Saturday, August 22, 2009

Putting the Professional in PLCs

by Steve Neat

 The Oakland Unified School District has yet another idea for something that will solve all of the problems in our public schools. The good news is that this time they are on to something beneficial and substantive—something that’s even supported by the California Teachers Association. That something is the principle of “professional learning communities,” or groups of teachers working together to improve their practice. The bad news is that, once again, the state-run District is not willing to put its money where its mouth is.

In professional learning communities, or PLCs, teams of teachers are grouped together, usually by grade level. These teams meet at least once a week to look at the state curricu-lum standards, take input from the District, and decide the most important skills that they want their students to learn. Each group of colleagues then decides how they will teach these skills, how they will track student progress, and how they will intervene with students who are not learning the skills that they’ve been teaching. 

The issue is that all this takes time. Most teachers already work many unpaid hours a week to plan lessons, give feedback to students, fill out paperwork, and maintain and organize their classrooms. That’s why the creators of the PLC model advocate for time to be given teacher teams to meet during the contract day. Instead of taking responsibility for finding this time themselves, the head office of OUSD has foisted the program onto schools, telling principals to figure it out. Of course at some sites with PTA funds or other sources of revenue teachers have been given an hour a week to meet and collaborate during the school

The District now needs to put the “professsional” in professsional learning communities at schools all across Oakland by putting its money where its mouth is. What’s the point of owning a flatscreen TV if you don’t pay your electric bill? Even a beneficial, well-researched reform is useless if it is not adequately supported. OUSD needs to fund time for teachers to meet at least once a week or not have the expectation that PLCs will take root.
Fund it or drop it. Period.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Teacher Turnover: Time to Say Enough

By Jack Gerson
Sept. 30, 2007

Teacher turnover is soaring in urban school districts and inner city schools across the country. It’s commonplace for schools to lose more than one-fourth—and sometimes more than one-half—of their teachers, year after year after year. Since studies consistently show a strong positive association between teacher experience and student learning, this exodus of teachers from low-income schools makes the sad state of our inner city schools sorrier still. It also spells increased instability for kids with little else fixed in their lives and for neighborhoods that are already desperately unstable.

Why can’t inner city schools retain their teachers? What can be done to address the problem?
Jonathan Kozol, in "Letters to a Young Teacher" (Education Week, August 29) takes issue with the prevailing wisdom that young teachers leave inner city schools out of frustration borne of inability to relate to minority students. Instead, Kozol points to
"the systematic crushing of their creativity and intellect, the threatened desiccation of their personalities, and the degradation of their sense of self-respect under the weight of heavy-handed, business-modeled systems of Skinnerian instruction, the cultural denuding of curriculum required by the test-prep mania they face, and the sense of being trapped within ‘a state of siege,’ as one teacher puts it, all of which is now exacerbated by that mighty angst machine known as No Child Left Behind."

There’s a lot of truth to what Kozol says. And it applies to veteran teachers, too—and even to teachers whose students score high on high stakes tests. Here’s an excerpt from an email posted recently to a national list:

"I returned to urban public school teaching last school year, after having left public schools before NCLB was authorized. The school environment and teacher satisfaction pre- and post- NCLB is like day and night. I speak not as a teacher who struggled with standardized test scores last year, but as one whose class reached 100% proficiency in reading and almost 100% proficiency in math (the one child who was not "proficient" came to third grade with a preschool level understanding of math - it’s a miracle that he scored as well as he did on a third grade math test). When the results came out my principal called me at home with the "good news". She asked me my "secret", how did I do it? Unfortunately, I wasn’t honest with her in my response, but I’ll be honest with you. I sold my soul to obtain those test results. For one hundred forty days I acted in complete opposition to my personal educational philosophy because I am a driven individual who wants to be at the top of my profession and right now NCLB defines what a "good" teacher is. It is imperative that educators take back control of our profession, redefine the goals and mission of our schools, and understand and support the means by which truly good teachers and school leaders develop."

This teacher is right. Educators don’t run public education. There’s been a hostile takeover of most of our country’s major urban school systems by the proponents of the "business model" for education—run everything by the numbers, "bottom-line" oriented. Treat school districts like corporations. Run schools as though they were "profit centers". Consider kids to be "revenue sources".

Not by accident, the advocates of the business model are among the most ardent supporters of the No Child Left Behind Legislation. The Broad Foundation (proprietor, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, the most outspoken proponent of the business model) has officially partnered with the U.S. Department of Education around the implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation. And NCLB enforces the mind-numbing high stakes testing environment that is driving teachers out of public education and turning kids off to learning and creativity: Eliminate electives, focus on two subjects: reading and math. Dumb these down to the lowest (and—importantly—most easily quantified and measured) rote common denominators—kill and drill ‘rithmetic, narrowly focused phonics. Hold teachers and schools accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests, and punish those that do poorly (even if most of that teachers’ kids live in group homes, or get only one meal per day, or have no quiet place to do their homework, or …). Schools that don’t measure up to NCLB’s ridiculous criteria—which means nearly all inner city schools—first get punished, then can be shut down or "reconstituted"—students and staffs scattered. After two or three years of trying to teach under these conditions, it’s no wonder teachers leave in droves. It’s a wonder that so many stay.

In addition to the reason Kozol gives for young teachers leaving inner city schools—the crushing of their creativity and intellect by the NCLB-driven teach-to-the-test environment—there’s another critical factor at work: the "philanthropreneurs" of the business model for education don’t view teaching as a career, but as an entry-level job into the business of education. Thus, many new teachers are explicitly recruited to be short-timers. Teach for America (TFA), for example, places its inductees in inner city schools for two years. Those TFAers who make it through two years have a large part of their student loans excused. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of TFAers walk away from their inner city school job after two years.

And now, Teach For America and the Broad Foundation are partnered in a program that will give new teachers still more incentive to leave teaching. According to the October 3 Education Week, TFA—with Broad’s assistance—has established a pipeline to facilitate and accelerate TFA teachers becoming principals. Select TFAers will be groomed to become principals as little as four years after college graduation—two years as a TFA teacher, one year studying educational administration at Harvard, one year as a "resident principal" (business-ese for principal-in-training)—and then, presto, principal.

This is part and parcel of the business agenda many of us recognize: force out higher-salaried veteran teachers. Bring in lower-paid new teachers. Press to cut back on health and pension benefits. Press for longer work day, work week, work year.

The combination of "standards-based" teach-to-the test rote learning with measures that accelerate teacher turnover can lead nowhere but down. This is bad for teachers, worse for schools, worst of all for students. It is high time—past time—to say, "Enough!"

• Scrap NCLB—increased federal funding for education, but without the high stakes testing-based accountability and punitive measures.
• Scrap the "business model for education". Quality education is the right of every citizen, and society needs to pay for and provide it.
• Make teaching a career, not an entry level job into the business of education. Decent compensation and livable working hours for all teachers
• Foster authentic mentoring—team teaching, pairing new and veteran teachers, with ample additional collaboration time

NCLB is Dead… or is it?

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. and former education columnist for the New York Times. He has written the best single critical analysis of NCLB to date. 

On Rewriting, Character Education, and the Future of America

Published on February 4, 2008

In this piece, John Merrow revisits the school where he taught 40 years ago and discovered for himself what a profound influence teachers have on their students. A very moving article, and a morale booster for all of us working hard to make a difference in our students’ lives. I wrote Mr. Merrow to thank him for the article, and received a warm response in return; both are at the end of the article. Thanks to Jim Mordecai for sending this piece!
Betty Olson-Jones, OEA President

The Influence of Teachers
On Rewriting, Character Education, and the Future of America
John Merrow

After college in the mid-1960s, I spent two years as a high school English teacher at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York. Although I have been around educators most of my professional life and currently work as the education correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, these would be the only years I taught high school full time. So it was to my great surprise when, in 2006, 40 years after I last entered a Schreiber classroom, some former students invited me to their 40th high school reunion. How could they possibly remember me, I thought? And how could I turn down such an opportunity? I accepted the invitation and prepared myself for a sentimental stroll down memory lane. What the day ended up offering me, however, was something altogether different: a powerful reminder of the lasting influence teachers have on the lives of the young, as well as some insights into where education in this democratic nation has missed the mark in recent years.

Like most high schools in the 1960s, Paul D. Schreiber High School was rigidly tracked. As a new teacher fresh out of college, I wasn’t allowed near the top two tracks of college-bound students, the "ones" and "twos." Instead, I was assigned what the administration called "threes" and "fours," students we weren’t supposed to expect much from. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have a philosophy of education or any real plan at the time. I didn’t know how I was supposed to approach "these kids." So I did with my students what William Sullivan — my English teacher at Taft School ( Connecticut) during my junior and senior years — had done for me. I made my kids rewrite and rewrite again, as often as necessary, until their themes and essays were well written and persuasive.

I hadn’t learned how to be a teacher while I was in college. I had majored in English, not education. But I had an image of Mr. Sullivan in my head, and, because I thought he was an effective teacher, I consciously adopted some of his techniques. Mr. Sullivan demanded our absolute best and didn’t cut anyone any slack. He wasn’t mean, but he could be caustic even as he was encouraging us. He would give what he called the "2-8-2" writing test almost daily. He would write a phrase on the board, tell us we had two minutes to think about it, eight minutes to write, and then the final two minutes to proofread what we had written. The top grade was a 10, but any significant error in spelling or punctuation meant a zero. If we were writing dialogue and wanted a character to speak in incomplete sentences, we had to mark these "sentence errors" with asterisks to let him know we knew the difference. At the end of the grading period, he threw out our lowest 5 or 10 grades, as I recall, but that didn’t lessen the pressure of each 2-8-2.

I still remember some of the phrases Mr. Sullivan used as writing prompts: "Turn out the light. I don’t want to go home in the dark." These, he said, were the dying words of someone named William Sydney Porter. What could they mean? Was he delusional or somehow insightful? (Later he told us that Porter was better known as O. Henry). And there was an enigmatic line from Othello — "Put out the light, and then put out the light" — that we had to wrestle with, long before we actually read the play itself.
So there I was in 1966 at Paul D. Schreiber High School, teaching "threes" and "fours," kids who, for the most part, didn’t want to be in English class, didn’t read poetry or care about Shakespeare. Truth is, I didn’t want to be there either. I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was heading for Kenya or Tanganyika or Zanzibar, but, when I couldn’t pass the physical, I had to find a new direction. (I had had a spinal fusion operation right after graduation and wore an elaborate back brace for my first semester at Schreiber).

But I was lucky. At Schreiber, I found some very supportive colleagues, a department chair who wanted us to be successful teachers, and a treasure trove of back issues of the magazine put out by the National Council of Teachers of English, chock full of techniques and lesson plans.
So I was a Sullivan imitator for two wonderful years and then left for graduate school at Indiana University. After Indiana, I taught again, this time at a black college in the South and in a federal prison at night. Perhaps, by this time, there was a little bit of Merrow in my teaching, but most of it was still Sullivan along with whatever I had learned from my Schreiber colleagues.
I offer this background as prologue to the Class of 1966’s 40th reunion. That night, I learned that the teachers who had influenced me also influenced my students, often in very specific ways. In other words, good teaching has legs.

Throughout the evening, I met former students, found their pictures in the yearbook, and asked, after a while, "What’s your story?" Wow, the things they told me, and the valleys and hills they described — but even the sad stuff was bathed in survivor’s light. As I listened, I learned a lot about myself as a teacher.

The first person to come up to me — calling me Mr. Merrow, even though we were both in our 60s — and thanked me for helping him become a writer. "You made us rewrite everything," he said, "and later on, when I realized that I had something to say, I knew that I would be able to say it clearly, as long as I rewrote it." I asked what sort of things he wrote about. Transgender issues mostly, he said. When I started leafing through the yearbook to find his picture, he said, "I was a girl then." Sure enough, "Dana" had become "Steve." That development would certainly have shocked Mr. Sullivan, but he would have been happy about the rewriting.

A woman came up to me and began reciting the lyrics of the Beach Boys song, "Fun, Fun, Fun." ("She’s got her daddy’s car, she can cruise to the hamburger stand now; she forgot all about the library, like she told her old man now.") She told me that I taught them poetry by starting with popular songs, and then got them to read "Renascence" by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Details I didn’t recall.

Another former student, who described himself as a "classic underachiever," said he had been so angry about being forced to rewrite his term paper that he swore he would show me by making something of himself. He’s now a lawyer. Mr. Sullivan would be proud.

Did I remember, one student wanted to know, my campaign to elevate the level of bathroom graffiti? I had no clue what he was talking about, but learned from him that I had done something Mr. Sullivan might have done under the same circumstances. My classroom had been next to the boys’ room, while the faculty bathroom was two corridors away; so I used the boys’ room. The bathroom walls had been covered with the usual profanities and, my student told me, one day in class I had semi-seriously encouraged the students to "upgrade the graffiti" with lines from Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others. It caught on, and "To be or not to be" replaced "Schreiber Sucks." "Not with a bang but a whimper" took the place of "Susie Does it with Dogs," and so on. Before long, we had bathroom walls that would have been the envy of any university town coffeehouse.

But it wasn’t just the fact that, as a teacher, I was obsessed with rewriting that came to light at the reunion. That night, I discovered that I had unconsciously absorbed from Mr. Sullivan another important lesson about teaching — the importance of empathizing without lowering standards. Here’s what happened. Before the reunion, I had gone through the 1966 yearbook to see how many faces and names I could remember. One face jumped out at me, a young man named Sandy whose life, I knew, was awful beyond belief. His divorced parents were drunks. One day his mother had drowned while intoxicated, and Sandy had been ordered by a court to live with his father on a boat in the harbor. I knew that his dad, a mean drunk, regularly beat and otherwise abused him. A guidance counselor and I used to talk about how powerless we felt. I can remember looking at him in class and wondering how he held his life together. Now I was hoping to find out that he had made it.

Late in the evening — actually it was as I was leaving to go home — a man standing outside said, "Mr. Merrow?" It was Sandy. He told me that he left home immediately after graduating, went into the service, and was now retired and living in Arizona. He said he was driving a school bus, just to keep busy. He asked if I had known about his family, and I told him how hard it had been not to be sympathetic and understanding and cut him some slack on assignments. But he thanked me profusely for not letting him slide, for treating him like a regular student. I know now that that’s exactly how Mr. Sullivan would have treated Sandy, but it was a pleasant shock to discover that I had, unknowingly, done the right thing.

Sandy then related an anecdote about how on a Sunday I had seen him tooling around on his motorcycle and had called out to remind him of the huge English assignment due on Monday! He said that he actually had been working on it all that morning and was just taking a quick break, but that he went back immediately and finished it! Once again, a reminder of the influence of teachers. And once again, an incident that I have no memory of at all.

He also told me that, just a few months earlier on his school bus, a 15-year-old girl he’d gotten to know pretty well (well enough to know that her 16th birthday was approaching) told him that she didn’t really expect to celebrate that birthday. He read her tone, correctly as it turned out, as a warning sign and went to the high school and spoke to a counselor. The girl not only made it to her 16th birthday, but also got counseling and straightened out. Sandy rightly felt that he made his contribution. It struck me that Sandy had been able to do for that troubled girl what his guidance counselor and English teacher hadn’t been able to do for him 40 years ago.

The girl Sandy helped may never know what he did for her, but hearing the story reminded me, for the hundredth time that night, that we are a part of all we touch, and what seems a small and forgettable gesture or action to us may have a deep and lasting impact on another’s life. In that sense, we are all teachers.

That night, I came to understand that, more than 40 years earlier, I had not accepted the administration’s label ("threes" and "fours") for these kids, but had expected them to become competent writers who could be moved by the power of words. That is what my teachers expected of me, and I could hardly do less for them. In truth, I didn’t really know another way. Of course, I also know from my current work in education that I had a great deal of latitude to shape my classes as I saw fit. Most teachers today don’t have the freedom to do what I did. While my job was to prepare students to pass the New York State Regents Exam, we did not have a step-by-step curriculum or regular bubble tests, and I was free to innovate. Our curriculum had enough slack in it to allow me to insist upon rewriting, and more rewriting.
In my work for The NewsHour, I spend a lot of time with teachers, some of whom have stayed in touch over the years. A few months ago, I received an e-mail message from a veteran special education teacher in Maryland, a woman I know to be dedicated and competent. She wrote that her school had failed to make what the No Child Left Behind Act calls "adequate yearly progress" for the second year in a row and, because of that, they are going to teach to the test — because if they don’t make AYP this year, the school may be shut down. She is clearly distraught by this Sophie’s Choice. She wrote, "In teaching to the test, I am afraid that we are raising a nation of idiots who may be able to pass standardized assessments without being able to think. I am trying to keep focused on the fact that we are educating the citizens of our nation’s future, which is not necessarily compatible with the vision of No Child Left Behind." I ache for that woman, and I am angry that we have put her, and many thousands like her, in that position.

The teaching mission is complex and difficult, and yet oh so vital. Teachers can never put up a "Mission Accomplished" banner, because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and girls — and the young men and women — who come into their lives. Their involvement doesn’t begin or end at the classroom door; or when they’ve covered Newton and Galileo, the 100 Years War, or the past perfect tense; or even when the semester ends. Good teachers do a lot of counseling on the run in casual interactions and they do a lot of listening, often in fits and starts. Good teachers let kids talk about their feelings without saying "I know how you feel," because they know it’s always about their students’ experiences, not their own. They work with kids who are a mixture of self-absorption, insecurity, raging hormones, and ambition. They may have to face parents who want their offspring to get into the Ivy League and have jobs they can boast about, but the teachers’ job is to help their students build a self, create the entity that will be their company throughout their lives. That’s why the best teachers listen to students and draw out their thinking, but don’t try to solve every problem. That’s why the best teachers empathize and care deeply about the individual, but never lower standards or expectations.
Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work he or she can. The wisest know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may complain that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

But, today, it’s not enough for outstanding teachers to teach and listen well. Their real challenge is to consciously push students out of their comfort zone. In a way, it’s a "value added" issue. Let me put it this way: In America, unless a teacher works with the poor — in urban areas, Appalachia, or wherever — most of his or her students are sufficiently well-off children of the richest society the world has ever known. What can and should teachers do to ensure that the talents and gifts they work to maximize in their already privileged students are put to use in the service of others?
It’s not enough to equip these students to do well. These students need to learn to do good, to contribute to society, to serve.

H. G. Wells observed that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. Right now, catastrophe seems to be in the lead — and perhaps pulling away. In public education, the U.S. is suffering from a kind of bipolar disorder. We have, increasingly, two worlds — the comfortable and smug world of wealthy (or "suburban" or "upper middle class") public schools, and the underfunded and inefficient schools in which the poor are isolated. Schools for the poor are most often dreary institutions with heavy emphasis on repetitive instruction and machine-scored bubble tests. Although some poor schools are vibrant places of innovation and discovery, that is not necessarily a cause for celebration; what it means is that reformers get to experiment on the poor, who don’t have the political clout to control their own schools or reject the do-gooders. While we have some wonderful public schools, the trend lines in public education are depressing.

Why expect teachers to do this work? First, because they can. Teachers are uniquely positioned, as I have learned recently, to make a lasting impression on hundreds of children. All they need is enough professional support and guidance, on the one hand, and enough leeway to make lasting connections. Second, because no one else seems willing to accept the challenge today.

In truth, I find myself becoming fearful for our country, something I never ever expected to happen. I see a nation that is fragmented, confused, and adrift. I lived through the divisiveness of the Vietnam War era and the selfishness of the Reagan years, but this seems worse. Cynicism ("all politicians are crooked"), indifference ("I don’t care who wins the election"), and a frightening willingness to accept authority blindly (religious fundamentalism) are on the rise, along with a growing gap between rich and poor.
When that mood strikes, I turn in two directions. If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, what the poet called "the dark night of the soul," I turn to the "self" that my teachers and my parents helped me build. Inside my head, part of that "self," are the likes of John Keats, Tennyson, and E.E. Cummings; Bach and Mozart; Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Dave Brubeck; Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Picasso and Renoir. That’s good company, the moment passes, and I get up to try again.
Or, if it’s daytime, I go to a school and feed off the energy and youthful optimism of students and the dedication of the best teachers. I regain my balance and optimism and leave rejuvenated.
I left that 40th high school reunion reminded of the special place that teachers occupy in the lives of children and young people — especially those who haven’t had many advantages in life. Society needs to acknowledge this truth and trust teachers to do more of the character-building work that is an unspoken but vital part of their mission.

John Merrow, a graduate of an independent school, is Education Correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and president of Learning Matters. He is married to Joan Lonergan, head of Castilleja School ( California). He welcomes correspondence at
I read this article on Saturday (thanks to Jim Mordecai’s relentless pursuit of interesting things to read) and took John Merrow’s welcoming of correspondence to heart.
Dear Mr. Merrow,

I just read your piece "On Rewriting, Character Education, and the Future of America," and even though
I’m at work on a Saturday and have 1,000 unfinished things to do, I just had to take a moment to stop and thank you. Thank you for knowing what it is that makes teaching so vitally important, and thank you for expressing it so powerfully — must be all that practice with rewriting! (I used to have my fifth
graders guess how many times E.B. White revised " Charlotte’s Web" — they couldn’t believe it was 51!)

I have taught in Oakland, CA public schools for 14 years, and am now the President of the Oakland
Education Association representing nearly 3,000 teachers. It’s no surprise to you that what keeps us
going is that we hope we can make a difference, no matter how small. But it’s getting harder all the time
in the current punitive climate, where teachers are demoralized and overwhelmed by the relentless drive
for higher test scores, obsession with "data analysis" and one-size-fits-all scripted curricula.
I especially loved when you said, "Teachers can never put up a "Mission Accomplished" banner, because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and girls ‘and the young men and women’ who come into their lives." This is so true, and it’s the awesome privilege of caring teachers that sometimes they’re fortunate enough to hear that from their former students. (I had this experience just the other day after a press conference where we’d announced that we wouldn’t settle for the line that "there’s just not enough" when it comes to educating our youth. As I walked to my car, a young man standing with a group of teenagers called out to me, and then threw his arms around me. It was one of my former fifth graders, a boy I’d retained and taught for 2 years. As he proudly introduced me to his friends, I felt that same emotional pull I feel whenever a child I’ve taught remembers me –  the knowledge that I’d made a connection with him.)

Thank you once again for your writing, and for your support of this most wonderful profession.
Betty Olson-Jones
President, Oakland Education Association

And he did, indeed, write right back:

Dear Ms. Olson-Jones,
Thank you so much for your lovely letter and heartfelt words. I love the story about you and your former student, particularly given that you held him to a high standard.  No social promotion, no ’self esteem grading.’  I think often of ‘my kids’ from those years and marvel at their complex innocence, their idealism just waiting to be tapped. I see that in a lot of today’s kids. I had the privilege of guest teaching a double class at Palo Alto High School last Thursday and saw it all over again.

Best wishes,
John Merrow


From coastal North Carolina
Jacksonville (NC) Daily News Editorial July 26, 2008

No Child Left Behind, the massive education program enacted by U.S. Congress in 2001, is one of those well-intended initiatives that has turned into a train wreck. It is time to admit that it simply doesn’t work. Onslow County Schools, like many other educational systems, have struggled with the stringent goals set by NCLB since its inception. In addition to what, on paper, appears an admirable objective - to improve the performance of the nation’s public schools - NCLB has probably done less to foster actual learning and more to tie teachers’ hands than any program before it. Once criticized for "teaching to the tests," educators have now been saddled with goals that are next to impossible to reach and draconian sanctions that are supposed to raise the quality of instruction. Instead, NCLB has sent many excellent teachers scrambling for the door. At a time when educators’ salaries are losing ground along with the rest of America, why would anyone want to enforce a provision that does little but drive good teachers from the profession? It makes no sense, but that is what is happening. The rural, lower-wealth counties and inner-city schools can barely keep enough teachers on staff to meet their needs, yet NCLB, which purports to raise the qualifications of those who teach, discourages the ones they do have, forcing many fine teachers to rethink their personal career objectives. Although NCLB is designed to raise the reading and writing levels of America’s children and provide measurable means of testing those abilities, what it is really doing is forcing teachers to "teach to the test" with a whole new desperation. The Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, goals that schools are required to meet are often impossible, turning the process into a shell game played between school and program administrators. Recently, Onslow County’s latest AYP report card revealed Onslow did not do very well in its latest assessment. Overall, the number of schools meeting their AYP goals in the county declined. What does that mean in terms of students actually learning something useful? How do parents make any sense of these numbers? They are the forgotten component of the NCLB Act. In truth, the only provision of NCLB designed to benefit parents and students allows those at low-performing schools to move to other schools in the district.No matter which candidate carries the day in November, it is hoped he will take seriously the business of teaching, limit Congress’ input into education and, finally, kick the NCLB Act to the curb. It’s an expensive, complicated program that delivers little but red tape and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, something the American people already have in abundance.

Arne Duncan Answers (or Dodges) Your Tough Questions

The latest NEA Today carried a feature story called "(Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan Answers Your Tough Questions."  We think it would be more aptly titled, "Arne Duncan Dodges Your Tough Questions"  CBITS High School teacher Jack Gerson translated Arne’s doublespeak into English for parts I and II of "Annotated Aren." Stay tuned for part III on merit pay!

The Case Against Standarized Testing

Here’s an excellent 33-page paper that systematically dismantles the case for basing education on standardized tests.

The Case Against Standardized Testing

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Inform Parents of their Right to Opt Out of Testing!

Teachers: STAR Testing is fast approaching, and the pressure to practice for the tests is increasing. This is a reminder that according to the California Department of Education STAR Testing Regulations and the Ed Code, you have the right to inform parents of their right to opt out of the tests for their children (but not solicit or encourage).  (See below: emphasis added.) (
§ 852. Pupil Exemptions.
      A parent or guardian may submit to the school a written request to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of any test provided pursuant to Education Code section 60640. A school district and its employees may discuss the Standardized Testing and Reporting STAR Program with parents and may inform parents of the availability of exemptions under Education Code section 60615. However, the school district and its employees shall not solicit or encourage any written exemption request on behalf of any child or group of children.
NOTE: Authority cited: Sections 33031 and 60605, Education Code. Reference: Sections 60615 and 60640, Education Code.
For more information, including a sample letter that parents can give their principals, visit the CalCARE website at

New York Measuring Teachers by Test Scores

January 21, 2008
New York City has embarked on an ambitious experiment, yet to be announced, in which some 2,500 teachers are being measured on how much their students improve on annual standardized tests.
The move is so contentious that principals in some of the 140 schools participating have not told their teachers that they are being scrutinized based on student performance and improvement.

While officials say it is too early to determine how they will use the data, which is already being collected, they say it could eventually be used to help make decisions on teacher tenure or as a significant element in performance evaluations and bonuses. And they hold out the possibility that the ratings for individual teachers could be made public.

"If the only thing we do is make this data available to every person in the city — every teacher, every parent, every principal, and say do with it what you will — that will have been a powerful step forward," said Chris Cerf, the deputy schools chancellor who is overseeing the project. "If you know as a parent what’s the deal, I think that whole aspect will change behavior."

The effort comes as educators nationwide are struggling to figure out how to find, train and measure good teachers. Many education experts say that until teacher quality improves in urban schools, student performance is likely to stagnate and the achievement gap between white and minority students will never be closed. Other school systems, including those in Dallas and Houston as well as in the whole state of Tennessee, are also using student performance and improvement as factors in evaluating teachers.

The United Federation of Teachers , the city’s teachers’ union, has known about the experiment for months, but has not been told which schools are involved, because the Education Department has promised those principals confidentiality.

Randi Weingarten, the union president, said she had grave reservations about the project, and would fight if the city tried to use the information for tenure or formal evaluations or even publicized it. She and the city disagree over whether such moves would be allowed under the contract.
"There is no way that any of this current data could actually, fairly, honestly or with any integrity be used to isolate the contributions of an individual teacher," Ms. Weingarten said. "If one permitted this, it would be one of the worst decisions of my professional life."

New York invited principals from hundreds of elementary and middle schools with sufficient annual testing data to participate in the program, which will produce an elaborate stream of data on 2,500 teachers.

In 140 schools — a tenth of the roughly 1,400 in the system — teachers are being measured on how many students in their classes meet basic progress goals, how much student performance grows each year, and how that improvement compares with the performance of similar students with other teachers.
In another 140 schools, principals are being asked to make subjective evaluations of roughly the same number of teachers so officials can see if the two systems produce widely disparate results. New York City schools employ roughly 77,000 teachers. In all 280 schools, the principals agreed to participate in the program.

Deputy Chancellor Cerf said that how students performed on tests would not be the only factor considered in any system to rate teachers. All decisions will include personal circumstances and experiences, he said, but the point will be to put a focus on whether or not students are improving.
"This isn’t about how hard we try," Mr. Cerf said. "This is about however you got here, are your students learning?"

Ms. Weingarten said the system was not needed. "Any real educator can know within five minutes of walking into a classroom if a teacher is effective," she said. "These tests were never intended and have never been validated for the use of evaluating teachers."

The experiment is in line with the city’s increasing use of standardized test scores to measure whether students are improving, and to judge school quality. A new bonus program for teachers and principals, as well as the letter grading system for schools unveiled last fall, are all linked to improvement in scores. Nationally, too, school systems are increasingly relying on these measures to judge schools.
Virtually all education experts agree that finding high-quality teachers is critical to improving student learning, particularly in high-poverty urban areas, where good teachers are usually more difficult to find. Recent research has found that the best teachers can help struggling students catch up to more advanced students within three years.

But experts are grappling with how to determine what makes a good teacher. Neither graduate programs in education schools nor previous academic records are reliable predictors, they say. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that districts place a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom, which typically means one who has completed a certification program, but this, too, is not necessarily a good indicator of quality.

"It seems hard to know who is going to be effective in the classroom until they are actually in the classroom," said Thomas J. Kane, a professor of education and economics at Harvard, who is conducting several research projects on teacher quality in New York City, and who is involved in the new effort.

Mr. Kane said there was little evidence that teachers with the "right paper qualifications" were any more effective than those without them. "But most school districts spend very little time trying to assess how good teachers are in their first couple of years, when it is most important," he said.
Nationwide, more than 95 percent of teachers receive tenure within their first three years of teaching, according to some studies. And once teachers receive tenure, it is extremely difficult to have them removed from classrooms.

In some sense, New York’s effort to judge teachers partly on their students’ improvement is a logical extension of the grading system for schools that was unveiled last fall, although officials adamantly say they have no plans to assign letter grades to individual teachers.

"I don’t think anyone here would embrace the formulaic use of even the most sophisticated instrument — you get tenure if this, you don’t get tenure if that," Mr. Cerf said.

He added that the new effort was just one of several ways in which the city was exploring how to evaluate and improve teacher quality. In recent months, city officials have begun training new lawyers to help principals navigate the considerable red tape required to remove inadequate teachers.

They have increased recruiting efforts to attract talented teachers to hard-to-staff schools. And they are allowing schools to earn merit bonus pools to distribute to teachers based on test scores.

"This should simply be one more way to think about things," said Frank A. Cimino, the principal of P.S. 193 in Brooklyn, who said he was participating in the experiment. "It is going to tell you some things you don’t know, but it will miss the other things that go on in a classroom."

William Sanders, a researcher in North Carolina who was one of the first to begin evaluating teachers and schools based on student test score improvements, said that while such a system could be used to make broad judgments, it was difficult to use it with precision enough to find differences among teachers who are simply average.

"Can you distinguish the top teachers? Yes," Mr. Sanders said. "Can you distinguish the bottom teachers? The answer is yes, too. But it would be risky to make decisions using information at the classroom level for teachers who are just in the middle. You might miss a lot that way."
The city’s pilot program uses a statistical analysis to measure students’ previous-year test scores, their numbers of absences and whether they receive special education services or free lunch, as well as class size, among other factors.

Based on all those factors, that analysis then sets a "predicted gain" for a teacher’s class, which is measured against students’ actual gains to determine how much a teacher has contributed to students’ growth.

The two-page report for each teacher examines information both from one year and over three years. The information also compares the teacher with all other teachers in the city, and with teachers who have similar classrooms and experience levels. The second part of the report measures how well a teacher does with students with different skill levels, showing, for example, whether the teacher seems to work well with struggling students.

Mr. Cerf said officials expected to decide by the "early summer" whether they would use the analysis to evaluate individual teachers for tenure or other decisions, and if so, how they would do so. Such a decision would undoubtedly open up a legal battle with the teacher’s union.

Where Merit Pay Leads…

Published on February 16, 2008
   According to the NY Times (Jan. 21, 2008), New York City’s Department of Education will use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate the performance of 2,500 teachers at 140 of the city’s public schools. Although the United Federation of Teachers (NYC’s teachers’ union) knows about the "experiment", it doesn’t know which schools are involved, and neither do the teachers who–together with their students–will be used as guinea pigs.

Let’s face it, this "experiment" means teachers will be judged on how well they teach test-taking skills, not on their ability to encourage creativity and foster authentic learning. Ominously, Deputy Superintendent Chris Cerf has been placed in charge of the new "experiment". Cerf previously was an executive at the notorious for-profit Edison Schools (where OUSD’s state administrator, Vincent Matthews, spent several years).

UFT President Randi Weingarten expresses "grave reservations" about this project. But Weingarten opened the door last fall, when she enthusiastically agreed to cooperate with an Eli Broad-funded merit pay scheme that bases part of teacher compensation on standardized test scores.  It’s very late, but perhaps Weingarten will learn a lesson: this is where merit pay is all about. Eli Broad and his associates promote merit pay as a way to further their all-too-familiar campaign to routinize education into "standards-based" scripted prep for high stakes standardized tests.

Jack Gerson
The New York Times

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Many Schools Left Behind?

May 16, 2005


THE NO Child Left Behind Act is the Bush administration’s deeply flawed legislation that claims to be the solution to the many problems of public education. Signed into law in January 2002, it won bipartisan support–most notably, from liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
NCLB promised to close the achievement gap between middle-class suburban students and those at under-funded inner-city or rural schools. Bush and others spoke of accountability and equity, but the critics of NCLB saw through the rhetoric for what the law really is–an attempt to privatize education and transfer the responsibility and cost of educating our children from the federal government to individual and often impoverished school districts.
NCLB is built around the use of standardized tests–with the promise that gaps in testing will be gone by 2014. Progress toward this goal is to be measured by Average Yearly Progress (AYP) scores, with sanctions imposed on schools that don’t make the annual goals.
The law promises parents that their children will be taught by "highly qualified" teachers and allows them to request a transfer to a different school. The law opens the door to vouchers and charter schools, threatens to privatize services currently provided by unionized public school employees and welcomes faith-based groups into school programs. But the real centerpiece of NCLB is standardized testing.
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THE NATIONAL Education Association (NEA)–the country’s largest teachers union–has filed a lawsuit against NCLB, charging that due to under-funding, the law forces states and school districts to comply with impossible demands. School districts are required to implement curriculum, structure and restructure programs, and hire or lay off employees.
Since 2002, shortfalls in federal funding for NCLB are estimated at $27 billion. Ultimately, state governments have made up the difference, putting a further strain on their budgets. This burden has caused a quiet rebellion against the law. The state governments of Michigan, Texas and Vermont are protesting the law and participating in the lawsuit.
However, teachers have a joke about this question: "Republicans won’t fund No Child Left Behind, and Democrats say they will. We don’t know which is worse." The point underlying the joke is that there’s no reason to believe that NCLB, even fully funded, would really improve the educational system.
For one thing, NCLB’s overemphasis on testing forces teachers to "teach to the test"–by focusing mainly on areas covered in the standardized tests. Currently, math and reading are the most-tested areas–so social studies and science, and even more so, art and music, are shoved to the side.
Most education experts believe that an educational program has to be balanced. Cutting the arts or history to make way for test prep will likely improve a student’s test scores–as will eliminating libraries so that a school can buy required test prep materials or replacing a literature class with a one-size-fits-all scripted reading curriculum. But this does little for students beyond helping them "bubble in" answer sheets.
What does testing really tell us? Crudely, it shows little more than how well a student takes a test and how well a teacher prepared their class for the test.
In fact, testing is big business. Testing companies–especially the ones that also publish textbooks–make huge profits from the tests and supplementary materials that schools are often forced to purchase. According to the article "Testing Companies Mine for Gold" from Rethinking Schools, the two largest testing companies, Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, are billion-dollar giants.
In the same article points out another profitable element of the testing industry: scoring. The General Accounting Office report on NCLB estimates that it costs approximately $7 to score a test with open-ended questions, compared to $1 each for scoring tests with all multiple-choice questions. It is no surprise, then, that under-funded school districts opt for the cheaper, but less meaningful, multiple-choice tests.
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WHAT HAPPENS when a school "fails"? If a school falls short of its AYP goals two years in a row, it becomes a "Program Improvement" (PI) school. PI schools become subject to a complicated, high-pressure timeline in which they are set up to fail. By law, if PI schools don’t make satisfactory progress–as measured by NCLB–at the end of four years, they face major restructuring.
PI schools are supposed to be entitled to extra resources to help them catch up. Do they get those resources? Not likely–hastening the school’s restructuring.
In Oakland, Calif., by December 2004, the district was gripped by the fear of restructuring under NCLB. In the midst of heated and controversial contract negotiations with the teachers union, the state-appointed district administrator–pointing directly to language in NCLB–announced that 13 "Year Four" schools would be converted into charter schools.
Becoming a charter school is one of the NCLB options for a "Year Four" school–along with reconstitution, when the entire staff of a school is transferred, and a new staff is brought in. In many cases, charter schools are non-union, and sometimes even run by for-profit companies.
The most famous charter school corporation is Edison Schools, which was affiliated to Gap Corp. Edison was touted as the solution to the problems in public education when it took over several elementary schools in San Francisco in the late 1990s. But within a couple years, the schools were faring no better, and many suffered from massive teacher turnover.
In Oakland, the state administrator tried to play a clever shell game. Most of the 13 schools on the list to become charters were to be governed by a new company launched and staffed by…the Oakland Unified School District itself!
The school district described these schools as "internal charters"–something that the California Teachers Association says is illegal and needs to be negotiated through the regular bargaining process. This is precisely what school administrators are trying to avoid.
Activists partly backed the district off its drive to charterize. Currently, five of the original 13 schools will not become charters. Teachers were able to prove that they could meet the requirements to restructure by extending the school day (optional, with pay) and reducing class sizes. This was a small but significant victory.
Nationally, the NEA’s lawsuit is drawing attention to the flaws in NCLB. It is highlighting what school districts have had to cut–arts, music, extended-year programs–in order to comply with the law. Fighting against these harsher elements of the law calls NCLB into question as a whole.
Some educators are working to reform the law. But tying funding to scores, punishing teachers and students in the most difficult districts and privatizing public education are not things that can be reformed–nor is the Bush administration likely to let go of these provisions easily.
Pushing for reforms may put a dent in No Child Left Behind, but ultimately, the law has to be scrapped.
Full funding of quality education should be a top priority. Money should flow into the schools until every child has what they need, until every teacher has all the resources and space they need, and until every school is renovated or rebuilt into a safe, asbestos-free learning environment.
Why doesn’t this happen? The politicians say, "You can’t just throw money at the problem." Instead, they blame the teachers, scapegoat students and parents, and test, test, test. In fact, the U.S. government has always been willing to throw money at the Pentagon, and corporations and the wealthy in the form of tax breaks. But when it comes to education, health care and other services that impact our human and civil rights, they say no. We shouldn’t stand for it.

How the law aids military recruiters

ONE LITTLE- known provision of NCLB requires high schools to turn over names, phone numbers and addresses of all students to the military, or risk losing NCLB funding. Parents have the right to opt out, and many school districts have organized to educate students and families of their rights.
In Montclair, N.J., schools tell parents about the requirement as soon as their child enters 9th grade and follow up with letters home and reminders. The school district reports that at last count, 92 percent of families had requested that their child’s information not be sent to the military. At many high schools in the Bay Area, teachers have organized similar opt-out campaigns.
With the military regularly falling short of its recruitment goals, this NCLB provision is becoming even more important to the Bush administration. The movement to kick recruiters off campuses is a natural ally to the teachers’ unions and parent organizations opposing No Child Left Behind.
Jessie Muldoon is a teacher in Oakland and member of the Oakland Education Association.