NYC Parents: Here’s the TRUTH about the 2016 NYS Tests

New York City parents may be hearing that the New York State (NYS) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests will be better this year and are of value to educators and students.

This does not tell the whole story.  Here’s the truth about the 2016 NYS tests. 

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  • Pearson created the 2016 tests.  Questar Assessment Inc., which, in 2015, was awarded a $44 million, five-year contract by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), is in the process of developing test questions for future tests.  However, their tests won’t be used until 2018. According to a January 2016 NYSED memo,”Questar Assessment, Inc. has replaced Pearson and is responsible for the construction of this year’s test forms and guidance materials.” Questar did not create the actual 2016 tests and test questions. 
  • The shortening of the 2016 NYS Common Core tests is insignificant. Students will still spend a total of six days taking the math and ELA tests (three days each).  The tests are untimed this year so students could potentially sit for an even longer period of time to complete the assessments.  The below comparison charts show how minimal the changes to the tests are.  Also, shaving off a few questions does nothing to improve the quality of the test questions.  The tests are still bad.
  • Using NYSED’s online test archive, Kemala Karmen, a NYC parent and co-founder of NYCpublic.org, “calculated how many more test items a NYS student in 2016 will be required to answer than a NYS student in the same grade had to answer in 2010” (Karmen, 2016).  In an email, Karmen wrote, “A 5th grader this April will be faced with 117 questions (combined math and ELA).  2010’s 5th grader? 61.  That’s 56 more questions, or an increase of 92%.”
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In addition to illustrating the sharp increase of test questions since 2010, this graph, created by NYC parent Amy Gropp Forbes, shows how insignificant the shortening of the 2016 is. 

  • The NYS Common Core ELA and math tests are not the only assessments administered this spring.  NYSED recently released the 2016 field test assignments for NYS schools.  Please click on this NYSED link to see if your school has been signed up to field test future math, science or ELA test questions.  The June 2016 administration of the field tests is of no value to teachers or students, the latter of which are being used as guinea pigs.
  • Similarly, many NYC parents are unaware of the excessive and developmentally inappropriate testing our English-language learners (ELLs) are subjected to. After only 12 months in the system, all ELLs in NYS must take the ELA test (ELLs are not exempt from the math test in their first year because translated versions of the assessment are available).  During the recent parent-teacher conferences, it pained me to share with parents my goal for second graders who were at the expanding (advanced) English-proficiency level: to test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). Administered each spring, the NYSESLAT is a grueling four-part test, now aligned to the Common Core, which assesses ELLs’ speaking, listening, reading and writing proficiency levels in English. It is a content-based assessment, not a true language test, and, in my professional opinion, it is wholly inappropriate to administer to ELLs at any grade level. Sentence writing, for example, is expected of ELLs in kindergarten. Spending my precious minutes discussing this highly flawed standardized test was bad enough, but my rationale for getting students to test out (test proficient or pass) tightened the knot in my stomach. If my expanding (advanced) ELLs do not pass the NYSESLAT this school year, in third grade they will have to take it again right after the widely discredited NYS Common Core ELA and math tests.  I signed up to be a teacher, not a tester.  
  • I can’t think of a single working NYC teacher who finds the NYS Common Core tests to be a “valuable experience for our students” (as per New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) chancellor Carmen Fariña’s 3/15/16 letter to parents). Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom. The tests are developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and contain ambiguous questions. In 2014, 557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests. Despite the so-called changes to the 2016 tests, the content and the skills that are tested remain the same.

In painting a broader picture of the impact of NYS’s Common Core testing program on public education, it’s important to highlight that everything revolves around the highly flawed NYS Common Core tests.  Despite the NYCDOE’s argument that multiple measures are used to determine a child’s promotion to the next grade, the testing program is the sun around which all other aspects of public education orbit.  Schools with low test scores – due to poverty, high numbers of English-language learners and/or students with disabilities – are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, micromanagement and excessive testing.  These schools face state reviews and pressure to adopt Common Core test prep curricula (ReadyGEN, GO Math! and Expeditionary Learning, for example), all at the expense of offering students an authentic and inspiring education that truly meets their social, emotional and academic needs.

I have spent the past 10 years in Title I elementary schools in New York City.  Our students go on fewer field trips, are exposed to a narrower range of books, and participate less in the arts.   In Title I schools, beginning in kindergarten, there exists such a strong sense of urgency to prepare students for the skills they will need in order to do well on the state tests that not a moment is to be “wasted.” Cutting and pasting in first grade is wrongly viewed as lacking rigor.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a second grader struggling to use glue and scissors.  Folding paper, I’m discovering, is an undeveloped skill nowadays.

In schools with low test scores, there is no free play and, for the most part, recess only happens at lunchtime (weather permitting).  Any classroom “play” must reinforce academic skills.  School days can be suffocating for students and teachers alike.  Curriculum pacing guides must be followed faithfully, which has killed spontaneity and deprives students of opportunities to learn about topics outside of the curriculum. I’ve even had to sneak in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chinese New Year.  My rich author study units highlighting the important works of Ezra Jack Keats and Leo Lionni, among others, are collecting dust.  I mourn this loss of freedom every day I go to work.  Forget about using students’ interests to shape instruction.  “Choice” is only offered to students within the confines of the Common Core-aligned curricula.

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Andy Yung, a talented pre-K teacher in Queens, presented this slide at last weekend’s Jackson Heights People for Public Schools event. 

What is of chief importance to “struggling” schools is the raising of scores on poor quality tests that do not reflect how each student has grown in his or her own way.  As part of their test preparation program this year, a Bronx elementary school has already administered two NYS ELA and math test simulations: one in December 2015 and the other in March 2016.  Each simulation lasted six days (3 periods each day) and was harder than the real tests, according to a teacher.  While this is an extreme case – and arguably abusive – test prep is still occurring citywide even at schools with high test scores.

The organized opt-out movement here in NYC is led by local parents and educators who spend an inordinate amount of time researching the NYS Common Core testing program and educating themselves on developmentally appropriate pedagogy.  Change the Stakes and NYC Opt Out, among others, report the truth through social media and through testing meetings that are being held all over NYC.  While some NYC parents may have initially gravitated to this movement in order to protect their own children from educational malpractice, a growing number of opponents of the state testing program are opting-out for justice.  Boycotting the tests and depriving the state of data is seen as the only way to effect change in our schools, and to curb the further privatization of public education (see what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom).

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These parents and educators envision a different educational experience for all children of New York State.  Bronx principal Jamaal Bowman  speaks out against the current NYS Common Core testing program.  As reported in this November 2015 Huffington Post article, “Jamaal Bowman knows his kids and with the research to back up his approach, he makes it clear that by empowering teachers and inspiring children toward their passions, in an atmosphere that embraces our diversity, we have the capacity to realize the goals that the current reforms are failing to produce.”  I also appreciate Brooklyn New School principal Anna Allanbrook’s weekly letters to parents , which showcase her school’s whole child approach and contrast sharply with NYS’s test-based education reform initiatives.  In Allanbrook’s March 7 letter, she links to a speech delivered by principal Bowman and writes, “Jamaal suggests that all parents exercise their right to opt out of high stakes testing, advising parents to demand more holistic assessment of their children. Jamaal’s words remind us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These are brave, ethical NYC school leaders whom I greatly admire.

What about all the thoughtful and experienced NYC classroom teachers who find fault with these tests and don’t view them as a valuable teaching tool?  The teachers of the MORE caucus of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) support opt-out and oppose Common Core, Danielson teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing. MORE candidates, such as Jia Lee, who testified against high-stakes testing in a U.S. senate hearing last year, are running in this year’s UFT election. Teachers of Conscience refuse to administer both state and local standardized assessments.  Teachers’ legitimate concerns, based on years of experience and knowledge of developmentally appropriate pedagogy, are absent from the official story that’s being told to NYC parents. In fact, NYC educators are being silenced and, as a result, are afraid to speak out.  This is an attack on our democracy and goes against the so-called critical thinking that the NYCDOE purports to be promoting through Common Core.

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This is just a glimpse of what’s really going on in NYC public schools.  There is, of course, more to the story.   Here is a link to view the March 2016 NYCDOE’s Student Participation in Grades 3-8 New York State Tests Parent Guide.  Regardless of your child’s performance level, it is a parent’s right to opt out.

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The NYCDOE 2016 guide states, if, after consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity (e.g., reading) during testing times.”  

For more information about opting out, please visit these sites:

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

www.optoutnyc.com

changethestakes.wordpress.com

morecaucusnyc.org

NYS Allies for Public Education 

Long Island Opt-Out Info

unitedoptout.com

Defending the Early Years – deyproject.org

networkforpubliceducation.org

badassteacher.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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:

 

Excessive Standardized Testing in New York City is No Fairy Tale – Living in Dialogue

On 2/21/15, Anthony Cody published my latest post on his new blog, Living in Dialogue. In it, I detailed the mid-term GO Math! and ReadyGEN ELA benchmark assessments that I reluctantly and heavy-heartedly had to administer to my first grade students the week of February 9, 2015.  Not only are our youngest learners being subjected to excessive standardized testing, but they are also missing out on meaningful learning experiences.

Please read the piece here:

http://www.livingindialogue.com/excessive-standardized-testing-first-grade-fairy-tale/

Thank you,

Katie

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.

Danielson 4a: A Moral Inventory of my Compliance Work

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In June, my Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates partner, Susan, and I created a 12-step recovery program for corporate education reform. For this reflection, I wish to elicit our Step 4, which reads:
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We determined that we had allowed corporate reformers to undermine our ethics and integrity. We searched and found we had participated in unethical scripted instruction, standardization, and high stakes testing out of fear and oppression that in turn caused fear and oppression in our students.
Excessive accountability should also be added to this list. One of my responsibilities as an ESL teacher/compliance officer (what an unsavory term, no?) is to write the LAP for my school’s CEP. The LAP is a 26-page  Language Allocation Policy that is incorporated into the school’s larger Comprehensive Education Plan.  In addition to providing data on the number of ELLs (English-language learners) in our building – their years of service, ELL programs, home languages, test scores and so on- we must also analyze the data by answering 41 questions in narrative format.  It’s worth emphasizing that this document is just one component of the comprehensive education plan.
Here’s my response to the question that has left me feeling like a fraud.
Part V: ELL Programming
B. Programming and Scheduling Information – Continued
Question 12: What programs/services for ELLs will be discontinued and why?

Answer: We are discontinuing the Journeys reading program and enVisionMATH because they do not match the level of rigor called for by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The new ReadyGEN and GOMath! Core Curriculum programs are recommended by the NYCDOE and better reflect the demands of the CCSS.

This is what I believed was expected of me to write.  The reality, however, is far different. Teachers were largely satisfied with the Journeys program, which was purchased for two years only in grades K-2. Teachers in grades 3-5 collaborated to create CCSS (Common Core State Standards) curriculum maps and performance tasks.  ELA was mostly taught through the content areas, such as science and social studies.  They also had the freedom to select their own materials.

Compared to GO Math!, Pearson’s enVisionMATH program, which was used in grades K-5 for one year only, was the gold standard of math curricula.  The teachers in my building would happily return to using enVisionMATH and Journeys if given the choice.

In reality, we discontinued Journeys and enVisionMATH due to budget cuts and high-stakes CCSS testing.  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 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 on standardized exams, there is relief in knowing that the state and city-approved materials, like ReadyGEN and GOMath!, are designed to prepare kids for the new high-stakes Common Core tests.  They are – in essence – test prep programs from kindergarten onwards.

I have yet to encounter a teacher who is satisfied with the ReadyGEN and GOMath! Core Curriculum programs.  I haven’t worked with GOMath!, but I can tell you that ReadyGEN is cumbersome, confusing and uninspiring. Due to the demands of the program, we are having to devote more periods to teaching it, at the expense of other subjects such as social studies.  I am devastated that I must use this program with my fifth graders instead of the engaging and challenging social justice curriculum that my fifth grade co-teacher and I created, and have refined, over the course of three years of teaching together.

Because I cannot write this in the LAP, I share it with you here, a place where educators can speak the truth, a place where I can make amends.

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.”