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.

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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. 

Pearson’s ReadyGEN: May the Farce NOT be with you

Are there any NYC elementary schools NOT using ReadyGEN’s ELA Common Core curriculum?

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Yasmeen Khan, education reporter for WNYC and SchoolBook.org, recently informed me that 86% of New York City public schools (grades K-8) have adopted at least one of the NYC DOE’s “recommended” Core Curriculum programs.  As I mentioned in a previous post, due to budget cuts, high-stakes Common Core testing and pressure to align curriculum to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), NYC schools feel they have no choice but to use the official NYC DOE programs, which are subsidized.  NYC Core Curriculum programs include, but are not limited to, E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge, Expeditionary Learning and Pearson’s ReadyGEN.  

Over the summer, I reported that NYC elementary teachers are frustrated with NYC’s ReadyGEN ELA (English-language arts) program, which appears to be test prep -beginning in kindergarten – for Pearson’s Common Core state tests.  They complain that it is scripted, developmentally inappropriate and inflexible.  Teachers are also critical of how ReadyGEN is being developed.  They feel that Pearson, in collaboration with the NYC DOE, is making it up as they go along, creating and distributing units in piecemeal fashion.  At present, NYC teachers have only photocopies of the teacher’s guide for the first part of unit one in addition to the corresponding unit one online materials.

In what can only be described as a farce, yesterday, during the Chancellor’s mandated professional development day, we were told that the truck carrying our long-awaited ReadyGEN student books showed up at our school late on Tuesday.  However, (and there’s always a however or but), we are not in possession of the books.  The driver, apparently not wanting to wait while a staff member searched for bodies to help him unload the truck, drove off with our 300 boxes of books.  They are nowhere to be found.

We aren’t the only ones disenchanted with this new ELA CCSS program. On September 3, 2013, NYC teacher Beth Kleinman Sullivan wrote the following about ReadyGEN:

“NYC teachers were told today that we have to work with ReadyGen for literacy. Barring the fact that it’s not even ready yet, and we’re working with drafts, we found out it’s put out by Pearson. Pearson’s stranglehold now extends to all grades in pretty much all schools in NYC. They have told schools to print out the texts we’re supposed to use because they’re not ready …for us, even though they’ve accepted everyone’s money. I believe this is called a monopoly. I also believe that we’re now officially teaching-to-the-test in all grades.  The program is soft scripted and has a teacher text and one for each kid (if we ever get the books). There is neither guided reading nor read alouds in this program.”

I would really like to know if any NYC public elementary schools are spared from having to use this new ELA curriculum.  If so, what are you using instead? How did you align your curriculum to the Common Core? Are you happy with your program? Why or why not? 

Thanks, Katie

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.”

Response to The Art of Teaching (NYT article)

Here is a copy of a letter I submitted to the New York Times. It wasn’t published.

To the Editor,
Regarding Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching (4/30/13), I agree that unorthodox teachers can potentially make the greatest impact in classrooms. However, the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their corresponding high-stakes testing program pose a roadblock to this. I initially supported the CCSS because of their flexibility in terms of curriculum. The standards list the skills and core concepts that students need to master without telling teachers how to teach them. Theoretically, teachers can select their own materials and can design their own curriculum while using the CCSS as a roadmap. However, the reality is far different. In New York City, schools face pressure from the Department of Education (DOE) to adopt the DOE’s recommended curriculum: scripted programs for English Language Arts (ELA) and math. One such program –ReadyGen – is published by Pearson, the makers of the New York State ELA and math assessments. Even the most well-meaning principals and teachers find their personalized craft compromised by their own fears that if they don’t use the DOE’s curriculum and test prep materials (see http://www.engageny.org) there will be dire consequences. They worry that Quality Reviews will be conducted for schools having to justify the use of their own curriculum instead of the DOE’s recommended programs, and that teacher evaluations will suffer.