Thursday, March 10, 2011

on unions and school reform

I joined the union when I started teaching in 1995.  It just seemed like the expected thing to do.  But after a few years of the harsh realities of inner-city schools, I became jaded.  A teacher around the corner regularly slept through his classes while his students wandered the halls.  This was what the union was protecting?  I wanted no part of it.

Last year, when my state passed a tenure-reform bill, the union fought it tooth and nail.  I found myself in a passionate discussion with another teacher who vehemently opposed the bill.  "Why are you worried?  This is not going to threaten you, you're a good teacher!" I tried to assure her.  Despite being politically moderate, I had come to view unions as most Republicans do:  the protectors of the status quo, more interested in negotiating salary and benefit increases than upholding high standards for its members.  But that was last year.

This year, I am back teaching a core subject (read: evaluated by standardized testing) and being asked to use a curriculum which blatantly teaches to the test.  I received what I felt was an unnecessarily harsh evaluation (oddly, the harshest in my career, despite the fact that I'd worked coaching other teachers just the previous year...) and yep, you guessed it:  I was back in the union.

I cried for the teachers in Wisconsin last night.  I stand in solidarity with them.  But I can't help but feel as though we saw this coming; we can't be content with the status quo.  We DO need to reform tenure.  Not based on meaningless test scores, but on more qualitative data.  We need to lead the fight to improve our schools, to elect leaders who will fight the real enemy - child poverty.  Let's take back teaching and reinvent the unions.  The consequences are too dire if we don't.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Open Letter to the Governor regarding high-stakes testing

An Open Letter to Governor Hickenlooper
Dear Governor Hickenlooper:
As a high school English teacher and mother of two school-aged children, I am deeply concerned about the emphasis on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).  Since I started teaching in Colorado in 1995, I witnessed the inception of CSAP and the subsequent decline in the quality of education in our state.
Tying school funding to the results of a test that, by design, can only be a “snapshot” of what a student fills in on a bubble sheet in one day is ludicrous.  This has forced schools to spend more time on core academic subjects at the expense of the arts, despite many scientific studies that demonstrate multiple ways that music, world language and art contribute directly to academic achievement in core subjects.  Worse, it has led to a “dumbing down” of our curriculum.  Many education experts, such as Diane Ravitch, Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, as well as countless teachers and parents, agree.
Last summer I was sent to a training session for Every Child a Writer, a program designed by the Colorado Literacy Coalition that unabashedly touts itself as a way to raise CSAP writing scores.  ECAW, as it is known, presents the different genres of writing based on how often they have historically appeared on the CSAP.  It teaches kids to write paragraphs that include at least one simple sentence, one sentence with a compound in the predicate, one compound sentence, one complex sentence, and at least one instance of multiple modifiers separated by a comma.  No, this is not a formula taught by any journalism or creative writing school; in fact, a professional writer friend of mine commented that it completely contradicts what professional writers are coached by their editors.  So why are we teaching our students to write like this?  Simply put, it’s because that’s how the CSAP is scored.    Last month, when my classroom was visited by an ECAW coach, she tried to tell me that my high school sophomore students should not be writing multiple paragraphs yet.  As a graduate of a highly effective public school in New York State that sent graduates to Ivy League schools every year, this floored me.  I want for my students what I had:  to be well-prepared to write college essays or write effectively and professionally for any career. 
Besides diluting the depth of writing, ECAW’s strict formula takes all of the creativity and joy out of writing.  It makes me sad be an English teacher.  Apparently, I’m not alone.  After I was hired, I was surprised to discover that two teachers certified to teach English were already in the high school teaching other subjects.  They both explained that they made a conscious decision not to teach English so they didn’t have to “teach a CSAP subject.”  Is this how you want to attract the best and brightest teachers to the subjects where they are most needed?  In fact, our History teacher, highly qualified from his experience teaching at the well-known private school Baylor in Tennessee, has recently decided to look for a position in a private school again.  Despite the lower salary, he says he misses the autonomy and respect afforded teachers in the private sector.  It is an unfortunate and huge loss for our school.
In light of your proposed budget cuts, I suggest that it is time to eliminate the CSAP.  Our school, along with the vast majority, already uses the far less costly MAPS (NWEA) test to measure student achievement and plan instruction.  The CSAP is redundant.  School and teacher effectiveness could be measured by graduation rates and percentages of students going on to college or into the work force. At a cost of $24 million annually, eliminating the CSAP could save the jobs of approximately 400 teachers next year.  In this economy, we can’t afford to waste our money on ineffective, wasteful programs like CSAP.

great analogy to explain why our growth models don't work

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Noggin Strain: What is a Failing School?

Noggin Strain: What is a Failing School?: "Imagine you're a new teacher looking for your first job. You read the job postings and check online sources to learn about the schools..."

Challenging the Status Quo

This week we had parent teacher conferences at our school, and, as has happened many times before, my mouth got me in trouble.  Since being back in the classroom this year after a year of working as an Instructional Coach and several years away from education, I have struggled this year with our school's (and presumably most schools') emphasis on the dreaded johnny-come-lately rite of Spring: the State Assessments.  The be-all, end-all of education today:  the one-day snapshot of our students that is so highly regarded as an accurate measurement of student learning that it is used to determine everything from school funding to teacher evaluations.  You can see where I'm going with this.  Yes, I made a disparaging comment about the state test to a parent, and it got back to my principal.

He was diplomatic and wanted to make clear that he was not "chastising" but rather "informing" me of this oversight.  I was contrite.  After all, I am a team player.  It is my duty to prepare my students for the test to the best of my ability.  It is my wish to help our school achieve our goal (incidentally, a goal set by the administration, not the teachers) of raising our school's rating based in large part on test scores).  I promised not to say anything disparaging about the test in the future.

But it is also my goal, my larger, higher-ground goal, to instill a passion for learning, an aptitude for critical thinking in my students.  I, like many teachers I know, tend to view the standardized tests as a necessary evil by-product of the times; neither helpful, nor, in most cases, particularly harmful - just another unfortunate waste of time and money.  Maybe I was wrong, I thought after I got home that night.  Maybe I needed to research the many benefits of standardized testing and give myself a serious attitude adjustment.  I started Googling.

What I found was NOT a wealth of evidence supporting the practice of standardized testing or the success of No Child Left Behind, but just the opposite.  There are pages and pages of studies that proclaim that NCLB has not improved education.  For example, Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU who worked under both the Bush and Clinton Administrations as Assistant Secretary of Education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a recent New York Times article, "By emphasizing testing of basic skills, [standardized testing] guarantees that students will have less time for science, history, the arts or foreign language and thus will be less likely to obtain an education that encourages creativity, innovation and imagination."  After years of researching the efficacy of standardized testing, she changed her position from advocate to critic.  She is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010).

There are many other prominent education experts who have arrived at the same conclusions.  So why, in the midst of a budget crisis of historic proportion, are we continuing to pump millions of dollars into a program that evidence shows doesn't work?  We are at a critical crossroads not only in this country but on our planet.   Aside from our economic woes, global warming is now widely accepted by scientists not as theory but disturbing fact.  Our future depends on creative solutions that come from people who think outside the box, not blindly follow the status quo that has gotten us into this mess.  We need to be advocates for reforming education to meet the needs of the next generation.  Make no mistake, I will continue to be a team player at my school, but I will NOT be quiet.  We need to embrace innovation and move to problem-solving, project-based assessments in schools.  Our future depends on it.