Dear Carmen Fariña: NYC Schools Need Joy and Democracy

Dear Chancellor Fariña,

Welcome back! I am encouraged by your message of bringing back joy into the classrooms. But what about democracy? Here in New York City, curriculum and pedagogy are narrowing in order to prepare students for high-stakes tests that, in my professional opinion, are invalid. The Common Core (CCSS) state tests do not accurately measure what students know and how they have grown both academically and socially/emotionally. In my opinion, the corporate education reform agenda, together with its Common Core package of standards, curriculum and testing, is whittling down the purpose of public education to “college and career readiness,” with a focus on English-language arts and math instruction. At the NYS Senate’s January 23, 2014 Common Core hearing, NYSED Commissioner John King reiterated that the Common Core is needed for the US economy, arguing that it’s what US corporations want. However, any teacher will tell you that they are in this job to make a difference in the lives of children, to show students how to avoid the mistakes made by our predecessors in the hopes of improving the state of the world. We see the critical importance of helping students develop life skills, such as civic-mindedness, empathy and resilience, in addition to teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic.

I wish to draw your attention to the issues in our public schools that currently are most troubling to me. I am a push-in ESL teacher at a Title I elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn, however I started out, in 2006, as a bilingual classroom teacher.

1.) Over-testing – English-language learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 are particularly encumbered with standardized testing. The NYSESLAT (NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test) is administered to ELLs right after the grueling Common Core ELA and math state assessments. The NYSESLAT is a lengthy, four-part assessment that tests students’ proficiency levels in the speaking, reading, writing and listening of English. Contrary to what the NYS Board of Regents says, students in grades K-2 are indeed taking standardized tests. For the listening, reading and writing sections of the NYSESLAT, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets. As an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, my instructional program is, for the most part, cancelled for two months in the spring. From April to June, my days are spent preparing, administering and scoring state assessments.

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In addition to April’s Common Core ELA and math high-stakes tests, NYC students are currently taking ELA and math baseline assessments that resemble the content and format of the actual CCSS state tests. Two weeks ago, my 5th grade English-language learners (ELLs) used over four class periods to complete the math baseline. One boy shut down in the middle of the assessment and a girl broke down in tears and ended up in the nurse’s office. While change must occur at both the federal and state levels, you and Bill de Blasio have the power to lower the stakes of these burdensome tests in New York City. A recent Teachers Talk Testing petition asked the mayor to:

1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.

In fact, on December 10, 2013, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 1394, which calls upon the state of New York to replace high-stakes testing with multiple forms of assessment. Fred Smith, a statistician who worked for the NYC Board of Education as an administrative staff analyst until 2001, is a wealth of knowledge on NYS’s flawed standardized testing program. In a letter to Diane Ravitch, Smith called the 2013 NYS Common Core assessments “…failed, unreliable instruments incapable of serving as a baseline or foundation.” Smith currently advises Change the Stakes, a local group that opposes high-stakes testing, and is an excellent resource.

2.) Undemocratic learning climate – Our freedom to teach is eroding. Teachers had little (if any) meaningful participation in the development and review of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core package was imposed on us in top-down fashion, and in many NYC public schools, particularly those receiving Title I funding, there’s little wiggle room in applying the standards to learning. In other words, we cannot simply use the standards as we see fit. They are tied to an accountability system (testing) and scripted curricula that ostensibly address the so-called instructional shifts. Teachers increasingly lament that they feel they aren’t giving students what they really need and deserve.

Similarly, many NYC teachers feel they had little input in selecting the new Common Core-aligned curriculum. Pearson’s ReadyGEN ELA Core Curriculum program is particularly unpopular, not because of its disastrous rollout, but because it’s an uninspiring and developmentally inappropriate test prep program. While I mostly like the 5th grade anchor texts – the only part of the program my 5th grade co-teacher and I currently use – I had no say in choosing the books. When will my co-teacher and I squeeze in Rickshaw Girl, a culturally relevant chapter book we read every year that explores the struggles of a young girl in Bangladesh? Also, the ReadyGEN-selected texts are challenging for my ESL students, and from what I can tell the program offers no differentiation in terms of materials. Pearson instructs teachers to expose all students, regardless of reading level and English-language proficiency, to the same rigorous text.

Here’s a sample page from Coming to America: The Story of Immigration, a text that’s being used in the ReadyGEN ELA first grade program.

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First grade close reading – ReadyGEN

Will a first grader find joy in closely reading this text and in answering questions in ReadyGEN’s bland Reader’s and Writer’s Journal which, to me, is nothing more than a test prep workbook? What about my special needs ELL who still doesn’t know all of his sounds and letters but is expected to follow along in the text while the teacher reads it aloud? The ReadyGEN first grade journal asks students to write sentences using vocabulary such as gazes, barrier, blended and unique. It also instructs students to explain in writing why America is called a “melting pot” and to rewrite sentences from the text in order to replace proper nouns and nouns with pronouns. In a reading analysis lesson, the written response directions in the first grade journal are worded as follows: What is the central message of A Picnic in October? and Retell three details that teach the central message.

The ReadyGEN ELA program has yielded so few moments of joy in our first grade ESL class that my co-teacher and I have decided to take a break from it during our literacy block. We are currently teaching an ELA unit on monsters, and the classroom has come alive. We selected a variety of engaging monster books, and each day students complete a writing and/or art activity. Why are the monsters called Wild Things? What does it mean to be ‘wild’? Describe the setting of the book. Describe the nightmare in your closet. What makes it scary? How does the mouse trick the forest animals in The Gruffalo? Are all monsters bad? What are the different names (synonyms) for monsters in the books we’ve read? Create your own monster and use adjectives to describe its features. From this, I envision a social emotional learning unit in which we discuss our fears and students describe a time when they were brave. I’m doing something similar with my 5th grade newcomer ELLs who are currently studying the Underground Railroad.

3.) Misuse of funds and inequity– While we are using what we can of ReadyGEN, the student journals are largely being unused. How much money did the NYCDOE spend on this program? NYC Title I public schools, in particular, feel they have no choice but to adopt the subsidized NYCDOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” NYSED engageny.org lessons. Doing so spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative Common Core-aligned programs. Also, schools with low test scores find comfort in reasoning that the content and tasks in these programs might appear on the actual CCSS tests. It should be noted that Pearson is the publisher of both ReadyGEN and the NYS ELA CCSS assessment.

Harris Lirtzman recently penned an eye-opening opinion piece on NYCDOE spending for WNYC’s SchoolBook. He called the DOE under Michael Bloomberg “a sinkhole of wasted money.” My understanding of the NYCDOE’s budget is not as deep as Lirtzman’s, but I can think of so many other ways to use the funds. Class sizes are rising, AIS services are being cut and after school test prep sessions have replaced enrichment programs. Wraparound services are also in demand. We need more initiatives to genuinely fight poverty and to provide students who are hurting with counseling. So many of our kids don’t have a safety net and look to school for emotional support. With the emphasis currently on addressing  “instructional shifts” and on preparing students for high-stakes testing, the needs of at-risk students are not being met.

4.) Lack of meaningful professional development (PD)Why is Pearson telling us how to teach? Teachers report that the ReadyGEN PD sessions they regularly attend are ineffective. In addition, teachers are being asked to analyze tests that they themselves didn’t create, and collaborative planning time is being sacrificed so that teachers in grades 3-5 can score the above-mentioned baseline assessments using a non-teacher created rubric. I have lost count of the number of PD sessions I’ve attended on Danielson’s Framework and on the Common Core State Standards.

Teachers would rather spend time working together to create lessons, gather materials and share resources. We learn best from one another. Outside of my school, I look at Boston’s Mission Hill School, which was founded by Deborah Meier in 1997, for alternative techniques to the ones imposed on us. After watching the inspirational video series A Year at Mission Hill, I started writing a column on teachersletterstobillgates.com in which I showcase the school’s rich project-based, collaborative curriculum and inclusive community-building practices. I call my project Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill.

Here in New York City, I recently attended the More than a Score: Talk back to Testing forum that was organized by Change the Stakes and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) of the UFT. I left feeling inspired and hopeful. Participants feeling demoralized by high-stakes testing found the day to be soul-cleansing; one even declared that we should “…walk out of here and start a new school system.” Jia Lee, a teacher/parent at Manhattan’s Earth School, shared with us the 4th/5th grade immigrant study curriculum that she and her colleagues designed. I learned from Jia that through socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, her school, which is part of the Children First Network 102, creates their own project-based curricula and portfolio-based assessments. The Earth School has also effectively eliminated the ranking and sorting of kids by using written narrative reports to convey student performance rather than traditional report cards.

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Those of us saddled with test prep curriculum, like ReadyGEN, and the NYC Performance Assessments, which exist solely to satisfy the Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) component of the new teacher evaluation system, do not have sufficient space in which to collaborate in authentic, meaningful ways. We have fewer opportunities to put our own stamp on the learning taking place in our classrooms. It breaks my heart that students in my district are not getting the same kinds of educational experiences that have existed long before the reign of the Common Core era at the Earth School and at other CFN 102 schools like the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146) and Park Slope’s P.S. 321.  Many NYC educators are unaware of the autonomy that these NYC public elementary schools enjoy.  In designing quality curriculum and assessments that address the whole child, we should reject what corporate education reform is peddling and instead draw from our most valuable resource: our schools.

Kind regards,

Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher

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Danielson 4a: Reflecting on Teaching ReadyGEN

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As part of Advance, the NYC Department of Education’s new system of teacher evaluation and development, all NYC teachers must submit up to eight artifacts by April 11, 2014.

This requirement falls under the Observation and Other Measures of Teacher Effectiveness component of the plan, which represents 60% of a teacher’s overall score.  The other 40% are based on student test scores: a state or comparable measure, such as the Common Core state assessments in math and ELA, and a locally-selected measure.

These changes, which are a result of the federal government’s Race to the Top mandates, have largely been made in top-down fashion, without real teacher input.

On this site and on others, however, NYC teachers’ voices will be heard.  In fulfilling the first component of the plan, Observation and Other Measures of Teacher Effectiveness, which utilizes the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a rubric, NYC teachers will be writing reflection journals about the impact of Race to the Top (RTTP) polices and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) package on our teaching practice. The reflection journal artifact is aligned to the following Danielson domain and component:

Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities
4a Reflecting on Teaching

We begin with reflections on Pearson’s ReadyGEN, the new NYC DOE Core Curriculum ELA program for grades K-5. -KL

From a third grade Special Education teacher:

I only want to know if Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (for GO Math!) were selling stock options to NYC at a great rate. Why else would anyone, and I mean ANYONE have bought this “snake oil?”

From a fifth grade teacher:

I was ready for this school year, or so I thought. I attended multiple trainings over the summer, spent time reflecting, preparing, and lesson planning. I knew that there would be some big changes with the new NYC DOE Common Core-aligned ELA and math programs adopted by my school. But I had no idea it would be like this. 

Over the past week, I have worked through all of my preps and most of my lunches preparing for this new curriculum. I have also spent one to three hours daily at home. The workload is greater, beyond the normal preparation time, for two main reasons:

1.) The new teacher evaluation plan takes into account detailed and thorough lesson plans.

2.) Two new programs need to be tweaked to fit the needs of my class. Although many teachers are worried about the former, I realize that I am spending so much time planning just to get a grasp on what I am actually going to teach. The ReadyGEN ELA program has so many different components and addresses multiple standards within a single lesson, which leaves little time to delve deeply, explain or focus on anything.

There is so much knowledge that is assumed, that kids know what it means to analyze a text, or to explain how the text features contribute to the readers’ understanding. Sure, I can teach them how to do this, but doesn’t teaching mean showing and doing, or rather, having the kids do it? These lessons seem to be more about telling them to analyze and less about showing them what it means and how to do it. 

I don’t have a problem taking a curriculum and making it my own.  In fact, I would rather do this. I have never been the type to stick to a scripted program, but of course doing this requires even more work. First, I must understand what the main goal of the lesson really is, in relation to the standards (something that should be clear in a teacher’s guide, no?), and then I have to decide how to address the needs of my class while teaching to them the same standard. 
 
So I have this routine. I come home, reflect, and then figure out a way to conquer tomorrow. Expectations are unclear from administrators; they are doing their best to learn it too.  
 
But you want to know the saddest part? The deep, profound impact ReadyGEN is having on my students in a negative way. That’s what’s keeping me up at night. The fact that I have been teaching routines, directions, and skills without being able to delve into the deeper issues of life that really matter. The fact that I can’t teach social studies because there is no time, and what all these programs are really doing is prepping kids to take a test. The fact that I am a cog in the wheel rolling towards a world of charter schools that have no unions, because public schools are being set up for failure. The fact that a student’s parent asked me point blank today, “What can I do to help my son? He is on a second grade reading level and he is in 5th grade. He just came from Bangladesh and is behind.  He needs help. How can I help? How can you help?” I had to tell him to wait, because I can’t meet with small groups quite yet, and because all of the kids are reading the same book because they are all being tested and held to the same standards, and that’s really about it. 
 
It is unfair that teachers have had no time to plan, implement, and understand this new program, and our students are on the receiving end of our trial and error process. They deserve better. As the days go by, I am slowly becoming more and more empowered to chip away pieces of this program and to just teach. I will do what I need to do so that my kids can learn and grow. And I don’t really care if the new rubric doesn’t recognize my effectiveness. If I can help that one student, whose parent reached out to me, I did my job. 

Common Core ELA curriculum resembles test prep, lacks meaning

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The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were initially sold to me as student learning goals used as a blueprint in shaping instruction. I believed – naively, I now realize – that I’d have the freedom to use my own materials and assessments within the framework of the standards. I figured I could mold them to fit the individual learning needs of my ELLs (English-language learners). I am a push-in elementary ESL teacher, which means I co-teach with classroom teachers during the literacy block (reading and writing).

Fast forward a few years to the 2013 New York State Common Core assessments. This past winter, in preparing our students for the CCSS ELA (English-language arts) exam, we were given packets of authentic texts (both fiction and non-fiction) to use in teaching close reading skills to our students. In close reading, you isolate and analyze a short paragraph or section of a reading passage. Common Core buzzwords such as “dig deeper, critical thinking, and evidence” were constantly thrown at us in a way that implied we hadn’t previously taught these reading comprehension skills.  On the contrary, my fifth grade co-teacher and I judiciously select a wide range of authentic materials – from New York Times articles to charity/NGO mission statements – to enrich our meaningful units of study. Over the past four years of working together, we have created an engaging social justice curriculum that we will likely have to shelve due to the NYC DOE’s new “recommended” Core Curriculum programs, two of which my school adopted for the 2013-2014 school year.

Both the content and purpose of the CCSS test prep materials we were given, which consisted of a random selection of reading passages, disconnected from a larger, more meaningful unit of study, contrast with our own teacher-created materials and performance tasks. Unlike our thought-provoking social justice curriculum, the test prep materials were largely devoid of any real world knowledge that we find our students crave. I recently examined Pearson’s scripted NYC ReadyGEN Common Core curriculum that my school is using for ELA this year, and, like the test prep materials we were given for the spring tests, it closely resembles the content and skills assessed on Pearson’s NYS Common Core exams. I found the reading passages to be uninspiring, and I was confused by the objective (s) of some of the questions.

Common Core supporters often point out to me that curriculum is not mandated in NYS. They argue that schools and/or districts have choice with regards to selecting CCSS-aligned materials. They highlight a menu of already existing programs: engageny.org curriculum modules and NYC DOE recommended Core Curriculum programs, for example.  However, what they fail to mention is that schools are experiencing deep budget cuts while simultaneously being subjected to high-stakes CCSS testing. Thus, in NYC, for example, schools feel pressure to use the subsidized NYC DOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” engageny.org lessons because this spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative programs. Also, in this era of school closings due to “poor” performance, there is relief in knowing that the state and city-approved materials are designed to prepare kids for the high-stakes Common Core tests.

In the wake of the August 7, 2013 release of the 2013 NYS Common Core test scores, the public outcry against these tests has been spreading like wildfire across the state.  As I see it, calling the CCSS assessments ‘invalid’ and ‘meaningless’ requires a simultaneous questioning of the NYS and NYC government-approved CCSS curriculum programs, which, together with the assessments they are designed to prepare students for, carry an enormous price tag. The Common Core professional development programs alone are costing the state $1 billion.

Because I have not attended a Pearson ReadyGEN ELA training, I wish to include excerpts from an email I received from a colleague who was trained in this NYC Core Curriculum ELA program last week.

“Walking into the ReadyGEN workshop, I had my concerns, mainly because the teacher’s guide looks similar to the math program (Go Math!) in the way it tells you how to lay out the lesson and what to say.

As the program began to unfold, I noticed that the prototype and philosophy IS very similar to what you and I do/did everyday with students. The program emphasizes complex texts and close reading (we do) as well as reading multiple texts to gain critical thinking skills and to question beliefs (we do). The critical thinking questions the program provides are pretty generic.

For teachers who have developed a curriculum or process that works and yields results, it’s almost an insult. They are taking everything we do, packaging and branding it, and selling it.

The bad part about this is there are “non-negotiable” anchor texts that we can’t change. They were supposedly chosen thoughtfully, and with a formula to measure text complexity that not only includes factors like Lexile and vocabulary, but also complex thought and ideas.

Each day, you are given a specific section to first read aloud, then read again with close reading. After that, a reading strategy is taught and assessed, and small groups are formed for the teacher to work further with struggling students, while students who get it have “extension activities” or independent reading time. The last 30 minutes of the prototype are solely for whole group writing. So, as I mentioned, very similar to how we currently operate.

The shift will be in the pre-packaged themes/texts. Some I like, some I don’t. My hope is that these texts will provide us with an opportunity to go on some sidebars, and perhaps choose supporting texts not from the ReadyGen anthology, but from the New York Times. And of course, our beautiful and thoughtful social justice work will have to take a back burner, or at least we will have to find creative ways to focus on these topics. I have yet to read any of the texts to determine whether they are meaningful.

In summary, I don’t think ReadyGEN will be as bad as expected, but I do think it will be a sad shift. I am determined to stay optimistic, because ultimately being a classroom teacher means you do have the control, and no matter how scripted a program can be, your voice is more powerful.”