Monthly Archives: January 2013

I Wish I Could Tell You

Dear Parents:

I wish I could tell you that the letter grades and all the test data that I have spent hours over the last week compiling and entering onto your child’s report card mattered to me. I wish I could tell you that those numbers and letters are the best indication of what your child is learning in my classroom. I wish I could tell you that by looking at your child’s scores as compared to “benchmarks”, I know exactly what your child has learned so far and what he or she needs to learn in the second half of the school year. But, I can’t do that.

The letter grades that I am required to give (with an admonition to not inflate grades) and the testing data that I am required to report honestly are there simply because I am required to report it. Of course, you have seen tests come home with grades on them and you’ve seen work come home that isn’t graded as well. Of course, I KNOW what your child knows, but it’s not because we’ve spent the last two weeks assessing your child.

I know your child because I have had the distinct honor and privilege to have your child call me “teacher” and because you have trusted me with your precious child every school day. I know your child because we TALK to one another. We have actual conversations. We problem solve together. We ask questions together. We find answers together. Sometimes, your child hugs me exactly at the moment I need it, and sometimes I hug your child at exactly the right time too.

I can tell you how much your child has grown academically, but more importantly how much your child has grown as a person. Perhaps your child is one who wouldn’t stand and speak for Show and Tell in September – now your child is enthusiastically sharing! Perhaps you spoke to me about your concerns that your child had some “behavior issues” last year – now your child is part of a classroom community and those issues are gone. Perhaps your child was a little afraid of giving a wrong answer – now your child knows that we all make mistakes and that’s a sign of learning. As I tell them, if I had given up on riding a bike the first time I fell, I’d have never learned.

So, as you look at the report card that comes home, remember that your child is so much MORE than some letters and numbers! Your child is special and unique and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Rush and Rush

“Childhood should be a journey, not a race.” I have a tote bag with this quote that I sometimes carry back and forth to school. I bought it several years ago at an SDE conference for teachers of primary grades. I BELIEVE this completely. However, childhood AND teaching have become a dreadful RACE to the TOP.

There is pressure put on students and teachers to reach a nebulous standard by the end of grade. For example, all Kindergarten students MUST be reading at a Level D (as leveled by Fountas and Pinnell) by June. Why? Well, because you see, there is ‘research’ that says if they are not on “grade level” by the end of grade 3, they are doomed.

I hardly believe THAT. I know that students whose reading lags behind some set of ‘norms’ may have to work harder, but I refuse to give up on them. I refuse to believe that if students are not reading at some “set” level by the end of third grade they will NEVER do well in school or later on, in life. I also refuse to believe that any child not on a prescribed “level” at the end of any primary grade should be retained. However, that is exactly the discussion we’re having at my school, and I imagine the discussion that’s happening all across the nation. Why is it that we can throw out or dismiss research that shows retention is just as bad?

Just as students are being forced to rush into work that they are not developmentally ready to do, teachers are being asked to rush and rally around paced curriculum. How lucky for us, right? The state of NY and the crafters of the CCSS have taken all the guess-work out of how to PACE our curriculum, our days, our year. Let’s ignore the fact that none of this is coming from educators. Let’s ignore the fact that much of what’s in the CCSS and the paced curriculum is developmentally inappropriate. Let’s ignore the fact that traditionally trained teachers (not TFA boot camp grads) have spent hours learning about child development and curriculum development. Let’s ignore the fact that good teaching and learning is NOT a “paint by the numbers” activity. Let’s ignore the fact that NOT one student or teacher should be standardized.  Let’s ignore that each and every child that enters our classrooms is a UNIQUE individual. More important than any of that ‘nonsense’ is keeping up the pace, because this will somehow magically make it certain that students will score well on FLAWED tests.

As if that wasn’t stressful enough, teachers in my school are now scrambling to assemble a collection of “artifacts” for review as part of our APPR plan. We need to find evidence of parent communication, reflection on our teaching, reflection on our students’ learning, evidence of continued professional development, and logging all our calls to parents to produce continued contact with parents.

The result? Well, school is no fun for students. Teaching is no fun for teachers. But, hey, all we have to do is live and die, right?

The Greatest Gift

Today I got a letter from a mom of one of my students. Her husband is deployed in Afghanistan and she and her son came to our district for what we thought would be one school year. Her husband will be coming home sooner than they thought, and they are leaving our district at the end of the month. She wrote:

“I want to thank you very much for teaching our son. You have been a blessing in his life more than you know. Going through deployments is not easy, but when he has teachers like you it means the world to me and his father…so thanks from the bottom of my heart.”

In the madness of scheduling an observation, doing assessments, and finishing up the quarter’s grading this small paragraph brought tears to my eyes. A colleague that got a similar note from this mom came to my room and said to me “If you have ever doubted what you do for kids, this should let you know that what you do is life-changing for your students and their parents.”

So, let them measure me with test scores and value added and zone of proximal development. I have far better and far more meaningful PROOF that I am valuable.

Won’t Back Down

The story of teachers in two schools in Seattle, WA who are refusing to give standardized tests, as well as the story of teachers in Hamburg, NY who refused a flawed and unfair APPR plan are stories that inspire me. I KNOW that it is mass resistance like this, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike that will have lasting impact on changing the course of the ridiculous high stakes testing mania in public schools.

I read and watch very public resignations by veteran teachers who are fed up and refuse to be part  of the testing machine. I share their stories, I talk about them to colleagues, and I secretly wish I could be one of them. Maybe you’re a teacher reading this and wishing you could be one of them too. Maybe you’re a parent or grandparent reading this and wondering why more teachers won’t do the same.

The reality is that for many of us, our incomes are the primary incomes for our families. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can sit back and say “Well, how nice for them, but I could never do anything like that.” Maybe we can’t quit – maybe our families need us to keep working in a system that is broken. Maybe we think that because we can’t do those things, we can’t do anything. NOT TRUE!

We CAN resist from within. We CAN start talking to our colleagues about the testing madness. We CAN refuse to spend our days subjecting our student to endless, mindless test-prep. We CAN refuse to send home packet upon packet of test prep material over a ‘break’. We CAN plan projects and lessons that aren’t scripted. We CAN have honest discussions with our administrators expressing our concerns about what our students are losing out on because of test obsession. We CAN find one other person who agrees and attend a rally, a meeting or stand together at a union or faculty meeting and speak the truth! We CAN refuse to let any data that the school collects define our students for us or for their parents. We CAN write letters to the editors of our local papers. We CAN meet with parents and discuss NOT test data, but what we know about their child and development. We CAN tell parents that it’s a great thing to opt their children out of high stakes testing. We CAN close our doors and let the little children PLAY! And, let’s face it, we CAN make any lesson or any activity ‘fit’ the CCSS if we have to. We’ve all done those “dog and pony show” for our observations, haven’t we? We CAN accept that if we are deemed “developing” instead of “effective” based on a ridiculous rubric, it’s not the end of the world. We CAN start talking about curriculum and textbook decisions with the power of what we know – what is developmentally appropriate for our students. We CAN say that we will NOT standardize our students or our teaching to meet anyone’s demands – especially the writers of the CCSS. We CAN demand that our state and national unions start supporting what’s good for our students and not what’s good for the corporate agenda.

Remember, every drop in the bucket fills it a bit more. You may be one drop compared to the CTU or the teachers in Seattle or Hamburg or those who have publicly quit, but you CAN be one drop that keeps filling the bucket of resistance!

NY’s Education Reform Commission Report

Well, after months of “hard work” Governor Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission has issued a 92 page report that details how NY will suddenly be “Putting Students First.” Does that title have anyone besides me noticing the similarities to Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” group?

What are the “grand plans” of our Governor to improve education in NY? Well, you can read the  full report, but I recommend skipping right to page 86, where the summary is show with a handy dandy Venn Diagram!

Allow me, if you will, to interpret just a few phrases in the report:

1. Raise the bar for entry into the profession. and Hold programs accountable to prepare teachers and leaders for the classroom and school.  – Randi’s idea that there be a “bar exam” to become a teacher is taking hold. Besides all the other costly testing and renewable certification that teachers now have to endure, there will be a ‘bar exam’. Get ready professors – they’re coming after YOU now! If your program doesn’t sufficiently prepare the next teachers, my guess is that you will have a negative VAM rating or perhaps could even be shut down. Of course, why worry – we have TFA and the Broad Foundation with their “boot camps” to train those teachers and leaders, right?

2. Recognize and reward teachers and principals – You got it – MERIT PAY! And I’m guessing that it will be based on student test scores. So, if you teach a grade or subject without a test, there are two possibilities: You will NEVER get merit pay OR the more likely – there will soon be a state test for you too!

3. Begin to restructure the school day and year by extending student learning time. –  Hey, I almost ‘get’ this one. We all know that there is some regression over the summer months, and that typically our students from low SES families regress the most. I honestly don’t have a problem with restructuring the school year to minimize this, BUT, I do wonder – where will all the air conditioning come from? Will this mean that our schools will no longer be saunas beginning in May? Will we have infrastructure changes so that students and teachers can be in a comfortable environment? Unless you’ve tried to teach in a room where the temperature is pushing 90 or 100, you probably don’t see the need for this.

4. Promote increased access to educational opportunities by encouraging school district restructuring through consolidation and regional high schools. – If you have ever visited any small K-12 rural school in NY, you know that there is indeed, something different about them. It is a tight-knit community of teachers, students, parents, administrators, and community. These schools are the jewels of many a small town in NY. No, they may not offer 15 AP classes, but for the most part, there are plenty of opportunities for students to explore a wide variety of classes and extra-curricular activities. Additionally, it is almost always the small, rural schools that pass their budgets with tax increases that some suburban schools find shocking. Why? Well, the school IS the town – without the school, the  identity of an entire community is gone.

I will leave the rest for you, dear reader, to interpret on your own. Perhaps you’ll find something “good” in this report. Perhaps you’ll be outraged. Whatever the case, if you have kids in schools in NY or teach in NY, you really SHOULD read this report.

Here is the official NYSUT response. Of course, I would be remiss to not include the AFT response   as well.

Occupy the Department of Education – April 4-7

I have just learned that my family plans for Spring Break have changed from a trip to a jam-packed Disney World to a visit with family in Washington, DC! I understand if some of you reading this don’t understand why on earth I would be excited about this – opting out of sun and warmth for a DC spring? I am SO EXCITED! Not only will I have the chance to spend time with extended family, but I will now be able to attend quite a bit of the Occupy the Department of Education!!

I was there last year. I was forever changed. I found that there were people like me who felt it necessary to say out loud that Race to the Top, emphasis on high stakes testing to evaluate kids and teachers, and narrowed curriculum are WRONG! I cannot wait to be in that group of like minded folks again!

Wondering what all the fuss is about? Check out all the details here!

Lessons Learned

It almost always seem strange to me to celebrate the coming a “New Year” in January, as for me the new year begins in September. However, this IS the time of year when many reflect on the year that has just ended, so it seems appropriate that I should do the same. Here are some of the lessons (in no particular order of importance) I learned in 2012:

  • I am not alone in my disdain for the overuse and misuse of Standardized Testing to evaluate students, teachers, principals and schools. It’s a bit scary at first, when you start to speak up and are met with blank stares and/or eye rolling, but if you hang in there long enough – people WILL listen! 
  • The CCSS are not based in reality and worse, not based in anything that lifelong educators know about child development! Of course, they may have been IF actual educators had been given any input.
  • Race to the Top is a thinly veiled attempt of the Obama Administration to impose a “National Curriculum” – something that is prohibited by the US Constitution.
  • Opting your child out of any tests that will be used to measure teacher effectiveness will NOT hurt your child or your child’s teacher or your school. Fear is a great deterrent, and to those parents who are on the front lines opting your children out of testing I say “Thank You!”
  • If you want to do ONE THING that will make you feel empowered, you MUST make every attempt to attend either: Occupy the Dept. of Education or a Save Our Schools event!
  • Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) is a great place to make connections with folks who are just as passionate as you about saving public education from the corporate reformers.
  • The Chicago Teachers’ Union is the example that ALL teacher unions should follow. We should be advocates for what’s right for kids!
  • VAM is a SHAM – enough said.
  • Facebook groups like “Dump Duncan” ,”Opt Out of the State Test: The National Movement”, “Wear Red for Public Ed” and “Teachers’ Letters to Obama” are pages you should like and follow. There is a wealth of information there from activists all across the US and the World!
  • Diane Ravitch is a tenacious advocate for public education and teachers. Her blog is daily “must read”.
  • An administrator can bully you, make you feel as if you have created some big local controversy – BUT there are ways to still have your voice heard. You may need to be “incognito” (which some may say is cowardice, but may be necessary) but you can still tell the TRUTH about reforms that are killing public schools.
  • Response to Intervention is nothing more than a way to delay services to students whom teachers can identify in the first weeks of school. The hoops you have to jump through and the progress monitoring are tedious, not needed and ultimately do NOT give struggling students the help they need in a timely manner.
  • NYSUT, AFT, and NEA are not working in the best interest of their members! It is time to find a way to reclaim our unions and make them work for US and for kids! If we could all be like CTU, there would be some major changes in the focus of teachers’ unions. I see it coming, and it may not be fast enough, but I think things will change.
  • Individually, we must decide what matters most to us and then find people of like mind. Using those connections, even a small group of people can have an impact.
  • I greatly admire veteran teachers who have publicly resigned, saying “Enough!” and while I wish that I could do the same, that isn’t the action I can take at this time. That doesn’t mean that I buy the reforms, but I am acutely aware that my income is my family’s main income and if we want to continue to eat and live indoors, I simply have to find different ways to be active.
  • While I may have had a setback in 2012, I’m looking forward to 2013 and any part I can play in the continuing fight for public education.