Friday, October 29, 2010

Waiting for sanity in education reform. By George Wood

This fall brought not only the start of another school year but plenty of noise about schools as well. A movie, a manifesto, and a mayoral election in Washington D.C. all amplified the ongoing debate about who the real education reformers are. Noise and more noise.

Thank goodness for the sane voices that arose in the midst of all this. There is Diane Ravitch with her continued campaign that brings us back to what is really at stake when filmmakers try to bend public opinion. And Mike Rose, always close to the ground, reminding us of what school reform really involves.

Now comes the news that, in light of whatever is going to happen on Nov. 2nd, the Obama administration is looking for ways to work with the next Congress and has targeted, among other things, No Child Left Behind.


With the level of animosity and acrimony currently filling the airways it is hard to imagine that Congress and the president will do anything together, let alone the long overdue overhaul of NCLB. I worry about the common ground they might actually reach: grading teachers by student tests scores, breaking unions, putting every kid in a charter school. None of these strategies has been proven as a recipe for the schools our children need and our communities deserve, but lack of evidence has never stopped us before.

With all of this in mind I have decided to trek off to Washington this weekend and join Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Why? Because I want to talk to some folks and see if they might accept a few basic principles around what it would take to shore up our public school system. I want to see if they are willing to take seriously the Jeffersonian ideal that public education is vital to a healthy democracy, and the notion that now, as much as any time in our history, we need such a system of public schools.

I haven’t been invited to speak at the rally, but if Stewart calls, here is what I might say:

“America’s public schools are a national treasure and it is past time that we started treating them as such. Every one of you here today probably has a schoolteacher to thank for the fact that you can read, add, and think rationally. A teacher who opened your mind to new ideas, who helped you speak that mind and listen when others spoke theirs. It’s a great system, and it opens its doors to every kid no matter their race or nationality, no matter what language they speak or if they can speak at all, no matter rich or poor, motivated or not, whole or impaired.

“We have spent too much time the blaming our schools for all that ails us. Sure schools could do better—but so could the banks, big business, and Congress. Schools, our teachers, and our kids, are not responsible for the economic strains our nation feels; or for the loosening bonds that threaten the civil discourse our republic requires. They are, however, part of the solution to these threats to our social security. But only if we come together on a few things in the name of a saner approach to making sure every kid has a good public school to attend.

“First, we have to admit that as much as schools can do, they can’t do it alone. It is hard for a child who is homeless, hungry, or in pain to heed the lessons of her teacher. America should, as part of education policy, work to see that every child is safe and secure, has good medical care, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach.

“Second, we must all admit that there is no doing a good school system on the cheap. America is 14th among the 16 industrialized nations in how much we spend on our kids’ education. But it is not just how much we spend, it is where we spend it. In the Harlem Children’s Zone, a project that considers all of what it takes to raise a child, the charter schools are spending one-third more than the public schools in the city, and they still are struggling.

"This is not a condemnation of that important work—it just means we should admit that we are going to have to invest heavily and in a targeted way if we want our schools to work for all our kids.

“Third, over 90% of our schools are good old regular public schools—not a charter or a choice, just where kids go to school. If we are serious about every child having a good school, it won’t be by creating a few fancy alternative schools. It will be by improving all of our schools.

“Fourth, we already know what works. All our schools--charters, magnets, public--have had successes, but we don’t seem to learn from them. Successful schools are places filled with good teachers who are well supported, where strong connections are built with students and families, where kids do real work not just read textbooks or listen to lectures, and where kids are evaluated by what they can do not by what test question they can answer. They also are places not segregated by social class.

“So what would a sane person, perchance a sane Congress, do to help and support our kids and schools? Hate to be simplistic, but here you go—We have to shore up our safety net for all kids to have access to health care, food, and shelter; use federal resources to get dollars to kid in the most need; and focus on all schools using the lessons learned from our most innovative and successful schools and getting the regulations and rules that prevent this change out of the way.

“This is what I wish for my school, your school, all schools. We don’t need Superman. We just need some sanity.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Boy's Life. by Kaydonna Wolfcale

Within the first hour of life, Ryder held his strong head up and looked around at his new world. He didn't even seem like a baby; he was mature-looking, heavy and huge. Over the next few months, he grew fast. He was wearing 24-month clothes at six months.

My son was advanced in everything he did. He rolled over the first time at five weeks (got it on video!) and he crawled, walked, ran and jumped long before he was supposed to.

He had muscles, strong bones and a strut just like his daddy. By 12 months, he could jump flat footed up each step on the porch.

At his 18-month checkup, Dr. Young asked what words he could say. I said, "He can say everything. He talks in sentences." My English-teacher sister said, "He can even conjugate verbs!"

Some mornings I would read him 15 books before 9:00 a.m. He could "read" some of the books too--he had lines memorized from his favorite videos, and had a "Handy Dandy Notebook" that he carried around, like Steve in "Blue's Clues." He was amazingly smart and had an unbelievable memory and creativity.

At 21 months, he knew all his ABCs (out of order) and numbers and could identify shapes. He didn't go to preschool. I was a kindergarten teacher staying home to raise my babies.

Then, he turned five. Nine months later, he started kindergarten. He was very independent and happy to start to school. It was time and he was ready! Such a tough, strong confident little dude. And kindergarten was fine. His teacher said he was "wonderful." He already knew everything he needed to know. Ahead of so many others in his class.

During first grade things started to change. He started to not like school. Homework was hard. He would cry and say he had a stomach ache. I would take him to school and not be able to get him out of the car. He would cry and say he was sick.

Many times he said, "My teacher only likes the girls." I knew the worksheet/paper-pencil curriculum was geared more to girls, but Ryder was excited about reading chapter books and loved the magic tree house books. We bought the whole set at Wal-Mart! Although he didn't really love school, he made good grades. During this first grade year, his beloved Grammy lost her long battle with cancer.

Second grade was great. His teacher was young, fresh out of college and pretty! He loved her and she loved him - no question about it. He still made good grades in school. He applied for a motocross race to be held in Texas Stadium. Part of the application was a copy of his report card and a referral from his teacher. I remember thinking he would be the smartest kid entering the race!

Then third grade--an absolute disaster. Worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. My smart little boy was slowly disappearing. I am totally against medicating a child to concentrate - but we were suddenly in desperate survival mode, wondering if medication was our only option. The timed math fact pages-- three a night! --were driving us insane. He just couldn't memorize the math facts and the pressure of timed tests was almost abusive.

He HATED to read--but had to meet the Accelerated Reading goals or he would be left behind when the class took the AR reward trip to Wonderland Park. So he met his goal - but hated every single story. He was overwhelmed by reading test-prep worksheets. Most of the grades on those worksheets were failing. He did pass the high-stakes TAKS test that year - but he hated school so much, many nights he would cry himself to sleep. I collected over 1,000 test prep worksheets, most with failing grades--all completed in a single year.

Frustrated, we left public school and enrolled Ryder in a private school. The advertisement sounded too good to be true --everything I believed in, aligned with research-based best practice. His 4th grade teacher told me, in the second week of school, what a terrible student Ryder was. She had a class full of troublemakers and he was one of them. His work quickly went downhill. I didn't even recognized his handwriting; it was worse than it had been in first grade. Suddenly it seemed my son had some kind of problem. Learning disability? Dyslexia? What? Why is he suddenly a failure?

Thank goodness for sports and motocross. It was good for Ryder to come home and get on his motorcycle and go as fast as he could, flying over huge jumps. He won hundreds of trophies, racing all over the country. He loved baseball and made the All-Star teams in 3rd and 4th grades. Sports were always his stress relievers and where he found success.

He survived 5th grade with a kind, easy-going teacher. By 6th grade, it was clear that it was time to go back to public school. The private school had fewer resources and teachers lacked training. All three of my boys are rough and tough small-town country boys and seemed out of place in the private school.

We transferred to another school. Suddenly, success with all three kids-- a complete turnaround! The best part was the extra activities. Ryder got to play drums in the band! He loved playing percussion and really enjoyed band class. But when he didn't pass the TAKS math test and barely passed reading, he was informed he would have to take study hall instead of band. Instead of computer class, he would need two math classes. We still loved our new school, especially the athletic program. But mid-football season, I got a call from the doctor: the MRI results were in, the summer elbow injury was worse than we knew. No more 7th grade football, as the damaged growth plate needed weeks of 100% rest.

I also got a note from one of his favorite teachers, "Ryder is not trying in school. After he stopped playing football, he just quit trying in class." My first thought was to discipline him. But then I realized--everything he loves to do has been taken away: football, motocross, drumming. Because he's left-handed, he was having a hard time doing his school work. When he was finally allowed to use his left arm again, it was just in time for TAKS test season.

During track season Ryder, who never complains of pain, started to complain that track was ruining his knees--that he couldn't run fast any more. A few days before the first track meet, I e-mailed the coach and much to my surprise he replied, "Ryder can't go to the track meet. He didn't pass science. We were counting on him helping our team, we are very disappointed." I didn't know--a surprise, and an embarrassment.

His reading and language arts teacher was concerned he might be dyslexic. I asked that he be tested. But a school committee decided to not test him for dyslexia. I went to see the principal. who said Ryder was getting better on his benchmark tests. If he passed the test, we would know he does not have a problem.

The next day I sent a written request demanding that he be tested. But the TAKS test came before the dyslexia test. He didn't pass two of his TAKS test.

Two weeks before the end of 7th grade he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic--two weeks before 8th grade. There is only one dyslexia specialist, so as an 8th grader he went to her class at the elementary school for an hour and a half. He didn't want to go to the elementary school. He didn't want help. He just wanted to be left alone at this point.

Ryder was supposed to be at his dyslexia class at 7:15 each morning in the elementary school. He HATED the class. He was learning letters and sounds and cursive handwriting--all "baby stuff." He was angry about having to go.

It doesn't look like he will get to play football this year. Several times, he has said he wished he could go back to band class. His friends are having so much fun and he loves to play the drums. Because of his TAKS test scores, he isn't allowed to take band class.

We discovered he had major growth plate damage to both knees. Running track really did ruin his knees. There is now a possibility he will never get to play football again. All of his classes are to improve his academics in order to pass the tests. He now believes there is no way he can pass 8th grade. He can't do motocross, because he can't use his knees until they heal. This is a tough season for my awesome, talented son-- 8th grade is a very important year. He is learning to be a teenager. He needs a success.

If only I could rewind to the days last spring when he told me "track is ruining my knees." I keep thinking about the time when the coach sent Ryder to run--for punishment--the mile. He took the punishment, running that mile after two months of excruciating pain in his knees.

The dyslexia? I recently voiced my concerns about Ryder sitting in little kindergarten chairs learning letter sounds. The teacher very quickly said she would end the extra class. What a relief! Suddenly, Ryder was excited to get to school again. At his 504 meeting a few weeks ago, his reading teacher told me he could read on an 8.6 reading level. He still has a hard time getting his work done and he doesn't like to read, but the teacher said he actually reads better than a large percentage of his classmates.

Does he really have dyslexia? Or burn-out? Or high-stakes test-induced dyslexia that began in third grade? His K/1/2 teachers all told me they remember his great reading and writing abilities. What happened in 3rd grade?

I know everything happens for a reason, but it's been very hard for a mother to watch her son go from smart, athletic and so successful to being a kid whose potential has been denied.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Demonizing Public Education By Diane Ravitch

I reviewed "Waiting for 'Superman'" for The New York Review of Books. I thought the movie was very slick, very professional, and very propagandistic. It is one-sided and very contemptuous of public education. Notably, the film portrayed not a single successful regular public school, and its heroic institutions were all charter schools.

There are many inaccuracies in the movie. One that I describe in my review is Davis Guggenheim's claim that 70 percent of 8th grade students read "below grade level." He has a graphic where state after state is shown to have only a small proportion of students reading "on grade level" or "proficient." The numbers are based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Guggenheim is wrong. NAEP doesn't report grade levels. It reports achievement levels, and these do not correspond to grade levels. Nor does he understand the NAEP achievement levels or just how demanding NAEP's "proficiency" level really is. To score below "proficient" on NAEP does NOT mean "below grade level."

NAEP has four achievement levels.

The top level is called "advanced," which represents the very highest level of student performance. Students who are "advanced" probably are at an A+; if they were taking an SAT, they would likely score somewhere akin to 750-800. These are the students who are likely to qualify for admission to our most selective universities.

Then comes "proficient," which represents solid academic performance, equivalent to an A or a very strong B. Guggenheim assumes that any student who is below "proficient" cannot read at "grade level." He is wrong.

The third level is "basic." These are students who have achieved partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be proficient. This would be equivalent, I believe, to a grade of C. Many (if not most) states use NAEP's "basic" as their own definition of "proficient." This is because they know that it is unrealistic to expect all students to be "A" students.

* "Below basic" is the category that appears to be what Guggenheim means by his reference to "below grade level." But in 8th grade reading, 25 percent of students are below basic, not 70 percent. If Guggenheim knew what he was talking about, he might have said that 70 percent of 8th grade students were unable to score the equivalent of an A, but that would not be an alarming figure. It would not be a very dramatic story had he said, in sonorous tones, "25 percent of our 8th grade students are 'below basic' in reading, and that figure includes students who are learning English and students with disabilities."

He also erred in setting up charter schools as the singular answer to the nation's education problems, especially since he admits that only one in five charters gets "amazing results." The actual number that get amazing results is far smaller. In the CREDO study to which he refers, it is 17 percent, not 20 percent, closer to one in six, that outperform a matched neighborhood public school. Not all of those one in six get "amazing results," just better results than a nearby comparable school. I was told by Professor Ed Fuller at the University of Texas, who studies Texas charters, that only a couple dozen charters out of 300 in the state get "amazing results," and that many more get "abysmal" results. But you won't hear anything about that in this polemical film.

There are excellent charter schools, as there are excellent public schools. I saw one last week when I visited the KIPP flagship school in Houston, a K-12 school set on 35 acres. But it polarizes the national discussion to treat public education as a failed institution, as this film does.

The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda. I urge you to read this account by Barbara Miner, who is deeply suspicious of the billionaire hedge fund managers and foundations behind this movement. It disturbs me that the CEO of Participant Media, one of the main producers of the "Waiting for 'Superman' " film, was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit post-secondary institutions, a sector that is now under fire in Congress for its shoddy recruitment practices and its high default rates on federally funded student loans. The man behind the other producer, Walden Media, donates heavily to conservative think-tanks, which promote privatization, vouchers, and school choice.

How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution? Shouldn't we work together to improve the schools, rather than handing over our children to the private sector? I know it is the vogue now to privatize public libraries, public hospitals, public parks, prison facilities, and other public sector institutions. What will be next on the chopping block? But why give away public schools to the private sector? The private sector does not get better results on average than the public sector, not (according to NAEP) for black students or Hispanic students or urban students or low-income students. But even if it did, we should be wary of undermining one of the bedrock agencies of our democracy. This meretricious film offers fake answers for real problems.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Study: Children Need Time to Develop By Pamela McLoughlin

If you’re pushing preschoolers to read and write, you might want to reconsider and rewind back to basics, experts said Thursday.

In a nation “consumed with sooner and faster,” including in education, young students are being pushed academically at the expense of developing crucial social and problem-solving skills, Gesell Institute of Human Development Executive Director Marcy Guddemi said Thursday, in announcing results of a three-year study.

Guddemi, who highlighted the study at a press conference as the institute prepares for its 60th anniversary year, said children are developing at the same rate neurologically as they did when Dr. Arnold Gesell did his pioneering work in the 1940s, yet, they’re being pushed to do everything sooner.

A statement from the institute also announced the honorary award they were to give to Edward Zigler, founder of Head Start, Thursday night.

Guddemi said children who learn to read by age 4 have no advantage by third grade over children who master reading at 5 or 6 years old. Instead, they miss out on developing other strengths, she said.

“You can’t push developmental milestones,” she said. “Children have sets of abilities that are definitively bound by their developmental level. Those developmental abilities of a child are directly related to their success at processing the information given to them and to perform the tasks asked of them.”

The results of the fast track approach haven’t brought better test scores, she said. Rather, studies show children feel like failures now by pre-K age, are being expelled at four times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade and have not fully developed qualities such as persistence, creativity, cooperation and communication, “that are necessary in the adult job market,” Guddemi said.

Gesell Institute’s national study on children’s development drew on a nationwide sample of about 1,300 3- to 6-year-olds from 53 schools in 23 states, from a variety of demographic and economic backgrounds.

Guddemi said quality early education programs for ages 3 to third grade, the years defined as early education, are essential in providing proper experiences and exploration, rather than to learn more letters earlier.

Guddemi said “Unfortunately, in an effort to close achievement gaps,” parents and schools have embraced a philosophy that earlier is better.

In response to the study, the institute is encouraging schools to reshape their curricula to incorporate more age appropriate activities and asking that school administrators become better educated in early childhood fundamentals through Gesell professional development programs.

Mayor John Destefano Jr., who proclaimed Thursday as “Gesell Institute Leadership and Discovery Day,” said New Haven prides itself on providing good early childhood education—noting a renewed focus on pre-K here 10 years ago—and said the city school system looks forward to “continued collaboration” with Gesell Institute.

He said education is key to violence reduction.

Gesell Institute of Human Development, founded in 1950, is an independent, non-profit organization that is based on the work of Gesell documenting infant and child growth and development during the 1900s. Gesell was founding director of the Yale Child Study Center in 1911.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce's flawed 'Superman' school reform guide. By Valerie Strauss

In a shameless act of movie flacking, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just published a guide for business leaders on school reform that is linked to and reinforces the skewed vision of public education portrayed in the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Meddling in an area about which it obviously doesn’t know much, the chamber issued a guide called “The Superman Approach: A business leader’s guide to effective education reform.”

The guide mimics the movie in extolling charter schools and test-driven data while portraying teachers unions as evil. It does this in part by comparing what the mild-mannered Clark Kent would do with his more dynamic alter-ego, Superman (obviously forgetting that the two are actually one and the same and that the superhero uses both approaches).

It really does this, addressing the business leader who reads this as an 8-year-old; I’m not making it up:

“What would Clark Kent do?
• Support local bond drives to provide more dollars for schools without demanding reforms in exchange
• Hold a “principal for a day” event for area CEOs to learn about the inner workings of a school
Some of these aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t game changers.

So, what would Superman do?
• Work to increase the caliber of leader "

This would be funny if the chamber wasn't powerful by virtue of being the world’s largest business federation.

The folks at the chamber obviously think they are serving the interests of their millions of members, helping to fix broken schools so that America will have the work force it needs for the 21st century, but the way it proposes to do this will actually hurt the public schools, and, therefore, the rest of the country.

Says the guide:

“Traditionally, we in the business community, like most other partners, have taken something of a “Clark Kent” approach to helping our students and schools. We’ve been supportive and encouraging by mentoring children, sponsoring special events and field trips, donating supplies, and funding scholarships. These are all worthwhile activities that should be continued—but they’re not enough.”

The guide argues that the public school system, the country’s most important civic institution, should be run like a business, a philosophy championed by some of the most high-profile school reformers today.

It would be a good idea if it could work, but it can’t, because teaching children of all varying abilities and backgrounds and isn’t like selling shoes. Business people can wish it were all they want, but education is a far more complicated process that can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and charts of data.

The effort to do so -- now being supported by the Chamber of Commerce, some of the country’s biggest philanthropists, and the Obama administration -- is weakening the public schools and, ultimately, will make it harder to build a dedicated cadre of effective teachers and improve the achievement rates of minorities.

It has been said many times on this blog, but the key elements of this sort of reform path have no grounding in research. You can see a point by point critique of the Superman movie here, and here, a thorough analysis of what Superman would have done (and why the film’s director Davis Guggenheim really should have called it Waiting for Batman).

The guide summarizes all of the initiatives that, together, are effectively taking the public system down the dangerous road to privatization. Some examples:

*The guide portrays charter schools as the answer to education’s troubles. It takes no account of the largest study on charter schools conducted so far, which showed that most charter schools are no better or worse than their neighborhood traditional public schools.

Do charter schools have more flexibility than traditional schools? Yes, they do, but, interestingly, most of them aren’t innovative at all.

There is no reason that the traditional schools, which educate some 95 percent or more of the nation’s children, can’t be reformed to serve all children. And in fact, some of the most innovative schools are within traditional systems. The picture of regular school districts as all hide-bound disasters is a myth, just as is the notion that charter schools are the answer.

The guide points to as a fine example of a school system the one in New Orleans that has been under reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina. That system, unlike any other in the country, consists primarily of charter schools.

*The guide calls for alternative routes to teacher certification and lauds programs such as Teach for America, which takes new college graduates, trains them to teach for about five or six weeks, and then sends them into the country’s toughest schools, apparently to perform wonders on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism.

Some of these young people do, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things under the toughest conditions, but the vast majority leave teaching after a few years. It takes at least a few years for a teacher to become truly effective, research shows. So where does that leave the kids?

The continued, unprecedented assault on the country’s teachers is driving out the very best ones, and, incidentally, is exactly the opposite approach of the very countries that school reformers like to hold up as models, such as Finland.

How many times have you heard that we should do what Finland did to improve our system? Well, if we did that, we’d stop blaming teachers and we’d elevate the profession, not tear it down. That’s what the Finns did.

There is much, much more that is wrong with the guide and the approach it takes to reform; for example, it calls for paying teachers according to student achievement, for example, even though there are many other factors that affect a student's progress beside the teacher.

But but read it for yourself, here. And then start to really worry, because the forces arrayed against traditional public schools are getting stronger every day.

And don't let anybody fool you. That's not a good thing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Real Public Education Principles. by Anne Geiger

In knowing the great strength and legacy of public education in the United States, we the American people seek to implant these principles ....(this is where "best teachers," "best principals" and "excellence" come in...)

#1 Principle: Children are our most important treasure. The education of children in our public schools will be based on egalitarian, democratic principles, and built on community, not "supply and demand."

#2 Principle: Teachers are our most important human resource. We will develop, empower, support, and sustain the best teaching force on the planet. We will ensure that they are highly educated, led by exceptional instructional leaders, and evaluated in fair and comprehensive ways.

#3 Principle: Public schools are our most important avenues for creating and sustaining a healthy society and vibrant economy. Our public school system in partnership with families and communities will work to educate our children by meeting their individual needs, unleashing in them creativity, resourcefulness and their own unique abilities, instilling in them rich knowledge across subjects and expertise in the arts and world languages, and equipping them with the skills needed to think, innovate, contribute, and lead fulfilling lives. Standardized testing will be one tool among many, NOT a singular, disproportionate way of measuring success.

#4 Principle: Community is our most important civic framework for protecting, supporting, engaging and empowering our children. To provide the conditions for success, we will work to ensure that all children and their families, no matter where they live, will have access to green parks, nutritious food, high-quality health care, bountiful books, robust communication networks, safe transportation, vital commerce and strong community infrastructure.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How to save schools right now: Let teachers teach. By LouAnne Johnson

We don’t have to wait for Superman to save our public schools. We can save our schools ourselves. Right now. Without firing the teachers or disbanding their unions. Without creating more standardized tests. Without pitting schools against each other in a race for dollars which should rightfully be divided equally among the school-age children of this country.

As with many complex problems, the answer is a simple one -- so simple that it is overlooked.

The answer can be stated in seven words that even a child could understand: Train teachers well -- then let them teach.

The problem with public schools isn’t lack of parental support or computers or equipment. It isn’t an overabundance of television or junk food or violence. Those things contribute to the problem.
No argument. And money is helpful. But throughout the world, there always have been students who learned to think and read and write with very limited supplies, sometimes without a classroom or textbooks, without standardized tests, without merit pay for their teachers. Those students learned because their teachers were permitted to teach.

Most American teachers are good at their jobs -- when they are allowed to do their jobs. And that is the primary problem with our public schools. Teachers are not allowed to teach.

Or rather, they are told how to teach in such great detail and required to document what they are teaching in such great detail and expected to spend so much time teaching students to pass the tests that will prove the teachers have paid such great attention to detail that the teachers don’t have time to teach the information and skills their students need.

Money isn’t the answer.

Teachers appreciate being well-paid, but most of them don’t enter the profession for the money and that is another reason why so many people misunderstand the situation. Many people work for their paychecks.

Of course, teachers appreciate being paid for their work, but most of us are willing to work for far less than we could earn elsewhere because we are passionate about the work we do. We know how important it is to educate the next generation of Americans. We don’t work for paychecks -- we work for pupils. Paying us more will make us happier but it won’t make us better teachers.

Better training and preparation make us better teachers. Objective observation and helpful feedback make us better teachers. Mentoring and staff development and sharing best practices make us better teachers.

Mediocre teachers don’t need to be fired. They need to be observed and mentored and properly trained. They need to be supported by administrators and peers and parents. They need the opportunity to watch excellent teachers in action. They need to be given the time and the tools to become good teachers -- and then if they still can’t or won’t do the job, it’s time to say goodbye.

Firing bad teachers is expensive, and firing teachers doesn’t solve the problem. The solution, again, is simple: The colleges and universities who prepare mediocre teachers, and the state licensing bureaus who license those mediocre teachers, need to be held accountable.

It is their job to train and evaluate teachers so that when those teachers are licensed and hired, they are prepared to do their jobs well. Teacher training programs and licensing bureaus need to establish and uphold high professional standards. Which brings us to the final piece of the problem puzzle.

Teachers aren’t treated or viewed as professionals by their fellow Americans, most of whom believe that because they once attended school, they are now qualified to teach school and to tell teachers how to do their jobs. Very probably, those same people have flown in airplanes, undergone surgery, or paid somebody to prepare their tax forms. Yet they don’t feel entitled to provide instruction to their pilots, doctors and accountants.

Licensed American teachers hold earned bachelor’s degrees in either a secondary content area or in elementary, childhood or special education. In addition, they have completed between two and four years of postgraduate study, including an internship or field experience comparable to the internships of medical doctors where they learn how to do their jobs under the guidance of experienced mentors .

After completing their academic programs, teachers undergo criminal background checks and apply for licensure, at their own expense. They spend days taking hundreds of dollars worth of tests -- again at their own expense -- to prove that they have the basic skills (math, science, reading, and writing) and the content knowledge (English, social studies, visual arts, mathematics, and so on), and the pedagogical expertise (zone of proximal development, designing assessment rubrics, differentiating instruction, engaging the amygdala) required to do their jobs.

Don’t know what the zone of proximal development is or how to identify it? Don’t know how to design an assessment rubric or how to differentiate instruction effectively? Haven’t got a clue how to grab the attention of an adolescent amygdala?

Then you probably aren’t a teacher.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Am Furious, and It Keeps Me Running. By Diane Ravitch

You asked what keeps me running, which I assume means how I find the energy to stay on the road week after week, speaking to teachers, parents, school board members, and concerned citizens. These days, I am running because of an inner rage at the attacks on teachers and public education. I see one of our most important public institutions under siege by people who want to privatize it, turn it into profit centers, and treat children as data points on a chart. This is wrong, and it will end badly. Critics say I defend the status quo, but nothing could be further from the truth. The status quo is awful, but the demonizing of teachers and the vilification of public education are even worse.

Last week, I was in Los Angeles. I spoke to L.A. teachers, who were shamed by the Los Angeles Times' disgraceful release of test-score data and ratings of 6,000 elementary teachers as more or less effective. I had previously believed that such ratings (value-added assessment) might be used cautiously by supervisors as one of multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance. The L.A. Times persuaded me that the numerical scores—with all their caveats and flaws—would drown out every other measure. And, in fact, the L.A. Times database contained only one measure, based on test scores.

And so I concluded that value-added assessment should not be used at all. Never. It has a wide margin of error. It is unstable. A teacher who is highly effective one year may get a different rating the next year depending on which students are assigned to his or her class. Ratings may differ if the tests differ. To the extent it is used, it will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to tests. Teachers will be mislabeled and stigmatized. Many factors that influence student scores will not be counted at all.

The latest review of value-added assessment was written by New York University economist Sean Corcoran. He examines value-added assessment in Houston and New York City. He describes a margin of error so large that a teacher at the 43rd percentile (average) might actually be at the 15th percentile (below average) or the 71st percentile (above average). What is the value of such a measure? Why should it be used at all? Please read this important and well-written study.

While I was in Los Angeles, a teacher committed suicide. Rigoberto Ruelas, 39, had taught 5th graders for 14 years. He was known as unusually dedicated and caring; he worked in a gang-ridden, impoverished neighborhood. Most students in his school were English-language learners. Friends and family said he was depressed by the poor rating he received in the L.A. Times. No one will ever know what caused him to despair and take his own life. Colleagues and former students wrote beautiful tributes to him. They thought he was a wonderful teacher.

It's worth noting, however, that Los Angeles Deputy Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that Mr. Ruelas had a "great performance review" from his supervisors, but Mr. Deasy couldn't release the personnel records because they are confidential. So only the test scores were released to the media, not the laudatory reviews by professionals who observed his work.

Now I hear that more districts, prodded on by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Race to the Top principles, want to release value-added rankings. More teachers will learn that they are subpar or superior when judged by flawed, dubious, inaccurate measures.

How many other ways can we discover to ruin teachers' reputations and encourage teachers to abandon their profession? Why isn't there a public outcry that such tactics undermine professionalism and the quality of education? When will we learn that we have turned education into a numbers racket, and we may lose the best teachers along with the worst?

In this week after NBC's one-sided slam against teachers, unions, and public education, I am furious. And it keeps me running.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Why won't Congress admit NCLB failed? By Monty Neill

The 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on U.S. schools reminds us that Americans do not believe that the federal No Child Left law helps improve education. The 2008 Kappa survey found that four out of five people think classroom-based evidence of student learning, such as grades, teacher observations, or samples of student work (the most popular), provides a more accurate picture of student work than do student test scores.

The United States is virtually alone among nations in testing in so many grades. Top-ranked Finland barely tests at all, while Singapore tests in a few grades. That’s the range among nations with better results than the U.S. on international exams, graduation rates, and increasingly college entry and completion.

Research shows that NCLB causes curriculum narrowing, intense teaching to the test, and worsening school climate. The rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has declined since the law was implemented, while it’s clear now that scores on state tests are greatly inflated. Testing even more with slightly different exams, which the federally-funded state testing consortia aim to do, is not a solution.

But the real issue is Congress’ reluctance to rethink its assumptions.

Why is Congress so unwilling to recognize the research and public opinion, and overhaul the most basic fact of NCLB: Its reliance on standardized tests to judge and control schools, and if President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have their way, teachers as well?

Why won’t Congress recognize that high-stakes testing has failed, and move in new directions?

Certainly not all members of Congress think alike, but here are some key factors behind the unwillingness to change:

Most important, the de facto alliance among corporate groups such as the Business Roundtable, a growing list of high-tech and hedge-fund billionaires, a few large foundations (Gates, Broad and Walton among them), Duncan's Education Department, and major national media has spent tens of millions of dollars and used extensive networks to promote their ideas.

They have created the new status quo of test-based accountability and increasing privatization, which they promote as “reform” even though it doesn’t work.

Second, too many students are not getting a good enough education, and these students are overwhelmingly poor, of color, speak English as a second language, or have a disability. The victims of the policies that produced this situation demand change.

The choice, however, was never between do nothing or focus on high-stakes testing. Better options have always existed. But these have been under-financed, not supported by the most visible and wealthy sectors in society. They also are more complex, not simplistic like tests, making them harder to sell with sound bites – as if the mind and learning were simple!

Testing is a cheap “fix.” Genuinely improving schools and teaching, and overcoming the poverty and segregation that are still the most significant factors in student outcomes, are expensive, complex and politically difficult. Too many members of Congress – and their state counterparts - are willing to accept the cheap way out, even if it is no solution at all.

If you believe NCLB’s approach is not working, you are in good company. Voters are beginning to reject educational ‘deform,’ the defeat in the D.C. Democratic primary of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who installed Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, being the most visible. Your voice is essential to making Congress respect the will of the people, not the will of the elites promoting the failed policies of high-stakes testing.