Testifying at John King’s Common Core Forum in Brooklyn 12/10/13

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NYSED Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch brought their Common Core “listening” tour to New York City last night. Tisch was stationed in the Bronx while John King attended the Brooklyn forum at Medgar Evers College.  Tonight (12/11/13) the two will appear together at Spruce Street School/P.S. 397 (12 Spruce Street) in Manhattan from 5-7 pm.

Unlike previous Common Core forums held in New York State, the Brooklyn forum was dominated by Common Core supporters, namely representatives of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst movement, including teachers, and members of Families for Excellent Schools.  Former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown, whose husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of StudentsFirstNY, was there as well.  What was most striking to me was hearing parents praise high-stakes testing.

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Specials interests descend on Brooklyn’s Common Core forum 

I arrived at the Medgar Evers auditorium shortly after 4:30 pm.  I wanted to get there early to get a speaking slot and to edit and practice my speech.  In fact, I was the first speaker to sign up.  While I was working in a different location, the Common Core supporters showed up en masse and secured the remaining 44 speaking slots.  Even though a significant number of Common Core and high-stakes standardized testing critics were in the audience, I ended up being the only critic who spoke.

Here is a copy of my speech, which I had to deliver in two minutes.

The Common Core is undemocratic and has been implemented in top-down fashion. The Common Core puts corporations, not children, first. It was written secretively by 60 individuals representing a variety of non-profits funded by the Gates Foundation. Only one participant in the entire writing process was a teacher. Not only has the Gates Foundation spent nearly $200 million on the Common Core, but it sent consultants to Washington, DC to help Arne Duncan draft Race to the Top legislation. Here In New York, the Regents Research Fund, which supports the controversial Regents Fellows think tank, received $3.3 million from the Gates Foundation.

Furthermore, teachers did not play a decision-making role in reviewing the standards. A Florida teacher recently said the following about the process:

“As the review unfolded, it became apparent that we were not working with a holistic, integrated application of standards… It began to look instead like a checklist forming a platform for standardized testing” (Florida Teacher: “I Was Among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009” by Anthony Cody, 11/6/13)

As you’ve “heard” again and again, the Common Core has led to scripted curricula that do little more than prepare students – beginning in kindergarten – for high-stakes Common Core standardized tests. The content, format, and length of the exams, combined with instructional and enrichment time lost to test prep, constitute child abuse and deprive students of a meaningful education.

Do the right thing. End high-stakes testing. Look at model schools – like Mission Hill in Boston – that have experienced great success in teaching the whole child and in using authentic, portfolio-based assessments. Invest in smaller class sizes, especially in Title I schools like mine that have a high number of English-language learners and students with disabilities. We need educated teaching assistants, not an influx of technology, in our overcrowded classrooms. We need autonomy and the freedom to use the standards as we see fit, to best meet the needs of our diverse learners. The Common Core, in my professional opinion, will NOT close the achievement gap.

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Recognition for Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

Dear all,

Susan and I so appreciate Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post profile of our website as well as Diane Ravitch’s strong endorsement on her blog. We also appreciate Anthony Cody’s recognition on his blog.

We recognize the healing powers of providing teachers with a space where they can share with one another stories about their struggles. Corporate education reform has been devastating to our profession, and it is our hope that teachers will find insight and inspiration through these pages.

Mr. Gates – we also hope you read our letters with an open mind and will respond to us in an authentic, meaningful way. We strongly urge you to spend as much time as possible in the “trenches,” in public schools, working directly with kids and dialoguing with educators. It’s the only way you’ll truly understand and appreciate what we dedicated, caring teachers are up against. We are teachers to the core – we feel it in every fiber of our being – but the Common Core together with its assessment, curriculum and teacher evaluation plans, are gutting us and our students.

Diane’s endorsement: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/06/19/an-amazing-website-teachers-letters-to-bill-gates/

Valerie’s article in the Washington Post:
http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/14/teachers-letters-to-bill-gates/

Anthony’s blog:
http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in-dialogue%2F2013%2F06%2Fbill_gates_discovers_money_can.html

Bill Lapham – One of the Good Guys

The year my father was dying of cancer, the company he was on the board of established an award in his name. It’s called the William V. Lapham Award for Extraordinary Integrity and it’s given “to individuals who clearly demonstrate an exceptional commitment to the highest standards of personal or financial integrity for the benefit of the Company.”

Growing up, I was conflicted about my dad’s job in corporate America. I was grateful for the comfortable lifestyle he provided us with, including financing my high school and college tuitions, but I also indulged in trying to get a rise out of him by challenging the existence of capitalism. Like many students of liberal arts, particularly history, I flirted with Marxist ideology and even named my cat Trotsky. My dad adored the cat, but changed her name to Trotty after I left home for college.

As a corporate auditor, my father disdained mismanagement and waste and, in decision-making, always asked himself ‘does this make sense’? He was a thoughtful and self-reflective man, and very thorough in his investigations. Both of us – at one point – aspired to be FBI agents.

Now, as I spend my free time educating myself on market-driven educational policies and Bill Gates’ influence in public education, I imagine my dad and myself engaged in a respectful dialogue about this topic. He’d probably tell me that I needed to be realistic and practical, but at the same time I know that he would listen – with an open mind – to my stories about what’s really happening in our nation’s classrooms as a result of privatization. In addition to being a man of integrity in the business world, he was sensitive and had a big heart.

My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score

Hi Mr. Gates,

Were you a good test-taker? I wasn’t and neither is one of my 5th grade ELLs. In fact, he isn’t a true ELL but he hasn’t yet tested proficient on the NYSESLAT (you know about this standardized test from my previous letters to you), which is the only way out of ESL.

He is despondent after learning that his ELA cut score isn’t high enough for automatic promotion to the 6th grade. In my letter to him, I reveal my own struggles with standardized testing. -K

Dear ________,

I know you are feeling down about your ELA score. I have been in your shoes many times before, and know what a struggle it is – how so very hard it is – to lift yourself up from the crushing disappointment.

________, I was a terrible standardized test-taker. It was very hard for me to concentrate and focus on reading passages, especially when faced with so many long ones. The time limit also distracted me and made me nervous. I felt rushed. As a result, I would panic and freeze; my mind would go blank. I couldn’t seem to remember anything I had read and re-read. The information got mixed up in my head and the multiple choice answers confused me. It was such a painful experience for me that I simply selected the best-sounding answer just to be done with it. Is that what it’s like for you?

Have you heard of the SAT? It’s the test that high school kids take in order to get into college. My SAT scores in math and ELA were low. Even though I had a tutor and pushed myself to take the test five times, my scores never improved. In spite of this, I was accepted to every college I applied to, and I thrived as a history major. The universities saw that I was talented in other ways. After college I went on to get a Master’s degree in Latin American studies, but I went to England for this. I prefer their essay-based assessments. I never once had to take a multiple choice test over there.

Please know that you are not alone. We all demonstrate our intelligence and knowledge differently. I had the pleasure of teaching you in 2nd grade and again in 5th grade. Like me, you are a careful, thoughtful worker. You work best when you are given enough time to think about what you want to say. You are a strong writer and you have excellent ideas. You just need to complete your work in your own time.

I want you to know that in my free time I am working hard to speak out on behalf of learners like you and me. It’s not right that so much importance is placed on tests like the ELA and math, which don’t accurately reflect all that we have learned. Most – if not all – teachers believe this.

Hang in there. Ms. ________ and I believe in you. You have so much to contribute to class _______ and beyond. Feel free to reach out to me next year. I am here for you and will always be your advocate.

All best,
Ms. Lapham

A nuanced look at the “No excuses” slogan

6/3/13

Dear Mr. Bill Gates,

I recently read an online dialogue between Education Week’s Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation. In it, Irvin Scott of the Foundation states, “Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.” This got me thinking about the “No Excuses … All Students Will Learn” slogan, which has always bothered me, and I think I now know why.

I absolutely agree that all children can learn, however I wish to add nuance to these statements by pointing out that kids learn at different rates and they demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. The multiple intelligences theory was one of the first concepts taught to us in teacher training. Not only is the one-size-fits-all, Common Core-fortified testing program educationally unsound, but it does little – if anything – to accommodate and honor these varying learning styles.

Is Irwin Scott using standardized test scores alone to measure student learning? One of the most dynamic, hard-working teachers at my Title I public school in Brooklyn, NY teaches challenging and thought-provoking material to a small group of students in a 3rd grade self-contained special ed class. Her kids are learning an enormous amount both academically and socially/emotionally. She gardens with them, takes them to Chinatown, runs laps around the school with them and teaches them high-level, content-related vocabulary through New York Times articles, among many other enriching activities.

However, her three ELLs (English-language learners) will not test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT and will remain in ESL indefinitely, at-risk of becoming long-term ELLs, a status that reflects poorly on a school. This is due to a learning disability, not an English-language deficiency. Also, few students in her class – if any- will receive a score of 3 (so-called grade level performance) on the Common Core state tests that were administered in New York in April. Looking at test scores alone, will these students be viewed as not having learned this year? Will their test scores reflect poorly on this singular teacher? She is the kind of instructor I aspire to be. What’s also remarkable about her is that she doesn’t allow the demands of the state tests, specifically the pressures to engage in mind numbing test prep, to rattle her or to affect her high quality of teaching. Test prep, a result of high-stakes testing, actually lowers the quality of instruction.

The state does make testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for English-language learners (extended time, questions read, for example), however the length and content of the tests remain the same. Furthermore, ELLs (English-language learners) are required to take the English-language arts exam after just 12 months in the system. If the “official” learning of these students is judged solely by test scores, imagine the impact this can have on the students’ feelings of self- worth. On the one hand their minds are expanding in the classroom (test prep aside), but coming from the other direction is a crushing force telling them that their learning is deficient.

In officially measuring learning, will the judgement of individual schools and teachers in the US ever be trusted and respected enough to instead consider other, more meaningful assessments? Ironically, it has been drilled into us – by the same people who force oppressive standardized testing programs upon us – to differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of all students. So who is really being measured by these tests?

Next up: how “No excuses” doesn’t allow room for the consideration of poverty and the level of parent involvement as major factors influencing student performance. Teachers aren’t making excuses. We are being realistic.

Sincerely,
Katie Lapham
#TeachersLetters2Gates
On Facebook/TeachersLetters2Gates

P.S. Sorry for the messy link. I am not ready for a career in computer science.

Dialogue between Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation: http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in dialogue%2F2012%2F09%2Fa_teacher_in_dialogue_with_the.html

On Facebook: Teachers’ letters to Bill Gates

Hi all, if you are on Facebook please LIKE a new page I created. Search for Teachers’ letters to Bill Gates. He needs to hear teachers’ experiences and perspectives so that he can better grasp what he is funding. That is, if he’s willing to. I have really appreciated reading your stories and they need to be shared with a wider audience. If you wish to post anonymously, please private message me at: katielapham1@gmail.com. I will re-post as anonymous to protect your identity.
If we collect enough anecdotes, perhaps we can send him a book.
Thanks, Katie