Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dear Reformies: Please stop speaking for my children.

(Updated with quotes: 11/4/2012)
“I love teachers – effective teachers," she told a smaller group of lawmakers and educators that day. "No one has a harder job than an inner-city teacher. There is nothing more noble than working as a teacher.
But if you raise some of these issues you are labeled 'anti-teacher' or a 'union-buster.' I'm not a union buster. But teachers have a very effective organization lobbying on their behalf. I want to be effective representing the other side, our children.”
-Michelle Rhee 

"In the 21st century, public schools need the kind of innovation that private firms like Google, Twitter, and Apple exemplify (just as there's room for innovation from non-profits like CK12 or Khan Academy). For the sake of our children, it's time to open our minds, move past ideology, roll up our sleeves together, and get to work."
-Joel Klein 

To all of the Chris Arnolds, Michelle Rhees, and Joel Kleins  out there:

How many kids do you have? How many are in the public schools? How many kids have you taught? I ask because I am a teacher and am a parent with actual children in public schools and I haven't seen any evidence that the policies you endorse are helping students or helping my children. In fact, I see that the policies you support are harmful: harmful to public schools, harmful to quality education, harmful to students, harmful to my children.

I understand that you don't agree. That you probably believe in the mission of the industry you work for (though not, apparently, enough to tell anyone that you work in said industry). That's fine (though I'd love to know how many kids you have actually, verifiably, and concretely helped by touting the the policies you do). I think your beliefs are misinformed, but everyone has beliefs and, for better or worse, many of them aren't the same as mine.

I understand that you and your superiors and fellow education reform industry leaders  have a living to make. Peddle your gadgets and your software. Be an education consultant or a professional development vendor. Run your "education reform" organization. Add to the ranks of the over-sized lobbying industry. Be a PR flack. Continue the proliferation of "failing" schools, but make a tidy profit at it, too. Raise your money. Make your living. Help politicians to make a living. I could never look at myself in the mirror doing what you do, but that's just me. Everyone needs to make a living, especially writers. After all, who gives "crap" about creativity when the kiddies can't read, right?

But there is a role you seem confused about. See, you represent an ideology. You work for a company or an organization or contributors. You represent them. You don't represent kids and you certainly don't represent my kids. So stop acting as if you speak for my children. Stop ruining their education in their name. You don't know my children. You don't live in my community. You don't work or volunteer in the schools my children go to. You're not helping my children, their peers, or their teachers (not even the excellent ones). You don't know what's best for them and their education. I represent my children. I speak for them. My children speak for themselves. I know them and their teachers know them. And from what I can tell and what they experience, your ideology is all wrong for them and their education. If you have them, you can speak for your own children. If you don't, well, promote your ideology and your business in your name.

Don't you dare promote it in the name of my children or in the name of their education.

Yours truly,

Rachel Levy

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Virginia, the Bigotry of Crude Expectations

Recently (or not so recently by the time I'm posting this), the state of Virginia was granted a waiver from NCLB requirements. This has been a relief for many, but it's also caused further stress, in that it exchanges one yoke for another. Fairfax County, for example, had no plans to evaluate their teachers according to the standardized test scores of their students, but now is being required to due to conditions of the waiver.

However, because the goals in the waiver application for some children are lower than for others, there have also been cries of low expectations and racismVirginia has since re-written their goals. Certainly, we should not have one set of expectations for one set of children and a lower one for another set simply based on their socio-economic status or race--the outcry is understandable. 

But, to me, those folks have got their eyes on the wrong prize. If boosting scores on low-quality multiple choice tests is their greatest educational goal for Virginia's children, then they've got very low and crude expectations in the first place, and our schools and our children will only rise so high as the low and crude expectation that have been set.

This past summer, I finally read Linda Darling-Hammond's great work, The Flat World and Education. From that, it's clear that Virginia schools also need "adequate funding and equitable opportunities to learn" and "intelligent, reciprocal accountability:"
In the current prevailing paradigm in the United States, accountability has been defined primarily as the administration of tests and the attachment of sanctions to low scores. Yet, from the perspective of children and parents, this approach does not ensure high-quality teaching each year, nor does it ensure that students have the courses, books, materials, supports services, and other resources they need to learn. In this paradigm, two-way accountability does not exist: Although the child and the school are accountable to the state for test performance, the state is not accountable to the child or school for providing adequate educational resources.
Furthermore, test-based accountability schemes have sometimes undermined education for the most vulnerable students, by narrowing curriculum and by creating incentives to exclude low-achieving students in order to boost test scores. Indeed, although tests can provide some of the information needed for an accountability system, they are not the system itself. Genuine accountability should heighten the probability of good practices occurring for all students, reduce the probability of harmful practice, and ensure that there are self-corrective mechanisms in the system--feedback, assessments, , and incentives--that support continual improvement. 
If education is to actually improve and the system is to be accountable  to students, accountability should be focused on ensuring the competence of teachers and leaders, the quality of instruction, and the adequacy of resources, as well as the capacity of the system to trigger improvements. In addition to standards of learning for students, which focus on the system's efforts on meaningful goals, this will require standards of practice that can guide professional training, development, teaching, and management at the classroom, school, and system levels, and opportunity to learn standards that ensure appropriate re sources to achieve desired outcomes. (p. 301)

In Virginia, many make the mistake of using "achievement" and "test scores" interchangeably, as if that's all achievement is. What about research papers, essays, and creative and analytic writing? What about works of art and musical performances? What about science projects, spelling bees, reading olympics, robotics contests, debate clubs, student government, conflict resolution, and mini-UN? What about vocational education? What about teacher-generated assessments and tests? What about looking at the education of ALL of Virginia's children like this Virginia superintendent does? Oh right, subjects beyond reading and math are not important, especially not for low-income children and children of color who need to get their math and reading test scores up before they can engage in rich and meaningful learning. For sub group students, it's "test scores" as "achievement" first and only. 

As long as policy makers and pundits continue to conflate "achievement" with "test scores," and as long as the public accepts that, the achievement gap will remain. As long as opportunity and equity gaps remain, so will the achievement gap. Excluding students who struggle to score high enough on low-quality standardized tests from participating in rich and meaningful learning and making test scores the currency of our public education system is the lowest expectation of all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What's with many Democratic Party leaders supporting people who support people who support destroying the Democratic Party?

I'm going to steal a page out of Diane Ravitch's blogging book (stylistically).

I'm still having a hard time understanding education reform politics.

I do not understand how Democrats and progressives put up with self-proclaimed liberals and liberal groups such as Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Democrats for Education Reform.

I wrote about this before, although not as directly as I am going to here.

All of the afore-mentioned groups and individuals either give money to or make money for or support Republican politicians and organizations. See here, here, here, here,  here, here, and here.

These candidates are anti-women's rights, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant.

So Campbell Brown wants to help protect students from teachers who are sexual predators and who are protected by unions (just for the record, I believe that is anti-union propaganda). Okay. But what if a teacher has sexual intercourse with a student (which I agree is a fireable if not criminal offense) or if a student is raped by a teacher and then gets pregnant? Campbell Brown's husband (Romney adviser Dan Senor) and Michelle Rhee (who Scott supports) give money to or want to elect some people who belong to the party that would force the targeted/raped student who got pregnant to have the teacher offender's baby.

Also, they are working to elect people who don't accept homosexuality and don't want to protect homosexual students from bullying.

And, they are endorsing anti-immigrant candidates.

And what about the threats that GOP-endorsed legislation poses to voting rights?

On what planet does it make sense for the DNC and high-profile Democrats, such as Barack Obama, to support these groups and people? How is it that they get to call themselves Democratic allies and liberals when they are actively supporting people who want to destroy the Democratic Party and dis-empower their supporters?

UPDATE (2:30 pm): Also, don't Democratic donors to and supporters of SFC, SF, and DFER realize that when they support and give money to these organizations, they are helping GOP candidates who are part of an anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-reproductive rights platform. Why would they want to work to elect people with those views?

I am not asking these questions facetiously; I really don't get it. What is it that I am missing? Someone please explain it to me.

Monday, August 20, 2012

When the Common Core ELA Standards = Teaching Reading Strategies 2.0

This week, I have another post on the Core Knowledge Blog, this one about the Common Core,  complex text, and teaching reading strategies. It seems that some Common Core advocates are operating on the assumption that complex text is something you can explicitly teach kids to read. I see this as the same old reading strategies approach to literacy that hasn't been fruitful with the current reading standards. Until we change how we approach developing literacy (beyond decoding) differently, struggling readers will continue to struggle, no matter the standards:

Although I’ve been critical of the Common Core Standards, that they focus on reading strategies was not one of my criticisms; to the contrary, that they emphasized content knowledge, a greater study of literature, and more and more complex writing were selling points. But this account makes the Common Core ELA Standards sound as if they areskill-heavy, or at least that teachers are being guided to implement them as if they were. The problem is you can’t really teach something like “text complexity” any more than you can teach something like the “main idea.” Just because the texts are more “complex” doesn’t make using them in the place of simpler texts a superior approach or any different from the reading strategies approach. Apart from the acknowledgement that all teachers have to teach vocabulary (agreed), there’s no nod to background knowledge or context in Headden’s post. And even teaching vocabulary doesn’t do much good if it’s taught in isolation, though certainly explicitly teaching the meaning of morphemes can help students to build and make meaning of vocabulary.

Read all of it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

So You Think You Can Be an Entrepreneur?

A couple of months ago, there was a twitter exchange between Diane Ravitch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's press secretary Justin Hamilton about entrepreneurship. Ravitch blogged about it here and there was an especially good summary of it on an Ed Week blog here.

My own tweet was:

Certainly some teachers are entrepreneurial and we should encourage and even teach students to think entrepreneurially (see this amazing project Chad Sansing did with his students). Entrepreneurship plays a unique and needed role in our country, though we should be certain to teach students to be ethical at the same time--to avoid being greedy, avoid treating workers badly, and to not dodge paying taxes

But really, teachers are not entrepreneurs and Diane Ravitch most certainly isn't one (no offense, Diane!). On the contrary, teachers should be intellectuals and thinkers. Indeed a piece in The New Republic, embracing the bill that would eliminate continuing contracts (aka"tenure") in Virginia, putting teachers on one-year contracts, was disturbing as Ravitch said because it's based on the premise that teachers don't have ideas that need protection, that they aren't intellectuals as higher education academics are. Since the majority of K-12 teachers are women, this assertion has a sexist ring to it. However, I mostly find these assumptions and conversations disturbing because they are anti-intellectual. They totally disregard the idea of education as an intellectual endeavor and of teaching as intellectual work.

These ideas also seem rather anti-entrepreneurial. It's a one-size-fits-all concept, that we can fix education by every teacher and educator becoming an entrepreneur. Being a successful entrepreneur--one with a truly original and workable idea--is rare. And now all of these reformy education types are calling themselves entrepreneurs. Are you kidding me?! On what planet does making your greatest goals that all kids will score the same way on the same unreliable tests make you an entrepreneur? That aspiration and the rigidity that accompanies it is not "innovative" or "revolutionary;" it's dreary, dull, and uninspired. So much of current education reform takes the creative, ingenious, critical, and curious elements of the human spirit and just crushes them. Now, I don't believe this is the intent, it's a side effect, but it's a huge, deal-breaking side effect. Furthermore, those who brush aside or ignore such consequences show they fundamentally misunderstand how education and learning works in the first place and hence show they don't belong in the classroom or in any sort educational leadership role.

Then there are the cases where the goals of entrepreneurship conflict with what should be the goals of education, and are achieved successfully at the expense of a rich and meaningful education. For example, the Rocketship schools model is a very entrepreneurial idea: achieve greater efficiency by using more computers to teach kids the content of standardized tests. The adults that run and work for Rocketship make more money; the software, computer, and testing companies profit more than they would; and the government and taxpayers save money. Now I don't think it's a bad idea to have kids practice basic math facts or basic geography facts (see Stack the Countries, for example) on computers; on the contrary, teachers should have access to such tools and if they can cut costs and make better use of their time and expertise using them, so much the better. But with their narrow focus on math and reading and even narrower focus on boosting math and reading test scores (otherwise, they go out of business), I doubt that Rocketship's students are getting a very good education, and while the software they use may be so, Rocketship's instructional practices aren't particularly new or innovative.

So not only are we forgetting about the necessity of intellectuals and actual educators to a well-educated society, we are losing sight of what entrepreneurship means. Just because you call yourself an "entrepreneur" or "innovative" doesn't make it so. Giving central office bureaucrats ridiculous titles like "Chief Talent Officer" and "Success Initiative Portfolio Manager" and "Teacher Effectiveness Systems Support Analyst" and "Director of Special Education Product Solutions" and "Knowledge Management Liaison" won't transform them (or the people who work under them) into entrepreneurs. You're just exchanging one type of evasive, empty jargon for another. They're still bureaucrats, only many of them don't seem to even be good at managing a bureaucracy. Furthermore, just because entrepreneurs are successful at raising test scores or saving money doesn't mean the quality of education they are offering is any good or that their idea is good for students. 

If you want to try to be an entrepreneur, then go into business and product development! If that fails, go run a rental car franchise! Don't stick around education, making it dreadful and being an entrepreneur-wanna-be. It's pathetic. Too bad the amount of harm being done isn't.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What's With the Lack of Blogging

I have been a lame blogger the past couple of months. By way of explanation:

1) I've been applying for jobs. By "jobs" I mean work that I care about and like and that is paying. When I decided to take a break from the classroom to write, I gave myself a few years to study and be an apprentice of sorts. That time is up and, shockingly, I have received no offers to come be a master writer. I will certainly remain a writer and that will mean being a perpetual student of writing, but the apprenticeship is done. Unless I am doing it for my own edification or for someone or a publication that also does not make any money, I will not work for free or near-free. It just doesn't feel good and won't help sustain the profession for anyone.

Anyhoo, this all means I've been tweaking resumes, getting people who barely remember or know me to write me recommendations (sounds like a winning strategy, no?), struggling to write professional but not boring cover letters, and filling out the same information over and over again. This all takes time, especially when the process is punctured by rejections. Then I have to get through those and resolve to just work harder and to shut down the discouraged voice in my head. 

2) For both my husband, and our families, education is akin to religion. This past school year, we navigated as parents for the first time high-stakes testing. I hope to write more eloquently and in more detail about this at a later time but for now I'll say we felt powerless, helpless, and angry as we watched our children feel angry, anxious, and wiped out from the testing experience (despite everything their school and teachers did to make it as humane and positive an experience as possible), for the first time counting the days until the end of school. It's worse than what I remember experiencing as a teacher, though this may be because I have taught mostly high school and high school students are more equipped to deal with the long, boring, stressful tests than are eight-year-olds. Needless to say, I am more convinced than ever that high-stakes testing must go. I'm done with being nuanced here. High stakes testing is awful and it stinks and it's making my kids hate school. It's awful for the teachers, it's awful for the students, and it's awful for students' parents. The only people it's not awful for are those in the testing industry, those in the testing-as-education-reform industry, and those politicians who rely upon one or both of those industries . My husband and I both see great value in assessment and testing and tell our children that part of life is being bored and anxious sometimes and doing things you'd rather not. We believe that for the right reasons, that anxiety and stress can be productive. But McTests are not one of those reasons. Our children are smarter than those tests, are more curious than those tests, love knowledge more than those tests, and they deserve better than those tests, and so does every other child who is having their education ruined because of them. 

3) People close to you die, they get hurt, they end relationships, they move, they have celebrations. In light of those, your little old education blog and happenings that seem unrelated to your life become much less important.

4) Victoria Young once made the comment on a post of mine that: 

To have a conversation about how to "fix" what is broken with the education system, we actually have to put ourselves in position to have real dialogue. That doesn't happen when it takes place online only.....
I don't think she meant for me to, but I really took that personally, and it helped give me a good kick in the direction of re-prioritizing.

I took me a few months but I realize that I have grown tired of hearing myself talk and talk about the same things over and over again. I feel like I need to read more and to listen more and absorb more and think more and to do more. At a certain point all of this talk about education and education reform gets too meta, like I'm just talking above all of what's actually happening while it's happening without really knowing what's actually happening. Deep thoughts, I know. I love to think, talk, write education, but I'm not sure what or how much I'm helping any more. I'm trying to do a lot more reading and reflecting.

This is not to say I will not be blogging any longer. I have at least few more things to say, which I am working on, but I want to spend more time being useful, doing education rather than just talking education, and also perhaps find some time to focus on a bit more again on some of this writing and some of that writing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Defense of Non-fiction

The overarching Common Core vs. No Common Core and Core Knowledge vs. Balanced Literacy debates (see this New York Times articleand this Learning Matters segment) have spawned another debate: fiction vs. non-fiction. I think this misses the point and causes their critics to unfairly tarnish “non-fiction” as a genre. My apprehensions about the Common Core Standards aside, just as I defended the lecture several posts ago, I feel compelled to defend non-fiction.

In the creative writing communities I’ve been a part of, there is debate over how much attention to pay to labels such as fiction and non-fiction or poetry and prose. Many advocate for sticking to the designations but others find it needlessly restrictive. Writers will critique the work of other writers not on what it does or what they learn from reading it but on whether it has the proper label affixed to it. This is a good piece of work, but is this really poetry? To which I want to respond: Does it matter? Is that the most worthwhile thing to talk about here? Why get hung up on labels? Literature is literature. Because of the This American Life-Mike Daisey scandal, a similar questioning of David Sedaris’ work is being mounted, but Sedaris is not a scientist or journalist. Does it change his contribution to the understanding of humanity that he’s embellished or made some stuff up, that his work might include fictional accounts? Not in my mind, it doesn’t.

There is a fantastic interview in The Paris Review with John McPhee about his formative experiences as a high school English student, the writing life, being a non-fiction writer, and teaching writing. Here is an excerpt that reflects some of the debates that occur around discussions of labels and fiction vs. non-fiction:

Interviewer: Was there any significant change in terms of interest, or in the way that people viewed nonfiction writing? 
McPhee: The only significant change is that, in a general way, nonfiction writing began to be regarded as more than something for wrapping fish. It acquired various forms of respectability. When I was in college, no teacher taught anything that was like the stuff that I write. The subject was beneath the consideration of the academic apparatus.
Sometime during the eighties I was invited to do a reading at the University of Utah, and I accepted. And several weeks later, the person who approached me got back in touch and said he was really embarrassed and sorry. While he had wanted me to come to Utah and do a reading and talk to students, his colleagues did not. They didn’t approve of the genre I write in. I wrote back to him and said that I really appreciated his wanting me to be there. And certainly I didn’t feel anything toward him but gratitude, but as for his colleagues—when they come into the twentieth century I’ll be standing under a lamp looking at my watch. 
Interviewer: What do you call the type of writing you do? Your course at Princeton has sometimes been called The Literature of Fact and sometimes Creative Nonfiction. 
McPhee: I prefer to call it factual writing. Those other titles all have flaws. But so does fiction. Fiction is a weird name to use. It doesn’t mean anything—it just means “made” or “to make.” Facere is the root. There’s no real way to lay brackets around something and say, This is what it is. The novelists that write terrible, trashy, horrible stuff; the people that write things that change the world by their loftiness: fiction. Well, it’s a name, and it means “to make.” Since you can’t define it in a single word, why not use a word that’s as simple as that?
Whereas nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast. I don’t object to any of these things because it’s so hard to pick—it’s like naming your kid. You know, the child carries that label all through life. 
Sound familiar? Non-fiction was, as science fiction is now (though in light of the recent New Yorker  "Science Fiction Issue," perhaps this is changing), a literary stepchild and remnants of that past disdain, of non-fiction as not being “serious” enough, remain. There are works of non-fiction that are great works and there are works of fiction that are junk. As a writer and voracious consumer of non-fiction, I bristle when critics of the Common Core disparage non-fiction as merely “instructional manuals” or “informational materials” (though, yes, kids need to learn how to read those, too. I, for one, would like for my kid to know how to read a bus schedule and dishwasher detergent directions). Non-fiction informs but it also contributes to our understanding of the human condition as much a fiction does.

As I said in my last post, it doesn’t help when CCS architect David Coleman diminishes fiction and student writing about “feelings," and requiring a fixed ratio of fiction to non-fiction is just as pointless as debating the worth of Sedaris' work based on the ratio of non-fictional to fictional accounts therein. So, yes, let’s beware of the Common Core, but let’s not dismiss non-fiction along the way. Two thoughtless assertions don’t make a thoughtful one.