Sunset Park Fifth Graders Hold a Human Rights Fundraiser

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“I have been through a lot in my life. This painting represents a time in my life when I changed and became a new person…It also represents when you are in your deepest pain you still have that place in your heart that tells you there is still HOPE and NEVER GIVE UP.”

As the 2015-2016 school year comes to a close, many students and educators nervously await the release of scores that, according to state and local education departments, tell us our worth as teachers and learners.

But these numbers do not rate us on our humanity and on our ability to love and add beauty to our troubled world.  Official data such as test scores and teacher evaluation ratings cannot capture the spirit of our classrooms. 

In celebrating our meaningful – and largely unsung – work, I wish to highlight an amazing project conceived by a fifth grade class in a Title I public elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Inspiration for the project, which is called From Artistic Inspiration to Education, came from two main sources: the students’ study of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and stories told to them by their teacher, Maria Diaz, who recently visited an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic.  In promoting Article 26 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to education,” Class 5-502 decided to raise money for the school in the village their teacher visited.

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Here’s what the students of class 502 wrote on their fundraising webpage:

We are so lucky to have a school that provides us with all the educational supplies we need. Buying school supplies and uniforms is a challenge for all of the 13 kids that attend that school and we want to be able to provide those basic supplies for them. 

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To date, the students have raised a little more than $1,375.00.  This week, class 502 is inviting the school community to visit their classroom, which they’ve converted into an art gallery to showcase their UDHR-inspired artwork as well as to provide more information about the school they are supporting.  On Thursday, June 16, the students of class 502 will auction off their paintings.  The silent auction will take place at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn from 3:30 – 7:00 pm (427 38th Street between 4th and 5th Aves.).  Please come (or donate online).  Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and empathy will give you hope for the future.  Their words of wisdom – whether intentional or not – will also move you.  One student wrote this about her painting: “I enjoyed creating it even though it looks messy and a bunch of curvy lines.  That is what art is all about.  That is what education is all about.”

Here is a sampling of their creations.

house

“I am from the Dominican Republic. A lot of people there are really poor. Ms. Diaz showed us a village called El Aguacate, there are mountains there. Article 25 states that you and your family are entitled to having basic necessities, like a house. This is why I chose to draw a house.”

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“I was inspired to paint Divided Colors because of my love for division in math. It represents how unfair life could be and how some people are divided. For example, children’s education is divided. In the Dominican Republic and in other parts of the world like Yemen kids don’t have the right to a proper education.”

horse

“My piece represents equality for all human beings and animals. If you only have an eye, you can still be friends with someone who has two eyes.”

flowers

“These flowers represent us helping a school in the Dominican Republic. I put the flowers far from each other because the Dominican Republic is another country.”

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bomb

“What inspired me to paint this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because Article 3 says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In a lot of places people don’t have that. Also a lot of people suffer so much. BOOM represents the evils that destroy things and harm innocent people.”

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—”To me a parrot represents all the languages spoken in the world. The colors represent happiness and freedom. In Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it says that, “Everyone should live life with freedom.” Some people see a bird as a sign of freedom and we can all believe that someday we will all have world freedom.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Recognizing Effective Teaching Without Danielson’s Rubric

Where in Charlotte Danielson’s 2013 Framework for Teaching rubric, which is currently being used throughout the United States to measure teacher practice, is the component for teaching empathy, for inspiring students and for giving them tools, as well as the motivation, to keep from giving up on life?

When I was in high school, as far as I know, administrators did not use a rubric to evaluate my teachers.  I became a college and graduate student of history, and a social justice educator, because of Dr. Rick Chase, my high school history teacher at the The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia. Through Dr. Chase, my interest in politics blossomed.  I discovered that I gravitated towards candidates who strived to be of service to the poor and working class. I felt deep compassion for Paul Tsongas whose dream of becoming U.S. president in 1992 was cut short due – in large part, as I recall – to his health problems.  Like Tsongas, I was a swimmer and took pride in my butterfly stroke.

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from The Lovett School’s Fall 2015 magazine

Dr. Chase’s selection of My Enemy My Self by Yoram Binur pulled at my heartstrings as I read, in horror, Binur’s firsthand account of the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.  Fighting discrimination and hate became a mission for me. I sought to understand the origins of genocide and, as a 21-year-old, traveled alone to Poland to contemplate human history from the railroad tracks of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Recently, the talented film editor Michael Elliot produced a four-minute-long film honoring Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two retired theater arts teachers from Agoura Hills, California who changed his life and those of many of his classmates. 40 years later, we are moved by the testimonials of Riddle and Gilchrist’s former students.  “I love this man so much,” exclaims one woman as she hugs James Gilchrist.  “They were the spark that set my life in motion,” remarks Michael Elliot who also credited Eileen Daniel Riddle with helping students find beauty through pain.

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Film editor Michael Elliot with his former theater arts teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle

Please share with Michael your story of a teacher who inspired you.  Visit shoot4education.com/teacherproject.  

While these lifelong teachers, now retired, had different teaching styles, interests and personalities, they all taught with passion and instinct, traits not measurable by a rubric. They also had freedom and autonomy, conditions that motivate teachers and boost their morale.  The current path that we are on – the standardization of teaching and learning and the narrowing of curriculum – is short-sighted and unsustainable.  It unfortunately deprives students of experiences that Michael Elliot touchingly describes in his short film.  Eileen Daniel Riddle, James Gilchrist and Dr. Rick Chase are teachers who not only inspired students to expand their learning but also created spaces in which students could feel alive.

What rubric measures that?

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenient “Lost Standards” of NYS: Why Deformers Prefer Common Core for Evaluating Teachers

January 5, 2015

Among the nauseating ed tech solicitations sent to my New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) email account over the holiday was this message from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and family:

We send you our sincere gratitude for your service to
the people of the City of New York,

and our very best wishes to you and your family for

a New Year full of love, peace and happiness.


Bill, Chirlane, Chiara and Dante

Love, peace and happiness.  I sometimes feel these emotions at school, but they are fleeting and occur only behind “closed doors,” in the presence of 25 six and seven-years-olds.  I’m certainly not feeling any love or “sincere gratitude” from the NYCDOE administration, including the district in which I teach. But thank you, Bill, for the gesture.  If ever you want to consult with working teachers and administrators who will tell you what our schools REALLY need in order to thrive, please reach out. Unfortunately, our prescription for education reform does not go along with the state and federal governments’ agendas, which, as it’s becoming increasingly evident, center on using teachers as scapegoats for the educational ills in our country.

I begin this new year with mixed emotions.  I’m excited to resume the creative, inspiring work I do with my energetic first graders – we are a family – but I’m also weighed down with new feelings of self-doubt, indignation and increasing despair. Recent observations of my teaching practice, which are not holistic, have felt punitive. Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching – a rubric that addresses the so-called instructional shifts of the Common Core – is used as a checklist for these brief and infrequent snapshots of the work being done in my classroom.  During this time, if administrators do not see evidence of what they are looking for – such as an assessment tied to an art project they are observing me teach – then I am at risk for a developing or ineffective rating for that component of the domain.

Additionally, New York’s use of valued-added modeling (VAM) to rate teachers, a tool widely considered to be junk science, is further demoralizing. Last year, I was rated “developing” on the local and state measures of New York’s fledgling teacher evaluation system; I still don’t know what standardized tests these ratings were based on since my English-language learners (ELLs) made progress on the 2014 NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT). These Tweets from January 3, 2015 show that draconian teacher evaluation plans are not unique to New York.  They make me want to cry.

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On the first day of 2015, Carol Burris, principal of Long Island’s South Side High School, reported in The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet on the latest developments of New York’s teacher evaluation system. New York Board of Regents chancellor, Merryl Tisch, now wants 40% of teachers’ APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) to be based on state test scores (it’s currently 20%).

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pie chart courtesy of the NYC Department of Education

According to Burris, here’s why Tisch is calling for this change to teacher accountability:

To Tisch’s dismay, APPR which she helped design, has not produced the results that she and Cuomo wanted; only 1 percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective in the most recent evaluation.   The plan, according to the state’s Race to the Top application, was for 10 percent of all teachers to be found ineffective, with small numbers designated as highly effective. The curve of the sorting bell was not achieved.

In its latest blog post, the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association (Long Island) highlighted this key point originally made by Burris:

Regardless of what 60%* of your evaluation says, if the growth score (test score) says you are ineffective, your entire rating will be ineffective.  If you receive two ineffective ratings you will no longer be allowed to teach. *60% is based on observations (measures of teaching practice).

The above-mentioned state measures – growth scores – are based on student test scores from Pearson’s New York State Common Core assessments in English-language Arts (ELA) and math, which were first administered in New York in 2013. In receiving approximately $700 million in 2010 in Race to the Top funding, New York agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards and to annually measure student progress toward “college and career readiness” as detailed in the new standards.  PARCC and Smarter Balanced are two national consortiums that have also created Common Core-aligned assessments, however their tests are administered online.  New York plans to transition to the costly PARCC online assessments.  Here’s a description of Smarter Balanced:

The Smarter Balanced assessments are a key part of implementing the Common Core and preparing all students for success in college and careers. Administered online, these new assessments provide an academic check-up and are designed to give teachers and parents better information to help students succeed.  Smarter Balanced assessments will replace existing tests in English and math for grades 3-8 and high school in the 2014-15 school year. Scores from the new assessments represent a realistic baseline that provides a more accurate indicator for teachers, students, and parents as they work to meet the rigorous demands of college and career readiness.

I detail these new testing initiatives because, contrary to what Common Core supporters argue, the Common Core State Standards are – by design – inextricably linked to Common Core-aligned assessments.  The Common Core standards do not and cannot stand alone.  They must exist in conjunction with aligned assessments in order to measure students’ “college and career readiness.” Student scores on these Common Core assessments are then used to hold teachers (and schools) accountable for using the Common Core standards to “prepare students for college and careers.”  I have reported at length on the devastating impact these new Common Core tests have had on student learning and student morale in New York City schools.

Another reason I bring up the Common Core package (standards + curricula + assessments) is because there has been a recent lauding of and pining for New York’s “lost standards” in ELA and ESL which, with a relatively modest budget of $300,000, were written by state educators from 2007 to 2009.  However, seduced by Race to the Top’s grant, in 2010 the Board of Regents abandoned the initiative and instead chained New York’s public schools to the Common Core. Lohud.com’s Gary Stern wrote about these “lost standards” in May 2014. Here’s a quote from the article:

“The Common Core was developed behind closed doors, but our New York standards were the work of extraordinary teachers and educators from the local level,” said Bonne August, provost of New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, who co-chaired a committee that worked on the ELA/ESL standards. “We did things the right way, so teachers would buy in. Teachers are frustrated by the Common Core because they don’t see themselves in it.” 

Lohud.com also created the below table to compare key features of the “lost standards” to the Common Core standards.  As you can see, the Common Core came as a package, which included a testing program and a new teacher evaluation system. The “lost standards” did not.  Unlike the “lost standards,” the Common Core is streamlined, making it easier to hold teachers accountable (via test scores and the Common Core-aligned Danielson Framework for Teaching). Furthermore, the adoption of the Common Core brought $700 million in funding to New York.  The “lost standards” did not.

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table courtesy of lohud.com 

Chris Cerrone, a New York educator and school board member, wrote the following in a December 14, 2014 opinion piece for the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA):

“How should New York proceed? We should drop the Common Core Standards and revive and continue the progress that created “lost standards,” known as the Regents Standards Review and Revision Initiative. The recent completion of the Social Studies Framework shows that quality standards can be created by New York educators who know their students, content, and age-appropriateness of curriculum.”

We teachers have an even bigger fight on our hands this year. If Andrew Cuomo and Merryl Tisch have their way, 40% of my rating will be based on measures determined by the state.  I have no idea what they’ll use to assess first grade teachers, but I can assure you that any new NYS Common Core assessment that’s not teacher-created will be developmentally inappropriate.

One of my goals for the new year is to take a closer look at New York’s “lost standards” for ELA and ESL.  Like Chris, I wish to make the argument that good work has already been done by educators in creating sound standards for our state.  We should continue this work for the other content areas.  Of the “lost standards,” Susan Polos, a highly regarded New York educator, was quoted by Gary Stern as saying, “Our standards were carefully and thoughtfully created, with educators involved, and should have survived.” I am not fond of standards (or rubrics), but I recognize the need for them.

I would also like to investigate alternative math standards.  If I had the time, I’d create an entirely new math curriculum for first grade.  GO Math!, which is Common Core-aligned, is a headache-inducing, poorly crafted math program that the NYCDOE adopted for its schools.  If (when?) New York state abandons Common Core, we’d also have to propose a new assessment program and teacher evaluation plan. The working educators of New York know what’s best for our students.  We need to reclaim public education in 2015.

What’s REALLY Rotten in Our Schools: Poor Quality MOSL Assessments Used to Rate NYC Teachers

imgresThe cover of the 11/3/14 issue of TIME Magazine blasts so-called bad teachers for being “rotten apples” and suggests that tech millionaires have figured out a way to get rid of them.  However, what really stinks – among other ill-conceived corporate education reform initiatives – is the reliance on student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.  Once again, I wish to draw attention to the flaws of Advance, the New York City Department of Education’s new teacher evaluation and development system, which was implemented in 2013 in order to comply with New York State education law 3012-c.  This 2010 legislation mandated an overhaul of the Annual Professional Review (APPR) for teachers and school leaders and introduced the current highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective rating system, a cornerstone of corporate education reform’s plan for teacher accountability.

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As the above NYCDOE pie chart shows, 20% of our overall teacher effectiveness rating comes from a local measure of student learning or MOSL (another 20% of our rating is based on a state measure such as the annual NYS Common Core ELA and math assessments).

Here is the NYCDOE’s definition of “local measure”:

      • Local MeasureRecommended by a school committee appointed by the principal and UFT Chapter Chair and approved by the principal, each teacher’s local measure will be based on student growth on assessments and growth measures selected from a menu of approved options for each grade and subject (from the NYCDOE website).

My school chose the K-5 NYC Baseline Performance Tasks* in ELA and math as our local measure (MOSL).  Students receive baseline scores for their performance on the fall assessments and will be tested again at the end of the school year to determine their growth in these two subject areas. While MOSL may no longer be an unfamiliar term to NYC parents, most have likely never set eyes on these performance tasks and may not realize how meaningless and labor intensive they are. *It is worth noting that in 2013-2014, these tests were called ‘assessments.’ They are now referred to as ‘tasks,’ but do not be fooled; they are still non-teacher created standardized tests. 

Last month, it took me two and a half days to administer the 2014-2015 Grade 1 Math Inventory Baseline Performance Tasks to my students because the assessment had to be administered as individual interviews (NYCDOE words, not mine).  The math inventory included 12 tasks, many of which were developmentally inappropriate.  For example, in demonstrating their understanding of place value, first graders were asked to compare two 3-digit numbers using < , > and =. Students were also asked to solve addition and subtraction word problems within 100.

While I do not believe my students were emotionally scarred by this experience, they did lose two and a half days of instructional time and were tested on skills that they had not yet learned.  It is no secret that NYC teachers and administrators view these MOSL tasks as a joke. Remember, they are for teacher rating purposes ONLY. “You want them to score low in the fall so that they’ll show growth in the spring,” is a common utterance in elementary school hallways. Also, there will be even more teaching-to-the-test as educators will want to ensure that their students are proficient in these skills before the administration of the spring assessment. Some of the first grade skills might be valid, but others are, arguably, not grade-level appropriate.

The Grade 1 ELA (English-language Arts) Informational Reading and Writing Baseline Performance Task took less time to administer (four periods only) but was equally senseless, and the texts we were given had us shaking our heads because they resembled third grade reading material.  In theory, not necessarily practice, students were required to engage in a non-fiction read aloud and then independently read an informational text on the same topic. Afterwards, they had to sort through a barrage of text-based facts in order to select information that correctly answered the questions.  On day one, the students had to complete a graphic organizer and on day two they were asked to write a paragraph on the topic.  Drawing pictures to convey their understanding of the topic was also included in the assessment.

Not only are these “tasks” a waste of valuable instructional time, but at least six professional development sessions, which in theory are supposed to be teacher-designed, have been sacrificed to score them. The ELA rubric, in particular, was poorly written and confusing.  It’s critical to note that these MOSL tests and rubrics were not created by working teachers. If they had been, they would have looked much different and the ELA rubric would have made sense. Sentiments ranging from incredulity to outrage have characterized our scoring sessions.

I suspect the majority of NYC public elementary schools selected these Baseline Performance Tasks as their MOSL option, however an alternative MOSL, which few know about, exists.  Prior to the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, 62 NYC schools, including The Earth School and Brooklyn New School, were chosen to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program, which – among other goals – satisfies the MOSL component of the NYC teacher evaluation and development system.

In her 10/27/14 weekly letter, Dyanthe Spielberg, principal at Manhattan’s The Neighborhood School (P.S. 363), wrote the following:

“Our PROSE plan modifies the MOSL (Measures of Student Learning) portions of the DOE teacher evaluation structure by substituting collected student work, observational data and narrative reports for MOSL.  This process includes an emphasis on looking at student work, and reviewing informal and formal assessments.  It requires ongoing reflective inquiry, as well as revisions of teacher plans and practice in relation to review of student work, data and feedback. Together, teachers will align criteria to create goals and assess progress.  This collaboration, both with the grade level teams, other colleagues and parents, as well as partner schools, will allow teachers to conclude the year with a clear analysis of how they have grown as educators related to their actual performance in the classroom as opposed to a rating based on a student’s individual performance on an individual day. We are excited about this opportunity to practice and demonstrate how we think about assessment, teaching and learning, and to build on our partnerships with other NYC public progressive schools.” 

Wow! Are they hiring? When a teacher friend told me about PROSE, I immediately became resentful and wished my school had participated in this program.  Is anyone in Brooklyn’s District 19 even aware that PROSE exists? The NYCDOE, the UFT and even the Mayor’s Office claim that all NYC public schools were notified about the PROSE application process. I was on the School Leadership Team (SLT) last year and had no knowledge of it.

Charter schools aside, two public school systems within the NYCDOE appear to be evolving; one for NYC’s relatively affluent and well-educated population whose kids attend progressive schools that are given waivers to assess students outside of the Chancellor’s Regulations and the UFT contract, and the other for the masses.  I have long felt that Tweed does not trust educators at Title I schools like mine and therefore feels obliged to micromanage us.  Like second-hand clothing shipped off to Haiti, we are the ones who get the unpopular, but free, Core Curriculum, like ReadyGEN for ELA.

Education reformers, who saddled us with an excessive testing program and the Common Core, claim that their remedy – a very costly experiment – will close the achievement gap. But what about the widening quality of education gap? Are teachers to blame for bad curricula and assessments that they didn’t even create? Why should our ratings be based – in part – on poorly designed and often developmentally inappropriate tests that do not adequately reflect classroom instruction and students’ knowledge? Will TIME showcase this widely held viewpoint on a future magazine cover? 

 

 

 

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.

Day 3 – 2014 NYS/Pearson Common Core ELA exam

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Photograph of 4/1/14 P.S. 146 rally courtesy of pix11.com

Today I administered DAY THREE of the 2014 NYS Common Core English-language arts (ELA) assessment to fifth grade English-language learners (ELLs) and former ELLs who are entitled to extended time on state assessments. For the third day in a row, my kids sat in the testing room for 135 minutes (2 hours and 15 minutes). This week, my group of 10-year-olds tested in ELA for a total of six hours and 45 minutes.

Today’s 5th grade test was comprised of three reading passages, five short response questions and one extended response question. The questions were tricky and confusing, and the vocabulary and content were far from being grade-appropriate.  As the educators at P.S. 321* noted in their 4/3/14 condemnation of the 2014 ELA test, “…we have never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension. There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.”  The kids I tested stared into space while struggling to make sense of the questions. They also had less stamina today. Many needed to take a break after answering the first two short response questions. The students were fidgety and less focused, and many asked to go to the bathroom. Two kids complained of stomach pain. A few kids met my gaze throughout the test, pleading with their eyes for me to rescue them.  It broke my heart.  With more than a hour left in the test, one boy, slumped over in his chair, summoned me over to his seat and said, “I don’t want to do this.”

The behavior I witnessed today was not due to lack of “grit” on the part of my students. They tried their best and didn’t give up. Whenever I proctor these exams, I’m always amazed by my students’ resilience. They make me proud, but it’s disheartening to see them suffer on a test that they don’t realize is completely meaningless and, in no way, reflects the beautiful classwork they’ve done this year.

Here are some NYC elementary student and teacher reactions to the DAY THREE test

1.) The veteran teacher I most admire, a compassionate, energetic and intelligent woman, called the 3rd grade test, “so over the top…the questions were unlike anything we’ve seen.” Furious at having to administer this exam she decried, “You are asking me to be complicit in abusing kids.  I abused kids today and my penalty is a rating.”

2.) Third grade students called the tests “horrible,” “too hard” and “boring.”  They complained of being sleepy and felt worried and frustrated.  One student said, “I thought my brain was going to shut down.”

3.) Many students were scared that they would be “left back” if they didn’t finish the test.

4.) One fifth grader said the test was “exhausting”; another remarked, “my head hurts.”

5.) A fifth grade class reported that the questions were unfair. One question, they said, “has to be thrown out.”

6.) Kids cried at drop off today.  Some cried during the test and a few vomited.  One general education student had a nervous breakdown and had to take the test in a separate location.  This student’s anxiety was so intense that the teacher thought the child would run away.

7.) There were numerous reports of students answering the questions by simply copying random sentences from the reading passages.

7.) A very hard-working and capable third grader didn’t finish the test and asked her teacher, “Does this mean I’m going to fail?”

What is wrong with the NYSED? Do they realize that so-called college readiness DOES NOT mean college-level work in elementary school? Are they punishing our students, educators and parents because of the growing test resistance in New York State? The Board of Regents and John King must be held accountable for their gross mismanagement of our public schools which has, among other disasters, resulted in the unnecessary suffering of our students.

-Katie

*P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn will be protesting this year’s ELA exam tomorrow (4/4/14) from 8:15 – 8:35 am. It will take place outside the school.