Archives For Education reform

capt As the 10th grade English teacher, Linda’s role had been to prepare students for the rigors of the State of Connecticut Academic Performance Test, otherwise known as the CAPT. She had been preparing students with exam-released materials, and her collection of writing prompts stretched back to 1994.  Now that she will be retiring, it is time to clean out the classroom. English teachers are not necessarily hoarders, but there was evidence to suggest that Linda was stocked with enough class sets of short stories to ensure  students were always more than adequately prepared. Yet, she was delighted to see these particular stories go.
“Let’s de-CAPT-itate,” we laughed and piled up the cartons containing well-worn copies of short stories.
Out went Rough Touch. Out went Machine Runner. Out went Farewell to Violet, and a View from the Bridge.
I chuckled at the contents of the box labelled”depressing stories” before chucking them onto the pile.
Goodbye to Amanda and the Wounded Birds. Farewell to A Hundred Bucks of Happy. Adios to Catch the Moon. We pulled down another carton labeled  “dog stories” containing LibertyViva New JerseyThe Dog Formally Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum. They too were discarded without a tear.
The CAPT’s Response to Literature’s chief flaw was the ludicrous diluting of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory where students were asked to “make a connection:”

What does the story say about people in general?  In what ways does it remind you of people you have known or experiences you have had?  You may also write about stories or other books you have read, or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.

That question was difficult for many of the literal readers, who, in responding to the most obvious plot point, might answer, “This story has a dog and I have a dog.” How else to explain all the dog stories? On other occasions, I found out that while taking standardized test in the elementary grades students had been told, “if you have no connection to the story, make one up!” Over the years, the CAPT turned our students into very creative liars rather than literary analysts.

 

The other flaw in the Response to Literature  was the evaluation question. Students were asked,  

How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

Many of our students found this a difficult question to negotiate, particularly if they thought the author did not write a good piece of literature, but rather an average or mildly enjoyable story. They did manage to make their opinions known, and  one of my favorite student responses began, “While this story is no  Macbeth, there are a few nice metaphors…”

Most of the literature on the CAPT did come from reputable writers, but they were not the quality stories found in anthologies like Saki’s The Interlopers or Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. To be honest, I did not think the CAPT essays were an authentic activity, and I particularly did not like the selections on the CAPT’s Response to Literature section.

Now the CAPT will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), as Connecticut has selected SBAC as their assessment consortium to measure progress with the Common Core State Standards, and the test will move to 11th grade. This year (2014) is the pilot test only; there are no exemplars and no results.  The SBAC is digital, and in the future we will practice taking this test on our devices, so there is no need to hang onto class sets of short stories. So why am I concerned that there will be no real difference with the SBAC? Cleaning the classroom may be a transition that is more symbolic of our move from paper to keyboard than in our gaining an authentic assessment.

Nevertheless, Linda’s classroom looked several tons lighter.

“We are finally de-CAPT-itated!” I announced looking at the stack of boxes ready for the dumpster.

“Just in time to be SBAC-kled!” Linda responded cheerfully.

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.31.27 AM

My immediate reaction was, “Good Heavens! What did Manker’s students do before the implementation of the Common Core? Thinking should have been happening all along!”

Of course her students had been thinking or she would not have been a teacher of the year. Her statement may have been truncated to fit on on the #SupporttheCore poster. Yet, she is not alone in making such statements. There have been a number of teachers of the year who state that their students are doing better work because of the Common Core:

From Nancie Lindblom Arizona 2013 Teacher of the Year, The new standards provide the opportunity to do this by increasing the expectations for all students, allowing me to challenge my students to think analytically.”

From Ms. Sponaugle 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, “My students are engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning, and that’s what the common core standards are all about-preparing our children to be confident and capable in an ever-more competitive world.”

Again, these admissions are puzzling. Why would a teacher whose credentials and instructional practice are exemplary enough to warrant a state award wait for an “opportunity” to challenge students to think analytically? Or how would a teacher of the year not already be engaging students in order to prepare them for an ever-more competitive world? Did they not already use a set of standards before the Common Core in their classrooms?

Without context, these teachers’ statements make them appear less competent. In an ironic twist, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s use of teachers of the year as promotional tools has the unfortunate effect of leaving them open to the following line of criticism: What kind of teachers were they B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) when they admit their students were not being challenged?

Their overstatements on behalf of the Common Core contribute to the unfortunate generalization that B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) students were not engaged. They were not being prepared for a competitive world. They did not think.

Collectively, their statements open up a single tricky question for these teachers of the year…..Why not?

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.16.51 AMNot so long ago, 11th grade was a great year of high school. The pre-adolescent fog had lifted, and the label of “sophomore,” literally “wise-fool,” gave way to the less insulting “junior.” Academic challenges and social opportunities for 16 and 17 years olds increased as students sought driver’s permits/licenses, employment or internships in an area of interest. Students in this stage of late adolescence could express interest in their future plans, be it school or work.

Yet, the downside to junior year had always been college entrance exams, and so, junior year had typically been spent in preparation for the SAT or ACT. When to take these exams had always been up to the student who paid a base price $51/SAT or $36.50/ACT for the privilege of spending hours testing in a supervised room and weeks in anguish waiting for the results. Because a college accepts the best score, some students could choose to take the test many times as scores generally improve with repetition.

Beginning in 2015, however, junior students must prepare for another exam in order to measure their learning using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The two federally funded testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) have selected 11th grade to determine the how college and career ready a student is in English/Language Arts and Math.

The result of this choice is that 11th grade students will be taking the traditional college entrance exam (SAT or ACT) on their own as an indicator of their college preparedness. In addition, they will take another state-mandated exam, either the SBAC or the PARRC, that also measures their college and career readiness. While the SAT or ACT is voluntary, the SBAC or PARRC will be administered during the school day, using 8.5 hours of instructional time.

Adding to these series of tests lined up for junior year are the Advanced Placement exams. There are many 11th grade students who opt to take Advanced Placement courses in a variety of disciplines either to gain college credit for a course or to indicate to college application officers an academic interest in college level material. These exams are also administered during the school day during the first weeks of May, each taking 4 hours to complete.

One more possible test to add to this list might be the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB test) which, according to the website Today’s Military,  is given to more than half of all high schools nationwide to students in grade 10th, 11th or 12th, although 10th graders cannot use their scores for enlistment eligibility.

The end result is that junior year has gradually become the year of testing, especially from the months of March through June, and all this testing is cutting into valuable instructional time. When students enter 11th grade, they have completed many pre-requisites for more advanced academic classes, and they can tailor their academic program with electives, should electives be offered. For example, a student’s success with required courses in math and science can inform his or her choices in economics, accounting, pre-calculus, Algebra II, chemistry, physics, or Anatomy and Physiology. Junior year has traditionally been a student’s greatest opportunity to improve a GPA before making college applications, so time spent learning is valuable. In contrast, time spent in mandated testing robs each student of classroom instruction time in content areas.

In taking academic time to schedule exams, schools can select their exam (2 concurrent) weeks for performance and non-performance task testing.  The twelve week period (excluding blackout dates) from March through June is the nationwide current target for the SBAC exams, and schools that choose an “early window” (March-April) will lose instructional time before the Advanced Placement exams which are given in May. Mixed (grades 11th & 12th) Advanced Placement classes will be impacted during scheduled SBACs as well because teachers can only review past materials instead of progressing with new topics in a content area. Given these circumstances, what district would ever choose an early testing window?  Most schools should opt for the “later window” (May) in order to allow 11th grade AP students to take the college credit exam before having to take (another) exam that determines their college and career readiness. Ironically, the barrage of tests that juniors must now complete to determine their “college and career readiness” is leaving them with less and less academic time to become college and career ready.

Perhaps the only fun remaining for 11th graders is the tradition of the junior prom. Except proms are usually held between late April and early June, when -you guessed it- there could be testing.

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talkhttp://testingtalk.org/) The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

Continue Reading…

I believe the author Stephen King would hate the language of the Common Core State Standards for one reason: unnecessary adverbs. His book On Writing has a section devoted to explaining why The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I have written about King and adverbs before. As I am implementing the standards in my high school English curriculums, I find myself agreeing with him.  Take, for example, the Common Core Anchor Reading Standard 1. The standard states:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

The use of adverbs in this standard has led to more confusion, not less. The expression “read closely” was recoined as “close reading,” and that has resulted in parodies of teachers holding books up to their faces, mocking the standard. Why the writers of the Common Core felt the need to modify the action verb “read” at all is perplexing. Students must read to determine what a text says. That is all. The admonishment to “read closely” to determine what the “text says explicitly” infers the author is either trying to slip an idea past a reader or the author has been ineffective in communicating the idea. I am not convinced any author would appreciate this standard.

Moreover, the Common Core Anchor Writing Standards have the same problem, for example,

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

I believe that every teacher requires students to convey “complex ideas and information clearly and accurately,” yet the language of this standard infers that students would be allowed to write distorted or inaccurate responses. The standard should read, “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.” The adverbs are redundant, as King demonstrates in On Writing: (bolded words his choice)

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose doestell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

The same editing should be applied to the Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1

In this standard, the subjective nature of the adverb “effectively” creates the same confusion as reading “closely.” This standard could be made measurable if the emphasis was on the infinitive “to persuade” rather than on the timid adverbs “effectively” and “persuasively.”  How does one measure these terms, unless by degrees? An argument is either effective or not. Readers are persuaded or not. A standard is unequivocal. The present wording could lead to much equivocating if a reader has to determine the degree of “effectively” or “persuasively.” Try this rewrite: Prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas in order to persuade.”

In addition, the Language (or grammar standards) themselves contain a distracting adverbial phrase:

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3

The phrase comprehend”more fully” sounds like a phrase from one of my student’s essays. I would equate the construct of “more fully” with “as a whole” or “the fact that” or the ubiquitous word “flows” found in my weaker writers’ responses. These are all phrases that receive a large NO! in red ink from me as I grade or confer. A reader comprehends or a reader does not.

King argues that writers must be deliberate in stemming adverbs in this selection from On Writing:

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

King is proved correct about the propagation of adverbs in the language of the Common Core. Adverbs pop up in the NOTES ON sections that follow the anchor standards. For example:

Notes on Range and Content of Student Reading

Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Notes on Range and Content of Student Speaking and Listening

Digital texts confront students with the potential for continually updated content and dynamically changing combinations of words, graphics, images, hyperlinks, and embedded video and audio.

When a reader removes the bolded words, the pedantic tone disappears. The implications that curriculum is “unintentional” or “unstructured” is removed. The confusion as to what reading “closely” means is removed. Don’t even get me started as to why “dynamically” is there, although I suspect the use is to suggest there may be some form of cool media out there that does not yet exist so the CCSS writers modified the adjective “changing” on combination with “dynamically” to cover future media constructs. The only adverb in this section that needs to be included is “independently,” and that should be an adjective. We all want independent readers, so be clear and say “independent readers.”

Stephen King has had an impact on my writing, and when I come to including an adverb I pause to think if that adverb is necessary. Would that the writers of the Common Core felt the same. The standards are riddled with adverbs. How did I find most of them? I used the “Find” option (command-F on my Mac) and put “LY” in the search box. How did I know that most adverbs end with ly?  Here, for your enjoyment, is my favorite adverb resource, a video from Schoolhouse Rock with the charming song about adverbs that remains emblazoned on my brain:

Consider how the advice from King and the lesson from this video can be used by teachers in stopping the flood of adverbs and in applying the Speaking and Listening standard in a classroom where “Digital texts confront students with the potential for updated content and changing combinations of words”….. NOTE: continually and dynamically not included.

 

The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”

The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush.  She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.

She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War.  This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 9.48.58 AMShe began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.

Screenshot 2014-03-23 19.04.39“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”

Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.” 

She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.

She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”

“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”

Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”

Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”

More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”

Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”

Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)

Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”

“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS,  the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.

“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”

During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:

We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….

I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.

No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.

They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.

As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book,  The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:

  1.  Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
  2. Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
  3. Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
  4. Remember that a decent democracy equals values. 
  5. Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.

It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”

She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”

The cathedral reverberated with applause.

March Madness is not exclusive to basketball.Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 1.38.50 PM
March Madness signals the season for standardized testing season here in Connecticut.
March Madness signals the tip-off for testing in 23 other states as well.

All CT school districts were offered the opportunity to choose the soon-to-be-phased-out pen and paper grades 3-8 Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT)/ grade 10 Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) OR to choose the new set of computer adaptive Smarter Balanced Tests developed by the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Regardless of choice, testing would begin in March 2014,

As an incentive, the SBAC offered the 2014 field test as a “practice only”, a means to develop/calibrate future tests to be given in 2015, when the results will be recorded and shared with students and educators. Districts weighed their choices based on technology requirements, and many chose the SBAC field test. But for high school juniors who had completed the pen and paper CAPT in 2013, this is practice; they will receive no feedback. This 2014 SBAC field test will not count.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for counting the 8.5 hours of testing in English/language arts and mathematics that had to be taken from 2014 academic classes. The elimination of 510 minutes of instructional time is complicated by scheduling students into computer labs with hardware that meets testing  specifications. For example, rotating students alphabetically through these labs means that academic classes scheduled during the testing windows may see students A-L one day, students M-Z on another. Additional complications arise for mixed grade classrooms or schools with block schedules. Teachers must be prepared with partial lessons or repeating lessons during the two week testing period; some teachers may miss seeing students for extended periods of time. Scheduling madness.

For years, the state standardized test was given to grade 10, sophomore students. In Connecticut, the results were never timely enough to deliver instruction to address areas of weakness during 10th grade, but they did help inform general areas of weakness in curriculum in mathematics, English/language arts, and science. Students who had not passed the CAPT had two more years to pass this graduation requirement; two more years of education were available to address specific student weaknesses.

In contrast, the SBAC is designed to given to 11th graders, the junior class. Never mind that these junior year students are preparing to sit for the SAT or ACT, national standardized tests. Never mind that many of these same juniors have opted to take Advanced Placement courses with testing dates scheduled for the first two full weeks of May. On Twitter feeds, AP teachers from New England to the mid-Atlantic are already complaining about the number of delays and school days already lost to winter weather (for us 5) and the scheduled week of spring break (for us, the third week of April) that comes right before testing for these AP college credit exams. There is content to be covered, and teachers are voicing concerns about losing classroom seat time. Madness.

Preparing students to be college and career ready through the elimination of instructional time teachers use to prepare students for college required standardized testing (SAT, ACT) is puzzling, but the taking of instructional time so students can take state mandated standardized tests that claim to measure preparedness for college and career is an exercise in circular logic. Junior students are experiencing an educational Catch 22, they are practicing for a test they will never take, a field test that does not count. More madness.

In addition, juniors who failed the CT CAPT in grade 10 will still practice with the field test in 2014. Their CAPT graduation requirement, however, cannot be met with this test, and they must still take an alternative assessment to meet district standards. Furthermore, from 2015 on, students who do not pass SBAC will not have two years to meet a state graduation requirement; their window to meet the graduation standard is limited to their senior year. Even more madness.

Now, on the eve of the inaugural testing season, a tweet from SBAC itself (3/14):

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 1.28.22 PM

This tweet was followed by word from CT Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s office sent out on to superintendents from Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, DRW, that the state test will be delayed a week:

Schools that anticipated administering the Field Test during the first week of testing window 1 (March 18 – March 24) will need to adjust their schedule. It is possible that these schools might be able to reschedule the testing days to fall within the remainder of the first testing window or extend testing into the first week of window 2 (April 7 – April 11).

Education Week blogger Stephen Sawchuk provides more details in his post  Smarter Balanced Group Delays in the explanation for the delay:

The delay isn’t about the test’s content, officials said: It’s about ensuring that all the important elements, including the software and accessibility features (such as read-aloud assistance for certain students with disabilities) are working together seamlessly.

“There’s a huge amount of quality checking you want to do to make sure that things go well, and that when students sit down, the test is ready for them, and if they have any special supports, that they’re loaded in and ready to go,” Jacqueline King, a spokeswoman for Smarter Balanced, said in a March 14 interview. “We’re well on our way through that, but we decided yesterday that we needed a few more days to make sure we had absolutely done all that we could before students start to take the field tests.”

A few more days is what teachers who carefully planned alternative lesson plans during the first week of the field test probably want in order to revise their lessons. The notice that districts “might be able to reschedule” in the CT memo is not helpful for a smooth delivery of curriculum, especially since school schedules are not developed empty time slots available to accommodate “willy-nilly testing” windows. There are field trips, author visits, assemblies that are scattered throughout the year, sometimes organized years in advance. Cancellation of activities can be at best disappointing, at worst costly. Increasing madness.

Added to all this madness, is a growing “opt-out” movement for the field test. District administrators are trying to address this concern from the parents on one front and the growing concerns of educators who are wrestling with an increasingly fluid schedule. According to Sarah Darer Littman on her blog Connecticut News Junkie, the Bethel school district offered the following in a letter parents of Bethel High School students received in February:

“Unless we are able to field test students, we will not know what assessment items and performance tasks work well and what must be changed in the future development of the test . . . Therefore, every child’s participation is critical.

For actively participating in both portions of the field test (mathematics/English language arts), students will receive 10 hours of community service and they will be eligible for exemption from their final exam in English and/or Math if they receive a B average (83) or higher in that class during Semester Two.”

Field testing as community service? Madness. Littman goes on to point out that research shows that a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college success than an SAT score and suggests an exemption raises questions about a district’s value on standardized testing over student GPA, their own internal measurement. That statement may cause even more madness, of an entirely different sort.

Connecticut is not the only state to be impacted by the delay. SBAC states include: California, Delaware,  Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

In the past, Connecticut has been called “The Land of Steady Habits,” “The Constitution State,” “The Nutmeg State.” With SBAC, we could claim that we are now a “A State of Madness,” except for the 23 other states that might want the same moniker. Maybe we should compete for the title? A kind of Education Bracketology just in time for March Madness.

Perplexed: adj.

1. bewildered; puzzled.
2. complicated; involved; entangled.

(o _ 0 )  ?

I am perplexed as to why this word is on the EngageNY first grade vocabulary list, and again perplexed when I review the first grade units for English Language Arts (ELA) on this website. I am perplexed because I can see that several units in our current grade five curriculum (Early Settlers and the American Revolution) and our entire grade six curriculum (Ancient World History) have  been bundled into a series of units that will be taught in first grade.Did I mention that EngageNY complicates these areas of study with content area lessons on the human body and astronomy in first grade?

All these complications have me even more perplexed as to why so many people are recommending that educators visit and use EngageNY resources. In two separate incidents over the past two weeks, I have heard educators from the State of Connecticut recommend the site. One recommendation was made directly to the Commissioner in the State Department of Education, Stephan Pryor, during a roll-out of the state’s Common Core website. I hope he does not take these recommendations seriously.

Remember that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were supposed to guide teachers to teach less and focus more. The CCSS were promoted as a means to stop instruction that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS were promoted to allow teachers to select their own materials, an opportunity to move away from scripted programs, stating,”Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

Engage NY curriculum contrasts with these both of these goals; it is both staggering in its breadth and it is highly scripted.

A look at the Grade One English Language Arts curriculum in the “Listening and Learning Strand” demonstrates the breadth in a curriculum that is organized into 11 separate content area Domains. An examination into Domain 4, titled “Early World Civilizations” shows a unit that is 21 days in length for 6 year-old students using  a Tell It Again! Read-Aloud Anthology. Engage NY explains that this unit:

“….for Early World Civilizations contains background information and resources that the teacher will need to implement Domain 4, including an alignment chart for the domain to the Common Core State Standards; an introduction to the domain including necessary background information for teachers, a list of domain components, a core vocabulary list for the domain, and planning aids and resources; 16 lessons including objectives, read-alouds, discussion questions, and extension activities; a Pausing Point; a domain review; a domain assessment; culminating activities; and teacher resources.”

A further examination of Domain 4 means reviewing its 81 student objectives. That number is not as intimidating as the language in the content area objectives. The first ten objectives state that “by the end of this unit, students will be able to….”:
  1. Locate the area known as Mesopotamia on a world map or globe and identify it as part of Asia;
  2. Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon;
  3. Describe the city of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens;
  4. Identify cuneiform as the system of writing used in Mesopotamia;
  5. Explain why a written language is important to the development of a civilization;
  6. Explain the significance of the Code of Hammurabi;
  7. Explain why rules and laws are important to the development of a civilization;
  8. Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization;
  9. Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia;
  10. Describe key components of a civilization…
Consider the readiness for first graders to meet these content objectives, and consider their readiness in meeting  other content area objectives in this unit including:
#16 Explain the significance of gods/goddesses in ancient Egypt;
#26 Define monotheism as the belief in one God….

The problem with these content area objectives is that the response, (and remember this is a six year old’s response), is limited to a shallow or cursory understanding to any of these larger questions. Entire courses at higher grade levels, middle and high school, have been developed around these objectives, and many of these objectives will be repeated again in these higher grade levels.

Next, consider that the unit that follows Domain 5-Early American Civilizations, is dedicated to a study of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan societies. These first 10 objectives for Domain 5 state that “the student will be able to….”

  1. Explain that a shift occurred from hunting and gathering to farming among early peoples; compare and contrast hunter-gatherer societies and Mayan society;
  2. Explain the importance of extended family to the Maya;
  3. Identify the areas in which the Maya/Aztec/Inca lived;
  4. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca farmed;
  5. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca developed large cities or population centers, or empires, many, many years ago;
  6. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca had leaders (kings or emperors); identify by name the emperor of the Aztec, Moctezuma;
  7. Explain that the Maya/Aztec/Inca each had a religion;
  8. Describe the significance of the stars and planets to the Maya;
  9. Explain the significance of the Mayan calendar;
  10. Identify the Aztec capital as Tenochtitlan; identify that Machu Picchu is an Incan city…
There are 32 more objectives for students in Domain 5, and there are nine other domains with an equally daunting number of “the student will” objectives in the Listening and Learning strands. There are more objectives, with overlap, in the Skill strands for each of remaining nine Domains. According to the curriculum in EngageNY, a first grader would be expected to have a basic understanding of Early World Civilizations and Early American Civilizations as well as these remaining nine domains:

Domain #1: Fables and Stories
Domain #2: The Human Body
Domain #3: Different Lands/Similar Stories
Domain #6: Astronomy
Domain #7: The History of the Earth
Domain #8: Animals and Habitats
Domain #9: Fairy Tales
Domain #10: A New Nation: American Independence
Domain #11: Frontier Explorers

The most striking characteristic of this list of domains is the breadth of content area material that a first grader (remember, these are 6 year-olds), is required to “explain” or “identify” or “describe.” These are at best low level comprehension skills in Bloom’s taxonomy. This list clashes with the CCSS objective to become “more focused and coherent” especially when this list of domains does not appear to be connected by any central theme; their inclusion appears random.

All this content will be important to developing a student’s background knowledge over the course of several years, but how critically important is this material at the first grade level when instruction time is at a premium? Practice in reading and writing should be a priority, and the content used for in the development of reading and writing skills should not overwhelm students, but rather complement student cognitive ability.

Nevertheless, EngageNY provides equally dense ELA curriculum at each grade level. Students often “revisit” content that they may not have understood earlier, an enterprise that could be unnecessary given the cursory treatment that may given a topic at an earlier grade level (example: studying War of 1812 in grade 2).

Like any other website with lessons aligned to the CCSS, teachers may find value in some resources on EngageNY. A cautionary note, however, is that these are not “teacher-tested” lessons, but highly scripted lessons from the juggernaut of publishing and testing, the UK based Pearson. This raises a frightening scenario of having the creators of student achievement tests (Pearson) hold teachers and students accountable for the content they (Pearson) have also created in the lessons.

Connecticut’s adoption of the CCSS should remain true to its stated goals of allowing teachers to select their own materials in the development of focused curriculum at each grade level. The damage may already be done, however, since the website Pryor was offering in the state rollout of the Common Core already contains numerous links to EngageNY resources.

Which brings me to another 1st grade word on the EngageNY vocabulary list.
Apoplexy.

“Stand up…. Now, put out your arms,” the instructor stood watching us.

“OK, pull your right arm back past your body.”Screenshot 2014-02-09 06.56.12

This was a EDR 500 level class, a graduate course in teaching remedial reading to pre-school and elementary aged schoolchildren. On this first night, we did not know what to expect.

“Now try with the other arm.”
We waved our arms erratically in the air.
He paused for a moment, looked amused and asked, “Can you teach someone to swim like this?”

The 26 of us were standing in a very dry classroom with no water in sight.

We all shook our heads in agreement, “No”, “Not Really”, “Probably not.

“Well, how can you learn to teach reading without actually working with students?”
We were surprised. Our instructor was admitting to the disconnect in teacher preparation programs.
“You need to be in the classroom to learn how to teach,” he admonished, “any thing else is waving your arms in the air.”

In this class, we were a mixed group in age and experience. Some of us were already employed as teachers in classrooms; others were completing degrees in order to be hired. All of us were learning how to improve student reading from 4:30-7:30 PM on a Tuesday night in a classroom. With not a student in sight, we were learning in the abstract.

Learning in the abstract is not unusual. A large percentage of learning for students in pre-K through grade12 is spent learning in the abstract. For 13 years, students practice skills they will use in college or in real world careers.

However, for those preparing to be teachers, the “real world” is the classroom. Our instructor was acknowledging that the classroom environment is the pool and prospective teachers and veterans should be immersed in that pool in order to learn how to teach. Unfortunately, the evening time slot and location of the class distanced us from authentic practice.

Accessing classrooms and students for teacher prep is largely unavailable under our current agrarian model of education. There are logistical problems for colleges and universities in scheduling, supervision, and, in today’s tense climate, security. Nevertheless,hands on classroom experience is a critically important part of undergraduate teacher preparation, and a semester or two of supervised student teaching is not enough. Teaching training programs need regular and continuous access to students. At minimum, there are must be more integration and collaboration between the teacher training programs, graduate and undergraduate, and local classrooms that are geographically located near these programs. 

In addition, the professors/instructors in teacher preparation programs must be current in the practices that new teachers are expected to know. They must be current on how their state is integrating the Common Core State Standards, the surrounding controversies around the adoption of these standards, and the testing programs that have been funded to access the effectiveness of these standards.

Also professors/instructors must be current in their state’s evaluation programs and how the teacher competencies being evaluated. Information disseminated through handouts and powerpoint presentations on these topics is not sufficient; classroom practice in teaching strategies through simulations, feedback, reflection and extensive discussions on these standards and evaluation procedures are critically important at every level of teacher training.

Finally, the professors/instructors in teacher training programs must be familiar with the wide range of technologies being used in preK-grade 12 classrooms. The disconnect between college programs and the use of technology in real-life classrooms has been widening. The professors/instructors in today’s teacher preparation programs must develop proficiency with the software teachers are expected to use. They must be familiar with Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, Twitter, Quizlet, Dropbox, Khan Academy, Class Dojo, Pinterest, Evernote.

There are forces outside the education profession that are exerting pressure and changing the face of education for new and seasoned educators alike. There is political pressure from legislators designing state evaluation and curriculum standard programs combined with pressure from testing companies. The voice that is missing in response to these pressures is leadership from those who design and implement teacher training programs in colleges and universities.

Leadership is more than just an advertising slogan or an elective course offered by colleges and universities. Teacher training programs need the leadership of professors/instructors who connected with the realities of the classroom. That kind of leadership requires direct involvement and reflection on the curriculum, instruction strategies, and means of assessment in classrooms today.

Only that kind of leadership can design programs that meet the needs of the classroom today as well as anticipate the training that prepares new and veteran teachers with both pedagogy and experience for success.

sport-graphics-swimming-528905

In this current sea change of education, teacher training programs must become the force that exerts pressure and change, not the institutions forced to respond. Teacher training programs currently offered by colleges and universities must move from the abstract, from the practice of training on dry land, in order to move teacher preparation into deep waters of classroom experience. 

Anything else is just waving arms in the air.

“A bad dress rehearsal foretells a great performance.”

red curtain

This theatrical superstition is a great comfort to those who botch lines, drop lines, break props, or miss entrance cues before performing in front of an audience. Rehearsals are for practice, to fix what could go wrong so that the performance before a critical audience is perfect.

In contrast, there are no “rehearsals” in the classroom, yet the language of teacher evaluation standards repeatedly uses the word “perform” and “performance”.  There are teacher performance standards, and there are student performance measurements.

Perhaps the most authentic way to describe what happens in any classroom is that each lesson is a dress rehearsal. A teacher can plan the elements of a lesson, ( objective, resources/materials, directions, and assessment), and those scripted elements can look good on paper. A teacher can design a lesson for for a particular audience,  but what can happen in the classroom is a guess. Sometimes, a lesson plan fails; a teacher has a bad dress rehearsalEven if that lesson plan is repeated over the course of a day, there was a first audience of students that was engaged in that dress rehearsal of a lesson.

What teachers do is practice teaching, and practice is another word repeated in teacher evaluation. There are, however,  two meanings of the word practice, each depending on its syntactical use. When the word practice is used as a noun, as in the “practice of teaching”, then the word means:

  • the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

When the word practice is used as a verb, it means:

  • to do something again and again in order to become better at it
  • to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life

The language of teacher evaluation focuses on the word practice as a noun. There is limited use of the word practice as a verb except as an expectation. A teacher is expected to have practiced, or rehearsed, teaching strategies with a group of students. For this reason, teachers try to schedule a “no-fail” lesson plan for a formal observation, perhaps a lesson that has been practiced successfully in previous classes. This small advantage means that an evaluator will see a lesson with all the bells and whistles, a kind of performance.

But what about the “drop-in” evaluation? What kind of teaching practice will an evaluator see in the raw rehearsal environment of the classroom? What happens when a lesson goes horribly wrong, and an evaluator is in the room?

At a session offered by the Council of English Leadership at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference held last month in Boston, Massachusetts, nationally recognized teacher of the year Sarah Brown Wessling openly admitted to lesson failure. Wessling, a English/Language Arts teacher in Johnston, Iowa, was being filmed by The Teaching Channel when the lesson she designed went wrong, a true bad dress rehearsal taking place in real time in front of the cameras.

“I knew they (Teaching Channel) would want this footage,” she admitted laughing to crowded room of teachers, “Oh, I knew they would want this failure!”

The videos that resulted from her failure are some of the most popular on The Teaching Channel website. There are uncut versions plus the final production video (16 mins) that records how she quickly reconfigures the lesson for a different class. The transcript from the video is included on the website. 

Wessling’s voice-over begins:

For a teacher, some days you win, some days you lose.  My third hour tenth-grade English class came completely unhinged, and I had five minutes in which to repurpose it for fourth hour.

She readily admits that even the most veteran teachers experience problems:

No matter how accomplished you are or how effective you are as a teacher, I think these days are going to happen, so when they do, you have to make adjustments.

In her narration, she noted that, “By the time we get to this point, I’ve been in front of the class almost the whole class period, and that was not my intention.”

The video shows her trying to re-engage students in her planned activity. She considers:

Then there was this moment where I realized that I had completely misfired because one of my students did start to read when I asked them to, and she read the first paragraph, and she raised her hand and she said, “I don’t know what any of these words mean.”

Wessling’s final analysis of the lesson’s failure is her admission that:

I opted to try to meet the standards, make sure that the common assessment that I share with the rest of my department meets the criteria of what we had talked about earlier in this year.  In thinking about the adults, I compromised the needs of the kids.

The power of this video is that while this nationally recognized teacher’s bad dress rehearsal informed her practice, it is her training in classrooms that allowed her to redesign the lesson on the fly. Wessling’s second attempt, five minutes after the first class left, is much smoother, as she admits:

We have to be careful with our expectations and realize that we can still teach to these heightened expectations, but it’s going to have to come at a pace that makes sense to the kids who are in front of us.

So how would an evaluator who dropped in on Wessling’s first attempt rate her as a teacher? Would there be a consideration of this first lesson as a “dress rehearsal”?More important, what is the possibility that an evaluator could have stayed to watch the redesign of the lesson to see how her repeated and authentic training in the classroom, her practice, helped her with her teaching practice, her application of teaching methods? Wessling’s first attempt would not meet the criteria in the higher ratings (proficient, exemplary) of many teacher evaluation programs, but her training allowed her to address the needs of the students in subsequent efforts.

The video captures Wessling and her students a rehearsal of learning, which is what happens in every classroom everyday, to nationally ranked teachers, to veterans, and  to novices. Teachers and their students are always rehearsing. Evaluators must consider that the language of teacher evaluation should not be misconstrued. 

There is no performance in the classroom, and even a bad dress rehearsal can still be a great lesson.