The Inconvenient “Lost Standards” of NYS: Why Deformers Prefer Common Core for Evaluating Teachers

January 5, 2015

Among the nauseating ed tech solicitations sent to my New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) email account over the holiday was this message from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and family:

We send you our sincere gratitude for your service to
the people of the City of New York,

and our very best wishes to you and your family for

a New Year full of love, peace and happiness.


Bill, Chirlane, Chiara and Dante

Love, peace and happiness.  I sometimes feel these emotions at school, but they are fleeting and occur only behind “closed doors,” in the presence of 25 six and seven-years-olds.  I’m certainly not feeling any love or “sincere gratitude” from the NYCDOE administration, including the district in which I teach. But thank you, Bill, for the gesture.  If ever you want to consult with working teachers and administrators who will tell you what our schools REALLY need in order to thrive, please reach out. Unfortunately, our prescription for education reform does not go along with the state and federal governments’ agendas, which, as it’s becoming increasingly evident, center on using teachers as scapegoats for the educational ills in our country.

I begin this new year with mixed emotions.  I’m excited to resume the creative, inspiring work I do with my energetic first graders – we are a family – but I’m also weighed down with new feelings of self-doubt, indignation and increasing despair. Recent observations of my teaching practice, which are not holistic, have felt punitive. Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching – a rubric that addresses the so-called instructional shifts of the Common Core - is used as a checklist for these brief and infrequent snapshots of the work being done in my classroom.  During this time, if administrators do not see evidence of what they are looking for – such as an assessment tied to an art project they are observing me teach – then I am at risk for a developing or ineffective rating for that component of the domain.

Additionally, New York’s use of valued-added modeling (VAM) to rate teachers, a tool widely considered to be junk science, is further demoralizing. Last year, I was rated “developing” on the local and state measures of New York’s fledgling teacher evaluation system; I still don’t know what standardized tests these ratings were based on since my English-language learners (ELLs) made progress on the 2014 NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT). These Tweets from January 3, 2015 show that draconian teacher evaluation plans are not unique to New York.  They make me want to cry.

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On the first day of 2015, Carol Burris, principal of Long Island’s South Side High School, reported in The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet on the latest developments of New York’s teacher evaluation system. New York Board of Regents chancellor, Merryl Tisch, now wants 40% of teachers’ APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) to be based on state test scores (it’s currently 20%).

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pie chart courtesy of the NYC Department of Education

According to Burris, here’s why Tisch is calling for this change to teacher accountability:

To Tisch’s dismay, APPR which she helped design, has not produced the results that she and Cuomo wanted; only 1 percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective in the most recent evaluation.   The plan, according to the state’s Race to the Top application, was for 10 percent of all teachers to be found ineffective, with small numbers designated as highly effective. The curve of the sorting bell was not achieved.

In its latest blog post, the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association (Long Island) highlighted this key point originally made by Burris:

Regardless of what 60%* of your evaluation says, if the growth score (test score) says you are ineffective, your entire rating will be ineffective.  If you receive two ineffective ratings you will no longer be allowed to teach. *60% is based on observations (measures of teaching practice).

The above-mentioned state measures – growth scores – are based on student test scores from Pearson’s New York State Common Core assessments in English-language Arts (ELA) and math, which were first administered in New York in 2013. In receiving approximately $700 million in 2010 in Race to the Top funding, New York agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards and to annually measure student progress toward “college and career readiness” as detailed in the new standards.  PARCC and Smarter Balanced are two national consortiums that have also created Common Core-aligned assessments, however their tests are administered online.  New York plans to transition to the costly PARCC online assessments.  Here’s a description of Smarter Balanced:

The Smarter Balanced assessments are a key part of implementing the Common Core and preparing all students for success in college and careers. Administered online, these new assessments provide an academic check-up and are designed to give teachers and parents better information to help students succeed.  Smarter Balanced assessments will replace existing tests in English and math for grades 3-8 and high school in the 2014-15 school year. Scores from the new assessments represent a realistic baseline that provides a more accurate indicator for teachers, students, and parents as they work to meet the rigorous demands of college and career readiness.

I detail these new testing initiatives because, contrary to what Common Core supporters argue, the Common Core State Standards are – by design – inextricably linked to Common Core-aligned assessments.  The Common Core standards do not and cannot stand alone.  They must exist in conjunction with aligned assessments in order to measure students’ “college and career readiness.” Student scores on these Common Core assessments are then used to hold teachers (and schools) accountable for using the Common Core standards to “prepare students for college and careers.”  I have reported at length on the devastating impact these new Common Core tests have had on student learning and student morale in New York City schools.

Another reason I bring up the Common Core package (standards + curricula + assessments) is because there has been a recent lauding of and pining for New York’s “lost standards” in ELA and ESL which, with a relatively modest budget of $300,000, were written by state educators from 2007 to 2009.  However, seduced by Race to the Top’s grant, in 2010 the Board of Regents abandoned the initiative and instead chained New York’s public schools to the Common Core. Lohud.com’s Gary Stern wrote about these “lost standards” in May 2014. Here’s a quote from the article:

“The Common Core was developed behind closed doors, but our New York standards were the work of extraordinary teachers and educators from the local level,” said Bonne August, provost of New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, who co-chaired a committee that worked on the ELA/ESL standards. “We did things the right way, so teachers would buy in. Teachers are frustrated by the Common Core because they don’t see themselves in it.” 

Lohud.com also created the below table to compare key features of the “lost standards” to the Common Core standards.  As you can see, the Common Core came as a package, which included a testing program and a new teacher evaluation system. The “lost standards” did not.  Unlike the “lost standards,” the Common Core is streamlined, making it easier to hold teachers accountable (via test scores and the Common Core-aligned Danielson Framework for Teaching). Furthermore, the adoption of the Common Core brought $700 million in funding to New York.  The “lost standards” did not.

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table courtesy of lohud.com 

Chris Cerrone, a New York educator and school board member, wrote the following in a December 14, 2014 opinion piece for the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA):

“How should New York proceed? We should drop the Common Core Standards and revive and continue the progress that created “lost standards,” known as the Regents Standards Review and Revision Initiative. The recent completion of the Social Studies Framework shows that quality standards can be created by New York educators who know their students, content, and age-appropriateness of curriculum.”

We teachers have an even bigger fight on our hands this year. If Andrew Cuomo and Merryl Tisch have their way, 40% of my rating will be based on measures determined by the state.  I have no idea what they’ll use to assess first grade teachers, but I can assure you that any new NYS Common Core assessment that’s not teacher-created will be developmentally inappropriate.

One of my goals for the new year is to take a closer look at New York’s “lost standards” for ELA and ESL.  Like Chris, I wish to make the argument that good work has already been done by educators in creating sound standards for our state.  We should continue this work for the other content areas.  Of the “lost standards,” Susan Polos, a highly regarded New York educator, was quoted by Gary Stern as saying, “Our standards were carefully and thoughtfully created, with educators involved, and should have survived.” I am not fond of standards (or rubrics), but I recognize the need for them.

I would also like to investigate alternative math standards.  If I had the time, I’d create an entirely new math curriculum for first grade.  GO Math!, which is Common Core-aligned, is a headache-inducing, poorly crafted math program that the NYCDOE adopted for its schools.  If (when?) New York state abandons Common Core, we’d also have to propose a new assessment program and teacher evaluation plan. The working educators of New York know what’s best for our students.  We need to reclaim public education in 2015.

What’s REALLY Rotten in Our Schools: Poor Quality MOSL Assessments Used to Rate NYC Teachers

imgresThe cover of the 11/3/14 issue of TIME Magazine blasts so-called bad teachers for being “rotten apples” and suggests that tech millionaires have figured out a way to get rid of them.  However, what really stinks – among other ill-conceived corporate education reform initiatives – is the reliance on student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.  Once again, I wish to draw attention to the flaws of Advance, the New York City Department of Education’s new teacher evaluation and development system, which was implemented in 2013 in order to comply with New York State education law 3012-c.  This 2010 legislation mandated an overhaul of the Annual Professional Review (APPR) for teachers and school leaders and introduced the current highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective rating system, a cornerstone of corporate education reform’s plan for teacher accountability.

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As the above NYCDOE pie chart shows, 20% of our overall teacher effectiveness rating comes from a local measure of student learning or MOSL (another 20% of our rating is based on a state measure such as the annual NYS Common Core ELA and math assessments).

Here is the NYCDOE’s definition of “local measure”:

      • Local MeasureRecommended by a school committee appointed by the principal and UFT Chapter Chair and approved by the principal, each teacher’s local measure will be based on student growth on assessments and growth measures selected from a menu of approved options for each grade and subject (from the NYCDOE website).

My school chose the K-5 NYC Baseline Performance Tasks* in ELA and math as our local measure (MOSL).  Students receive baseline scores for their performance on the fall assessments and will be tested again at the end of the school year to determine their growth in these two subject areas. While MOSL may no longer be an unfamiliar term to NYC parents, most have likely never set eyes on these performance tasks and may not realize how meaningless and labor intensive they are. *It is worth noting that in 2013-2014, these tests were called ‘assessments.’ They are now referred to as ‘tasks,’ but do not be fooled; they are still non-teacher created standardized tests. 

Last month, it took me two and a half days to administer the 2014-2015 Grade 1 Math Inventory Baseline Performance Tasks to my students because the assessment had to be administered as individual interviews (NYCDOE words, not mine).  The math inventory included 12 tasks, many of which were developmentally inappropriate.  For example, in demonstrating their understanding of place value, first graders were asked to compare two 3-digit numbers using < , > and =. Students were also asked to solve addition and subtraction word problems within 100.

While I do not believe my students were emotionally scarred by this experience, they did lose two and a half days of instructional time and were tested on skills that they had not yet learned.  It is no secret that NYC teachers and administrators view these MOSL tasks as a joke. Remember, they are for teacher rating purposes ONLY. “You want them to score low in the fall so that they’ll show growth in the spring,” is a common utterance in elementary school hallways. Also, there will be even more teaching-to-the-test as educators will want to ensure that their students are proficient in these skills before the administration of the spring assessment. Some of the first grade skills might be valid, but others are, arguably, not grade-level appropriate.

The Grade 1 ELA (English-language Arts) Informational Reading and Writing Baseline Performance Task took less time to administer (four periods only) but was equally senseless, and the texts we were given had us shaking our heads because they resembled third grade reading material.  In theory, not necessarily practice, students were required to engage in a non-fiction read aloud and then independently read an informational text on the same topic. Afterwards, they had to sort through a barrage of text-based facts in order to select information that correctly answered the questions.  On day one, the students had to complete a graphic organizer and on day two they were asked to write a paragraph on the topic.  Drawing pictures to convey their understanding of the topic was also included in the assessment.

Not only are these “tasks” a waste of valuable instructional time, but at least six professional development sessions, which in theory are supposed to be teacher-designed, have been sacrificed to score them. The ELA rubric, in particular, was poorly written and confusing.  It’s critical to note that these MOSL tests and rubrics were not created by working teachers. If they had been, they would have looked much different and the ELA rubric would have made sense. Sentiments ranging from incredulity to outrage have characterized our scoring sessions.

I suspect the majority of NYC public elementary schools selected these Baseline Performance Tasks as their MOSL option, however an alternative MOSL, which few know about, exists.  Prior to the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, 62 NYC schools, including The Earth School and Brooklyn New School, were chosen to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program, which – among other goals – satisfies the MOSL component of the NYC teacher evaluation and development system.

In her 10/27/14 weekly letter, Dyanthe Spielberg, principal at Manhattan’s The Neighborhood School (P.S. 363), wrote the following:

“Our PROSE plan modifies the MOSL (Measures of Student Learning) portions of the DOE teacher evaluation structure by substituting collected student work, observational data and narrative reports for MOSL.  This process includes an emphasis on looking at student work, and reviewing informal and formal assessments.  It requires ongoing reflective inquiry, as well as revisions of teacher plans and practice in relation to review of student work, data and feedback. Together, teachers will align criteria to create goals and assess progress.  This collaboration, both with the grade level teams, other colleagues and parents, as well as partner schools, will allow teachers to conclude the year with a clear analysis of how they have grown as educators related to their actual performance in the classroom as opposed to a rating based on a student’s individual performance on an individual day. We are excited about this opportunity to practice and demonstrate how we think about assessment, teaching and learning, and to build on our partnerships with other NYC public progressive schools.” 

Wow! Are they hiring? When a teacher friend told me about PROSE, I immediately became resentful and wished my school had participated in this program.  Is anyone in Brooklyn’s District 19 even aware that PROSE exists? The NYCDOE, the UFT and even the Mayor’s Office claim that all NYC public schools were notified about the PROSE application process. I was on the School Leadership Team (SLT) last year and had no knowledge of it.

Charter schools aside, two public school systems within the NYCDOE appear to be evolving; one for NYC’s relatively affluent and well-educated population whose kids attend progressive schools that are given waivers to assess students outside of the Chancellor’s Regulations and the UFT contract, and the other for the masses.  I have long felt that Tweed does not trust educators at Title I schools like mine and therefore feels obliged to micromanage us.  Like second-hand clothing shipped off to Haiti, we are the ones who get the unpopular, but free, Core Curriculum, like ReadyGEN for ELA.

Education reformers, who saddled us with an excessive testing program and the Common Core, claim that their remedy – a very costly experiment – will close the achievement gap. But what about the widening quality of education gap? Are teachers to blame for bad curricula and assessments that they didn’t even create? Why should our ratings be based – in part – on poorly designed and often developmentally inappropriate tests that do not adequately reflect classroom instruction and students’ knowledge? Will TIME showcase this widely held viewpoint on a future magazine cover? 

 

 

 

On Depression & Anxiety and the Hell That Was My First Month of Teaching

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This photograph is significant to me. My first three years of teaching were spent working with the same group of students, most of whom were Dominican. They all have a special place in my heart as they (unknowingly) helped me get through my first year of teaching, my father’s death and other personal struggles that they were not aware of. I was pregnant for most of our third year together and they delighted in watching my belly grow, guessing the baby’s gender and offering me name suggestions (as well as parenting tips). We were a family. They are now going into 10th grade and I am about to begin my ninth year teaching at the same school. 

This is an essay I wrote exactly two years ago but I’ve not shared it publicly until now. As vulnerable as it makes me feel to post it, I thought it might be helpful to teachers who, like me, suffer from depression and anxiety. This was my first and only brush with suicide so it may also shed light on what causes people to want to end their lives. There has been much discussion of this topic on social media as a result of Robin Williams’ tragic end earlier this week.

On reflection, I realize that this essay might contradict my current disdain for scripted curriculum, particularly Pearson’s Ready GEN for ELA and Go Math. As a new teacher, I may have been comforted by being told what to teach – from what materials to use to what performance tasks to give.  Unlike now, I did not possess a broad knowledge of children’s literature and how to effectively use it in the classroom. What is clear to me, though, is the critical importance of teacher collaboration. Our school has improved greatly in this area since I first started teaching. I would not still be in this profession were it not for my colleagues’ selflessness and empathy, particularly ML.  However, these are somewhat separate issues, and I’ll continue to explore them in forthcoming posts.

-KL, August 2014

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August 22, 2012

It’s a long-held belief that teachers tend to be a little crazy. And indeed I’ve been known to exhibit my eccentricities in the classroom (through “break dancing,” speaking with a British accent and so on) in the interest of captivating an audience of jaded ten-year-olds. What I didn’t consider as I entered the profession was the thin line between sanity and madness that an anxiety-prone new teacher navigates during those first months of teaching.  In 2006, despairing of ever experiencing job satisfaction and inspiration in the dull world of book publishing, I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows and became a 2nd grade bilingual teacher at a public elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn. I was 32-years-old and already had a wide variety of work experience.  This was not my first major job change.

I felt pretty strong and energetic the day I met my new students. I had lesson plans and was nervous but not yet panicky. However, when outspoken Alberto*, whom I would go on to instruct for two more years, asked me, “What are we going to do today?” I lost all faith in myself as a teacher. A sea change of feelings took hold of me and set in motion an emotional derailment that would ultimately lead to a full-blown panic attack and thoughts of suicide. For the first few days after Alberto’s innocuous question, I was able to complete a series of activities and keep the kids engaged and relatively controlled, but in my mind they were learning nothing and were unmanageable. And with no curriculum to follow – aside from Everyday Math and the vague Balanced Literacy model for English-language arts instruction – I was running out of ideas.

Then the sleep stopped for seven consecutive nights. I obsessively created lessons plans to fill my plan book and my brain would not turn off. My principal at the time had recited to me “a failure to plan is a plan to fail”, and being a dutiful employee, I viewed this edict as a teacher’s biggest sin; a sign of incompetence. I couldn’t fathom being placed in that category. But, as a new teacher, there were not enough hours in the day for such thorough planning. At one point – in a manic state – I dashed off to a dollar store in downtown Brooklyn, convinced that buying 24 brand new marble notebooks for my students would be the answer to my problems. It wasn’t. My husband tried to help by giving me massages and turning on relaxing music at night. I drank red wine – lots of it – and took Tylenol PM, but a switch had been flipped and I couldn’t let go of my thoughts long enough to slumber. The only relief I got was physical. In the middle of the night, I used nail scissors to dig into the sides of my big toe, obsessively trying to remove an ingrown nail. The instantaneous, spreading pain and subsequent release of blood were the only sensations that comforted me during this time.

I soon also started obsessing about the non-academic and administrative aspects of the job that weren’t touched upon during my intensive summer training. Keeping track of the blue cards containing the kids’ emergency contact information was a seemingly life or death task. What if a student disappeared and we didn’t have her number to call home? I don’t remember seeing José at dismissal. What if he was abducted, his broken body to be discovered days later on Conduit Boulevard’s grassy median? I began imagining myself behind bars or living out of a trash can in a stinky back alley.  I had no problem giving parents my cell phone number. In fact, that first year I would sometimes call home under the pretense of clarifying a homework assignment, but my real mission was to ensure that my students had made it home safely.

After a girl calmly approached me with a bloody nose, to which I reacted with panic, as if I was expected to perform emergency heart surgery on her, I concluded that I was not mentally fit to be in charge of a group of second graders for eight hours a day. My anxious mind, compromised by an extreme lack of sleep, could not hold all the potential calamities I felt could occur due to my perceived lack of control. My eyes stung and my thinking was myopic. I felt stoned all the time. I could hear sounds and see objects but my brain wasn’t processing the information, at least not in a “normal” way. I could not make decisions, even little ones, like what drink to buy at the bodega. I walked in circles around my classroom dabbling in a bit of everything but never completing a single task. I could only be reactive. I remember clutching a clipboard at all times as if it served to keep me grounded. I was so lost mentally, so deeply lodged in some dark, sticky part of my brain, with no way out. My former self had been replaced by someone so sleep-deprived and irrational that the prospect of being struck down by a city bus while crossing the street was welcoming. It would provide instant and permanent relief from unbearable feelings. Resisting the urge to end my life was a daily struggle. 

I decided to tell on myself. During a prep period, I walked into my principal’s office and confessed to her that I was a horrible teacher and a danger to my students (citing the nose bleed incident). I begged her to come watch me to see for herself. My new colleagues were stunned by my lack of filter.  I, in turn, was dumbstruck by how at ease some of the teachers appeared to be. How is it possible to feel calm enough to actually laugh with students? Equally baffling was the idea that you could leave at 3:00 pm right after dismissal. Overhearing teachers talk about weekend plans, dinner menus and their own children simply confirmed that something was seriously wrong with me. My entire day was consumed by my constant thinking about teaching. I didn’t cook (or even eat much) during that time. Showering infrequently, I didn’t care about my appearance. Every aspect of my life – from my relationships to my sleep – was held hostage by my obsession about the new job. A friend loaned me episodes of Lost on DVD, hoping it would distract me and help sever the chains that bonded me to my overactive brain. I couldn’t even make it through half an episode. If I wasn’t constantly thinking about teaching – even at 3:00 am – I felt like my world would implode. In a new job where I had little control and success, this, in my mind, was the only way I could hang on.

Around mid-September, my principal suggested that I resign. This was exactly what I wanted to hear. Being a perfectionist and possessing an irrational fear of failure, I didn’t want to be the one to make that decision. I immediately started to feel relief and my limbs lightened. But it didn’t last. A close friend intervened, arguing that I would regret this decision. She and my principal brokered a deal in which I would take five days off in order to see a doctor and to sleep. Working in the medical field, my friend made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist that day. However, unable to fully let go, I also saw the hiatus as an opportunity to return to school in order to devote hours to selecting teaching materials. When my principal found me rummaging through a book closet one day, she sent me home claiming that it would be confusing for my students, who were being instructed by a substitute teacher, to see me wandering the halls of the school.

At the psychiatrist’s office, I unclenched and cried for the first time. I even admitted out loud that I had had suicidal thoughts during my descent into madness. The doctor diagnosed me with panic disorder and prescribed Klonopin, which I took until the end of the school year, as well as an anti-depressant**. That evening my closest New York City friends came over. No one wanted me to be alone for fear I’d slit my wrists with a kitchen knife. I also think they were curious to see for themselves just how unhinged I’d become. I have such a sharp picture in my head of my crazy self, propped up in bed, taking that first Klonopin. The effects seemed to be immediate. My whole body relaxed and I felt hopeful. I even re-discovered my self-deprecating humor. I heard one friend say, “Katie’s back” and I knew I was going to make it, perhaps not in teaching, but I was going to sleep and function again as a human being.

I am now about to begin my seventh year of teaching*** at the same school, although the principal has changed. No one remembers my rough start and I try not to think about it, out of both shame and fear that I’ll go back to that awful place. My life is now more balanced. I am motivated by my job and inspired by the connections I make with my students. I continue to struggle with feelings of anxiety and despair, but I have found community, in both my personal life and at work, and I no longer feel as disconnected and isolated. Although I remain stubborn and proud, I am learning how and when to ask for help. I am learning how to reassure myself that it’s going to be okay.

*name changed

**I haven’t taken Klonopin since 2007 but I’m still on anti-depressants.

***I wrote this two years ago so I’m now starting my ninth year at the same school.

Fred Smith on the NYSED’s Delayed Release of the 2013 Technical Report, Part I

 

photograph courtesy of the New York Daily News

Below is Fred Smith’s initial reaction to the long-awaited release of the Technical Report of the 2013 New York State Common Core Math and English-language Arts (ELA) tests. Smith, a NYS testing expert and statistician, has long been sounding the alarm on the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) lack of transparency.  He is also an active member of Change the Stakes and has launched a campaign to Say “NO!” to Pearson stand-alone field tests, which were administered throughout New York State in June 2014. Currently, Smith is scrutinizing the item analysis data contained in the overdue 2013 Technical Report and “will be parsing some of its fuzzy verbiage.” At first glance, Smith reports, “there are a number of serious questions regarding the ELA exams that add weight to the concerns of educators and parents about their composition and use.”

Fred Smith: The New York State Education Department (NYSED) just posted the 2013 Technical Report– seven+ months past Pearson’s deliverable deadline. All 339 pages of it, in which the NYSED and the publisher have continued to deny useful information that the technical reports contained before Pearson took over the state testing program.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/reports/2013/ela-math-tr13.pdf

So now we can see what data they are showing us about the quality of the 2013 Common Core-aligned baseline tests three months after the 2014 exams have been given. The foundational 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests were described last year as providing a “transparent baseline.” NYSED acts in bad faith and its words peter out in sheer derision.

No matter what the selective disclosure of the delayed data shows, this is an unacceptable way to operate and the antithesis of transparency.

Here’s one piece of clever obfuscation: Embedded Field Test Items (p. 8)

“In 2010, the Department announced its commitment to embed multiple-choice items for field-testing within the Spring 2012 Grades 3–8 ELA and Mathematics Operational Tests; this commitment continued for the Spring 2013 administrations of the Common Core assessments. Embedding field-test items allows for a better representation of student responses and provides more reliable field-test data on which to build future operational tests. In other words, since the specific locations of the embedded field-test items were not disclosed and they look the same as operational items, students were unable to differentiate field-test items from operational test items. Therefore, field-test data derived from embedded items are free of the effects of differential student motivation that may characterize stand-alone field-test designs. Embedding field-test items also reduced the number of stand-alone field-tests during the spring of 2013 but did not eliminate the need for them.”

Yes, imagine if General Motors said: “And we are committed to selling cars with brakes, as it makes driving safer. But when we can’t do that as much as we’d like to, there are times we have to sell cars without brakes.”

Thank you, Fred, for your insights.  Stay tuned for Part II.

-KL

 

Does Kindergarten-Ready Really Mean Common Core-Ready?

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Is she kindergarten-ready?

This is an embarrassing but necessary post for me to write. Writing helps me wade through the tangled – often muddy – weeds in my brain, and perhaps what I have to share will be useful to those participating in the early childhood education debate. For me, real personal growth comes with letting down my guard and being completely honest with myself.  So here goes.

Yesterday, I came across the following Tweet by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT):

7/23/14 @rweingarten: Americans know we need to help kids be kindergarten ready #InvestInKids #reclaimit http://t.co/g4rx0KOCCT

With my almost-five-year-old in mind, I pondered the meaning of the term kindergarten readiness. According to this 7/17/14 article published by the First Five Years Fund“An overwhelming majority of Americans from diverse political and demographic backgrounds support federal action on early childhood education,” said First Five Years Fund Executive Director Kris Perry. “They understand its return on investment. They demand that Congress fund programs that meet high-quality standards. And, they want to invest now.” The fund cites – albeit vaguely – the acquisition of “knowledge and skills” as necessary for ensuring kindergarten-readiness.

First today’s education reformers shoved college and career readiness down our throats, and now this? Is anyone else sickened by the return on investment analogy in talking about early childhood education? Where is the humanity? As a public elementary school teacher in New York City, I see firsthand how kindergarten has become first grade. I am a huge proponent of preschool but not for the purpose of preparing kids for an unnaturally “rigorous” kindergarten experience so that they can meet the needs of the Common Core, as demonstrated by its developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring testing program.

My spirited kid, N, will be starting kindergarten in September* and I’m fraught with anxiety, but not because she lacks “knowledge and skills.” On the contrary, N can decode anything from picture books to brochures. She can define the term instrumental (thanks to the Frozen soundtrack), and just yesterday N told me that the co. abbreviation stands for company. Monopoly is N’s favorite board game and her read-alouds, without any prompting from me, include higher order thinking questions.

What tightens the permanent knot in my stomach is the fact that N won’t poop in the potty. Last November she was diagnosed as a stool withholder. She takes Miralax and sees a child psychologist. For the past three years, N attended a private preschool. On average there were eight students and two teachers in her class. In true it-takes-a-village fashion, Ms. D and Ms. J, her teachers for two consecutive years, helped us with the arduous task of potty training N. On more than one occasion, I have given myself an ineffective rating in parenting (do I deserve a score of 1 in the teaching of grit?), and I often fantasize about living life as a Mongolian nomad, cut off from the pressures of the modern world. I envision N pooping off the side of a camel or in the grasslands. That’s all she would know.

In September, N will attend our zoned public school in Brooklyn, NY. There will likely be around 25 students and just one teacher in her full-day kindergarten class. With today’s academic demands, which include the regular administration of assessments to track student progress, combined with growing class sizes, N will not get the individualized attention that she benefited from in preschool. Her teacher will likely not tell her to go to the bathroom. How will the class respond to N when she is squatting in the corner of the room, refusing to participate? Will they tease her when she smells like urine or when a wet spot appears on the back of her pants? Our current public school learning climate does little to accommodate social and emotional learning, which is so critical, particularly in the early years.

We all know that children develop at different rates, however the First Five Years Fund’s report fails to acknowledge our multiple intelligences.  There is no mention of the whole child. The report’s tone is urgent, as if the authors felt pressured to ensure that incoming kindergarteners were ready for a “rigorous” Common Core education. If early childhood education does not include social and emotional learning, authentic and developmentally appropriate instruction as well as opportunities for play, compassion and love, then I don’t consider it high-quality.

*I will delete this post in the near future to spare N from any embarrassment my writing may cause her.

Teaching in Davonte’s Inferno: A Must Read Summer Book

Former New York City public school teacher, Laurel M. Sturt, tells it like it is. Refreshingly, she’s real with us in her no-holds-barred memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years In The New York Public School Gulag, a heart-breaking and humorous exposé of the farcical – and often terrifying and depressing – working conditions in a Bronx public elementary school. Like Sturt, I have substantial experience teaching in a Title I public school located in a low-income New York City neighborhood. Luckily I’ve never worked for tyrannical principals – as was Sturt’s fate – but I did relate to much of what she describes in her book.

For my own personal growth as a teacher (dare I say ‘professional development’?), Davonte’s Inferno shed more light on the social and emotional problems facing a number of our kids in Title I schools: abuse of all forms, neighborhood violence, and chaotic, unstable homes, the most shocking Sturt calls “houses of horror.” Her scientific research details the ‘toxic stress’ associated with poverty that negatively impacts student learning. Reading it served, in part, as a reminder to offer my students more unconditional love and to provide them with a safe space in which they can speak freely without fearing any judgement on my part. Due to the lack of much needed wraparound services in our public schools and in our neighborhoods, combined with the dearth of individualized instruction as a result of overcrowded classrooms and cuts to academic intervention services, Sturt’s book motivated me to spend a few lunch periods each week with angry fifth grade boys I fret over. We teachers wear many hats.

For the wider audience, not only is Davonte’s Inferno a crucial read for those entrenched in the corporate education reform debate, but it’s also relevant due to recent anti-teacher tenure initiatives such as the Vergara v. California decision and, here in New York City, Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which, among other efforts, has filed a lawsuit in New York to remove “poorly-performing” teachers from the classroom. The lawsuit cites low test scores as “evidence” that New York City students aren’t getting a sound education and claims that “far too many students every year find themselves stuck in classrooms led by ineffective teachers. It’s a problem that affects families in every corner of the state, but the sad truth is that the students who need great teachers the most—those who grow up in low-income communities—are often the least likely to get them.”

Sturt’s book acknowledges that ineffective teachers exist.  In fact, she describes the follies of one teacher who abused the system by faking an injury, among other misdeeds. She also tells on herself when she loses her cool with a student, something that EVERY teacher struggles with.  However, contrary to Campbell Brown’s argument, there are far fewer ineffective teachers in our schools. Similar to what I see at my Brooklyn elementary school, Sturt writes that, “Where I connected with everyone was my desire to help the kids.  I had never been around so many people who loved children as much as I did.”  “As vilified as public school educators had become,” Sturt remarks, many of the teachers in my school were in fact accomplished and committed:  I would have gladly put my own son in their care. Just like in the rest of the system there were, however, a handful of hacks, protected by favoritism, whose incompetence had never been questioned.”  Note ‘handful.’

What education reformers like Campbell Brown fail to fully consider are the exacting conditions in which we work.  In addition to the above-mentioned examples, New York City public school students and teachers are demoralized by excessive, high-stakes testing and the narrowing and standardization of pedagogy and curriculum as a result of the Common Core package and the NYC Department of Education’s application of Danielson’s Framework for Teaching for teacher evaluation purposes.  Some, unfortunately, also face vindictive principals like the four administrators detailed in Davonte’s Inferno: Cruella, Guido, Principal Dearest and Rosemary’s Baby. Countless administrator horror stories have been shared with me and I consider myself lucky to work at my school and to have due process rights as a tenured teacher.  Sadly, the capricious behavior of the principals at Sturt’s school led to the unjust firings of several promising new teachers.

If all stakeholders in public education could be honest with themselves and truly put children – not ego and profit – first, then perhaps we’d experience real progress in addressing the problems in our public schools, namely the achievement gap. Laurel Sturt’s authentic book moves us closer in that direction.

 

To the NYCDOE – Put Children First & Opt-Out of Pearson’s Field Tests

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Taking Back Our Schools/Save Our Schools rally in New York City – May 17, 2014

“Children First. Always.” is the motto of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). I rage inside whenever my eyes happen to fall upon this misappropriated phrase – a leftover from the Bloomberg reign – on the NYCDOE’s home page.

It is at once laughable and insulting to make such a claim as New York State education policy puts corporations, like Pearson, first.  Next week Pearson, together with its bedfellow, the New York State Education Department (NYSED), will begin administering stand-alone field tests. The official assessment window is June 2-11, and the administration of these tests follows a flurry of test-taking that has left both students and educators in New York City burned out and fed up.  Is this what ed deformers mean by grit? Here’s what our elementary and middle schools have endured since April 1, 2014:

  • Pearson’s Common Core ELA assessment (three days)
  • Pearson’s Common Core math assessment (three days)
  • Four-part Common Core-aligned NYSESLAT (NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test) – speaking, listening, reading comprehension and writing (for English-language learners ONLY)
  • Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) ELA Performance Assessment for schools that chose this as their local measure for teacher effectiveness rating purposes
  • Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) Math Performance Assessment for schools that chose this option as their local measure for teacher effectiveness rating purposes
  • New York State Science Performance Test (grades 4 & 8 only)
  • New York State Science Written Section (grades 4 & 8 only)
  • Chinese Reading assessment (for students in grades 3-12 receiving bilingual or dual language instruction in Chinese)
  • Spanish Reading assessment (for students in graders 3-12 receiving bilingual or dual language instruction in Spanish)
  • CTB/McGraw-Hill Mathematics Benchmark Assessment Aligned to NYC Core Curriculum Option Go Math! (optional, not all schools participated)
  • CTB/McGraw-Hill English Language Arts Benchmark Assessment (optional, not all schools participated)
  • ELA and Math portfolio assessments for potential holdover students

Change the Stakes, a New York City-based parent and teacher group that opposes high-stakes testing, has done an admirable job of raising awareness of the detriments of field testing.  They report that 1,682 NYC public schools have been assigned to field test either the math or ELA test, and another 103 are signed up for the science field test.  The following information about field tests is published on their website.

What’s Wrong with Field Tests?

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Field tests are an integral part of high-stakes-testing, a system that narrows curriculum and dampens children’s natural enthusiasm for learning. When the stakes are unreasonably high, it encourages widespread teaching to the test and cheating, wastes ever-shrinking resources, and results in inaccurate measures of student performance.
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Field tests provide misleading data. Children aren’t motivated to do well on “trial” exams.
  • Reputable researchers spell out their aims, invite participation, and pay subjects. This is not the case with test publishers. Children provide free labor for product-testing, while their parents and even their schools are kept in the dark.

Why Opt Out? 

  • No child is required to take a field test, and opting out will in no way harm their record, their teachers, or their school.
  • Publishers of field tests see them as essential for creating standardized exams. Without field tests, they argue, there would be no exams. So opting out is a powerful way to demonstrate your opposition to high-stakes testing.

Our students are suffering.  As a result of excessive testing and low-quality Common Core curricula, we are seeing an increased level of behavior problems in our classrooms. More and more students are shutting down, refusing to do work, particularly at this time of year.  I support Change the Stake’s call to opt-out of the upcoming stand-alone field tests. The New York City Department of Education should do the same.  They truly need to put our children first.