows the lives of teachers in Africa, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, and other place around the world. In some nations, classes are large, in others they are small. In some, students must pay to learn; in others, schooling is tuition-free.

Whatever the nation, whatever the policies, teachers face challenges. And beyond the differences, the role of the teacher is remarkably similar. They have a passion, a dedication, that looks the same whatever the circumstances.

Take this trip around the world. Teachers everywhere see themselves in their counterparts elsewhere.

Peter Smagorinsky, professor at the University of Grorgia, is one of our most astute critics of the current testing mania. This essay appeared in Maureen Downey’s blog in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He writes:

“The Georgia Department of Education has introduced a new assessment vehicle, the “Student Growth Model,” to measure student and school progress. According to the DOE, it produces “[t]he metric that will help educators, parents, and other stakeholders better understand and analyze the progress students make year to year.”
Very enticing. Who wouldn’t want such an instrument to track students’ growth?

Georgia plans to assess teachers based on student growth, but are we clear on what growth really means?

The Student Growth Model relies on two measurements. One is based on the percentage of students who meet or exceed state standards on standardized tests. The second measurement is designed to assess year-to-year progress of each student, compared both to students in other Georgia schools and to students at the national level in “academically similar” schools in terms of demographic and socioeconomic statistics.

These measurements make up a major portion of the state’s new teacher assessment system. The model assumes that there is a one-to-one causal relationship between individual teachers and individual students in terms of their test scores, which serve as a proxy for learning, for growth, and for teacher effectiveness in all areas.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose coverage of education I respect, has provided very favorable exposure of this initiative, using the language of advancement to describe its (as yet untested) effects in terms of students’ “progress,” “learning,” “achievement,” and “growth.”

Damian Betebenner, the statistician who designed the model that Georgia has adapted, has said, “You may have a teacher that’s in a classroom and the kids aren’t growing. We’re not saying that you’re necessarily a bad teacher, but it’s just not working here.” Yet by factoring in “growth” in these measurements, the system does indeed conclude that teachers whose students do not improve their test scores relative to local and national peers are bad.
I would like to offer some alternative understandings of what human growth involves, and how to measure it. As one who is immersed in developmental psychology, I always ask of claims of growth, Development toward what? And thus by implication, Development by what means?

For a committed Southern Baptist, this growth might involve learning, through faith-based texts and adult guidance, Biblical precepts so as to walk a righteous path according to the church’s teachings. This path is, above all, going somewhere and might be measured by attendance at church, tithing, good works, and other indicators of devotion. Which would you find more valuable measures of growth within this community, a multiple choice test on the Holy Bible, or living a virtuous life led by worship?

Now, I am not a religious person, so this conception of growth would not suit me. I’m an old high school English teacher who now works in teacher education. There is great disagreement among English teachers about what it means to grow through engagement with this discipline and its texts, traditions, and means of expression. To some, growth through English involves learning canonical works of literature and the cultural traditions that they embody.

To others, growth involves becoming a more involved citizen through engagement with the values and beliefs available in literature. Others might see English as a vehicle through which personal reflection and maturation are available; or as a discipline that requires mastery of the conventions of formal English…..”

Growth, progress, achievement, learning: We all want these attributes in our children and expect our teachers to promote them. But the new Student Growth Model measures do not measure up to what most people hope for in their child’s developmental course: their development into good human beings according to some cultural definition of a quality life.
So, what does it mean to conceive of a curriculum and assessment package in terms of human growth? I don’t think it’s the same for everyone, because people are headed in different directions.

Even those headed in the same direction often take different pathways, follow different paces, integrate that pathway with different goals, and otherwise follow Henry David Thoreau’s wisdom: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away…..”

Statisticians’ solutions are admirable in their ability to reduce assessments to single numbers, and thus are prized in the policy world. Teachers’ solutions tend to be much knottier, because they work with kids of delightful variety and hope to help each one realize his or her potential in an appropriate way.

If you agree that Georgia’s Student Growth Model does not rely on measures that encapsulate either student growth or teacher effectiveness, and if you agree that making students and teachers accountable for growth is a good idea, what might be a better alternative in terms of developing teacher effectiveness measures? If you believe that test scores constitute valid measures of student growth, toward what end are they growing, and in what manner do these scores demonstrate that growth conclusively?

In prior essays in this forum, I’ve made points I needn’t recapitulate here in detail. I oppose the standardization of diverse people, and believe that teachers should be entrusted to know their disciplines and how to teach them. I think that standardization is conceived especially poorly when it is measured by people who have never taught. I think that factory-style schooling is more likely to set back authentic human growth than to promote it in ways that lead to satisfying and productive lives. I think that single-iteration test scores are unreliable measures of performance. I think that most conceptions of curriculum and assessment provided by today’s policymakers are misguided and harmful to teaching and learning.

- See more at: http://getschooled.blog.ajc.com/2014/10/06/georgia-will-judge-teachers-on-student-growth-but-growth-toward-what-end/#sthash.1MDQKxAb.dpuf

My Review of TIME’s Cover Story on Teacher Tenure

 

 

In the past four years, TIME and Newsweek have published three cover stories that were openly hostile to teachers.

 

On December 8, 2008, TIME published a cover story featuring a photograph of Michelle Rhee, dressed in black and holding a broom, with the implication that she had arrived to sweep out the Augean stables of American education. (Detractors thought she looked like a witch.) The title on the cover was “How to Fix America’s Schools,” suggesting that Rhee knew how to fix the nation’s schools. The subtitle was “Michelle Rhee is the head of Washington, D.C., schools. Her battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies—and could transform public education.” The story inside was written by Amanda Ripley. We now know that Michelle Rhee did not transform the public schools of the District of Columbia, although she fired hundreds of teachers and principals.

 

 

Newsweek had a cover on March 5, 2010, saying “The Key to Saving American Education: We must fire bad teachers,” a phrase that was written again and again on the cover, as if on a chalkboard. The story began with the false claim that “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world.” Simply untrue; when the first international assessments were administered in 1964, American seniors scored dead last of 12 nations and in the fifty years that followed, we never outscored the rest of the world. The Newsweek story celebrated the mass firing of high school teachers (without any evaluations) in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a calamitous event that was hailed by Secretary Arne Duncan as a bold stroke forward.

 

 

And now TIME has added another cover story to the litany of complaints against “bad teachers.” This one, dated November 3, 2014, has a cover that reads: “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher: Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That.” The cover shows a judge’s gavel about to smash an unblemished, shining apple. The story inside was written by Haley Sweetland Edwards. In addition, the magazine includes a column by Nancy Gibbs, Editor of the magazine, commenting on the story.

 

 

The underlying theme of all these covers and stories is that “bad teachers” have ruined and continue to ruin American education, harming children and the nation. They claim that unions and rigid tenure rules are protecting these terrible teachers. Get rid of the “bad teachers” and America’s test scores will fly to the top of the world. That seems to be the assumption behind Arne Duncan’s insistence that teachers must be evaluated to a significant degree by the test scores of their students. Those who get higher scores get extra money, while those with low scores may lose their tenure, lose their job, lose their license.

 

That seems just to the folks who edit Newsweek and TIME, to the tech millionaires and billionaires, but it seems very unjust to teachers, because they know that their ratings will rise or fall depending on who is in their class. Students are not randomly assigned. If teachers are teaching English-language learners or students with disabilities or even gifted students, they will see small gains; they may not see any gains, even though they are good teachers. Their ratings may fluctuate wildly from year to year. Their ratings may fluctuate because of the formula. Their ratings may fluctuate if the test is changed. To many teachers, this system is a roll of the dice that might end their career. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 89% of teachers oppose test-based evaluations of their quality. This is not because teachers object to evaluations but because they object to unfair evaluations.

 

The most recent TIME cover and story should be viewed in three pieces, because the pieces don’t fit together snugly.

 

First is the cover. Someone, my guess would be someone with more authority than the writer, approved a highly insulting cover illustration and accompanying language. Should the perfect apple (the teacher) be crushed by the judge’s gavel? Is the profession filled with “rotten apples”? Is it “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher”? Nothing in the accompanying story demonstrates the accuracy of this allegation.

 

Then comes the story itself, written by Haley Sweetland Edwards. Edwards contacted me to ask me to read the story and judge for myself, rather than be swayed by the cover (the implication being that the cover is sensationalized and thus emotional and inaccurate, although she did not use those words). She sent me a pdf. file whose title, interestingly enough, was “shall we let millionaires change education.” Now, THAT would have been an interesting story, and the kernel of it is in Edwards’ article.

 

She writes about the battle over teacher tenure:

 
“The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires. It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses. And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.


“It is a reflection of our politics that no one elected these men to take on the knotty problem of fixing our public schools, but here they are anyway, fighting for what they firmly believe is in the public interest.”

 

Now, think about it. What she has written here is that a handful of extremely wealthy men work behind closed doors to usurp the democratic process. No wasting time with voting or legislative action. They use their vast personal fortunes to change a public school system that few of them have ever utilized as students or parents. True, David Welch, who is bankrolling the legal challenges, attended public schools but it is not clear in the story whether his own children ever went to public school or if he himself has set foot in one since his own school days long ago. Then follows a rather star-struck account of this multi-millionaire as he sets his sights on ending due process for public school teachers, engaging a high-priced public relations team, creating a well-funded organization with a benign name, and hiring a crack legal team. Now, he is repeating his strategy in New York and other states; he is Ahab pursuing the bad teacher. The Vergara decision is presented as a culminating victory, where everyone hugs and kisses at the outcome, even though not a single plaintiff was able to identify a “bad teacher” who had actually caused her any harm.

 

 

The story fails to note that Judge Treu, in his Vergara decision, cited a witness for the defense, education scholar David Berliner, who guessed that maybe 1-3% of teachers might be incompetent; when the judge jumped on that number as a “fact” in his decision, Berliner retracted it and said he had not conducted any study of teacher competence in California and it was a “guesstimate” at best. Too late. Berliner’s guesstimate became Judge Treu’s “proof” that the bottom 1-3% should be fired before they do more harm.

 

Up to this point in the story, David Welch and his fellow millionaire/billionaire reformers are treated heroically. But then comes Edwards’ ending, where she concludes with almost two full columns undercutting value-added assessment and the very idea that tests of students can accurately gauge teacher effectiveness.

 

Edwards writes about how No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have led most states to create teacher evaluation systems tied to test scores that determine tenure, layoff decisions, and bonuses. She writes: “This two-decade trend has not, of course, been free of controversy. But what began with protests over ‘high-stakes testing’ and cheating scandals in various public-school districts [my note: including Michelle Rhee’s] in the mid-2000s has morphed in the past six months into an outright mutiny, driven in large part by the controversial rollout of Common Core State Standards, which are linked to new state curriculums, more-difficult tests and new teacher evaluations.” She points out that teachers have filed lawsuits in several states. “Many argued that policies focusing on cold, statistical measures fail to take into account the messy, chaotic reality of teaching in communities where kids must content with poverty and violence.”

 

Edwards then goes on to cite the numerous studies challenging the validity of value-added assessment. She mentions the American Statistical Association’s report on VAM, a review by the American Educational Research Association, even a study published by the U.S. Department of Education finding that “VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted.” Had she started the story with this summary, it would have been a very different story indeed. It would have shown that the millionaires and billionaires have no idea how to judge teacher effectiveness and are introducing chaos into the lives of teachers who are doing a hard job for less than the millionaires pay their secretaries.

 

Edwards wrote, I am guessing, a good story about the invalidity of VAMs and the insistence of the tech millionaires/billionaires that they know more about education than teachers and that they are ready to deploy millions to force their views on a public education system about which they are uninformed. For them, it is a power trip, not reform. Again my guess is that her editor rewrote the story to make the millionaires look heroic, because what they are doing is not heroic. Anyone who has any regular contact with public schools expects it will be harder to recruit good teachers as a result of the Vergara decision. But the millionaires don’t know that.

 

 

The third part of the TIME story is the four-paragraph column by Nancy Gibbs, Editor of TIME. She calls it “Honor Thy Teacher,” an ironic title for her piece and for the cover illustration, which Dishonors All Teachers. Gibbs begins by thanking three teachers– Mrs. Flanagan, Miss Raymond, and Mr. Schwartz–who “seeded” her imagination and shaped her character. But she then goes on to say that “one Texas study found that cutting class size by 10 students was not as beneficial as even modest improvement in the teacher.” That is bizarre. I wish she had identified the study or its author. I don’t know of any teacher, even the best, who would not prefer to teach smaller classes; I don’t know of any teacher who thinks he or she can do their best when they have 35 or 45 children in the class. Gibbs then goes on to reiterate the familiar claim that other countries draw their teachers from the top third of graduates while the U.S. draws almost half of its teachers from the bottom third. Again, I would like to see her citation for that datum. Perhaps the three teachers she thanked at the outset—Mrs. Flanagan, Miss Raymond, and Mr. Schwartz—were drawn from the bottom third.

 

Does Nancy Gibbs know that between 40-50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years (perhaps those in the bottom third)? Does she know that education programs are shrinking because young people no longer see teaching as a desirable career, given the contempt that people like Gibbs and legislators in states like North Carolina and Indiana and millionaires like David Welch heap on teachers? Does she know that teachers in California must acquire a liberal arts degree before they can enter education programs? Does she know that many experienced teachers are leaving the profession because of the highly public attacks on teachers by people like Arne Duncan, David Welch, and Michelle Rhee? Which side is she on? Does she side with Mrs. Flanagan, Miss Raymond, and Mr. Schwartz, or with the tech millionaires and billionaires who want to reduce them to data points and fire them? Has the thought occurred that the tech millionaires want to replace teachers with computers? It makes sense to them. The rest of us would like to see greater support for teachers, greater emphasis on recruitment and retention of those who have the responsibility for instructing the nation’s children.

Steven Singer, teacher, was outraged by the cover of TIME that said it’s nearly impossible to fire bad teachers but tech millionaires have figured it out.

He writes:

“It is IMPOSSIBLE to fire a bad teacher.

“Unless of course you document how that teacher is bad.

“You know? Due process. Rights. All that liberal bullshit.

“Thank goodness we have tech millionaires to stand up for the rights of totalitarians everywhere!

“A slew of Microsoft wannabes is taking up the mantle of the bored rich to once again attack teacher tenure.

“They claim it’s almost impossible to fire bad teachers because of worker’s rights.

“You know who actually is impossible to fire!? Self-appointed policy experts!

“No one hired them to govern our public schools. In fact, they have zero background in education. But they have oodles of cash and insufferable ennui. Somehow that makes them experts!

“I wonder why no one wants to hear my pet theories on how we should organize computer systems and pay programmers. Somehow the change in my pocket doesn’t qualify me to make policy at IBM, Apple or Microsoft. Strange!”

And be sure to read the imaginary editorial meeting where they decided to let know nothing millionaires tell schools how to do their job.

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