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March 14, 2012
Measuring My Value
I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile. As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable. Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm. Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication. Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.
March 13, 2012
How Random Scanning Hurts My School
A short time before my school was slated for possible turnaround status in January we saw our first “random” scanning by the New York Police Department. In the short time that has followed we have had three additional visits. Scanning is quite the operation. Students are herded into a roped-off line leading into the gymnasium, which is transformed into a pseudo-airport where scanning machines and a large police presence have replaced games of basketball and volleyball. The items at the center of this process seem to be cell phones. Department of Education policy prohibits cell phones in school, but many schools turn a blind eye. Some students are able to get their phones through the scanners while many have their phones taken from them. If a phone is taken, parents are required to come to the school to reclaim their child’s property. Is cell phone use in schools a serious problem? Yes. I understand, and can empathize, with the argument frequently made by parents: Having a phone is a matter of safety and allows parents and their children to contact each other in the unfortunate case of an emergency. But students are constantly using their phones in non-emergency situations. Cell phones, for better or for worse, have become an engrained part of everyday life. My students do not know life without them — they use them to text in the hall, entering and leaving class, and in the middle of lessons. Teachers are responsible for curbing usage to some degree, and creating quality lessons, I hope, encourages participation and discourages phone use. At the same time, I can attest from experience that there are some students that will push the boundaries regardless of the pace of the lesson. (I believe the answer lies in teaching proper phone-use etiquette.) Despite these challenges, scanning and confiscating phones is not the answer. These are some observations I have made during the days where scanning has taken place:
March 8, 2012
Teenagers And Teachers In The Front Office
One major problem behind the Teacher Data Reports and other forms of test-based teacher evaluations is that they put all of the onus of student performance on teachers.In reality, struggles in school are most often the result of domestic tumult or of any number of poverty-related woes — poor nutrition, unstable housing, or lack of family support. Trouble at home is trouble at home, and it will bring your grades down whether you’re living in the ghetto or the wealthy suburbs. But there’s another universal issue high schools must deal with that is mentioned even less often when education reformers talk about teacher evaluation: Adolescents. Teenagers are freethinking citizens of the United States who are discovering their growing ability to argue, to think for themselves. If they are not given the opportunity to face the consequences of their own choices, these citizens will not grow up to be the responsible adults we need them to be. Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences include low scores. I recently witnessed a scene in my school's main office that reminded me how powerful and necessary it is for the adults in a young person’s life to put the burden of academic responsibility on his shoulders. This scene needs to be shared as badly as any TDR data, lest the notion of the teacher who doesn’t check in with parents — not to mention the stereotype of the parent who doesn’t check on his child — go unchallenged in our city. As a public school, Kurt Hahn lacks the personnel and after-school hours (let alone the legal prerogative) to truly require anything from parents beyond an emergency contact card. Yet our parents know they are welcome in our doors at any time, and I’ve seen teachers repeatedly drop their prep materials to have the essential conversation with students and parents that puts everyone on the same page about academic progress. This is how I witnessed a student’s freshman year forever change — for better or for worse, of course, is still up to him.
March 7, 2012
The Emperor’s New Close
What can one say about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership of the New York City public schools that hasn’t been said before? After nearly a decade of mayoral control, the Bloomberg regime is the status quo. Through most of that time, Bloomberg has justified mayoral control as a mechanism for focusing accountability for the achievement of New York’s 1.1 million students. Mayoral control, he argued, placed him solely responsible for the system, and he should be judged by the results. If members of the voting public didn’t like what they were seeing, well, they could just vote him out of office at the end of his term. The centralization of authority in a single individual paralleled a structure with which Bloomberg was highly familiar: CEO of a large, complex business. Bloomberg L.P., the company Mike Bloomberg founded, offers an array of financial and information services to hundreds of thousands of customers around the world. The company’s website describes its hallmark as “innovation and a passion for getting things right.” That’s why it’s so disconcerting to hear the mayor hold forth on educational outcomes in New York City. Is he speaking as a CEO seeking to bolster his investors’ confidence in his products? Or do his public pronouncements reflect the assessments that he uses to guide the internal strategies of the organization? Does he respond to new information and incorporate it into his thinking? A certain amount of public optimism and embellishment would be tolerable if they were accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the successes and failures of his initiatives. Does the mayor truly understand the state of education in New York City? Speaking at a panel on big-city school reform in Washington, D.C. on March 2nd, Mayor Bloomberg repeated a claim he’s made before: “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids,” he said. “We have cut it in half.” It’s a claim that has never held up to serious scrutiny.
March 6, 2012
The Ultimate Professional Development
Nobody would accuse Scott of being an ineffective teacher. He has a clean-shaven head and well-pressed dress shirt and tie. His calm demeanor and busy students make it seem like he effortlessly expands minds on a daily basis. It was my great pleasure to meet this particular teacher and his particularly high-functioning classroom on a visit to Brooklyn International High School in October of 2010. Teaching in a school devoted to serving the needs of English language learners from across the world, Scott taught in a way that might have seemed unconventional. Learners used to understanding teachers as providers of knowledge might have been caused discomfort at first. On the day I walked into Scott's classroom, every one of his social studies students was engaged — a challenge often noticeable enough in an environment where students' needs are so diverse. What I was most impressed by, though, was that no more than three students were working on the same task. As I made my way through the room looking at students' work and asking questions, I was amazed to see students creating posters, writing essays, having academic conversations, or tutoring others; all as a means of demonstrating learning of the same material. In the middle of the room Scott stood taking notes as one student after another stepped up to defend the learning he or she had accomplished in the unit the class was concluding. To the layman, it may have appeared as if Scott had merely be blessed with a batch of phenomenal students. To the aspiring expert teacher, the distinguished skill and dedication necessary to create this kind of classroom learning space — done during, but more often outside of class time (e.g. curriculum planning, parent conferences, diagnostic assessments, relationship building, classroom culture and routines development, professional development around effective strategies for English language learners in the social studies content area) — was inspiring.
March 5, 2012
If Teachers Are Cogs, Then What About The Machine?
A few weeks ago, New York State officials and the state teachers’ union settled upon a revamped teacher evaluation rubric, and many cheered the agreement as a giant step in the state’s school reform agenda. Under the current evaluation system, teachers are rated as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” with few teachers across the state receiving unsatisfactory ratings. The revamped system rates teachers along four tiers (highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective). It also streamlines the dismissal process for teachers rated “ineffective” for two consecutive years. Proponents say the new system will raise the prestige of the teaching profession and enable districts to better identify low-performing teachers. But now a bigger question rears its ugly head with not so facile solutions. For those who wish to fire our way to a better teaching force, it causes more trepidation and bumbling than a 7-year-old asking where babies come from. In the same vein, we must ask: Where do good teachers come from? Perhaps a story from my recent experience can shed some surprising light. Recently I took a respite from graduate studies to substitute teach at a local charter middle school. For privacy reasons, I’ll call it “Well Oiled Machine” or “W.O.M.” Middle. The school was nested within a shared multi-school building, quite common in New York City. After introducing myself to the principal (who stood outside greeting students) I was escorted to the fourth floor that housed the school and eighth-grade science classroom. Lucky for me, Mr. W. (the absent teacher) left a flash drive containing the lesson on PowerPoint, all prepared for me. While I got settled, another teacher (without the flash drive) uploaded the same lesson from a central stored place on her own computer, generously taught the first five minutes, and then passed me the baton of about 20 focused eighth-graders. The day started smoothly.
March 1, 2012
The Right To Know What?
Each fall, thousands of runners descend on the Big Apple to run the New York City marathon. They’ve trained hard all year, and give their all on the course. Long after the elite runners have finished, they stream across the finish line in clumps, exhausted at the end of their 26.2-mile journey. In the middle of the pack, as many as eight or 10 runners might cross the finish line in a single second, and nearly 400 in a single minute. The difference between a time of 4:08:00 and 4:09:00, however, isn’t large enough to be important. It’s the difference between a rate of 9:28 per mile and 9:30 per mile. Given the vagaries of marathon running — the wind, the temperature, the features of the course — it would be unwise to conclude that the runner who crossed the finish line in 4:08:00 is a much better marathoner than the one who finished in 4:09:00. But the runner with a time of 4:08:00 finished several hundred places ahead of the runner who finished in 4:09:00 — surely that counts for something! Not really, I’d say. We can quantify the difference, both in absolute terms and in relative position, but these differences are not large enough to be meaningful. The same is true of the information in the Teacher Data Reports recently released in New York City. Small differences in the estimated effects of teachers on their students’ achievement can appear to be much larger, because most teachers are about equally successful with the assortment of students they teach in a given year, regardless of whether those students begin the year as low-achievers or high-achievers. A trivial difference can appear much larger than it actually is, because, like the marathoners, many teachers are “crossing the finish line” at about the same time.
February 27, 2012
Of Mice And Men And My Students
My ninth-graders recently finished reading "Of Mice and Men." This is my third consecutive year teaching the novel and I imagine I’ll be teaching it for years to come. The students love it. Something about George and Lennie’s plight resonates with them, even though a ranch in 1930s Salinas, Calif., seems a world apart from a high school in New York City in 2012. Why do my city-smart students love reading about two Depression-era farm workers? Perhaps, as I like to tell my students, we should dig a bit deeper. George is smart, but due to circumstances beyond his control, his life has been one of struggle and frustration. Lennie is physically imposing, but due to an unspecified learning disability, he’s lost in the world of adults. In different ways, each of these characters is doomed, through no fault of their own. George and Lennie exist in a harsh world, one that is familiar to many of my students. It’s a world where economic survival trumps human connection, where a person’s worth is measured based on their ability to add value to the economy. When a farmhand’s dog gets too old and decrepit to be of any use, he gets shot. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the boss’s son, Curley, struts around like a peacock, antagonizing the workers, comfortable in the knowledge that his privilege will protect him. I saw Curley on television last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his Martin Luther King Jr. Day attack on New York teachers. “We have to realize that our schools are not an employment program,” Cuomo announced. “They are an education program for the students. It is this simple. It is not about the adults; it is about the children.” Like Curley, Cuomo lives both on the ranch and above it. From a distance, false dichotomies like “adults vs. children” might serve a political purpose. For those of us who work in the schools, however, pitting students against teachers is both dangerous and misleading. What does all of this have to with "Of Mice and Men"?
February 21, 2012
Rigor Mortis And Measurement Error In New Evaluations
The word rigor comes up a lot in teacher-evaluation systems. It’s akin to motherhood, apple pie and the American flag. What policymaker is going to take a stand against rigor? But the term is getting distorted almost beyond recognition. In science, a rigorous study is one in which the scientific claims are supported by the evidence. Scientific rigor is primarily determined by the study’s design and data-analysis methods. It has nothing to do with the substance of the scientific claims. A study that concludes that an educational program or intervention is ineffective, for example, is not inherently more rigorous than one that concludes that a program works. In the current discourse on teacher-evaluation systems, however, an evaluation system is deemed rigorous based either on how much of the evaluation rests on direct measures of student-learning outcomes, or the distribution of teachers into the various rating categories, or both. If an evaluation system relies heavily on No Child Left Behind-style state standardized tests in reading and mathematics — say, 40 percent of the overall evaluation or more — its proponents are likely to describe it as rigorous. Similarly, if an evaluation system has four performance categories — e.g., ineffective, developing, effective and highly effective — a system that classifies very few teachers as highly effective and many teachers as ineffective may be labeled rigorous. In these instances, the word rigor obscures the subjectivity involved in the final composite rating assigned to teachers. The fraction of the overall evaluation based on student-learning outcomes is wholly a matter of judgment; and if you believe, as I do, that a teacher’s responsibility for advancing student learning extends well beyond the content that appears on standardized tests, you could conceivably argue that increasing the weight given to standardized tests in teacher evaluations makes these evaluations less rigorous. This is, however, a hard sell in the absence of other concrete measures of student-learning outcomes that could supplement the standardized-test results. Even more importantly, describing a teacher-evaluation system as rigorous hides the fact that the criteria for assigning teachers to performance categories — either for subcomponents or for the overall composite evaluation — are arbitrary. There’s no scientific basis for saying, as New York has, that of the 20 points out of 100 allocated for student “growth” on New York’s state tests, a teacher needs to receive 18 to be rated “highly effective,” or that a teacher receiving 3 to 8 points will be classified as “developing.” In fact, the cut-off separating “developing” from “effective” changed last week as a result of an agreement reached between the New York State Education Department and the state teachers’ union — not because of science, mind you, but because of politics.
February 15, 2012
Increasing The Grad Rate Quickly, Cheaply, And For Real
The State Education Department is thinking about replacing the General Education Diploma test because of its cost, up to $6 million per year, and its 60 percent pass rate, the lowest in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. One alternative, according to the Journal, might be a computer-based exam of practical skills such as “measuring a room for carpeting, writing a letter to Congress and calculating credit card interest payments.” For high-school aged students especially, such an exam would be a poor substitute for the GED since, obviously, there is more to a high school education than basic skills requiring little more than eighth-grade math and grammar. The effect would be just another way to improperly inflate the number of high school degrees granted, in the same manner that Regents exams have been dumbed down and “credit recovery” programs substitute make-work for actual subject mastery, leaving the impression of college and career readiness without the substance. But a relatively quick, cheap, and instructionally legitimate change to state law could raise graduation rates without lowering standards.
February 14, 2012
What My Struggling School Needs To Support Students
In a recent pre-closure meeting at my high school — one of 33 labeled as "persistently low-achieving" by the state — a representative of the city said that due to our low graduation rate there was no option but to place our school under “turnaround” status. I presented an argument that seems to be echoed by students, teachers and parents at other turn-around schools: “Our school has not received the support needed to improve.” I did not receive a response from the representative. The city's argument that by implementing the turnaround model, which requires the school to be closed and half its teachers replaced, New York City would again be eligible for federal monies currently being withheld by State Education Commissioner John King. I witnessed firsthand how these monies were being used last fall when we were receiving the funding. The programs implemented for the staff were not relevant: We were receiving sporadic professional development sessions from privately contracted companies on topics ranging from curriculum mapping to assessment. (These presenters, while well-intentioned, had never taught in New York City public schools.) There was a disconnect between the content being presented and the everyday realities we were facing in our classrooms. What would more meaningful support to struggling schools like mine look like? I believe that when New York City once again receives this additional funding, the following would have the most immediate positive effect for my students:
February 7, 2012
I’ve been relatively quiet in the ongoing debate about how best to evaluate teachers in New York City and across New York State. I’m not close to the negotiations and can claim no expertise on the political machinations outside of public view. At its heart, this seems to me a dispute over jurisdiction: Who has the legitimate authority to regulate the work of an occupation that seeks the status of a profession—but one that is in a labor-management relationship? The laws of New York recognize the labor-management fault line, but they do little to guide a collective-bargaining process toward agreements in the many districts in which teacher-evaluation systems are contested. Each side brings a powerful public value to bear on the disagreement. For the employers, it’s all about efficiency. It’s in the public interest, they argue, to recruit, retain and reward the best teachers, in order to maximize the collective achievement of students. A teacher-evaluation system that fails to identify those teachers who are effective, and those who are ineffective, can neither weed out consistent low-performers nor target those who might best benefit from intensive help. Rewarding high-performing teachers can, in the short run, help keep them in their classrooms, they claim, and, in the long run, can help expand the pool of talented individuals who enter the occupation.
February 6, 2012
A New Model: Schools As Ecosystems
What makes a great teacher? To a lot of people, the answer seems simple enough: a great teacher is one whose students achieve. For the most part these days, student success is measured with test scores. Logically then, a great teacher is one whose students perform well on tests. Let’s take it a step further: what makes a great school? Again, the same basic logic applies: great schools are ones that produce the highest proportion of students who perform well on tests. The role of the school, in other words, is to produce students successful according to test proficiency. Perhaps this framework appears overly simplistic, but it’s the framework that currently directs our efforts to improve public schools. Schools are knowledge-manufacturing facilities, with students being their products. This framework has led school reformers to advocate for accountability systems, human capital mechanisms, and other private sector management tools in public school reform. Not surprisingly, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is an aggressive proponent of this business framework. The mayor’s private sector management approach recently led him to propose a “turnaround” program at 33 city schools that would require replacing half of those school’s teachers. Not happy with the product? Fire experienced workers and bring in cheaper, lower skilled replacements. This framework is not just a New York thing. All across the country, school districts are being pushed, by influential figures like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Calif. Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, to evaluate teachers based on a “value-added” analysis. What does this mean? It’s a kind of metaphor: students are raw natural resources; unprocessed, they contribute little to the economy and thus possess little value. If teachers process them effectively, however, their value increases. Let’s leave aside our gut reactions to talking about children this way. The real problem with this framework is that it’s been a dead end. For the most part, debates about how to produce better students have led to discord within the field of education, while demonstrating little significant impact.
February 2, 2012
A Tale Of Two Student Essays
“Ball so hard, let’s get graded/Don’t get me? I’ll elucidate/A-D/Won’t fool me/Check my score and validate it." I recited those lyrics — an adaptation of a Watch the Throne song that I called "Regents in Paris" — over the public address system at my school last week. Teachers and students danced in the hallway chanting in time “Let’s do this test/Let’s pass this test.” It was an absurd scene that fit with the absurd scenario: Students’ reading/writing ability was about to be “officially” assessed in the form of a three-hour-long onslaught of mundane, out-of-context passages that students were supposed to care about enough to analyze in short snippets of writing. Yes, it was time for the January Regents exams. I had asked half of my junior class to sit for the English Regents even though they did not need to pass it until June. The plan was that we could get the test out of the way for them. The other half of the group took a mock Regents exam to prepare for the June test, and I took it with them. I wanted to understand the test-taking experience more genuinely. Before I could get to the Regents exams, though, I had to review students' final papers for my English class. I spent the beginning of the week doing just that. Though the students' work had some internal inconsistencies and plenty of room for growth, these essays showed that they had successfully analyzed novels through the lens of gender identity and gender socialization. The essays were well structured, validated by quotations, and genuinely interesting to read.
January 30, 2012
“Shut Up And Teach”: The High Stakes of Teacher Voice
I remember the moment I stopped resenting the deduction in my paychecks that went to my union. It took me three years, and happened suddenly. Halfway through my third year of teaching music, in 2007, administrators in my St. Louis district decided to cut student time in the arts by 64 percent at the middle-school level as part of a plan to improve student test-scores. Appalled, I sent an email to my fellow arts teachers across the district asking what we were going to do. The response from my colleagues? There is nothing you can do; this has been happening for the past 20 years. Nonetheless, unwilling to let the arts programs go quietly, I circulated petitions among staff, acquiring signatures from several hundred teachers—arts and non-arts teachers alike. It didn’t do anything. Out of ideas, and with no sense of what it might accomplish, I called my union. The response was immediate: The union would help mobilize teachers and parents opposed to the planned cuts. In the end, the union’s role in the struggle was minimal. But at that moment when I felt ready to give up, its contribution was decisive: It rejected the powerlessness that my colleagues had articulated, and affirmed my professional convictions about the centrality of the arts in public education. With renewed confidence, several of my colleagues and I began to organize, and following a large outcry from parents and teachers, the administration ultimately reversed its decision. Flash forward to today. I am in my sixth year of teaching, now in New York City, and what bothered me then in St. Louis bothers me even more now.
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