Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Hostile Takeover of Public Education

I have been reading a lot lately about education reform, charter authorizers, and a number of education policy topics that make the most dedicated teachers see red. I have seen members of the public talk about what they "know" about the teaching profession. This has reminded me that we need to take the conversation in a new direction if we are to reclaim public education from the hands of edutourists and hostile takeovers. We have to act now because the reform movement has a 30 year head start. And a plan:

Step One: Manufacture a Crisis
The reform agenda has been active for at least three decades attempting to convince the public that there is, in fact, a problem with public education as a whole. The narrative is not that underfunded inner city schools are in trouble, but the whole system of public education is in shambles. Since the 1980s reformers have banged the "Nation at Risk" mediocrity drum ad infinitum. The claim is that one standardized test given to only 6,000 or so students in the nation tells us that the US is falling behind the rest of the world in educational achievement. This is simply not true.

Many of the countries ahead of the US on the PISA list do not educate every child. You heard me right: they do not educate everyone. The poor, those with special needs, those that do not test well are either not educated at all, or do not go to the upper level schools which are included in the samples for those countries. We test everybody against other countries' top notch students. A level playing field this is not--but a manufactured crisis, this certainly is.

The decline in both ACT and SAT scores is also attributed incorrectly to mediocre public education. That is simply not true. Prior to the 1980s, most students didn't take the ACT or SAT. Most students didn't plan to go to college or need to. A shift began to occur in which business and industry began to require a college degree for positions that previously did not require one. As a result, more students needed a degree and began taking the ACT and SAT. What was once required of the top 10-25% began to be required of the top 50-75%. In states like Oklahoma, all high school students will take the ACT at some point in their academic career, even if they do not plan to go to college. When more students take the test, and those students are no longer just those in the upper academic performance levels, the average will go down. It is inevitable, and it is not because those students have not received an excellent education.

Step Two: Assign Blame
First the blame was placed on a lack of standards, so standards-based education was introduced, mandated, implemented, scaled, changed, and turned into a series of fiery hoops. Then blame shifted to teachers. Teachers have been categorized as lazy money grubbers out only for themselves. There is a real and relentless attack on the profession and the professionals within it. I hear or read daily how teachers only work 185 days a year while the average professional works 220. I hear that our work day is only 5 or 6 hours while the rest of the workforce labors for 8. I hear about long Christmas, Thanksgiving, and spring breaks, and summers off. I hear about lavish pensions and benefits. I hear that we should have known the profession paid so little, and we shouldn't complain about it, or try to change it now.

Here's the truth. Teachers have students in class for 185 or so days a year, but those are not the only days we work. On average, teachers have 20 professional days in which we have to report for work without students. My summer break is about six weeks, much of which is spent attending conferences and professional development to improve my craft and depth of knowledge or teaching summer school. I am here long before my students arrive and long after they leave. I take work home with me. I am an advisor to a student organization for free, and on my own time. Long breaks are in lieu of the vacation time, paid holidays, and comp time offered in the private sector. And those lavish pensions? When they retire many Oklahoma teachers will qualify for food stamps if TRS is their only source of income.

Step three: The Hostile Takeover
Here's where reform tactics get interesting. Take the problems of the worst schools in America (made the worst by willfully starving them of resources) and declare that those problems exist in nearly all American schools. Then design a test that measures students' standards-based performance, but rig the game so that a large number of students fail, thus furthering the narrative that schools are failing students. Deprive schools of funding and staff based on the results of those rigged tests. Swoop in and declare that vouchers charters choice Education Savings Accounts are the answer. Expand the failure narrative and insist that the only solution is to wrest control away from local schools and their boards (democratic control is messy, after all), and put corporate boards in place instead. Make decisions based on profit motives rather than educational ones, and drill-and-kill students to testing excellence and critical thinking stagnation.

Here's the rub: Charters, whether for-profit or public, are not held to the same standards as your local public school. They do not have to be transparent with their spending, discipline, or any number of factors that public schools must report. Charters do not have to take every child, rarely honor IEPs, suspend and expel students for minor infractions, and have the latitude to be selective in their admissions processes (whether in the open or by requiring so much paperwork and parental involvement so as to discourage the application.)

Public schools take all comers with the mission to educate every child. Public school teachers are professionals who are trained to educate children. We know our content areas, can demonstrate mastery in curriculum and pedagogy, and work with children every day of our working adult lives. If we were treated as the professionals we are (allowed to teach as we know to be best, allowed to choose content based on our students and their needs, paid enough to not need second and third jobs, and respected as the dedicated individuals that we are), the public would see that the teachers as a whole are not the problem. The highest ranking schools in America all have something in common: low poverty rates among students. This is inarguable fact, and is the problem that needs to be addressed, because the opposite is also true. Those schools with the highest rates of poverty also have been attributed the lowest performance.

What Do We Do?:
It is interesting that the majority of Americans believe that the public school system is ineffective and headed in the wrong direction, but that their neighborhood schools are high quality schools. I would suggest that most schools do an excellent job educating their local population of students, and the general public is satisfied with the role of their local schools on balance. There are few truly inadequate or inferior public schools, and they are almost entirely found in impoverished areas and have been starved for resources. We know this. What is needed is the collective will to actually fix this. The solution is not takeover or turnover. It is the investment of resources, time, and talent that will make the difference in underperforming schools.

Why do public schools work? It is because they acknowledge the role of education in the lives of students, the place of the local school in the community, and when they have the resources, they do extraordinary work. If the edutourists, advocates of hostile takeover, and enablers of the undermining of public education and public educators can't commit to tackling poverty and the withholding of resources in a way that honors the role of neighborhood schools and their place in the community, then they should get out of the way of those of us who are doing the work that matters in these schools every day. All we need is the resources to do our work and the latitude to do it without interference by those who have never done it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

That Didn't Take Long

Oklahoma released a draft of the new K-12 standards for English Language Arts and math, and it didn't take long for OCPA to begin calling out the standards and those who worked with them. Andrew Spiropolous penned one for the Journal Record yesterday.
"So it turns out, despite the hullabaloo, that the task force charged with writing superior English and math academic standards has submitted a proposal that, poking below the surface, isn’t that different than the Common Core version the legislators ordered it to reject.
Many of us predicted this ironic turn of events after the Legislature, running in fear from the grass-roots activists opposing Common Core, noisily disposed of the hated standards. Our suspicions were raised when education leaders issued an urgent call upon the Legislature to swiftly approve the new proposal. They were confirmed when the leaders coupled their pleas with affecting tales from local administrators and teachers lamenting how the uncertainty made doing their jobs impossible."
There are a few things going on here, but what is revealed throughout the column is Spiropolous's apparent disdain for public education and those associated with it.

Firstly, those "grass-roots activists" that the Legislature was busy "running in fear from" and that Spiropolous is busy sneering at--they are voters. You know, those pesky people the Legislature is supposed to work for, and whose wishes they're supposed to take into account when governing. The article again takes a contemptuous tone regarding the role of the governed in determining governance. "The larger lesson here is that grass-roots passion unaccompanied by serious policy chops, leads, at best, to empty symbolic victories and continued popular frustration." The connotation here is that we should leave the entirety of governance to our betters--those with "serious policy chops." Our role is only to vote them in and sit quietly by while they determine what's best for us.

Unfortunately, it is predictable that those associated with OCPA would call out local administrators and teachers while refusing to acknowledge how the Legislature's inability to determine a course of action and stay with it for more than a few years makes the job of teaching in Oklahoma more difficult than it has to be. Teachers cannot teach to standards that are not written. Those standards will drive the tests that the Legislature and reformers love. Those tests will, in turn, determine retention, graduation, and course options for students; funding for schools and districts; and employment for teachers and administrators.

"The truth is that our state’s education establishment, from the state superintendent of education on down, is not committed to writing and implementing world-class standards that will distinguish us from other states."
Spiropolous's truth is not the truth. My students would be able to identify that statement as opinion. The truth, at least as every educator to whom I have spoken sees it, is that educators would like world-class standards that are age appropriate and make sense in the larger contexts of the lives of students. We would like standards that are less prescriptive and allow for professional judgement and flexibility to meet the educational needs and goals of our diverse populations of students. If Spiropolous and his ilk spent time seriously engaging educators who are in public school classrooms every day doing the work that matters, and did so with an open mind, they would come to understand that we want what is best for our students. We may disagree on what that is, but it would allow for common ground to begin a serious discussion regarding the future of public education. Unfortunately, the level of disregard they show toward educators and the work we do prevents that conversation from getting off the ground. It appears that they would rather silence us than engage with us.
"I’ll take their word that they want to do better than we have in the past, but there is nothing about these people that inspires one to believe they seek to engage in bold, creative reform.

We should give up on the idea that the state education establishment will force excellence on local schools. Instead, we must encourage districts, schools and families to mount their own efforts to foster excellence."
It would be "bold, creative reform" to allow public schools to operate along the same parameters as the best preparatory academies. In one phrase, we are in agreement: "If the state wants to help, it can free local districts from disabling mandates and regulations." One cannot tout how much better the private sector could do the work of public education while simultaneously hampering the ability of the public sector to work as the private sector does. It is as illogical as demanding the "education establishment" to "force excellence" while asking everyone else to "foster excellence." It would be bold reform to eliminate needless testing and to convert, instead, to tests that universities and career fields already use to determine readiness. Students attempting to attend an institution of higher learning usually must take the ACT or SAT, and our Career Tech students take certification tests and Work Keys. These are already established and normed. They have the added bonus of decades of longitudinal data.

For reform to be successful, it must have support from those affected. Parents, who Spiropolous acknowledges are responsible for the education of their children, have loudly rejected the majority of the reform movement's ideas. Reformers should get serious about real reform, i.e. removing statistically unreliable "accountability measures" like VAM and A-F Report Cards, limiting standardized tests, removing "disabling mandates and regulations," rather than patronizing those who must implement the nonsense they have foisted upon public education.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Kill the Bill Part 1

As many of you have already heard, the OK House Education Subcommittee plans to hear HB 3154. Bluntly put, we need to kill the bill. Today. In the subcommittee. The bill would divert the FBA that currently pays 100% of teacher insurance to pay in the name of giving districts the "flexibility" to go broke in new ways. It shifts the burden for insurance benefits, which are already considered part of a teacher's salary, from the state to local districts and permanently caps at 2017 levels the state's contribution to the district's FBA funds.

To see an in-depth analysis of the bill, please see here and here.

Please call, email, tweet the representatives on the subcommittee and tell them to "Kill that Bill."

RepresentativePhoneEmail AddressTwitter
Henke, Katie (VC)
Martin, Scott (C)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Reading from the Four Corners

I recently read an article about David Coleman's ascension to president of College Board, which has been met with as much criticism as praise in education circles. This is largely due to Coleman's work as an education consultant but never as an actual educator. Coleman is widely known for his work on the Common Core State Standards and has been credited as the "architect" of Common Core. CCSS seems to be informed by very narrow and reductive theoretical perspectives about literature and its function in modern society. The issue is three-fold:
  1. Coleman believes that students do not read enough nonfiction.
  2. Coleman indicates that students need only understand what is "within the four corners" of the text.
  3. Numbers one and two above result in the devaluation of literary study and its reduction to nothing more than the practice of navigating a standardized test.
The assumption that students do not read enough nonfiction assumes that students are only reading in English Language Arts classes. Typical American high school students spend the majority of their school days in history, math, science, and elective classes. In a seven period day, usually only one is occupied by the English class. Even if reading only occurs in core classes, prose fiction and poetry still only account for 25% of what students should be reading. And English Language Arts teachers have long chosen quality nonfiction selections for study. My students read nonfiction by Mandela, King, Solzhenitsyn, Paine, Jefferson, Mather, and  Edwards, just to name a few. These are studied in context with prose fiction and poetry.

Literature is civilization’s collection of stories about being human. Those stories did not spring forth from a vacuum. Culture, time, place, history, the human condition--these all inform literature. Shared reading of great literature connects people in powerful ways. Literature requires meaning be brought to it by the life experiences of the reader; thus, the same stories change over time for the reader. As we grow and experience life, our understanding of literature changes. Fiction is what initially makes people independent readers. It also teaches us that, while all fact is true, not all truth is fact.

The study of great literature cannot be contained within the "four corners" of text. It is inextricably connected to the culture, time, and conditions of its origin. One cannot read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" without understanding the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. It is in providing that anchor for students that Dr. King's message becomes clear. What is the purpose and justification for civil disobedience on the order that Dr. King advocates if the Movement doesn't exist for students? And if that is never connected to the extensive literature and history of civil disobedience in America and the world, what further meaning does King's letter have? Through the study of literature individual struggles can be seen as shared human struggles.

"Reading within the four corners" reduces the reading of literature to mere decoding. It turns vibrant, meaningful, rich, shared experience into pedantic test-taking skill sets. It ignores the intelligence and experience of readers. Reading within the corners reduces the reader to a cog and literature to a widget--it's mechanistic and dehumanizing. It strips readers of their voices. Which, for Coleman, may be the point.

*Many thanks to @NicoleBryson for letting me run this by you prior to hitting post!

**This post was informed and inspired by the following sources:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In honor of standardized testing month...

I watched the news this morning, which was my first mistake. Then I read a number of articles relating to education policy. Mistake number two. I learn from my mistakes, sometimes quickly. Here's what I learned today: Education professionals must take back the dialogue regarding education.

We have to stop allowing people who have never done our jobs to dictate how we should do them. We have to stop operating within a rigged system and acting like the system is fair. We must stand against the systematic dismantling of public education at the hands of modern-day robber barons and their legislative cronies. We have to stop pretending that our jobs are not political. If taxes pay for it, government agencies regulate it, and legislative bodies craft policy for it, it's political. We must no longer be silent!

While I know that correlation is not causation, it is increasingly difficult to ignore what 15 years of consistent data have shown: poverty matters. Poorer students do not perform as well on standardized tests. Standardized tests are more accurately a measure of student poverty than of student learning (1). When the game is as rigged as standardized testing, the failure is on the part of the system, not those forced to operate within it.

The current system artificially creates winners and losers. The catch-22 is that if I do my job, and so do the state's many other teachers, and our children succeed, that is not a success; instead the rhetoric is that the test is not rigorous enough. When too many of Oklahoma's students passed the biology test, the cut scores were rigged upward, which created more failure. This was done after tests were scored and after those manipulating the data knew what that manipulation would do (2). When my students do not score as well on those same tests, the failure is said to be mine. When the data is so easily manipulated, and it is manipulated, those are not my students' failures, nor is it my failure. Such an artificially created failure rests squarely at the feet of those who created it.

We can no longer allow the rigged and manipulated data to be used for high-stakes decisions. Third graders are held back on the basis of a single test score on a test that is not designed to measure their ability to read. It's a language arts test! Eighth graders are told they will not be issued a driver's license if they are unable to pass the 8th grade "reading" test, which is also a language arts test and is not designed to measure their reading ability. High school students are not allowed to graduate if they do not pass the required number of tests, which have already been shown to be easily manipulated by simply raising the passing score after students' tests are scored. Teachers are evaluated, in part, based on the same manipulated data (but only if they teach a tested subject).

On top of that, schools are given a grade which does not reflect the true value of the school. The top performing students are often exempt from the end of instruction tests. Because they are exempt, their scores on the alternate tests do not count in the school's A-F data. You heard me correctly; the top performing students do not count in A-F if they are exempt from the EOI tests. If the district is lucky, an exempt student may count in the bonus section for AP or honors classes. Meanwhile, most of the bottom 25% of students count three times: once in whole school progress, once in the bottom 25% improvement, and usually in one or more subareas. A-F scores are skewed downward. Enough already!

Who does this system benefit? Testing companies who make billions of dollars in testing contracts with state departments of education, charter school companies who cash in on the rhetoric of failure, politicians whose campaigns receive donations from those companies and who gain campaign points by promising to "clean up public education and fire our way to the top." One thing is certain; children do not benefit from misguided, high-stakes test driven education reform.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blogger Challenge and the Hideously Ugly Object Invasion

This week's blogger challenge, which I am late in responding to (dagnabbit, EOI testing!), is to write positively and about curriculum. Here goes...

Raymond Loewy is known as the father of modern industrial design--and for good reason. He, like the Bauhaus, de Stijl, and Craftsman artists, architects, and designers, promoted the idea that form follows function: an object must both fulfill its purpose and be aesthetically pleasing. In that order. 

I love good design. It makes me giddy. My favorite designers pay attention to the details that make an everyday object a thing of beauty. I hope that my students will appreciate good design as much as I do by the end of our project. It goes something like this...

"I challenge you to find the ugliest useful object you can acquire. It can be footwear, a kitchen gadget, a pen, desk supplies like paper clips or staplers, furniture, lamps, electronic devices, any object you come into daily contact with and wish you didn't have to look at. For me, it's the ultra-utilitarian plain crank-style can opener. (Produces said can opener.) It's flat. It's uncomfortable in the hand. It's not much to look at, and it begs for improvement. The more hideous the object, the better. Please bring in objects that started life as ugly things, not objects that have been made unsightly through misuse, neglect, or purposeful and malicious defacement." 

I ask them to bring their objects in a few days from the announcement, and then we discuss great designers, what drives them, and how their work impacts society. We look at beautiful things like ideas from industrial design shows, the work of the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I ask students why the objects need to look good. Why is it not enough for an object to simply function? We look at functional ceramic objects that are relatively simple and unadorned. Is there an inherent beauty in the simplicity of line and surface? Is there a difference between good art and good design? We talk about design as a career path. Then I throw down the gauntlet. 

"Students, your task is to redesign the object you brought in with you. You know, that ugly one? What can you do to reimagine the design? How can you elevate it? How will the user interact with it differently?"

So far this semester, my students have redesigned the high school track uniforms,  screw drivers and other tools, and shoes; created sets of inexpensive yet attractive dishes and flatware; designed homes and commercial spaces; and engaged in a wide range of other design problems of their choosing. 

I look forward each year to seeing how my students respond to the challenge. What they choose to redesign and how they approach the design process varies. Sometimes their redesign is literal; they remake the object in question. Sometimes it's conceptual; they produce renderings of their improved concept. Regardless of the varied approaches, invariably, my students rise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We Have to Stop Pretending...

When it comes to #oklaed, we have to stop pretending...
  1. that one multiple choice test tells us everything we need to know about a student, her teacher, and her school.
  2. that students are engaged in or will find a future need for the kinds of learning we are requiring of them. (See #1.)
  3. that we know what college and career readiness means for this year's seniors, much less for a kindergartener (or that it has any real meaning at all).
  4. that education reform is about student outcomes. (Spoiler alert: It's about money.)
  5. that teachers are the cause of all of society's ills, or that we can cure all of them.