Wanted: The Best Teachers

Betty Sternberg, former Connecticut Commissioner of Education says that Connecticut education has “lost its way”.  I agree. Education in Connecticut has lost the capability to attract the best new teachers and to keep many of the best experienced teachers because it is clear that people with excellent minds, innovative spirits, and collegial leadership are not valued. The Connecticut State Department of Education has put in place an evaluation system that mandates ordinariness and compliance.

Let’s change the message. Let’s give our  teachers an environment to work in that values them as strong thinkers and independent learners.  Only then will our children discover their own potential as thinkers and learners.


It’s All Over But The Cheering


Right before an institution dies, things get a little crazy. Think of the days before the fall of Rome and the days before the French Revolution. That is where we are now in terms of the misnamed education “reform” in Connecticut.

Things are getting crazy.

When the Connecticut State Department of Education threatens to withdraw needed funds from school districts in which some parents decide to not have their children participate in unreliable, invalid tests, then we know the end is at hand. When a governor prioritizes the opening of new publicly funded but not publicly accountable charter schools for a few over the funding of public schools for all, then we know the end is at hand. When the State Board of Education champions the Common Core as “far better than anything we have done before” although those standards were written by employees of testing companies, not educators, and contradict literally all research in how children learn best, then we know the end is at hand.

The test-and-punish era of education “reform” in Connecticut will soon meet its end because its craziness has become evident to so many.

It is clear that standardized testing can never close the achievement gap, that the Common Core Standards are not good learning and do not give students the skills they need for their future, and that the education “reform” effort is not reform at all but a way to remove public education as a right for all while it provides substantial financial profit for the investors.

So what is the path forward?

David Kirp in a recent New York Times piece points the way. He analyses why the schools in Union City, New Jersey improved while the efforts in Newark failed. In Newark, huge infusions of money, most notably 100 million dollars from Mark Zuckerberg, and outside talent did not bring success. In fact, they might be the reason for the failure. In Union City, by contrast, the school improvement efforts were led by a team of principals and teachers within the district who focused on how students learn best, how teachers teach most effectively, and how parents can be engaged in the schools. Through this process, learning took center stage, the culture of the schools changed, and the achievement of the students took off.

The Harvard School of Education report,” How High Schools Become Exemplary”, also points the way. It describes how 15 high schools improved the achievement of their students. In all 15 schools, the improvement was a result of a team of educators within the school recognizing what their students needed to learn and how they could learn best and accepting responsibility for meeting that need. They created a mission and determined priorities for their school, designed a plan for adult learning, developed criteria for judging student work and teacher practice, and provided resources and incentives. In all 15 schools, the leaders for the school improvement came from each school and overcame some teachers’ resistance to change because those teachers trusted the motives, the competence, the reliability, the collegiality, the intellectual diligence, the courage, and the hard work of the leaders.

The way forward is clear.

Here is what we must do in Connecticut:

1. Make school improvement a local enterprise. It must begin with the leaders having trust in the staff to grow and learn. As Michael Fullan, a leading expert in school improvement, has said, the first principle of school change is to “love your employees”. That comes from knowing them.

2. Set up authentic and focused collaboration among the teachers so that they become the kind of open, questioning, active learners they will teach their students to be.

3. Analyze the needs of the students. Determine how they learn best and what is it they need to learn. Design ways to assess both what they learn and how they learn.

4. Conduct adult learning experiences focused on improving instruction.

For many years, I have been part of creating positive change in Connecticut’s schools, both in suburban and urban districts, in schools with high standardized test scores and those labeled as “failing schools” due to their standardized test scores. I know for sure that collegial leadership, collaboration, and attention to how students learn and how we can best teach by the educators in an academic department, a school, or a school district offer the only path forward for increased student achievement.

Let’s give the test-and-punish version of “reform” a good burial and move on.

The kids are waiting.

Replacing SBAC with Real Learning

Yes, of course, the SBAC tests must go.

All of the comments about doing away with SBAC made by teachers on the video produced by the Connecticut Teachers Association, called “Connecticut Teachers Share Concerns About SBAC”, are true. (Scroll down on CEA link for video.) The tests stress children out. The tests take too much time away from real learning and replace it with test prep. The data collected is useless. The SBAC use of technology as the testing format is inequitable because children use different kinds of devices to take the tests, some of which are more user friendly than others, and the children vary greatly in their familiarity with technology. The tests deplete many children, especially those with special needs or recent English speakers, of their confidence as learners and deprive them of their motivation. Teacher after teacher testified that the tests and the inordinate time given to preparing for them prove only one thing: how good a taker of the  test the student is.

The SBAC tests have established cut scores and are designed to fail between 56-68% of students, depending on grade level and subject matter. The SBAC tests are invalid and unreliable, as even the former Executive Director of SBAC asserted when speaking at the University of Connecticut on March 31, 2014, because there is no data to prove that success on SBAC tests merits “college and career readiness”. We also do not need SBAC tests to gather information about the achievement gap. We have NAEP, a test which accurately reports on the achievement gap, does not punish individual students, and costs districts and the state of Connecticut nothing, that does that for us. We also know that the high stakes of the SBAC tests which deem students competent or not, determine the fate of schools and the careers of school administrators, provide PR for school districts, and measure the competencies of teachers, determine what is taught. The SBAC test is the curriculum.

And that brings up the most pressing reason that the SBAC tests must go: The SBAC tests measure the wrong things. The SBAC tests do not measure the learning that students need.

What learning do students in 2016 need?

They need to learn to ask questions of their own and explore their questions in depth. They need to learn to collaborate with others in order to grow as broad and deep thinkers. They need to learn creative problem solving. They need to learn how to innovate. They need to learn how to express their thinking, using effective oral and written communication in a wide variety of forms and in both personal and academic voices. They need to be motivated. They need to be engaged. They need to love to learn.

The Common Core teaches none of these skills. The SBAC tests do not measure them.

Learning and the assessing of that learning do not have to be that way.

The first speaker on the CEA video, Paul Coppola who is a social studies teacher in Madison, CT, explained how educators in his district designed indicators of academic growth and development for their students and assess their students on their achievement of learning objectives, based on those indicators. The indicators are:

  1. creativity
  2. collaboration,
  3. communication
  4. problem solving
  5. global perspectives

Similarly, I have worked for many years with teachers to design assessments that require students to:

  1. Engage in a new challenge that is a learning experience in itself.
  2. Use critical thinking to identify and analyze the key concepts of a course.
  3. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies developed in that course.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their original ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  6. Demonstrate effective written communication.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

These are but two examples of conversations that have begun. There are as many conversations going on in Connecticut about learning and assessment as there are dedicated educators. We are ready to dialogue about what learning is and how we will measure it.

Jennifer Alexander, CEO of ConnCAN, could not be more wrong when she said that we as a state should stay with SBAC because ” we’ve already invested millions into its implementation”. By that logic of not changing what we have invested in, we would still be fighting in Vietnam and would still have segregated school districts.

Revision is at the heart of learning. And growing. And getting things right.

Questions about SBAC have been raised. It’s time to explore those questions. It’s time to collaborate. It’s time for creative problem solving. It’s time for innovation.

It is time for real learning to take center stage in Connecticut.

Bring on the best people to lead the exploration of those questions. Bring on those who know what it is to teach and what it is to learn. Bring on the educators.















Readers Need Not Apply

In the early 1960’s, as the United States was becoming the leading economy in the world, the International Paper Company posted an ad in every edition of The Reader’s Digest which said: “Send me a man who reads”.  It always had an accompanying text which indicated that the one who reads is the one who  thinks, is the one who is productive, and is the one becomes the successful leader of the company.

I am sure that the reading referred to was not the short test prep informational articles or excerpts of full-length texts as now are read in U.S. schools.

No longer is that slogan relevant. Not only is it both women and men that we expect to be in positions of leadership, but also now reading literature is no longer a priority in our Common Core culture.

Peter Greene, a veteran teacher and education blogger at Curmudgucation, wrote the following piece, The Core vs. Content, about the substantial reduction in the reading of literature due to the Common Core. He points out well the travesty it is that the U.S. is the only nation in the world to restrict the amount of literature to be read in schools. In addition to all the sad results that he mentions, U.S. students will also not learn to question and to think in ways that only the opportunity to interpret literature offers them. Poor them. Poor us as a nation.

The Core vs. Content

By Peter Greene

Since the Core first popped its tiny head out of its crinkly shell, advocates have insisted that CCSS ELA standards, demand rich content. Meanwhile, I have become increasingly convinced that the demands for rich content and the assertions that rich content must be part of Core implementation rise up precisely because the Core actually has a giant gaping hole where rich content should be.

In other words, rich content Core-o-philes are like guys looking at an automobile with no wheels saying, “Well, obviously the makers of this car intend for us to put on wheels.” It’s not that the wheels are in evidence; it’s that their absence is an obvious fatal flaw. Or to put it another way, surely the emperor must mean for us to buy him some clothes.

But the longer the Core sticks around out in the field, the more obvious it becomes that the Core is anti-content– particularly once you throw in the Core-based standards-measuring Big Standardized Tests.

Consider this article, written by someone whose intent is to show us how the Core is perfectly swell, even as it explains that part of the swellness is how it “eases literary classics to the sidelines.

Consider some of these quotes:

“It is true that the days for ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Great Expectations’ might be numbered, but the question that teachers have to ask themselves is ‘What is the purpose of reading this text?’” said Mark Gardner, a high school English teacher in Clarke County, Washington.

“While it may seem like sacrilege, there are many goals that can be achieved by digging deeply into a series of well-curated selections of a text rather than all of it, and then relying on teacher lecture, lessons or even Sparknotes to fill in the gaps,” Gardner said in an interview.

 As an AP English and composition teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ambereen Khan-Baker has included political cartoons and shorter, more complex texts while cutting out longer novels. Using multiple texts instead of focusing on one book has allowed her to teach diverse opinions.

The article is presenting, uncritically and with a light tone of  “you old fossils need to understand the new, cool way of doing things,” the idea of trimming the classics down to a chapter or two. I’ve encountered this more than a few times– cover a couple of key chapters in depth and fill in the rest with a summary or even, I swear, sparknotes. 

Making such changes could be a positive thing if it provides students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and the skills that can be applied to reading non-fiction, according to Gardner, who said that is a key reason the classics are taught in the first place.

This is what the Core promotes and requires– reading as a conduit for transmitting certain skills to students, and because it’s teamed with the BS Tests, the skills do not include wrestling with full-length texts in any sort of depth. And apparently we can’t think of any reason that classics are classic and need to be taught. Because it’s easier to work on relevant themes and skills by folding in current YA hits.

Look, there’s a whole worthwhile (and generally unending) conversation to be had among language-teaching professionals about the canon and what should be in the canon and what makes a classic classic and why we teach anything that was written before our students were born and how we should teach it. But the Core’s contribution to that conversation is to say, “Screw content. Just teach them the skills they need for the test.”

When I write lesson plans and plug in the standards, it makes absolutely no difference what actual content I’m teaching– the standards are completely divorced from content and I can recycle the same standards-aligned plan over and over again, just plugging in some piece, any piece, of reading.

And in turns of getting great “student achievement” results (aka high test scores) I could spend the whole year having students read nothing but newspaper extracts and single pages ripped from any current fiction. If I totally lost my mind and any sense of why I actually became an English teacher, I could crank out students with great BS Tests scores who knew absolutely nothing about the literature, history and culture of their own country (or any other).

The article closes with another quote from Gardner: “We don’t read books in school so we can write papers or do projects about that book; rather, we read books in school so we can more deeply understand all of the texts – books, blogs or advertisements – that we will face beyond school.”

I think Gardner is half right– we don’t read books in school just to do projects or papers. But if we only read in school so that we can practice skills we’ll need to read things later in life, what will we be reading those works later in life for? If there are no riches to be found in Great Expectations orHamlet or The Crucible or Song of Solomon or To Kill a Mockingbird, why read them just to get some practice with reading skills? If they have nothing to say to any of us about understanding what it means to be fully human and more fully ourselves, if they have nothing to tell us about the human experience as it has unspooled throughout human history, if they have nothing to say about the power of language to communicate across the gaps that separate us, if they have nothing to say about culture, if they have nothing to say about the rich heritage of the English language, if they have nothing to say about understanding the universal and the specific in human life, about how to grow beyond our own immediate experience– if they are, in fact, nothing more than fodder for test prep, then what the hell are we doing?

The article sets out to address the effect of the Core on the classics, but it only addresses the question of how much the standards push in non-fiction and many, multiple short texts. What the article does not address is how the Core assaults the very notion of why we bother to teach reading or writing or literature in the first place. Instead, like so many Core-ophiles, it assumes that such an assault is appropriate. Rich content fans are correct to believe that the empty head and empty heart at the center of the Core screams out to be filled with real study of real literature, but they are missing the fact that the Core itself thinks that vast emptiness is a good thing, a feature instead of a bug.