Test Refusal = People Power

In recent months, social media has been ablaze with talk of regular folk taking action to resist the Trump agenda.  Protests are a daily occurrence, and even those who previously paid little attention to politics are now hitting the streets with cardboard signs to express their outrage.  I see girls as young as 6 years old scurrying into brownstone Brooklyn public schools with handmade, mauve-colored pussy hats atop their heads.  I would even argue that more than half of the adult population in the United States knows who Betsy DeVos is and what she stands for.  While I wish more people had been ‘woke’ under Obama, this new wave of activism – with the message of #PeoplePower at its heart – gives me hope.

Since 2013, I have been strongly encouraging residents of New York State – and beyond – to refuse the Common Core-aligned grades 3-8 state tests in math and ELA.  I still have nothing positive to say about them, and at this point – in my weary, I-give-zero-you-know-whats state – I have escalated to practically demanding that you opt out this year.  Even Betty Rosa, the new chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, said she’d refuse the tests.  Here’s what Kate Taylor of The New York Times reported in March 2016:

“Dr. Rosa has criticized the new, more difficult tests that the state introduced under her predecessor, Merryl H. Tisch, as part of its transition to the Common Core standards. She has suggested that the tests were designed so that many students would fail, giving policy makers a chance to point to a crisis in the state’s schools. On Monday, she said that if she had children in the grades taking the exams, she would have them sit out the tests, as the parents of more than 200,000 students did last year.”

People, we have power.  Refusing the state tests sends the message that we reject the further privatization of public education in this country.  Under this umbrella, we:

  • say NO to the over-testing of our youngest learners, particularly English-language learners who must also take the grueling four-part NYSESLAT assessment AFTER the state ELA and math tests.
  • say NO to school segregation and the argument that a school is “bad” because of low test scores.
  • say NO to fear and threats! NYC students ARE getting into competitive middle and high schools without test scores, and schools are not being defunded.
  • say NO to a one-size-fits-all education.
  • say NO to poorly constructed, highly flawed and developmentally inappropriate standardized tests.
  • say NO to test scores being used to label schools, students and teachers as “failing.”
  • say NO to uninspiring test prep curricula.
  • say NO to the lack of art, music and culturally responsive curricula in our schools.
  • say NO to data-mining.

Opting out is not just to protect your own child.  It also sends the message that we are looking out for ALL children.   Peter Greene, a highly respected educator and blogger, recently published a piece on test refusal in The Huffington Post.  It gives even more reasons to opt out including “the value of non-compliance,” my personal favorite.  Greene writes, “In this day and age, it is never too early for a child to learn that sometimes people in authority will demand that you comply with dumb actions. Unthinking compliance is unwise. It’s good for all citizens to learn to say ‘no’.” 

The New York State tests begin two weeks from today.  Please visit these websites to download your opt out letter.  It’s not too late to say NO, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t refuse the tests.

NYS Allies for Public Education 

NYC Opt Out

 

NYC Teachers: What do YOU think of Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests?

Oh wait – we aren’t supposed to say anything about Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests.

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As I reported in my last blog post, in her March 15, 2016 letter to NYC parents, NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote that the NYS (New York State) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests are “…incredibly important for teachers and schools, who use the results to improve instruction and to provide individual support to all of our students.  They are a valuable experience for our students.”  

What do you think? Are Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests valuable and important?  Please leave a comment on this post (or send me an email: katielapham1@gmail.com).  I will respect your anonymity. I just ask that you include the following information: borough, NYC school district and school level (middle or elementary).

I am soliciting teacher feedback because I strongly disagree with Fariña’s remarks about the value of these tests and feel that it’s important for ALL parents – not just those in Brooklyn’s District 15 or Tribeca – to know the truth about these tests.  I applaud the brave teachers at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 and Tribeca’s P.S. 234 who have criticized the tests to parents.  Their eloquent testimonials are spot on.  Countless teachers bemoan Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests behind closed doors, but due to fear here in NYC, few teachers speak out against them.

As a mandated reporter and educator of English-language learners (ELLs), I refuse to remain quiet.  Since 2013, I have had to administer these horrendous Pearson Common Core tests to my students.  Each year I tell myself that I will follow the lead of NYC’s Teachers of Conscience by refusing to administer them. But I haven’t yet taken that step.  Instead, I have this blog.

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The 2016 NYS testing season begins on April 5, 2016. It includes Pearson’s NYS Common Core ELA and math tests (a total of six days), the NYSESLAT for English-language learners, the state science test for 4th gradersCommon Core field tests for select grades in select schools, the Chinese Reading Assessment for students in Chinese dual language/bilingual classes and the Spanish (ELE) Reading Assessment for students in Spanish dual language/bilingual classes. This means that out-of-classroom teachers, like myself, will have to suspend their teaching programs (mine is mandated) in order to test students.  Our kids who are most in need of support – both academic and emotional – will be deprived of their services during this time.  It also means that teachers will feel disingenuous as they encourage students to do their best on non-teacher created tests that insult our intelligence.  Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests have been widely discredited for being poorly constructed, developmentally inappropriate, and invalid.  The New York State Education Department (NYSED) manipulates cut scores in order to legitimize the false narrative that our schools are failing.  Not only are cut scores constantly changing but the NYSED sets them AFTER the tests have been scored. Thus, the NYSED’s claim that 70% of our students are failing is invalid.

It is a truly soul-crushing time of the year for everyone involved, except – perhaps – for Carmen Fariña.  Will she be deprived of valuable instructional time to administer and to score meaningless tests? Will she have to watch students, as young as 8-years-old, shut down, cry, throw up, call themselves stupid? Will she go home at the end of a grueling testing day in tears? Will she have to to explain to a scared and confused newcomer ELL why he/she has to take the ELA test after just 12 months in the system followed by the NYSESLAT? Fariña is not in the trenches. We are, and – for the sake of our beloved students – our stories deserve to be told.  

NYC teachers – I implore you to use this blog post to share your views about Pearson’s Common Core tests.  We will not be silenced or disenfranchised. We want our students to thrive, and to be motivated to make the world a better place.  This testing program is a kick to the stomach.  Enough is enough.
 

 

 

Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education

Ten Reasons Why NO Child Should Take the NYS Common Core Tests

Dear parents and educators of New York,

I teach elementary school in the East New York section of Brooklyn, New York.  In 2013 and 2014, I administered Pearson’s New York State Common Core tests to English-language learners (ELLs). There is nothing meaningful about these assessments; no teacher I know supports them and I will not allow my child to take the tests when she enters third grade (even if the high-stakes are removed).  Here are ten reasons why Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests should never see the light of day.

1.) They are too long, especially for students in grades 3-5.  Over the course of six days, my 5th grade ELLs spent a total 13.5 hours sitting for the ELA (English-language arts) and math assessments. Here is what the 5th grade ELA assessment looked like last year (2014):

Day ONE: 27 pages long, 6 unrelated reading passages, 42 multiple choice questions

Day TWO: 3 unrelated reading passages, 7 multiple choice questions, 3 short response questions (written), 1 extended response question (written)

Day THREE: 3 reading passages, 5 short response questions (written), 1 extended response question (written)

Additionally, the below graph – created by Lace to the Top – shows that the third grade Common Core tests are twice as time-consuming as the SAT.

1521228_10202796253365339_1970773454_n2.) They are developmentally inappropriate.  Lace to the Top recently analyzed third grade Common Core test samples and determined that Pearson’s NYS Common Core test questions are 2-3 grade levels above the grade being tested.  The reading passage used for third grade was shown to have a readability average of 7.3 (7th grade)!

3.) Pearson’s NYS Common Core standardized tests, which are costing the state $32 million, are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom.  The tests are poorly constructed and uninspiring, and they contain ambiguous questions.  557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests.

4.) With Pearson’s Common Core state tests at the center of K-8 education in New York State, curriculum has narrowed, particularly in schools in low-income areas whose test scores tend to be low.  Fearing increased scrutiny and potential closure, raising test scores has become the main focus in many schools.  Some schools are little more than test prep factories with diminishing enrichment and project-based learning opportunities. Beginning in kindergarten, students are being taught test-taking strategies, most notably through the context-lacking close reading technique used in Common Core-aligned English-language arts.  Pearson’s developmentally inappropriate and poorly constructed scripted reading program – ReadyGEN – is test prep for the NYS Common Core ELA test.

5.) The Common Core’s testing program encourages standardized testing in grades K-2. Title I schools in particular feel pressured to show – through periodic data collection – that students are learning the skills needed to perform well on the grades 3-8 Common Core state tests. This is what the standardized testing program looks like in my Title I first grade classroom this school year:

  • Sept/Oct 2014 Common Core-aligned NYC Baseline Performance Tasks in ELA and Math (MOSLs used for teacher evaluation purposes only).
  • Running Records administered one-on-one 4-5 times per year (they test reading levels).
  • 12 Common Core-aligned end-of-unit GO Math! assessments (each comprised of 24 multiple choice questions and a multi-step extended response question).
  • Monthly Common Core-aligned ReadyGEN writing assessments testing students’ understanding of narrative, persuasive and informative writing.
  • Mid-year benchmark assessment in ELA – End of unit 2 ReadyGEN test comprised of 5 multiple choice comprehension questions, 5 multiple choice vocabulary questions and 1 written response.
  • Mid-year benchmark assessment in Math – GO Math! test comprised on 40 multiple choice questions; 15 questions on skills not yet learned.
  • May/June 2015 Common Core-aligned NYC Performance Tasks in ELA and Math (MOSLs used for teacher evaluation purposes only).

6.) The New York State Education Department (NYSED) lacks transparency and ethics.  In upholding the corporate education reform agenda, which seeks to privatize public education, the NYSED’s intention is to perpetuate the false narrative that our schools are failing.  Fred Smith, a NYS testing expert and statistician, and Lace to the Top have reported at length about Pearson’s poor quality tests and the NYSED’s unreliable test data, specifically its delayed release of technical reports, which evaluate the Common Core tests, missing test questions and predetermined test scores.  The NYSED manipulates cut scores in order to legitimize its above-mentioned agenda; not only are cut scores constantly changing but the NYSED sets them AFTER the tests have been scored. Thus, the NYSED’s claim that 70% of our students are failing is invalid.  

7.) An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Giving the state tests is an administrative and logistical nightmare at the school level. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids and organizing them alphabetically by class. IEPs (individualized education program) are examined closely to ensure that students with special needs receive the correct testing accommodation(s). These include directions read and re-read, extended time, separate location, on-task focusing prompts, revised test directions, questions read and re-read. ELLs and some former ELLs are pulled from their regular classrooms for testing because they are entitled to extended time in a separate location. Also, there is professional development for teachers on testing policies and procedures including “reporting prohibited conduct by adults, student cheating, and other testing irregularities.”

8.) English-language learners (ELLs) must take Pearson’s NYS Common Core ELA test after just one year in the system.  Students with IEPs are also required to take the tests unless they qualify for the New York State Alternate Assessment (NYSAA), which too is flawed. For a variety of reasons, it is misleading, insulting and grossly irresponsible of the NYSED to claim that 97% of ELLs and 95% of students with IEPs in grades 3-8 are “failures” in ELA.  These figures completely disregard the growth students make in our classrooms.

9.) Our students are suffering. I’ve heard countless stories of kids who are sickened – both physically and emotionally – from New York State’s toxic Common Core testing program. I’ve personally witnessed students’ tears, anger and despair, and it’s heartbreaking. There is nothing humane, nothing redeeming about these tests.  Morale is plummeting as teachers and administrators feel complicit in the state’s abuse of our children.

10.) Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed basing 50% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores from these highly flawed Common Core state assessments.  Not only are these test scores unreliable but the American Statistical Association has warned against using the value-added model (VAM) to rate teachers and schools.

As you can see, the negative impact of NYSED’s punitive Common Core testing program is far-reaching. But we – as parents and educators working together – can take back power by refusing these tests.  In order to save public education, a cornerstone of democracy in the United States, we must start thinking communally rather than individually.

Taking these tests is not “good practice” for our young learners; in fact, administering the tests is bad pedagogical practice.  In addition, high test scores do not guarantee admission to selective NYC middle schools.  Contrary to popular belief, opting-out does not hurt schools.  With regards to opt-out’s impact on teachers, Change the Stakes, a NYC-based organization that opposes the NYSED’s testing program, writes,

It is not helpful to speculate about which students should or should not opt out in order to protect teachers’ evaluations. The bottom line is that the current teacher evaluation system is flawed. Opting out in large numbers is the most powerful way for parents to let policymakers know that we do not want our children, teachers and schools evaluated based on standardized test scores.

Our students and teachers are not failures; rather the NYSED has failed us.

– Katie

Here are some useful resources about the Common Core testing program:

 

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

 

Forbes’ 30 Under 30: A Showcase of Corporate Ed Reformers, not Education Stars

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In its third annual 30 Under 30 special report (1/20/14), which celebrates the professional achievements of a diverse group of 20-something game changers, Forbes Magazine refers to the young, ambitious entrepreneurs in the education field as “stars.” This is a misnomer. They are not education stars for not a single one is a working classroom teacher.  As a business publication, Forbes should have instead referred to them as stars of corporate education reform.  28-year-old Dan Berkowitz, of Youth Orchestra LA, may be the only exception.

Here’s some telling data that I extracted from the information presented in the report. 15 attended Ivy League universities (five Harvard grads are among the bunch), two went to Stanford and one is employed by MIT. Of those boasting classroom teaching experience, five are Teach for America alumni. If I were to conduct extensive research on each organization on the list, I’m sure these numbers would be significantly higher.  To me, 30 Under 30 smacks of privilege and self-righteousness and lacks empathy.  Unlike working educators, who are the real experts, the men and women on the list do not spend 40+ hours a week in a school building teaching diverse learners. These “stars” lack the experience and knowledge needed in order to fully grasp the complexities of public education today. Thus, how viable are their products?

Forbes refers these entrepreneurs as “prodigies reinventing the world right now.” But is it for the better? And whose world are they reinventing anyway? Who is truly benefiting from their innovations? Are their offerings going to give our kids what they really need in order to become healthy adults? As a teacher in a Title I elementary school in Brooklyn, many of these so-called solutions seem gimmicky – “easy” fixes – and fail to get to the heart of the fundamental problems in our society that are negatively impacting social/emotional and cognitive learning: namely poverty and inequity.

27-year-old Caryn Voskuil of Rocketship Education, a controversial charter school network, is among those listed.  Forbes writes that “she began her career as an English teacher in Washington, D.C. public schools, but swiftly became a trainer of teachers.” So with just two or so years of teaching experience, she is deemed expert enough to train teachers? Forbes continues by saying, “She is charged with managing all digital curriculum and instructional technology that appears on more than 5,000 student screens, including replacing old hardware with over 3,500 Chromebooks.” Ok, that makes sense now.  She’s not instructing teachers on how to teach; rather, she’s training them to use computers to teach students.  In my opinion, Ms. Voskuil is missing out on the best part of teaching, which is forming relationships with students.  At my school, located in a low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn, some kids could care less about online instruction. Instead, they crave meaningful interactions with caring adults.  They want to be heard, and they benefit from connections made with both their peers and with the adults in the building. Excessive online learning is isolating and interferes with community-building. Darcy Bedortha describes this disengagement in her recent exposé on K12 Inc., a corporation that operates online schools.

In terms of instruction, can the new educational sites profiled in 30 Under 30Khan AcademyInstaEDU, mSchool and Udemy, for example – glean what motivates and inspires a struggling and/or reluctant student? Do they know that M, who “failed” both the math and ELA 2013 Common Core state tests, offers insightful commentary during class discussions on topics related to social inequality? It was M’s teacher, not an online program, who thought to assign him a research project on homelessness.  Today M is an expert on the Coalition for the Homeless and even persuaded my school’s Penny Harvest committee to donate money to the charity.  And when M, who is restless and impulsive, becomes disruptive in class, does the computer think to send him to a lower grade to tutor newcomer Spanish-speaking ELLs (English-language learners)? Experiencing these kinds of real life – not virtual – successes can be empowering for angry students with low self-esteem.  Recently a 40-year veteran teacher who subs at my school shared with me a new strategy he came up with to get M, who hates math, to do his work. His technique may or may not work again with the capricious M.  As every teacher knows, some days are better than others (today was exasperating with M), and what works for one child may not be appropriate for another.  Even with decades of teaching experience under his belt, Mr. D acknowledges that everyday is a learning experience and that he doesn’t have it all figured out.

What I’ve described here are just a few examples of authentic personalized instruction that address the needs of the whole child, not just a student’s “academic deficits” that ed reformers argue hinder “college and career readiness.”  Software programs do not offer social and emotional intervention strategies that teachers develop through experience and intuition. Learning is a process that ebbs and flows.  Some moments are ugly; others poignant.

I wonder how M would do with ClassDojo’s software, which tracks student behavior and boasts “45%-90% increases in positive behavior and 50-85% decreases in negative behavior”? The company was founded by Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don, both 27.  How do they define negative behavior? Do they, or their software, know what drives students to misbehave?  Jeff Bryant recently described disturbing discipline practices in charter schools in this Salon article.  Are these charters among ClassDojo’s clients?  I haven’t seen the product, but like the Common Core package of scripted curricula, standards and testing, I am skeptical.  I’m picturing a one-size-fits-all, prescribed solution that fails to take into consideration human vagaries.  Students are sentient beings, not outputs.

According to this CB Insights graphic, which appears in Forbes’ special report, in a single year, 2012 – 2013, ed tech startups received $1.1 billion in funding.

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If Forbes’ article listed the real stars of education, working educators, the ideas put forth would be far different.  Imagine if that money had been used towards lowering class sizes or to hire educated adults to work with individual or small groups of students in a classroom? Both M’s teacher and I agree that M would benefit from a one-to-one paraprofessional. What if that money paid for much needed social services and counseling that students like M are not getting?  What if that money funded inspiring social emotional curricula that schools either don’t have the money for or reject because they are seen as not preparing kids for the state tests?  With $1 billion, I would make sure that every teacher had a working printer and extra toner cartridges. I would also ensure a robust supply of SmartBoard bulbs, which cost around $200 each.  Every school would have multiple copy machines that work. Teachers would be given the freedom to choose their own books and supplies, and quality after-school enrichment programs – not test prep – would be available to all students. I would also invest more money in healthy school lunch programs.

Teachers aren’t miracle workers; neither are virtual academies.  Yes, teachers make a difference in the lives of children, but some things – like home life factors – are beyond our control.   Until we properly address the socioeconomic factors that affect learning, the problems facing our public schools will continue.

The NYSESLAT: Mandated standardized testing for ELLs in K-2

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On November 14, 2013, the following statement was made by John King, NYSED commissioner.

“We support the drive to prohibit standardized testing of pre K through 2nd grade students. 

“There are no pre-K – Grade 2 standardized tests administered or required by the state, and there never have been.  Decisions about how to measure student progress in pre-K – Grade 2 are made by local school districts. However, we strongly recommend against the use of bubble tests or other traditional standardized tests and urge districts and their bargaining units to identify other ways to assess learning progress for these very young students.”

“In fact, the Board of Regents has a long-standing policy against administering standardized tests to our very youngest students. 

“We look forward to working together to make sure that children are protected from more testing than is necessary at the local school district level.”

This is false.  For years, our “very youngest” ELLs (English-language learners) have been mandated to take the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT), a burdensome four-part assessment (now aligned to the Common Core State Standards) that’s administered every spring to ELLs in grades K-12 to assess their English-language proficiency levels.  For the listening, reading and writing sections of the assessment, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets.  The ESL (English as a Second Language) staff then transcribes their answers onto testing grids (bubble sheets) for scanning purposes.  Here’s the NYSESLAT sampler for kindergarten and the NYSESLAT sampler for grades 1 and 2. 

In addition to the valuable instructional time that’s lost to both the administration and the scoring of the NYSESLAT, ESL teachers (including myself) spend at least a month test prepping students for this assessment.  Not only do we feel compelled to teach them test content and test-taking strategies, but we also must show ELLs in K-2 how to take a multiple choice test.  Because NYSED data shows that former ELLs (students who test proficient on the NYSESLAT and no longer require ESL services) outperform non-ELLs on NY state tests, ESL teachers face pressure from the state to “test out” ELLs by the end of  three years of federally mandated ESL instruction.  The goal is to decrease – eliminate? – the number of long-term ELLs (ELLs with six or more years of ESL service) in New York.

Language instruction for ELLs is funded through the Title III federal grant program so I anticipate that John King will argue that the annual standardized testing of ELLs in K-12 is a federal, not state, mandate, and that I should instead discuss this matter with Arne Duncan.  However, the NYSED must have some autonomy in creating its annual assessment that holds all ELL stakeholders accountable. I haven’t seen the ESL assessments used by other states, but surely they are all different.  Commissioner King – what are your plans for the NYSESLAT in light of your 11/14/13 statement regarding standardized testing in grades K-2? Will you be making changes to the K-2 NYSESLAT?