Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

Peter Greene sees signs that educators are fed up with the top-down mandates from non-educator Arne Duncan, fed up with the failed punitive policies of NCLB and Race to the Top. Now we know that Washington cares about one thing only: test scores, and now we know that the beneficiaries of Washington’s obsession are the testing companies. We have now had nearly 15 years of test-based incentives and sanctions and ample evidence that this approach has driven joy out of learning and failed to achieve anything that benefits students or society.

As the school year begins, let’s hope that there will be more states following Vermont’s lead by rejecting federal mandates and setting forth their own vision of what good education looks like. Let’s hope that there will be more teachers like those in Chicago and at Garfield High in Seattle who insist on doing what’s right for their students. Let’s hope that there will be more superintendents like those in Washington State who were compelled by NCLB to send home a letter saying “we are a failing school,” but added a cover letter saying that it was not true. Let’s hope that integrity, courage, and candor break out everywhere.

Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Schools in California, issued a statement today declaring his decision to seek appellate review of the Vergara decision. Torlakson is a veteran educator. His opponent Marshall Tuck immediately attacked Torlakson. Tuck, a former investment banker, was active in the charter school movement. Tenure is not the only or the most important issue that divides them. Tuck’s penchant for privatization would undermine public education across the state.

I know Tom Torlakson well. He is humble, knowledgeable, and understands schooling. I hope the voters of California are wise enough to re-elect him.

Tom Torlakson said today:

Friends,

Earlier today I issued a statement regarding my decision to seek appellate review of the Vergara case, which has drawn considerable public attention in recent weeks.

Here is the complete text of my public statement:

“The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support. Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.

“We do not fault doctors when the emergency room is full. We do not criticize the firefighter whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and support this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers who step forward every day to make a difference for our children.

“No teacher is perfect. A very few are not worthy of the job. School districts have always had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up, and this year I helped pass a new law that streamlined the dismissal process, while protecting the rights of both teachers and students. It is disappointing that the Court refused to even consider this important reform.

“In a cruel irony, this final ruling comes as many California teachers spend countless unpaid hours preparing to start the new school year in hopes of better serving the very students this case purportedly seeks to help.

“While the statutes in this case are not under my jurisdiction as state Superintendent, it is clear that the Court’s ruling is not supported by the facts or the law. Its vagueness provides no guidance about how the Legislature could successfully alter the challenged statutes to satisfy the Court. Accordingly, I will ask the Attorney General to seek appellate review.”

Best regards,

Tom

Paul Horton here attempts to understand why the Obama administration is waging war on teachers. He reminds us of Central Falls, when the Obama administration supported firing the entire staff of the high school. He remembers when the administration was neutral during the Chicago teachers’ strike, and Arne Duncan’s support for the noxious Vergara decision. He could have mentioned many other instances of the administration’s hostility to teachers, such as Duncan’s support for the L.A. Times story releasing the names and ratings of teachers. Or the administration’s silence during the large demonstrations against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, or its silence as vouchers spread.

He writes:

“In sum, the war on teachers and due process for teachers is presented by many Democrats as a new war on poverty, and, somewhat obscenely, “the Civil Rights Movement of our time.” Last year Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. Schools, made speeches at southern civil rights museums that proclaimed that supporting charter schools and making teachers accountable was the key to creating a more equitable America. Closing the achievement gap and not the excuse of poverty was the new focus of the new Civil Rights movement. The National Civil Rights Museum—Lorraine Motel in Memphis recently recognized Geoffery Canada, a Harlem charter school operator and the star of the anti-pubic school documentary, “Waiting for Superman” as a “Civil Rights Hero.”

It was cheaper to wage war on teachers than to wage war on poverty. But that leaves so much unexplained. Why did President Obama embrace the Republican agenda of testing, accountability, and choice? Why did President Obama turn against one of the most reliable members of his party’s base? Horton doesn’t explain.

Chris Roberts, a new teacher in Ohio, was attracted to the message of StudentsFirst. He was impressed by what he read and by “Waiting for Superman.” He joined and was invited to apply for their Teachers for Transformation Academy. He was offered a stipend of $5,000 to be StudentsFirst Teacher for Transformation Fellow in Ohio. But in his fourth year of teaching, he had an epiphany. He realized that StudentsFirst was wrong about everything that mattered to him as a teacher. He turned down their offer and the $5,000. And he wrote an eloquent letter to explain why.

This is a small part of a powerful letter:

“Now after four years in the classroom, my view of education has changed. Now, I am not so convinced that the StudentsFirst agenda is what is best for students. Those “older teachers” whom I felt didn’t deserve the seniority protections were actually some of the most helpful people I’ve ever come across. Their years of experience meant they had a wealth of classroom management advice to share. They weren’t stubborn curmudgeons as portrayed by those trying to “reform” education. They are some of the most caring, loving people I’ve known. Are there a couple of bad eggs every once in a while? Yes. But that is the case in any profession. You occasionally will find a bad doctor, hence malpractice suits. But instead of “reforming” the medical field and basing doctors’ evaluations on patients’ health, politicians instead push for tort reform to make it harder to sue doctors. I guess you could say that Republicans are pushing to protect bad doctors. One of the problems that I see with eliminating seniority protections boils down to money. Schools are strapped for money, it is nearly impossible to pass a levy and the state seems content with defunding. The more experienced teachers tend to be the most “expensive”. Despite their ratings and evaluations, I could see many schools getting rid of those teachers not because they perform poorly, but because it would be cheaper to bring in a new hire. Students could suffer from this.

“As a parent, I have a problem with the evaluation systems being pushed by StudentsFirst and other corporate-driven reformers. With teachers’ evaluations being based on progress on student test scores, that means students must be tested to an extent never seen before. In every single class, multiple times a year, students are taking more standardized tests. My six-year old daughter told me this summer that she was afraid to go to first grade “because of the tests”. She is afraid she won’t do well on them. That is pathetic. Children should be excited to go to school and learn, but school has become more about tests rather than learning. School is about getting a certain score on a certain test. Education policies are killing children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn. I can’t help but wonder if this is intentional. Are there certain people out there who want to destroy public schools through excessive testing, defunding, and unfunded mandates in order to make people “want” privatization of schools? It sometimes seems like it. Whether intentional or not, unfortunately StudentsFirst’s agenda aligns with this style of reform that we have been seeing take over the public education conversation. Although I believe in free market capitalism, I see that in the case of education the more private corporations get involved in education, the worse our schools get. There are large corporations making these tests, the politicians force these tests upon our schools, and the test companies also make the textbooks and curricula for the schools to follow. It is a terrible marriage of big business and big government and children are the ones taking a hit. Teachers are becoming scripted robots and these corporations are making billions from our tax dollars, which could instead be going towards improving our schools. I, for one, do not want my children subjected to so much testing.”

A reader directed me to a website where people rate their work experience and their employer. Former and present teachers at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy posted devastating critiques of their experiences. SA must have gotten wind of what was happening on this website, because as you will note, the reviews suddenly turned from bleakly negative to enthusiastically positive, echoing the reformers’ talking points.

A recent article in City Limits said that Eva’s Harlem Success Academy charter schools had consistently high rates of teacher turnover, higherthan the public schools or most other charter schools. HSA denied it, although the writer was using state data. There was much speculation in the article about why teachers quit her schools at such a high rate. Read the reviews.

Judge for yourself. What do you think?

Helen Zelon of “City Limits” wonders why teacher turnover is so high in nyc charter schools.

She writes:

“According to data from the New York State Department of Education, charter schools in New York City lose far more teachers every year than their traditional school counterparts. In some schools, more than half of faculty “turn over” from one school year to the next, according to NYSED school report cards.

“Charter advocates at the New York City Charter School Center and at Success Academies, the city’s largest charter network, say that at least some of the turnover is due to movement within school networks—teachers moving up the leadership ladder, for example, or to seed the faculty of new schools, which have opened at a rapid clip in recent years.

“But even so, it’s hard to explain a churn of more than half the veteran faculty, which is the case at 15 percent of charter schools for which the state reports data….”

“The situation is not much better for veteran teachers, who are often the minority in charter schools: Of the 70 schools, 10 lost more than half of their veteran faculty in the ’11-’12 academic year; 24 schools saw more than 40 percent of experienced teachers exit.”

Zelon adds:

“Near the top of the turnover chart is the Success Academies system led by former Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. With 22 schools and 10 new schools opening in August 2014, it is the city’s largest charter chain.

In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year. In one school, three out of four teachers departed.”

Spokespersons for HSA said the data were wrong.

Why is attrition so high? Long working hours; teacher burnout; TFA who made a two-year commitment and never intended to stay longer.

After David Greene, veteran teacher and mentor, read the review of Elizabeth Green’s new book (“Building a Better Teacher”)y esterday, he asked me to publish this excerpt from his new book, “Doing the Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks.” Here it is. It won’t get the publicity that Elizabeth Green’s book will get. But it is backed up by many years in the classroom.

It begins like this:

“Who remembers their favorite test from school? You know, the one that inspired you to become who you are now, or saved you from the wrong part of yourself? Who remembers the test that made you want to come out of your shell? Which test gave you the courage to try new things and challenge yourself? For me, it was the 1966 Regents Comprehensive Examination in Social Studies.

“Ok, only kidding. We all know that it is teachers who inspire and challenge us to be our best. It isn’t testing, or much of what is now being called teaching. We also know which teachers did that. We might remember some incidents in their classes, or things they said or wrote to us. Do we remember the everyday things? The attitude they brought to the room? Their techniques?

“When I see former students (from the Bronx to Scarsdale), they don’t tell me about the Goals or Aim or Motivation from October 23rd, 2002. They will tell me about my energy, my excitement, my caring, and my prodding them to do their best, not to settle for mediocrity. They tell me about a particular project that inspired or challenged them to think critically, or do things they never thought they could. They even remember what they learned while doing those things. What they don’t know is how all of that was planned.”

Elizabeth Green, one of our leading education journalists, has just published a book titled “Building a Better Teacher.”

In this thoughtful post, Andrea Gabor points out the strengths and weaknesses of Green’s book. Gabor believes that Green makes a strong case for those who are doing a god job of teaching teachers.

Gabor writes:

“I picked up Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, with great anticipation. By the time I finished reading the nicely written, highly detailed descriptions of some of the latest efforts to improve teaching, I was alternatively gratified, intrigued and more-than-a-little frustrated.

“Let’s start with why I was gratified: Her book argues that good teaching can and must-be taught. This would seem to be mere common sense. But what Green calls the “black box” of teaching has been long neglected not only by university based schools of education, but also by education-policy makers.

“Green’s narrative seeks to debunk the notion that the secret to improving U.S. education is to place a superstar teacher in every classroom. She argues, instead, what many education reformers would consider heresy: That improving education is about teaching teachers, including ordinary ones, how to improve. Being a good teacher, Green painstakingly shows us, is extraordinarily difficult. And teaching someone to become a good teacher is even more difficult. Writes Green: “By misunderstanding how teaching works, we misunderstand what it will take to make it better—ensuring that, far too often, teaching doesn’t work at all.”

“Green argues that by making accountability (via test scores) and autonomy (the notion that teachers are professionals who should be treated accordingly) the two dominant theories of teacher improvement, policymakers and pundits “have left us with no real plan. Autonomy lets teachers succeed or fail on their own terms with little guidance. Accountability tells them only whether they have succeeded, not what to do to improve. Instead of helping, both prescriptions preserve a long-standing culture of abandonment.”

Further:

“Green’s subject is hugely important. But to make her argument she must navigate the minefield of the highly politicized education-reform movement. And, at times, she seems to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending education reformers who have made accountability—not improvement of either teachers or pedagogical methods—the centerpiece of both private education-reform efforts and the nation’s education policy.”

Gabor was disappointed by Green’s deference to the “reformers,” especially those who think that young people can become effective teachers with only five weeks training. Gabor is also uncomfortable with Green’s lengthy treatment of Doug Lemov, “the managing director of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain, and author of best-selling books that have become the gospel of the no-excuses behavioralist approach embraced by most charter schools. This approach holds that what disadvantaged kids need more than anything is strict discipline, even if it sometimes verges on being ‘punishing, even cruel.'”

Gabor clearly admires Green’s appreciation for the study and practice of teaching. She especially enjoyed what Green learned about Japanese teaching. Japanese educators borrowed American ideas–starting with John Dewey–that Americans had forgotten or ignored. The same things happened in business, Gabor notes, where the Japanese learned from the work of W. Edwards Deming, but his own countrymen did not. Deming had many great insights, one of which was that the system created the conditions in which individuals can succeed or fail. Thus, accountability begins at the top, not the bottom.

Green is CEO of an education journal called “Chalkbeat.” Gabor implies, though she doesn’t say so outright, that Green must walk a fine line between reporting what she knows and not offending her funders, who include the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Although she doesn’t like test-based accountability, she can’t bring herself to criticize Eric Hanushek, who is the father of the test-based accountability movement. Also, she writes admiringly about the charter movement and its devotion to improving the craft of teaching even though charters are known for high rates of teacher attrition.

I know and like Elizabeth Green. She is a talented journalist and a gifted writer. And yes, she does have a dilemma, one which is shared by many media outlets. The survival of independent journalism is now dependent on foundations that have an agenda. Can independent journalism exist if it must be funded by those with an agenda? Unless this situation changes, good writing in America will become–if it isn’t already–samizdat.

In a truly wonderful article in Sunday’s New York Times, David Kirp of the University of California at Berkeley lays waste the underpinnings of the current “education reform” movement. Kirp not only shows what doesn’t work, he gives numerous examples of what does work to help students.

Kirp explains in plain language why teaching can never be replaced by a machine. Although the article just appeared, I have already heard about angry grumbling from reformers, because their ultimate goal (which they prefer to hide) is to replace teachers with low-cost machines. Imagine a “classroom” with 100 students sitting in front of a monitor, overseen by a low-wage aide. Think of the savings. Think of the advantages that a machine has over a human being: they can be easily programmed; they don’t get a salary or a pension; they don’t complain when they are abused; and when a better, cheaper model comes along, the old one can be tossed into the garbage.

David Kirp dashes cold water on the reformy dream. Today’s reformers devoutly believe that schools can be transformed by market mechanisms, either by competition or technology. Kirp, author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” says that the tools for the improvement are not out of reach and do not depend on either the market or technology. His common-sense formulation of what is needed is within our reach, does not require mass firings or mass school closings, privatization, or a multi-billion dollar investment in technology.

But Kirp writes:

“It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Reformers have made test scores “the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.” The teacher whose students get high scores get a bonus, while those whose students get low scores get fired, just like business, where low-performers are laid-off. And, just like business, where low-profit stores are closed, and new ones are opened “in more promising territory, failing schools are closed and so-called turnaround model schools, with new teachers and administrators, take their place.”

Kirp says bluntly:

“This approach might sound plausible in a think tank, but in practice it has been a flop. Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.”

Kirp throws cold water on the reformers’ favorite remedy: “Charter schools,” he writes, “have been promoted as improving education by creating competition. But charter students do about the same, over all, as their public school counterparts, and the worst charters, like the online K-12 schools that have proliferated in several states, don’t deserve to be called schools. Vouchers are also supposed to increase competition by giving parents direct say over the schools their children attend, but the students haven’t benefited.”

As we have frequently noted, Milwaukee should be the poster child for both voucher schools and charter schools, which have operated there for nearly 25 years. Yet Milwaukee is one of the nation’s lowest performing cities in the nation on the federal NAEP tests. Milwaukee has had plenty of competition but no success.

What’s the alternative? It is obvious: “talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum.”

Kirp points to the management ideas of W. Edwards Deming, who believed in the importance of creating successful systems in which workers were chosen carefully, supported, encouraged, and enabled to succeed by the organization’s culture. The best organizations flourish by supporting their employees, not by threatening them.

Kirp identifies a number of models in education that have succeeded by “strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools.” He refers to preschools, to a reading and math program called Success for All model, to another called Diplomas Now, which “love-bombs middle school students who are prime candidates for dropping out. They receive one-on-one mentoring, while those who have deeper problems are matched with professionals.”

Kirp cites “An extensive study of Chicago’s public schools, Organizing Schools for Improvement, identified 100 elementary schools that had substantially improved and 100 that had not. The presence or absence of social trust among students, teachers, parents and school leaders was a key explanation.”

Similarly, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, “has had a substantial impact on millions of adolescents. The explanation isn’t what adolescents and their “big sibling” mentors do together, whether it’s mountaineering or museum-going. What counts, the research shows, is the forging of a relationship based on mutual respect and caring.

Despite the success of programs cited by Kirp, which are built on personal relationships, “public schools have been spending billions of dollars on technology which they envision as the wave of the future. Despite the hyped claims, the results have been disappointing.”

Kirp concludes that “technology can be put to good use by talented teachers,” but it is the teachers who “must take the lead. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.”

David L. Kirp is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”

Reader Art Seagal comments on the latest, most destructive fads in American education–destructive because they are mandatory and do not permit teacher judgment or professionalism.

Seagal writes:

I just read a telling article in an alumni magazine all about one man’s (Clayton Christensen) business concept – “disruptive innovation”. Sadly, our nation’s children and teachers have become pawns in a corporate-centric world being constantly moved over the chessboard so that opponent’s kings can be check-mated. “Edupreneurs” .. you pick from a string of them – the latest being David Coleman – are trying to play Christensen’s concept (which really is a statement of the obvious put through marketing and given a “brand”) to become the KING – the last man standing – the American Idol – the Survivor – the Bachelorette – you name it and the corporate world is going to find that “ONE PROFIT MAKING IDEAL that is going to be ON TOP (henceforth profitable) rendering everything before it useless. This may work for products??? Think cell phone and landline. But it certainly is not working for the basics of humanity – our quest to learn. Just the mere attempt to try to be the “disruptive innovator” is destroying public education (well there is a lot more contributing to this destruction too like poverty and a failing democratic process on a national level).

I mentioned before.. this era of “guru-ization”. Ravitch totally nails it in this recent article with the revolving door of “next best” and “this way or the highway” style public education that has taken professional control from teachers totally away and put it into the hands of what I will say are wanna be “disruptive innovators”. I am thankful for her existence on a daily basis!!!

We need to bring back teacher control. Yes, teachers who constantly keep updated and read about various education ideas and actually pick and choose those components they professionally feel will merit use in their particular classrooms. When you get a program like Balanced Literacy developed by someone with a lot of ed experience but it suddenly becomes THE ONE PROGRAM in NYC… it serves not to benefit but to disenfranchise because it is expected (no demanded by authorities) to be implemented in a one-size-fits all kind of way. The business model has perpetuated “guruization” by dangling the potential for enormous profit off of “that one idea” that goes forcefully viral. Let’s keep these ideas but not let the corporate world co-opt them!

Coleman’s theories need a good looking at by people who actually have education (not testing experience). Teachers are perfectly capable of looking at his ideas and tossing out everything that does not work. But this is not how it works. They must follow ALL OF IT despite their experience telling them otherwise. Dare I say this but if teachers were allowed to choose from their readings what and how to implement various components of various education ideas… success might be a lot more prevalent. And yes, most teachers I work with WANT TO GO TO PD’s that are not PR brainwashing events but one’s of their choosing that actually help them in the classroom. One fabulous teacher I know, paid on her own dime (as we usually do when we want REAL PD’s) and could not talk enough about a “brain and the young child” conference she attended (led by a neurologist). Instead we are forced to attend conferences where non educators are trained specifically to teach educators and their bosses are getting heaps of money to inflict nonsense on these teachers. These trainers never can answer the nitty gritty real questions that teachers ask because they have not had the requisite classroom experience. And quite often they are charged with selling their company’s “brand”. The superintendents meanwhile get to “check off” that their county’s teachers have been provided “essential training” from their superintendent’s “check-list” that satisfies likely a govt entity that provides funding to their county! Junk food PD’s.


I feel sorry for our “down under” friends… their govt.’s willingness to follow the US public education model truly will put their nation’s most valuable (their young) “down and under”.

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