Category Archives: Education Reform

Teaching and Learning will still Suffer Despite Proposed “Flexibility” in NCLB

Since I have started teaching, I always welcome the first day of the year.  I never sleep the night before, but it is not an anxious time, it is an exciting time. I am even a little jealous of Track E teachers that get to start a month earlier than I.

The anxiety doesn’t come in September, but it usually begins in January, and that doesn’t have to do with the end of winter break, but rather a beginning of the “Testing Season.”  Testing Season, formerly known as “spring,” is the time of the year when all the really valuable learning that had been going on through December is then set aside for preparing students to take  high stakes exams.  These tests tests do not inform instruction – we do not see results until the following autumn- they only serve to incorrectly label what students in a certain zip-code cannot do.

It is a time-wasting disjuncture of the school year calendar that tells us nothing about what our students really know and really can do.  Teachers know this; students and parents know this.  However, it seems that the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan still doesn’t get it.

When Duncan announced that he will allow states to “waive” their No Child Left Behind requirements, I held my breath for the ball to drop.  Could it be?  The end of high-stakes testing?  The end of labeling our children and public schools as “failures?”

I don’t have much lung capacity, and actually, I didn’t have to hold my breath too long because a couple of paragraphs into the New York Times report I read that the only states that will get the waiver will be those states that have in put in place Race to the Top “accountability initiatives.”  Ah, Secretary Duncan, you never cease to disappoint my disappointment in you.  States are being let “off the hook” of a bad policy, just to be traded for a different bad policy that has negative effects on teaching and learning.”

For the better part of 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been decrying that Congress must re-authorize an “improved” version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) before the school year starts in August/September.   This past spring the National School Board Association prepared an excellent summary outlining the finer points of the Re-authorization of ESEA.

But Congress never got to meet about NCLB since so much time was sucked up by the “Financial Crisis of 2011,” leaving Secretary Duncan to make an unprecedented and unilateral decision to allow states to “opt-out” of NCLB requirements, the major one being that “100% of schools need to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by 2014,” if they implement education reforms to be announced in detail next month.

Everyone in the education world, Duncan included, is in agreement that achieving the goal set in motion in 2000 by President Bush is ridiculous at this point, and has been in many ways more damaging for students, schools and communities than it has been helpful.  Excellent schools across the nation are routinely labeled, “failing,” or put on “probation,” for not making improvements on high-stakes tests.  The Center on Education Policy reported in May that Adequate Yearly Progress made by schools was the lowest ever, with nearly 39% of all United States schools “failing,” and they report that the number is probably higher considering many states have changed their testing requirement since 2005.

Where the general public once did not have language to describe what was wrong with education in the United States, we now have labeled and categorized our children, and punished our public schools into education reform that resembles a scene from The Office.  We now use words like to “Accountability” and “Performance” to describe teaching and learning rather than words like “teaching” and “learning.”

In waiving out of NCLB, states will not waive out of accountability, according to Duncan.  The high-stakes testing craze created in response to the NCLB Act provided Americans with the evidence (“data”) for why reform needs to happen, but Duncan’s Race to the Top (RttT) federal incentive program, modeled after Chicago’s own Renaissance 2010 gave us the “how to” guide for  reforming education: give states money for implementing certain kinds of reforms- tying teacher evaluations to test scores, turning around low-performing schools, lifting restrictions on charter school proliferation, and adopting the Common Core State Standards, approved by (most of the United States’ governors).  Duncan is leaving these requirements for states intact, and in fact in the 2009 and 2010, forty states and Washington D.C. legislated versions of these changes in an effort to win some of the $4 billion plus Edu-money.  Hence the term, Race.

Though Illinois did not win one of the RttT grants in 2010 the General Assembly has lifted some restrictions on charter school proliferation, and is in the process of re-vamping teacher evaluations in the as-yet created Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 201o.  Illinois Senate Bill 7, made infamous across the nation by Stand for Children‘s Jonah Edelman’s anti-teacher union rant, enacted sweeping reforms in Chicago allowing the Mayor of Chicago to have even further control over lengthening the school day length and increasing class size.  Illinois might as well apply for the waiver, what have we to lose that we haven’t already?

The problem is that these kinds of reforms do not work to make schools better places to teach or learn.  We have seen across the nation that merit-pay for teachers based on their student performance on tests does not improve teacher morale and often leads to cheating on high-stakes tests.  Schools that get  “turned-around,” or  “charterized,” most often do no better and in some cases do worse than their public school counterparts in the same communities.

Educators and public schooling advocates, including Jonathon Kozol, Matt Damon, Diane Ravitch and Gloria Ladson-Billings among others gathered last week under the banner of Save Our Schools March with demands to end No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies, not to reform it.  “NCLB operates from a deficit learning model,” says Paul Gorski, founder of EdChange, “we can no more achieve justice by reforming NCLB.”  It’s time we invest in education reform that benefits teaching and learning.

Teachers need professional development that helps us develop curricula responsive to our students’ diverse needs.  We need principals who are instructional leaders, not just building managers.  We need full and equitable, no-strings-attached funding for all public schools.

The only real reform will come about when all schools are great places to teach and learn, and not test-factories.  Teachers know this; parents and students know this.   I just don’t think Duncan gets it.


Welcome to the Save Our Schools Conference Day I: Highlights of the Keynote speech by Jonathan Kozol

It is an exciting time to be a public school teacher!  If you are at the SOS Conference come say “hi,” if you are tuning in from elsewhere, please comment on posts and ask questions I can relay to others here.

Rick Meyer opened the Save Our Schools Conference with this statement.  “We don’t need another book, we need activism.”  Meyer also noted that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be present at the SOS March on Saturday.

Jonathon Kozol (standing ovation welcome from audience):

“We are gathered here to say these laws (RttT, NCLB) need to be abolished”

“Savage Inequalities are worse today than they were twenty years ago.”

“Unabated and increasing racial segregation”

“If the people who designed [high-stakes testing], wanted to create a reign of terror, they’ve been successful.”

“In spite of the juggernaut of propaganda, there is a rising tide of activism among teachers and students in the US.”

If you haven’t seen it yet: Stand for Children Co-founder describes Illinois take down of teachers and their unions. (YouTubeClip)

The original video of Jonah Edelman’s talk to the Aspen Institute is an hour long, but this version on YouTube is 14 min.

Talking Points
-Why StandforChildren got involved in the IL Nov 2010 elections
-Why Rahm pushed the “Longer School Day”
-What Edelman thinks of the organizational structure of the Union
-What Edeman thinks of Union leaders in IL
-What Edelman foresees happening in Chicago.
Then read Edelman’s apology letter he issued the next day on Fred Klonsky’s blog.

Save Our Schools March coming up soon!

Hello July; Here we come D.C. –

The Save Our Schools March is right around the corner, and the schedule looks amazing!  Educators from around the country will descend upon our capitol from July 28th-July 31st, in an effort to reclaim our status as the professionals in the public school classroom.  Ralliers are demanding an end to high-stakes testing, equitable funding for all schools, and  local decision-making when it comes to curriculum.

The event includes a conference on Thurs and Friday, July 28th and 29th, a March starting at the Ellipse on Saturday, July 30th at noon, and an Follow-up Congress on Sunday morning.  Planned speakers include Jonathon Kozol, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Pedro Noguera, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, and yes, even Matt Damon.

Are you attending?  What are you looking forward to?  What would you like to see come out of this?

You can register for the events here, if you haven’t already.

(On a side note, if anyone wants to car-pool from Chicago-land, please email me directly.)

On my Bookshelf: Three Recommended Readings on Schooling, Creativity, and Dignity.

Happy unofficial beginning to summer 2011 from steamy Chicago!  I think I have read more in this past school year, than in any of my previous years as a teacher. But with summer, comes new opportunities for rejuvenation through literature, and I hope to get some recommendations in the comments below.   In turn, I recommend the following three books for summer reading:

For a better education system: The Death and Life fo the Great American School: How Testing a Choice are Undermining America (Diane Ravitch)

For a better understanding of ourselves: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D)

For a better, stronger, community: Dynamics of Organizing: Building Power by Developing the Human Spirit (Shel Trapp)

If the above titles are any indication, I am not much for fiction reading, yet all three authors are vivid story-tellers in their own right and keep the readers attention as they intertwine personal story with global relevance. I leave the praise and scorn to the paid literary critics, but provide a little taste below as to why each of these books has influenced my daily life.

Much has already been said about Ravitch’s book.  She has become the new champion of educators in the classroom, touring the country and tweeting voraciously about the cultural hoax of high-stakes testing and corporate-style reform.  I learned from her book how we got to where we are now: how the educational standards movement in the 1980s and 90s was more-or-less high-jacked by a high-stakes Testing initiative spearheaded by publishing companies.

Smartly, she makes no apologies for being a part of that history, but rather she admits she made mistakes, and decidedly charts a new course, from where, in my opinion, Robinson starts his book.

The Element has been the book this year that I have quoted most to my friends, colleagues and students.  It is a story (not an instruction manual) of creativity and value.  Personal and societal value.  The premise is that 1) we need to value creativity in society 2) there are infinite ways to be creative and 3) we need to change schooling and learning to reflect the diversity of the learning process.

In many ways,The Element is a (hilarious) counterpart to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow (1990), the seminal book based on his research on Optimal Experience, the state of attention and motivation that makes us most happy, or  in a state of flow.  According to Robinson, it is a point at which we can all achieve.

While the first two authors are quite prolific in the mainstream and internet media, Trapp is a much less known name, but a man whose works have directly and indirectly influenced thousands across Chicago and the United States.  Trapp, one of the founders of the National Training and Information Center reflects on how his work in building coalitions in Chicago had helped individuals to create real, tangible changes, and build- less tangible but equally real and infinitely more important – dignity in those with whom he organized.

As I have become more in tune with the politics of organizing and teaching in Chicago, it is Trapp’s story that has had the largest emotional impact on my work.  I should be asking myself: Is what I am doing, helping to build dignity in __X__ ?  If I am not helping to build dignity in my students, their families, my colleagues, my building, or myself, I need to be rethinking how and why I am undertaking a task.

So I look forward to shared recommendations, and I wish all a reflective, rejuvenating summer.  Stay tuned, as I will be blogging through the heat.

A Longer School Day or a Better School Day?

Time is a valuable thing.  I often wish I had more of it.  I can pretty much say with confidence that you, Reader, probably wish you had some more too.

I don’t like to waste people’s time.  I don’t believe that any of us who engage in something we love want to either.  When I form my lessons, teach a classroom full of high school students, or present information to my colleagues, I don’t want others to wish they were somewhere else.  Learning is at its best when students are engaged.  Engagement can look like a variety of things: a student hard at work on his or her own composition, a thoughtful classroom discussion about ethics, participation in the school science fair, or designing an exercise regimen in P.E.

Teachers do not believe that what we teach is a waste of time.  We can engage students easily when things are important to us.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a  promise to deliver a longer school day and school year in Chicago.  This has proven to be overwhelmingly popular among non-educators, and isn’t even that un-popular with some teachers. Obviously, students aren’t crazy about it, but we’ll get to that later.

More time in the school has the potential to look like a lot of things.  Emily at RosieSays illustrates different ideas of what “57 more hours” each school year could look like and breaks out a meaningful number: 10 extra days of school a year.  Mayor Emanuel is envisioning more time for math.  I would like more time for civics, art, and health education.

But like the Academy Awards or tapeworms, “longer isn’t necessarily better.”  After a while, things deteriorate and can even become painful.  School is no exception.  When we start to solve schooling issues in Chicago from the position of lengthening the school day, we will create more problems than solutions because that time and money will have to be cut from something else.

By extending the school day length CPS will need to cut after-school programs, sports and clubs, and make-up credits (night school). Graduation rates will plummet (further) when we see that kids who can’t make up classes they failed the first time have no second chance to learn.

Outside of the classroom, students’ lives will deteriorate: students will need to quit their after-school jobs. They will get home much later in the evening.  The vast majority of Chicago students use public transportation to get to school. Many already start and end their day away from home without sunlight.  They will spend less time with their families, which we know won’t help a student to succeed in school.

School reform needs to start from the position of changing what we are already doing in schools with the hours that we are there.  When students are spending hours each month prepping for and taking tests that neither inform instruction nor ensure meaningful outcomes, then we are wasting our time and their time.

We don’t need a longer school day, we need a “Better School Day” replete with study hall, recess, fully resourced classrooms, and schools that don’t resemble prisons.  We need healthy meals and physical education that burns off enough of students’ energy to help them focus on writing and reading when they sit still.  We need theatre, music, and arts education so students have something to write and read about.  We need civic education to teach students how  to leverage power in the world, especially as they become adults.

I think if we saw these changes, we might see that 6 and a half hours each day (eight, when we include homework and studying) would be well-spent, resulting in young people ready for society by the time they graduate.

Education reform must begin and end with what and why we are teaching and learning.  Those who want to legislate longer school days without considering the logistics will realize the hard way that they are creating more problems, and wasting everyone’s time.

It leaves me wondering if youth will still be wasted on the young.

An Open Letter to Arne Duncan: Adopt an Education Bill of Rights

Secretary Duncan-

Thank you for your letter.  You make some good points.

But they often ring hollow as we are used to Reform Initiatives that teachers recognize as band-aids for a broken system.

Teachers do know what we need in the classroom for children to learn, and frankly we also know what our students need before they come into the classroom each morning.  Breakfast.  Enough sleep.  Safe communities in which to walk or ride to school.  A beautiful school building that appreciates creativity in the hallways, where I can walk by and hear band and orchestra practice or see my students paint a mural on the wall.  Luckily, my school does appreciate art.  I wish it were the case in every school I have had the pleasure of visiting.

Students need healthy meals at school.  Enough of this Corn-Syrup-laden prison food that makes them bounce off the walls when they get back to my class.

Students need safe places to play in and near school, help with homework, local mentoring and employment opportunities, and people to read to them before bedtime.

You are right about the narrowing effect of NCLB.  We have dumbed down our craft to a flacid set of “skills” that would do No Child Any Good once they graduate.

Last week, as I set up a make-shift triangle stand with which to balance a DVD-player in my classroom, I quietly proclaimed, “Thank you, Pythagorean Theorem,” and a student responded, “Wow, Mr. H.  I didn’t think you could use that after the tests in high school.”  No joke, Mr. Secretary.

But it is not enough to say to us teachers that should change their curricula. Policies other than NCLB must change too.  That will only happen in the courts after we establish a radical precedent.  We need to make a strong commitment to the youth of this country that their education in all its forms will be valued and protected as they grow and develop as young Americans.

In this climate of Edu-Reform, it is time for America to adopt an Educational Bill of Rights.  Please humor me to read my suggestions (This was part of my Master’s Thesis):

Teaching and Learning Partner’s Bill of Rights
I. All Teaching and Learning Partners have a right to a clean and safe environment in and around which learning takes place.
II. All Teachers and Students have a right to access information and informational resources useful and appropriate to the learning objectives at hand.

III. All Students have a right to a high quality school experience that appropriately addresses their needs.

IV. All Teaching and Learning Partners have a right to a class size that is developmentally appropriate.

V. All Teaching and Learning Partners have a Right to equitable and appropriate funding for education.

VI. All Students have a right to have access to adults with expertise in adolescent psychological and socio-emotional health.

VII. All Teaching and Learning Partners have a right to affordable and high-quality health care.

 Mr. Secretary, I will be willing to start a new relationship with you, if you are willing to push this agenda in good faith to Congress and/or the President.
I will even write a Thank You letter at the beginning of Gov’t Officials Appreciation Week.
Thanks for reading.  I am going to grade some papers.
I look forward to your comments, Mr. Secretary.
And everyone else :-)
This is what it will take to restore Dignity to our American Education System.

IL Senate Edu-Reform Bill Hard to Swallow

Recently an Education Reform Bill was unanimously passed (59-0) by the IL Senate with the stated goal of improving the quality of teachers throughout IL.  What the 106 page Bill amounts to was what the Chicago Teachers Union leadership described as “avoiding a missile, but getting hit by a bullet.”

Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D) was lauded as a “Compromise Bill” where twenty parties interested in Education Reform were able to come up with a recommended plan together.  It would be the first time in which the leadership of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT-AFT), the Illinois Education Association (IEA-NEA), and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) would lobby together for a bill to improve education and teaching conditions.  Lobbying together is perhaps an overstatement. It was more like fending off hungry lions when you are in the room with corporate-style edu-reformers Advance Illinois and Stand for Children.

In more concrete terms the CTU was asked to “sit at the table, and be force-fed” or leave the table and go back to Chicago.  If we left the table and refused to bargain, a Bill would have been passed that would have de-certified our Union altogether.

Because the Teachers Unions decided to be a part of the discussion, that didn’t happen.  What was put into the final legislation was a vote for 75% of Union members to go on strike, after an extensive arbitration and waiting period.  Take it, or leave it, with the understanding that “if we leave it, the state will legislate whatever they want,” and they don’t like us down there.

In Illinois, Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have historically been viewed as burden to the state legislators, the Illinois State Board of Education, and a burden to the IL budget.

According to Rod Estvan, an Education Policy Analyst for Disability Rights Organization Access Living who attended a hearing on the Bill, noted that, Chicago is viewed as having a “hopeless case of bad schools,” so the attitude of legislators is one of dismissal.  It has been this way for a long time, leading in 1995 to “Mayoral Control” of Chicago Public Schools.  So now, there are usually two sets of rules issued in any education legislation: Rules for Chicago, and Rules for the Rest of IL.

The Best parts of this Bill include the requirement of training for School Board members on labor, education issues, and school finance which wasn’t required before.  We also like the “portability of tenure,” which had not been available to teachers in IL before.  If a teacher chose to move from district to district, that individual would have to start all over.

The part of the Bill that requires a “Survey of Learning Conditions” to be done by all stakeholders is toothless.  Another layer of data that just sounds good.  If legislators had any sense in them they would realize that mass amounts of data don’t help create more voice or better conditions.    If they really wanted to listen to the voice of community members, the legislation would mandate public fora to be held in each school on a quarterly basis.  (Oh, wait, these are the same people who are implementing Race to the Top value-added model initiatives, ever mind, just another standardized test.)

The Bad parts of the Bill describe a sort of, tiered-tenure seniority system, where after evaluations are taken into account, then seniority is a tie-breaker when it comes to reduction in force (RIFs). After two “Unsatisfactory” evaluations in seven years, the teacher is dismissed, and would potentially have her or his Illinois teaching license revoked.  I call this part the “Bad Teacher Prevention Bill,” because that’s what the “uninformed legislators with good intentions” want it to do, but I am skeptical that this is what will happen.

The problem with this is that we don’t know what Unsatisfactory even means yet! The language of this part of the Bill is completely dependent on a new evaluation system that was passed by law in summer of (PERA) 2010, but has yet to be designed.  More than thirty individuals some of whom are teachers, administrators, and scholars, sit on the evaluation design panel, but which also includes Edu-Reformers including Advance Illinois and Teach for America(!).

The new evaluations must be “data-driven,” (read: more testing) by a fast-approaching date.  In actuality that date is approaching here in Chicago two to four years faster than in the rest of IL because that’s the way the law was written and our the CTU under Marilyn Stewart did not fight against it (spring 2010).

I don’t like that my evaluation will be based on tests scores.  Every teacher knows that tests don’t measure what students know, and certainly don’t measure how good I am as a teacher.

However, the worst part of the Bill is the last part which legislates that to go on strike, three-quarters of our membership need to vote for it.  This is unprecedented, unfair, and clearly idiotic on the part of the legislators and edu-reformers who are force-feeding us.  What I expect to happen, is when teachers across the state start getting unsatisfactory evaluations that don’t reflect their classroom practice, I have a feeling it’ll be easy to get a 75% or rather a 100% vote to strike.  Call me naive, but what goes down, must come up, and teachers are about to get sick to their stomach.

Common-Core Standards: Gates and Pearson team up to Develop Online Curricula…in a box!

This week The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Pearson Education Publishing Goliath announced they will partner up to develop a curriculum to be implemented along with the Common Core State Standards.  It makes me nervous for my teaching craft.

All but eight states (and four territories) in the U.S. have adopted Common Standards for English and Math.  The following is the mission statement from the CCS webpage:

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

To say that anything is common or standard about the learning process doesn’t respect the kinds of creative thinking that the human brain can do, and certainly doesn’t respect the kinds of diverse experiences of my students.

The CCS assume that 1) there is a clear understanding of “what learning looks like” 2) global competition is the ultimate contribution to American society.

Whose assumptions are those?

Any teacher (or non-teacher) who has read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me recognizes the kinds of hero-ification that (the few) Big Publishers (Pearson, Houghton-Mifflin/Harcourt, Heinemann, McGraw-Hill, etc.) produce for our society in a little over 300 pages.  Whose stores are told; values represented in these compendia?  More over, whose voice are excluded?

I am definitely curious to see what Gates and Pearson come up with for their Common Core Curriculum, but I not convinced it’ll be the cure for what ails curricula.