Archives For Dennis Van Roekel

 David Coleman, incoming president of the College Board is staring out from the front cover of the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic . Actually, he is not staring. I think he is smirking…a Cheshire Cat smirk.

He has every reason to smirk. Coleman one of the architects of the Common Core State Standards has emerged as one of the more influential education policymakers to change what will be taught in classrooms and how this content will be taught without ever having spent time in the classroom himself.

Yes, Coleman has never taught in a public school classroom, although he was very successful as a student. He was educated in the Manhattan public school system, the son of highly educated parents, his father, a psychiatrist, and his mother, president of Bennington College. His privileged liberal arts credentials are immersive and include Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford, and Cambridge.

His perspective on education has been informed by the business side of education which included pro-bono work at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He developed and sold the assessment company Grow Network; co-founded and sold Student Achievement Partner; and most recently, accepted a position as president of The College Board.

Coleman has materialized, like Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic Cheshire Cat, as the cool outsider who surveys education as a Wonderland ruled by nonsense. He has promoted an agenda of close reading and an increase in non-fiction, to a ratio of 70% of all required reading by grade 12, from his perch high above the daily dust-ups of the average classroom.

Now, after developing the CCSS, replete with new batteries of state tests, he has moved on to the pinnacle of high stakes testing, the SAT. His arrival comes amid renewed concerns from studies about the SAT that demonstrate the unfairness of the test for minorities, females, and students living in poverty.

While I can embrace many of the standards in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS),  I remain unconvinced by Coleman’s sweeping claims that “close reading” lessons  of several days focused on a complex and difficult text is critical to improving understanding. I have practiced close reading, but not with the singular and tortuous focus Coleman advocates. There is little research as to how this approach will improve reading skills for all students. For 21 years, I have been a “boots on the ground” promoter of reading to a population of students who are reading less and less of the assigned materials, so I speak from experience when I state that Coleman’s emphasis on close reading can have an adverse effect on an already poor reader.

Furthermore, Coleman negates the effectiveness of the past 35 years of having students engage with a text using Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory. His blunt charge “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think” is simply not true. I cannot imagine any author who would not want to know what a reader thought. Writing is supposed to inspire; writing is an invitation to a dialogue. Furthermore, how will not listening to what students thought engage them in writing at all?

The question is how did Coleman get to place his large footprint on education, and why did teachers let him move into this position? Were teachers so preoccupied with teaching that they failed to see how the dynamics of education were moving from engaging leaders from public school institutions to accepting leadership from more commercial enterprises?

Dennis Van Roekel alluded to the rise of Coleman and others like him when he delivered an address to the National Education Association 91st Representative Assembly this past July:

Are we willing to assert our leadership, and take RESPONSIBILITY for our professions?
The demands of our work are changing as our students change, and the world around us is changing too – ever so fast.I say it is time for us to lead the next generation of professionals – in educating the next generation of students!

I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions… without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.
I want to take advantage of this opportunity for US to lead – and I’m not waiting to be asked, nor am I asking anyone’s permission.

Because if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it “to” us.

Van Roekel’s quote echoes the question rhetorically posed by noted educator Lucy Caulkins at her presentation of the 82nd reunion at Columbia Teacher’s College, “Where is the proof, David Coleman, that your strategy works?”

Coleman’s ascent to the top of American education policy has been steady. He made contributions to the CCSS which will result in nationwide metrics for grades K-12. Add this testing to his new control of the SAT, and his influence on American education and the tests that measure learning will continue through the college level, all without his having the informative experience of teaching in a classroom. That any one individual without any teaching experience could have had this impact on the daily workings of the classroom is a commentary on the current state of madness that public education now finds itself.

At one point in in her Adventures in Wonderland, Alice comes across the Cheshire Cat in the hope of finding her way out:

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Carroll’s Cheshire Cat character is a tease, an enigmatic riddler who offers judgments and cryptic clues but no  solution to the frustrated Alice. Coleman is education’s Cheshire Cat, offering positions in education but with no evidence to prove his solutions will work.

Curiouser and curiouser. David Coleman has become one of the most influential educational policymakers in our public school systems, but at this time, we have little else but his smirk.

I read a tweet by the National Education Association’s (NEA) president, Dennis Van Roekel, which brought me to this quote: “I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions….without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.”

Consider how solutions determined by others have determined the profound changes in education in the past 12 years. The legislation for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS), have come from stakeholders who are looking into  the classroom as if they are looking through a one-way window. This one-way window prevents the sounds of education, limits other visual perspectives, and prevents dialogue with teachers. The one way also window prevents the teachers from seeing or communicating with those stakeholders who have made these changes.

This past week, in my Twitter feed, I found links to information which made me wonder, with the increasing adoption of technology in education, how might this one-way window dynamic change?

The first piece of information came from a tweet by @webenglishteach. On a recent post titled “My career by the numbers (so far)” on her Chalkboard blog, Carla discussed her retirement as an English teacher and reflected on the numbers in her educational career, for example, the number of papers she had corrected or numbers of students she taught over the course of her 32 year career. She has spent the past year with the Department of Education (DOE), and noted:

“People at the DOE like to identify themselves as teachers. ‘I taught 2 years.’ They’re good people, but teachers make more decisions that affect other people on Monday than someone at DOE does all week. Be proud of what we do.”

The second piece of information came from a link in the article The Gates Foundation’s Education Philanthropy: Are Profit Seeking and Market Domination a Public Service?  tweeted by Education Week . The article comprehensively argued against the agenda of wealthy philanthropic enterprises that partner with public institutions, a public-private partnership.This article by Anthony Cody contained a link to a April 2011 article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times Foundations Join to Offer Online Courses for Schools  that described how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be working with the textbook and testing firm Pearson:

“In his educational work, Bill Gates has explored ways that new technologies can transform teaching. Vicki Phillips, a director at the Gates Foundation, said the partnership with Pearson was part of a ‘suite of investments’ totaling more than $20 million that the foundation was undertaking, all of which involve new technology-based instructional approaches. The new digital materials, Ms. Phillips said, “have the potential to fundamentally change the way students and teachers interact in the classroom.”

This investment will be extremely profitable for Pearson, a large corporation that also houses the publishing companies Penguin and the Financial Times; $330 million in Department of Education financing. The partnership with the Gates Foundation could give Pearson a considerable advantage as textbook and learning technology companies position themselves in an education marketplace upended by the creation of the common standards. Finally, Susan Neuman, a former Education Department official with the Bush Administration commented in the story, “Pearson already dominates, and this could take it to the extreme. This could be problematic for many of our kids. We could get a one size fits all.”
In both these instances, the classroom teachers are clearly not involved solutions. There are Department of Education employees with fleeting experience in the classroom  determining educational policy.  Public-private partnerships are fundamentally changing how content is delivered in the classroom. Finally, education services companies are developing both the texts and the tests for use in the classroom.
So why are teachers, those with years of expertise in the classroom, not leading to challenge the solutions offered by others?   That is what Van Roekel was asking when he addressed the NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly  at the 2012 convention:
“I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions… without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.
I want to take advantage of this opportunity for US to lead – and I’m not waiting to be asked, nor am I asking anyone’s permission.
Because if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it ‘to’us.There are plenty of people outside our profession who have their own ideas about what we should be doing, how we should be evaluated, and how to improve public education…”
Teachers could define the solution if they had time and the ability to effectively dialogue with other teachers. Unfortunately, there is little teachers can do about the finite elements of time, however, teachers can communicate with teachers much more effectively today through numerous platforms. Research has proved that peer to peer professional development is successful, and one platform for such dialogue is  Twitter. No, not the “Katie Holmes vs Tom Cruise” Twitter or the #justsayin  Twitter trend. Twitter provides teachers a means to communicate (140 characters) quickly, to link content, to help research, or to celebrate success. Twitter can be an effective a part of a  PLN (personal learning network) for a teacher who has only a few minutes to spare each day, weekends included, during the school year and can be part of self-directed professional development mandated in some state teacher evaluations.
Twitter offers evening “chats” by subject, grade level, or on educational topics simply by using a hashtag (EX: #edchat, #engchat, #sschat). A complete schedule of educational chats is available on technology guru Jerry Blumengarten’s (alias Cybraryman)  Twitter page .
Using Twitter as my PLN, I found each of the articles I referenced above through Twitter. I will Tweet this blog. I may be re-Tweeted so that the information finds its way to other teachers.
Now consider that there are more than 7.2 million teachers (US Census in 2009)  , and then consider how Twitter could be used to connect teachers in dialogue (quickly), so that solutions in education can be proposed from the inside the classroom with the one-way window. Twitter PLNs can keep teachers informed (quickly) when “others define solutions” and help teachers generate their response in shared dialogues.  Twitter can be a tool for teachers in creating the powerful voice of those “who do the work every day of their professional life” and lead them to share their solutions to the problems in education. The decible level of collective teacher Tweets can be the noise to shatter the glass of that one-way window that “others” use to see into the classroom.