Monday, August 15, 2011

Pearson's Turn to Profit from our Kids

New York State has found a new testing company to pay. Pearson is the lucky winner of a rather large profit, to the tune of $32 million over the next five years, with costs totaling a heaping $8 million for this year alone. McGraw-Hill, our previous publisher of torture-tests was much more affordable for the state, with costs totaling $26 million for the past eight years. Still quite a chunk of change, but about half of what the state plans on paying Pearson with taxpayer dollars, while class sizes are still expanding, teachers are threatened with layoffs, and millions of kids remain below the poverty level. Policymakers have made it quite obvious that those who profit from education will be the CEOs of publishing and testing companies, at the expense of the teachers on the front lines and the students who are filling in their bubbles.

In the eyes of a creative teacher or a disgruntled student, the Torture Tests are all interchangeable as long as they consist of multiple-choice questions. The "differences", however, are: Pearson will be eliminating tricky questions that include the words "which is not...",  (very common and frustrating)"all of the above", "none of the above", (although I haven't seen either of those answer choices on any McGraw-Hill test in years) and will be eliminating the use of bold and italic letters in questioning. I have no doubt, however, that Pearson will find innovative new ways to throw off our kids. After all, their job is to produce data, and as soon as there is either a sharp upward or downward trend, there will be revisions. The test will still be the test, even if written differently. Students will still be perceived as data points, and teachers will still be judged based on that data. Put a pig in a dress, it's still a pig. Take a politician or CEO out of his tailored business suit and silk tie, and put him in some Bananna Republic Khakis and a pink polo shirt, he's still a greedy little snake.

These are not the only changes in the testing content. Quoted from the above cited New York Times article:

"Tests next year will resemble those given last spring, but by 2013 they will reflect new national standards, (Gates-Funded Common Core) and include more difficult reading passages, more open-ended math questions, and writing assignments that ask children to focus not on their own experiences, but on interpreting information from texts."

You may have noticed that the last sentence is in italics. Yes, that was me. What education policymakers fail to understand is that children have a knowledge base that is comprised of their own experiences. These experiences include personal memories and literary content that they have learned in the past. This applies to the learning process of all human beings, not just children. For example, I fancy myself a decent writer. When I tap away at my keyboard writing this blog, my content is a combination of information I glean from articles and studies I have read and my own personal experiences as a teacher and a student, and the conclusions I reach using both knowledge bases. Without using both content and experience, my blog would suck, and you wouldn't be reading this right now. One cannot expect a student to correctly interpret information from a text without allowing them to draw upon their experiences. And we all know, because this will be the format of the writing section of the test, teachers will be expected to teach to that format, so the student data is pretty enough for our state to win The Race To The Top. We will continue to be forced to teach our students to interpret texts in a way that is completely irrelevant to their lives, thus hindering their ability to form unique opinions, and, yes, think independently. 

By now, I can conclude, based on the articles I have read and my experiences in the classroom, that the wealthy politicians and policymakers want our kids to become their servants, empty, unquestioning, and easily programmed.

Luckily for my son, these "revisions" in questioning will be in full force by 2013, the year he enters middle school. And by 2013, there may be such a sharp trend in data under the old model that the revisions will then be, well, revised.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Accountability: Test Prep vs. REAL Teaching

As we all know, the word "accountability" is thrown around like a baseball at a little league game. It's like this new mantra that we hear from the mouths of policy makers and common people quite often: "Educators must be held accountable each day for their students' performance." 

Because of this wave of test-based teacher evaluations (in some states 50%) Educators who are supporting a family can potentially lose their source of income based on numbers that do not reflect the variables that influence a child's learning, or the level of true teaching that has occurred throughout the year

For those of you who are wondering, this is what "teaching to the test" actually is (I am using English Language Arts as an example here) Let's take one passage in a test prep book with multiple-choice questions. I am used to the McGraw-Hill style, but I am thinking that testing companies all conspire together in their competitive, multi-billion dollar market, so in my eyes, they are all interchangeable. Let's take a non fiction text:

1. We are presented with a passage and between 6-8 multiple choice questions each with four answers to choose from.
2. I direct my kids to preview the title, the pictures (if any) the subheadings (if any) before they read the text. I tell them to "activate their prior knowledge on the subject".
3. Then, before reading the text, I tell them to preview the questions, because this will help them to find the answers more efficiently as they read. For example, if there is a main idea question, think while reading about the strategies you memorized about finding the main idea. If there is a vocabulary question, be sure to find the word presented in the question IN the story so you may choose the answer in the correct context.
4. Read the passage with ALL of these things stuffed into in your mind. (Leaves little room for the actual content of the text, huh?) Underline parts of the text that you think answers the questions, and label them with the corresponding question number.
5. Answer the MC questions using the following strategies: (some, not all, are listed)
     -go back to the text several times to make sure your answers are correct
     -use process of elimination. Usually there are two answers that are just silly, and usually there are two answers that appear to be right (or may actually both be right) If you are still not sure, guess between those two answers. Usually this applies to inference questions.
     -In context clues questions, replace all 4 answer choices in the sentence that presents the vocabulary word. (This does not require the child to actually use the word).

These are just some examples of test-prep strategies that are drilled into their heads all year. In an urban environment, ALL YEAR. It comes close to indoctrination. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the test. All that matters is the.....

Bored yet? 

Have you noticed that the child is interacting with the text on a very superficial level? The text is picked apart like a cadaver in an autopsy. The students are expected to make inferences, yet given four answers to choose from instead of forming conclusions in their own words. This is not reading instruction. This is test strategy instruction. The kids are not forming opinions about what they read. They are not making text connections, which is a great way to assess if a student has a deep understanding of a text. The instruction is COMPLETELY centered around the multiple-choice questions. This means that any part of the text that is not covered by these questions is not "worth" teaching, because time is of the essence. Remember, during the test, students are timed. Even if a student stops to ask a question or make a comment about a part of the text that is not included in the questions, we should "bring them back to task".

Of course, in my classroom, we discussed the whole text whenever we could, including my students' connections, opinions, and experiences, because that's how I roll. I believe that a student's unique perspective about is text is invaluable, and having the student verbalize (or write) this is a fantastic indicator of weather or not he/she has understood it beyond literal comprehension. Having rich text discussion is a very intricate part of my pedagogy. I refused to give it up. I dug my heels in. Teaching a text in a superficial manner was simply NOT AN OPTION. Don't worry, my door was closed and the call button under the speaker (squawk box) was on the "off" position. My principal was sitting in her air-conditioned office, doing the budget, I'm sure.

Now, this is ChalkDusters way:

Take any given non fiction text. No multiple choice questions. (I think this goes without saying). One similarity is, we preview the text. But instead of just activating Prior Knowledge, we make predictons, speculate, discuss, and explore the topic of the text. We may even have a full-fledged class discussion on the topic before even reading the text. I pull out vocabulary words from the text beforehand and ask for ideas on what these words may mean, using root word strategies and context, eliciting answers from the kids, and clarify the definitions before we start to read. I make sure this is written down and spoken, and I ask the students to synthesize, using the words in their own sentences. I tell my students to think while they read, to highlight points that seem important to them, to evaluate, and to draw at least one conclusion and form one opinion per paragraph. (I apologize for listing, but if I went into each one, we'd be here all day)

I take a small group of students who need support (I know this because I have observed my students, and assessed their level of understanding of non fiction texts through individual reading conferences)  and read the text aloud as they follow along, stopping to discuss whenever my students need to, I follow their lead. We form opinions together. We may draw a picture to represent our conclusions, or fill out a chart with different-colored markers. This is difficult because most inner city classrooms (middle school) have 30+ kids. My small group lesson is constantly interrupted by the rest of the class. "Can I go to the bathroom?" "He's bothering meeee!" "Can you help me? Can I join the group? Please please pleaaase?" This speaks to how important it is to have smaller class sizes, or a teaching assistant. It speaks to how my kids were thirsty for some individual attention, and weren't afraid to ask for it. It killed me to turn down the child who wanted to join Mrs. Chalkduster's group. But remember, the funds are going to.....the test. Not to the things that COMMON SENSE would tell us how to improve education.

Afterwards, I assess my students' understanding by asking the entire class to write an opinion piece based on the text, using an evaluative question. I expect my students to support their opinions with text evidence and their life experiences if it relates to the topic. This also allows me to assess their writing skills (ie grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity.) I also ask some to illustrate. Sometimes I throw them the option of writing a poem, especially if the text is political or humanitarian in nature. 

So does this tie into accountability? You bet your sweet a$$ it does! 

I do not need to teach to a stupid, superficial standardized test to be held accountable. The level of understanding my students reach while reading and responding to a text is MY RESPONSIBILITY. Therefore, if I taught to the test as policy makers are demanding, i would not be fulfilling my responsibility towards my kids. Guess what? I actually ENJOY TEACHING!!! Amazing, huh? Not surprising to me, considering that when I was five I played "school" with my Cabbage Patch Kids. 

Unfortunately for Ed Deformers, Chalk Duster's way of teaching is not EASILY measurable, because you can't run the results through a machine. It's expensive and time-consuming because competent, EXPERIENCED administrators need to be hired. I was wondering...would Bill Gates be willing to fund this with his billions, instead of standardized testing companies? Of course not, because no one except THE STUDENTS are profiting from it! 

This student-centered, whole-child, in-depth style of teaching can only be observed through.....wait for it.....the eyes of an ADMINISTRATOR (and peer teachers, of course)! Principals need to be held accountable for the manner in which THEY evaluate THEIR staff. They did the hiring, after all.  It is their responsibility to observe their staff carefully, give suggestions, and, to use "deformer" language, "weed out the baaaaad ones". I have a sneaking suspicion that if there was more emphasis placed on this much more sensible method of assessing teachers, and there was no emphasis whatsoever on boring, superficial tests, not too many "bad teachers" would be found. We would be free to educate our students how we see fit, because we are the ones who know them best (in school) and spend the most time with them. This level of autonomy would cause us to excel even further. We would feel trusted, and our confidence would be contagious to our students. What a concept.

Many educators, especially those who work in low-income areas are forced to teach to a test all year. Even the units that are not labeled as "test prep", are still test prep. 

I have no problem accepting accountability for results that I have complete control over. Unfortunately, High-Stakes Test Scores to do not reflect numbers that truly represent the level of dedication a teacher has towards her students.  They do not reflect the refinement of her philosophy or her craft, they do not reflect the level of understanding she has of each individual student, the relationship she has with her class, her ability to effectively differentiate, her work ethic, or her creativity.  Test scores do not reflect her students' ability to think on a high level, form an opinion about at text, and back their claim up with real-life examples.

If you want to hold me "accountable", then hold me accountable for the things that really matter, do it fairly, and please, stop blaming me for our country's troubles. I have enough on my plate. I came here because I love, love, love teaching, as most of us did.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lillie and the Snakes

Usually my blog is focused on the students. Today my focus is on an 80 year old NYC teacher by the name of Ms. Lillie Leon. Below is a link to an article which discusses the firing of Ms. Leon:,sb=940060,b=facebook

Ms. Leon was fired by the DOE for insubordination after 32 years of service to NYCs children. Her termination, as it stands now, has nothing to do with her teaching practices or classroom management. I am not going to repeat the facts stated in the above article. I will only say that she was exposed to conditions in her school that did not honor the fact that she has a disability. She walks with a cane, and was placed in a kindergarten classroom on the third floor, with no adjoining bathroom. She was not given a teacher's aide, so every time the little ones had to use the potty, she had to walk her entire class of 25 to the bathroom, which was down the hall and through the cafeteria. She appealed to the administration, asking for accommodations, explaining that all this walking back and forth cut into her instructional time, and even requested to teach first grade, because they can go to the bathroom unaccompanied by a teacher. Every request was denied, and then she was fired, basically for requesting of the administration to respect her rights not only as a person with a disability, but an employee of the city of NY.

Here is a woman who has devoted her life to children. I saw her on the CBS news last night. She is soft-spoken and intelligent. She dresses with style and has a warm smile and soft, kind eyes. Instead of applauding her dedication to her students, she is disrespected, abused, and discriminated against. I got the impression from the interview that nothing made her happier than spending each day with her students, and she is disappointed not to be able to return to her school in September. Apparently, she chose not to retire because she'd rather be in the classroom teaching than move to Boca Raton. And yet, Ms. Leon will be easily replaced by a young, cheap, inexperienced teacher who will answer to every whim of the administration. Bit by bit, Bloomburg is finding a way to drive away experienced veteran teachers, who are the backbone of this system. I have witnessed it firsthand in my school. I have seen grown women reduced to tears because of the abuse bestowed upon them, when all they want is respect for their experience and credentials, and the opportunity to grow as a professional.

Every paycheck, for 32 years, (that's 768 paychecks) Ms. Leon contributed to her own pension so when she did choose to retire, she would be able to live somewhat comfortably. Now, might have no pension. Apparently, if someone is terminated at the DOE, they lose their retirement. What will happen to Ms. Leon? How will she survive without her retirement fund?? Why did they perceive her as someone so disposable?

I read several articles on Ed Deform every day, and boy do they get my blood boiling, but none of them have affected me emotionally the way this one has. These are the people I work for. The level of inhumanity is appalling. The mayor, the chancellor, and his cronies are disgustingly rich men who will literally steal a job from an elderly person who has shown them nothing but commitment. These men have no business leading one of the greatest cities in the world, because they are driving the very soul of it to the ground. It is shameful and heartbreaking to me, because I am a New Yorker to the very core. The people running the NYC DOE (the whole system) are a bunch of snakes. The principal of Ms. Leon's school is obviously one too. He/she did not defend her. Instead, he jumped on the political bandwagon and exposed Ms. Leon to embarrassing psychological tests, and later in the year, condemned her to teaching in the cafeteria. Then, he moved ahead with the city’s heartless corporate agenda and fired her.

Ms. Leon is suing the DOE for age discrimination. This is an opportunity for her to expose the corrupt nature of the entire system. I hope she fights and fights till she wins. If she must leave her valued post as a teacher, I hope she leaves kicking and screaming. She has nothing but my respect, support, and deep admiration.