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.

Monkey Business: The Failing Of Connecticut’s Children

The Connecticut SBAC scores will be released by the State Department of Education any day now. The scores will be low. You will be told that the low scores are because the SBAC tests are RIGOROUS and our students don’t measure up.

Don’t believe it.

First of all, the test can’t possibly be rigorous because the Common Core Standards on which the tests are based are vapid. The Common Core English Standards do not teach students to be thoughtful readers, deep thinkers, or effective writers so the SBAC exams do not measure those competencies.

Secondly, we have no idea if what is tested has predictability for the students’ future success in the next grade or college because no one checked with teachers in higher grades or with college professors to see what competencies students will need. The Common Core English Standards were written by makers of standardized tests and are comprised of what can be measured by those tests, not comprised of what students need to learn.

Lastly, even though the Common Core has a low intellectual bar, most students will fail the tests because the passing grades have been artificially set. Last November, before any students had taken the 2015 SBAC tests, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, representing Governor Malloy, signed an agreement that the 2015 SBAC tests would fail 59% of high school juniors in English, 67% of high school juniors in math, 56-62% of third through eighth graders in English, and 61-68% of third through eighth graders in math.

When the majority of Connecticut children are soon told that they are failures, it is not because some absolute measure with objective criteria determined that but because a test was designed to fail them.

By other criteria, Connecticut students are highly successful. For example, since 1992, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, has had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in the country, and Connecticut ranks 5th in the whole world, outranked by only three countries and the state of Massachusetts, in reading scores of 15 year olds on the international PISA test. And we as a state have accomplished all of that with the highest achievement gap in the country and without excluding our lowest performing students from participating in those tests. as some other competitors do.   Somebody, mostly our kids, are doing something right. Yet most of them will be deemed failures next week.

There is something very wrong with this picture.

I have worked with hundreds of Connecticut English teachers and am confident that they all could design tests that would fail 2/3 of their students. But I don’t know one teacher who would do it. That’s because they are educators and not politicians using manufactured test results to advance political agendas.

Those English teachers and I know how to design rigorous exams. We know how to teach so that all students who do what we ask of them and put out good effort each day in class will demonstrate competency on rigorous assessments. We also know that some of those students will perform in truly exceptional ways on the assessments and know that an occasional student will accomplish even more than we imagined and thrill us beyond our wildest dreams. We teach students the skills and then see how far they go with them. We teach for success.

Last January, I reviewed a midterm English exam with high school students who had just taken it. They had their graded exams on their desks along with a description of the competencies the exam asked of them. Those competencies were:

  • Asking their own complex and multi-layered questions as thoughtful inquiry.
  • Engaging in active and critical reading of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and films.
  • Thinking analytically as they independently interpreted challenging literary texts.
  • Thinking imaginatively as they made connections between a historical or fictional character and their own lives and creating a persona to write about that connection.
  • Engaging in narrative thinking as they told the story of their own learning.
  • Collaborating with others in order to strengthen their own interpretations and evaluations.
  • Writing essays which demonstrated their ability to revise and strengthen a piece over time as well as writing essays in a timed classroom setting.
  • Using correct grammar and usage.
  • Demonstrating focus, energy, and passion as they prepared for and participated in the two-hour exam.

Those students knew their exam was rigorous. Those students had been taught how to succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. Those students, therefore, did succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. After comparing their exams to the list of competencies, the students ascertained their strengths and determined what they needed to work on in the next semester. And, for sure, these students knew they were not failures.

Not so when the SBAC scores come out. Most students will consider themselves failures. Or, perhaps, the Connecticut State Department of Education will do what the state of Washington did and lower the passing grade to keep educators and parents quiet about the low test scores. Either way, the message of SBAC hurts kids. Either way, SBAC is not about teaching and learning. The truth is: The SBAC test is political monkey business.

It is our job as citizens and parents to tell students the truth about SBAC. It is our job as educators to keep teaching and assessing students in real and honest ways.

Otherwise, we adults are the failures.

Governors vs. Teachers

Some people know about K-12 education and some people don’t.

Governor Christie is one of the people who doesn’t have a clue about K-12 education or what it means to teach.  He thinks that teaching is just giving information to students.  He thinks that teachers stop working when the students leave on the school bus. He thinks that teachers are not spending the summer taking grad courses in their academic disciplines,  not writing curricula for their school district, not teaching other teachers, and not participating in professional development programs for themselves or conducting them for other teachers.

A person who does understand education and what it means to teach because she does it every day is a New Jersey English teacher who wrote a reply to Governor Christie. 

Things are similar in Connecticut.  Next to Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut are recognized as having the best schools in the country.  Secondly, we in Connecticut also have a governor who speaks about education without understanding education. We also have legions of teachers who work as hard and love their jobs as much as the English teacher from New Jersey does. Let’s raise our voices as educators. Let’s set the record straight. 

Watch the video to hear Governor Christie:

If you cannot see the video, here is a direct link to the video on YouTube.

Here is the teacher’s response. Full text is at: (https://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/appalled-and-disheartened-governor-christie-how-dare-you): 

Governor Christie: Let me start by getting something out of the way: I do not get paid a full-time salary for a part-time job. I am a teacher, not a leech on the rest of the state. How dare you?……..This is such a highly offensive conversation. I recognize the satire in the original speaker’s questions, but Governor Christie?

Feel free to follow me for a year. Follow my colleagues.

I am not “off for four or five months a year”. ln fact, my summer “break” this year is from June 23-Sept 2. That’s not four or five months; it’s approximately 10 weeks.

Secondly, during those hours after 3:30pm and during the summer? I’m often working. I plan, I attend PD on my own time and my own dime, I email parents, I teach PD, I purchase supplies, I update our class webpage, I speak with students over email and social media.

I grade. I grade a lot, Mr. Christie. A LOT. I just finished grading a set of almost 80 poems. I have 80 3-4 page self-evaluations to read and grade. I will have almost 100 exams to grade in the next few days. I have to complete the data analysis for my SGO. But I guess I have to make time to get all of that stuff done from 8:30-3:30 while I’m teaching and interacting with students.

And that long summer break you talk about? Not really a break. I will spend most of my summer working in order to continue paying my bills. I will also do the following:

  • take classes for my advanced degree.
  • teach other teachers and informal educators at the “Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies” workshop.
  • plan for my new schedule- next year I will change my freshman focus and take on two new senior units. That means rereading books, drafting assignments, writing assessments, setting up our online spaces, finding resources, planning Skype sessions with experts, rewriting my syllabi, co-planning with colleagues, and much more.
  • complete the summer-long Roots & Shoots Turning Learners into Leaders: Empowering Youth Through Service in Education course offered by the Jane Goodall Institute.
  • organize and sort my thousand+ book class library (most of which I have purchased myself and continue to supplement on a monthly or even weekly basis).
  • read at least a book a day in order to be able to share new and exciting books and authors with my students next year.
  • pre-plan the first National Honor Society outreach with my student leaders so that they are ready in the fall.
  • organize and set-up my classroom, prior to the first teacher work day, as I will have meetings and mandatory professional development in the days leading up to the students’ first day.
  • meet with my state board for NJCTE to plan our fall conference, fall outreach, and spring conference in order to bring more PD to my colleagues who teach English across the state. complete my presentations (yes, multiple) for the NCTE National Convention in the fall.

I don’t know about you, but that seems packed to me. And many of my colleagues have similarly packed breaks, with professional commitments and learning engagements that run through the entire summer. Why? Because during the school year we are in the building for 7, 8, 9, 10, maybe even 12 hours each day. Then we bring work home with us to continue working on late into the night.

Please understand- I love my job. I love my students with a fierceness you obviously don’t understand. I can’t imagine not teaching every day, reaching out to students and guiding them. But I abhor the politics that now surround my profession. And I’m tired, we are all tired, of teachers being the sacrificial lamb at that altar of some politician’s attempt to climb to the top.

We are tired, Governor, but we keep working. We keep inspiring, motivating, and teaching our students while doing all of the other “stuff” that comes with teaching. Do you or your wife ever email your child’s teacher and get a reply that same night? That’s a teacher who is working outside of contracted hours. Have you had a child sit with a teacher during lunch, before school, or after school for extra help? That’s outside of contracted hours. And do you know what? Most of us do that almost daily because we love our jobs and our students more than we hate the system we are stuck in.

The good news is that I do agree with you on some points, Mr. Christie– many of our schools in NJ are doing well. In fact, we have some of the best students, schools, and teachers in the country. Consider my school, which is ranked #1 in the country. It’s right here in central NJ but it’s a school you have never acknowledged or visited during your tenure in office. That saddens me. That’s not fair to my students or my colleagues because you continue to say our students are not succeeding when outside sources disagree.

You and I also agree that some schools in NJ struggle. They do a disservice to the students they serve in some cases. That’s a fact that we can all recognize. Schools in Asbury Park, Camden, and Newark absolutely struggle and it’s wrong; the students in those schools deserve the best education possible. But guess what? All three cities you named, Mr. Christie, are state-controlled and/or monitored districts. Isn’t their “failure” a reflection of your tenure in office and your leaders and not the teachers in the trenches?

Also, the schools that are ranked the lowest in our state are ranked the highest in a few big categories. Where are they ranked #1? In poverty, Mr. Christie. Study after study has proven that the biggest hurdle for children is poverty. We will never “fix” a single school until we start to fix the cycle of poverty.

Also, stop citing that community college statistic. The vast majority of community college attendees are not traditional students. In fact, the mean age of students at Mercer County College, about 20 minutes west of me and the community college serving the Drumthwacket area, is 22 years old. This is true across the state! These non-traditional students have been out of high school for a number of years so yes, they might need remedial classes. Could you walk into an Algebra II class or a college writing class tomorrow and succeed without a bit of review? I doubt it. I doubt most adults could. Let’s be real- we all watch adults struggle to answer questions on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”! It’s not because they can’t do the work but rather because they haven’t done a trigonometry problem in a number of years. Mr. Governor, that statistic is nonsense so please stop using it.

You are not a teacher, Governor Christie. Stop speaking authoritatively about all the things wrong with schools and what you would do to improve them. It’s insulting to those of us who work with our students every single day. It’s insulting to the teachers you had, the teachers your children have, and the taxpayers in this state who trust their children to the care of schools each day. You talk about teachers standing at the front of the room and lecturing to students for hours at at time and that tells me just how out of touch you are. I haven’t seen desks in rows with a teacher lecturing in the front of the room for many, many years. That has not been a best practice for decades!

Oh wait, you know when I see that? When my students have to take the PARCC test! I see it when schools force their teachers to use a scripted curriculum, often endorsed by the state, in order to encourage increases in test scores. Stop mandating nonsense like PARCC and let us teach our students. We know more than you do, I can promise you that.

You know where else I see those dreaded rows? In charter schools. In fact, I see that in your friend Eva Moskowitz’s Success charter schools, where students are routinely humiliated and the teacher turnover rate is astronomical. You know what I do not see in her charter schools? Students with disabilities and students with behavior issues. Charter schools like Success usually achieve their test scores because they do not serve our neediest populations, while our public schools do.

Mr. Governor, I implore you to take a step back and listen to yourself. Listen to your constituents. Listen to the nation. You are tearing down our teachers on a daily basis and we are tired of it. We are exhausted. Eventually most teachers won’t have the energy to fight anymore or to teach anymore. Maybe that’s what you want, but it’s not what’s best for the future of this state. You might plan to flee New Jersey and head to Washington, DC the first chance you get, but I’m here for the long haul. Maybe you should start seeking out great teachers (they aren’t hard to find) instead of berating us, demeaning us, and embarrassing us. What will you do when no one wants to teach anymore?