Saturday, November 7, 2015

Speak the Truth Even If Your Voice Shakes

In an apparent attempt to polish his tarnished image and mitigate the damage caused by his pitiful record on education matters, New York Governor Cuomo has now convened a "Task Force" to review the Common Core Standards and to "listen" to his constituents - the stakeholders who should be dominating the conversations that are once again being co-opted by a handful of selected supporters of the governor's agenda. Woefully underrepresented in the Task Force are the dissenting voices of elementary level educators and parents. As always, those who will be shaping policy are, for the most part, those who have already demonstrated loyalty to the governor's agenda. You can read the biographies of the task Force members here.

I spent hours preparing my comments for the Long Island Region Common Core Listening Session scheduled for Friday, November 6th in Stony Brook, NY.  I prepared my comments without any true belief that anything said during the "listening Tour" would really be heard but I wanted to add my voice to the dozens of others who took time in their day to share their stories, their concerns, their experiences, and in some cases, their rage. To their credit, Senator Carl Marcellino and Superintendent Constance Evelyn listened without intervening or countering any of the attendees' testimony, unlike the forums held by Former NYS Education Commissioner John King and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch in 2013. However, the only indicator of how well the Task Force members at these meetings are listening will be the action, or inaction, that follows when the "listening" is over and the panel convenes to act on what the members have heard.

As I prepared my statement, I thought of this simple sentence - one that reminded me of the need for those of us who can to speak out: "Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes." And I have no doubt that at least once during my comments, my voice did shake. I spoke anyway because we need to make our position known - we will not remain silent and allow children to be harmed for profit. I urge those who can attend and speak at the remaining sessions to show up, speak out, make your presence and your dissatisfaction known. And if you can't be there, please submit your testimony on the website so the Task Force receives an avalanche of undeniably negative feedback to Cuomo's  education policies.

I was humbled and honored to be in the presence of so many eloquent speakers at last night's event: parents, teachers, superintendents, and members of local school boards, each with slightly different testimony, but almost unanimously sharing the same disdain for the Common Core Standards and the entire education reform agenda. In an effort to not be redundant and echo the same comments I expected we would hear from other speakers, I decided to share some facts with the task Force members.  My comments at the meeting appear below.

I retired in June after a 26 year career in public education. I am currently a doctoral candidate and as a result of six years of ongoing research for my dissertation, I am well aware of the origin and history of the education “reform” initiatives, as well as the players and their agendas. And my concern takes on a very personal meaning because I am fighting for the education of my four grandchildren.

It’s time to stop pretending that the dismantling of public education for profit is for the betterment of education or for the benefit of children. It is only for the benefit of the profiteers’ bank accounts and children are becoming the collateral damage of their greed. 

Twenty years ago David Berliner and Bruce Biddle published their book, The Manufactured Crisis, and laid out in detail how data was being manipulated to create a perception of the failure of public education in order to justify privatization. I mention their book because they include a powerful quote from 1770, when John Adams stated, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” 

Rather than repeat what you already know and what others are sharing here today about why current education policies are harming children in this state, I will provide some facts that the governor’s wishes, inclinations and dictates cannot alter: 

  • Fact: The parents, grandparents, and educators of this state do not want to hear lip service. We don’t want empty promises and we don’t want any more lies, which by the way, violate the NYS Code of Ethics for Educators, Principle 5. The members of the Task Force might want to look that up.
  • Fact: We do not negotiate with our children’s futures. We do not compromise when children are hurting because of policies grounded in corporate and political greed.
  • Fact: We do NOT want to see the Common Core Standards tweaked, re-named, or rebranded as other states have done. We want them gone. Period. If this Task Force is not sure why, its members need to listen harder.
  • Fact: Nothing less than a total shift in policy, including the decoupling of high stakes tests from teacher evaluations, is acceptable. Children’s education should not be about supplying data to evaluate their teachers, schools, or districts. And telling children the tests don’t count for them while these same tests have the power to destroy teachers’ careers is nothing short of a set-up for failure.  
  •  Fact: Last year NYS saw over 200,000 refusals for the Grade 3-8 Common Core tests. We are aware that Ms. Elia has provided a tool kit to superintendents to turn back the growing opt out movement. It will not work. It won’t work because parents will not be placated, threatened, or coerced into cooperating with policies that harm their children. We don’t need to be “educated” about the so-called value of these tests. Instead, those who dare to believe that we are that easily manipulated need to be educated about the strength of our resolve. If this Task Force doesn’t listen, I have no doubt that the refusal rate will easily double or triple next year.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

No, I will NOT Nae Nae for Public Education

Last Monday NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) sent emails and text messages to those who have provided contact information, suggesting that we join their challenge to Nae Nae and send a video as a means of showing our support for public education. The "challenge" can be seen here and here. In an invitation reminiscent of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that was shared widely last year, we were asked to challenge fellow educators, students, parents, community members and elected officials to "do the Nae Nae dance for public schools" and post the dance videos on multiple social media platforms using specific hashtags. 

I responded to this ridiculous call to "action" by reminding those who planned this ill-conceived challenge that dancing is not going to solve the monumental challenges that teachers and public education face today. Public education is being dismantled and NYSUT wants us to DANCE? And the most recent NYSUT epic failure doesn't end there.

In the newest NYSUT brainstorm, we are now being invited by NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino to complete a survey to provide feedback to be shared with Governor Cuomo's newly formed Common Core Commission  - the commission that includes a few select pro- Common Core educators and the usual pool of non-educators, without the inclusion of dissenting voices. Most telling was Ms. Fortina's statement, "We have designed a feedback form to get your specific recommendations on transforming the Common Core standards into New York Standards." Transformation, aka "rebranding" which of course, is the expectation of the outcome of this "commission" by all of us who have been there and done that with this governor's administration. We can predict the outcome as certainly as former New York Education Commissioner John King was able to predict test score passing rates months before any tests were administered. The outcome is always predetermined when Cuomo and his political puppets are involved. Adding insult to injury is the self-congratulations that has become typical of NYSUT in the face of non-action as Ms. Fortino commented, "Our work on the standards is just one element of our fierce advocacy to fix the state's broken system of testing and evaluation." I guess I somehow managed to miss that "fierce advocacy". Or was she referring to the invitation to dance?

After a few days of discussion on Facebook about the upcoming survey, I became aware that input was being accepted when I saw a post by an activist friend and eloquent blogger, Michael Lambert. He shared the NYSUT post and commented:

The need for standards assumes teachers aren't competent. Where is the data that says standards make any significant difference?
Set up skills expectations, as guidelines, at 5th, 8th and 12th grades and watch us figure it out for ourselves and blow every assumption about how we need to be trained like dogs right out of the water.

His use of the word "guidelines" brought me back to a point in time where the standards movement hadn't taken hold and teachers in NY had autonomy to follow curriculum guidelines that allowed us to function as professionals capable of making decisions about how best to teach those students in our classrooms every day. 

I responded to Michael's post with the comment: 

Remember the good old days of curriculum guidelines? No testing of  "standards"? Classrooms were full of creativity. Kids learned and school wasn't about test prep. Teachers loved our jobs and kids were happy in school.

And then I began to think about my unique perspective as an adjunct professor at a local college which I held concurrently with my full time position as an elementary teacher in a public school for the last 20 years of my teaching career, from which I retired this June. Functioning in both roles simultaneously, I was keenly aware of the shifts in public education, as I witnessed the changes that began when the first groups of students who had been educated under No Child Left Behind began arriving in my college classrooms. With this in mind I responded to Michael again, writing: 

I will add that since I have also taught college courses for 20 years I can say without reservation that the students produced by the public education system pre- NCLB, and before the standards movement and testing frenzy, were far more prepared for college than those produced by the "reform" movement. We are in deep trouble if we don't reverse course soon.

Michael's comment that this is important because it "pushes against the false narrative" became the impetus behind this blog post, but before I could sit at the computer to put my thoughts into words, a Psychology Today blog post appeared on my Facebook news feed. As I read it I realized that it seems to summarize all that I have seen in my role as an adjunct college instructor in recent years. Rather than detail my experiences, I will let the blog post tell the story, but I will say without hesitation that while I agree with the author's assessment of the current issues with college students, I do not attribute the changes I have seen to helicopter parenting. Instead, I think the author, Peter Gray, hit the nail on the head with his statement in another of his blog posts included as a link:

Given a choice between really learning a subject and getting an A, the great majority of students would, without hesitation, pick the latter. That is true at every stage in the educational process, at least up to the level of graduate school. That's not the fault of students; that's our fault. We've set it up that way. Our system of constant testing and evaluation in school—which becomes increasingly intense with every passing year—is a system that very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. It is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression. 

If the purpose of education reform truly is to prepare students for college and careers, where is the data from those who have actually taught these students when they reached college? Amid the rhetoric, where is the college instructor who can say that the five paragraph essay drilled into students for passing grades on high stakes tests translates into the type of writing we expect to see at the college level? Who can say that an education based upon choosing the one correct answer for every question or writing a response based upon the need to satisfy a rubric for test points translates to success in college or in a career? I have yet to see an overwhelming improvement in the critical thinking and writing skills of students who spent all or most of their pre-college years in a test prep environment. My experience has been quite the opposite. And as I was so aptly reminded today, we must share our truths and push against the false narrative that these reforms will lead to college success. 

So no, NYSUT, I will not Nae Nae and share a video. No, Ms. Fortino, I will not respond to a bogus survey when the outcome has been predetermined by the positioning of Common Core supporters on the very commission that is supposed to "fix" the failed education "reforms" in New York. As author Mike Rose states in his book, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, we must "... assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, and hold it fast to the heart.” Please share your truths, speak loudly about what you know and do not be distracted by those who would have you think that activism is nothing more than a dance contest.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Comments from the "Our Schools...Our Community... Our Voice" Forum on 3/10/15

Last night I had the honor and privilege of  participating as a panel member in an incredible community forum at the Saxton Middle School in the Patchogue-Medford school district in Suffolk County, New York. I have been asked to share the content of  my comments so those who were unable to attend could have access to them. As I prepare and post this, I am almost at a loss for words to describe the unbelievable energy that permeated the entire school last night as thousands gathered to make their presence known and their voices heard. Have  no doubt, we are making a difference. I would remind those who attended, and those who could not, that gathering at a forum is a first step, but the work continues now as we take this energy and channel it into contacting our elected officials until they finally understand the urgency of our appeals. We must be relentless! 

Below is the text from my comments last night:

When I thought about what I would say tonight I remembered my earlier years in education  and I felt as though my professional life was passing before my eyes. Maybe that is fitting because what we are experiencing in our classrooms in recent years feels like the death of teaching and learning as we once knew them. As I considered the massive changes I have seen in the educational landscape in well over twenty years as an educator, I found myself first focusing on what has not changed, and I want to begin with that reminder.

What hasn’t changed is the reason why those of us working in education chose this profession. We became educators because we love children. We love teaching. We believe that the purpose of education is to prepare children for life, to create thinkers and learners and to find the gifts in every child so that each of them can go forward and live happy and productive lives. What hasn’t changed is that NO teacher EVER walks into a classroom asking how we can prepare children to be widgets in a corporate world that wants obedient, passive workers who exist only to create maximum profits for their employers.

Because I have spent the most recent part of my career in a support position teaching students who receive AIS services, and because this June my retirement will mark the end of my career in public education, the memories of some of my earlier teaching experiences are especially close to my heart. I’m going to tell you a little about those experiences. Every year I read Judith Viorst’s poem, “If I Were in Charge of the World”, to my fourth grade class. My students wrote their own humorous poetic views of what their world could be if they were in charge and we created a class book from their poems. They wrote about a world of unlimited ice cream, more television and fun and games. They did not write about college and careers and that was as it should be. They were only nine years old.  

When they learned about persuasive techniques used in advertising, they were inspired and engaged as they demonstrated their learning by working in groups to invent their own products and write commercials using the techniques they had learned. We videotaped their commercials so they could share them with their families. None of these activities included a multiple choice component because real life is not a multiple choice test. We think outside the box and not inside the bubble.

Science was taught through discovery and hands on experiences and students did learn.  The only experiments taking place in our classrooms were those conducted by students, not those being conducted on them as human subjects by the likes of Bill Gates who doesn’t seem to see the problem with waiting a decade to determine if these so-called reforms will work. Of course he doesn’t – it isn’t happening to his kids. 

Before corporate education reform most students came to school excited to see what new project would capture their hearts and minds every day.  Without the pressure to teach to tests we had ample time for these activities. Our focus was on engagement, and that has sadly been replaced in some places by a focus on compliance. They are not the same thing. I am encouraged to know that most teachers are trying to resist the pressures of the testing mentality and packaged instruction and are still fitting as much creativity as possible into their days. But this becomes more and more difficult as requirements increase, and as stakes attached to meaningless test scores become higher.  

Before the tentacles of corporate education reform reached into our schools, teachers were decision makers in our classrooms. Pearson did not define learning and decide what knowledge we should share. We decided how best to teach and assess our students because we were the ones who knew them and what they needed.  We were not micro-managed. We were not scripted or expected to teach from modules. We knew what was developmentally appropriate and our teaching reflected that knowledge. We didn’t have pacing guides to rush us through instruction to prepare students for tests. We not only managed to teach everything that was required, but we did it at a more relaxed pace and with the time to slow down and adjust our teaching to respond to our students’ learning. And our students learned.

Before the imposition of the Common Core Standards our teaching reflected what most students could successfully do. And there was no question that curriculum could be modified for those students who needed it.  We know that success looks different for every student, because they are individuals. Standardized children are expected to learn at the same pace and that is not a reality if one knows anything about how children develop. We, as educators, know this. But standardization is expected now.  It seems these reforms leave many children behind.  
My classroom library was quite large and my students viewed reading as a very pleasurable activity, not as a means to prepare for a high stakes test.  The current insistence on decontextualizing reading and making it about stringing together words extracted from text as “evidence” because David Coleman, a man who has never taught anyone anything, decided THIS is the way reading should be taught and assessed, does a huge disservice to the children in our classrooms.

I am almost afraid to mention math because of the passion it brings out in parents who cannot understand why children in the younger grades are being forced to complete work that is developmentally inappropriate, causing stress and frustration for entire families. Contrary to the reform narrative, the math we taught prior to the Common Core Standards did provide conceptual and foundational knowledge and was not just rote learning of formulas and computation methods. It certainly worked well enough for all of us, didn’t it? The sudden amnesia about how we taught effectively prior to these new standards astounds me. Before the Common Core my students used manipulatives, and they solved complex problems. The work they did was developmentally appropriate and enabled most students to experience success.  This is not the case now as so many children are struggling, and contrary to many of the supporters of the Common Core, I do not see this kind of struggle as productive, I see it as abusive.  Children should not be crying over homework.
And then there is assessment. The word “assess” comes from the Latin word assid─ôre, which means “to sit beside”.  And that is how I see the way we once assessed our students. We evaluated their learning continuously by observing them, and by using tests that we created to reflect the learning in our classrooms. We sat beside them and watched as they demonstrated their learning through active engagement across the curriculum. Although students in my class took a standardized achievement test each year, it was NOT a high-stakes test. Students did bubble in answers, but the tests were brief, and the questions were appropriate.  Those assessments were not filled with tricks, ambiguities and product placements, and they included no components to be sent out and scored for $11.00 an hour by non-educators hired on Craigslist. We did not spend weeks on test prep for these assessments. We barely spoke about them. They certainly were not the focus of our teaching or our school year.  And we never administered tests which were so “secret” we were forbidden to discuss them with our colleagues or with the very students whose learning they claimed to assess. I never saw children vomit, wet their pants, have nosebleeds, or just shut down and sob during testing. I never saw teachers cry after testing because they had watched their students suffer. I have witnessed all of this in recent years.
We all know that what is tested is what is taught. With the high-stakes attached to reading and math tests, the curriculum has been narrowed to focus on the tested areas, crowding out the rich instruction we once had in social studies and in science. In many cases, current reforms have decimated instruction in art and music, either because of time constraints or because of funds diverted to conform to mandates. How many future artists, musicians, poets, novelists, or inventors will be lost because we no longer nurture the gifts within during the formative years?
In my other role as a teacher educator for 19 years, I am distressed that my college students may never experience what our profession was when we were respected as professionals who knew better than politicians and corporate profiteers what was best for our students. These new teachers may never teach in classrooms that are the joyous place where I began my teaching career; where many of us once taught. They may never understand why I used to get up every morning excited to go to work. I used to tell my college students that I have the best job in the world. Now I tell them I used to have the best job in the world, before it all changed.
In the film Race to Nowhere, psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel says, “I am afraid that our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods.” Our children are not widgets, they are not human capital, and they are not cannon fodder in the political and corporate war on public education. It is NOT their role to be ready for college or careers during their childhoods. Childhood is for play, for socialization and exploration and joy. We need to reclaim that.  Our children and grandchildren need us to reclaim that for them. You know what to do.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Response to John Merrow - Will YOU Be the One to Tell the Truth?

As one who tends to believe more in a confluence of events than in coincidence, the events of today were no exception. Earlier in the day a meme on Facebook reminded me of the impact of corporate influence on what is shared in the media. Although this certainly doesn't fall under the category of new information, it was a powerful reminder of why the media reports what the rich and powerful want reported. As always, it is a case of following the money, and the news about education has been a prime example of this. Anyone not living in a cave has been exposed to claims that public education is failing, that teachers need to be more accountable, that we can test our way to greatness and fire our way to better teachers and privatize our way to better schools. Any illusion of truthful and unbiased reporting has been surrendered  to the reality that those who profit from these false claims about education control the media.

Shortly after I saw this meme, I came across a Facebook post discussing John Merrow's blog, "What a Difference A Dash Makes" in which he discussed the "protest" movement against corporate education reform, vs. those who are "pro-test" and support those so-called reforms. A barrage of comments followed the blog, and I could not find one that was from a "pro-test" commenter. The eloquent, well-informed and passionate comments from testing "protesters"  appeared so rapidly that even John Merrow himself tweeted about the discussion.

Encouraged by the momentum building with these comments along with Twitter activity that had my cell phone buzzing with notifications, I decided to join the conversation and add my input. I was impressed by a common underlying theme of concern for children, expressed in a slightly different manner by each contributor. I wanted to add to those putting a human face on the suffering caused by our climate of testing in our schools. I wanted to invite Mr. Merrow to be the person who forgets who owns the media, the person who reports the truth.                                                                                                                                                   
The following is my comment on Mr. Merrow's blog: 

Others have done an eloquent job of explaining the agenda behind what is happening in education in comments before mine. I have to wonder whether anything we are sharing will be taken to heart and will make a difference when the media is so totally working on the side of the ed reformers. The "protesters" are not some fringe group engaging in small acts of resistance. Our numbers are extremely large and growing as the ed reformers double down on policies that are harming children. We are teachers, parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens who understand that a free, equitable public education for all children is a right, and cannot be sold off to the highest bidder because it can generate profits and campaign donations. Our children are not for sale and are not just data points or numbers for discussion around a corporate table. Children matter, not because they take tests and provide data - they matter because they are children, because they are our only hope for a better future. 

We "protesters" outnumber the reformers, but we also know that they can outspend us. They own the media. Reports about education are biased against teachers, against public education, and are based on half-truths and blatant lies. Journalists KNOW how to dig for the truth, so when the truth is distorted, it can be nothing less than a deliberate act. Our children deserve to have their stories shared. Those in the media owe it to children to put a human face on what reform policies are doing to our children, to speak to educators, and to hear our stories. When will this side of the story be told and who will tell it? Will you be that person who steps up and lets the truth be heard?                                                               

Here are a few examples for you to consider. I have seen nine and ten year old children vomit, urinate in class, break down and sob and shake uncontrollably, and have nosebleeds during these tests. I have heard children call themselves stupid, give up and hang their heads in shame because they can't make sense of questions which in some cases, don't make sense. None of these were students who had any previous history of these behaviors outside of the testing situation. I have seen teachers break down and cry at the end of testing because they are heartbroken watching their students, the children they love, devastated because it is impossible to finish tests that include inappropriate embedded field test questions that are included so Pearson can see where they should place them on future tests. THIS is what happens to children when they are forced to sit for hours taking developmentally inappropriate, poorly written, high-stakes tests. Pro-test? I defy ANYONE who is pro-testing to come witness what these children go through and say this child abuse is justified. This is why we protest!                                                                                             
A couple of years ago a young boy in my school became so stressed during a state test that he experienced a nosebleed during the test, which splattered his test booklet. He had no prior history of nosebleeds in school, and was an excellent student. The directive from the state was to have the boy return to class when he could, give him the amount of time he had already used to copy his test into a new booklet, and then proceed with the remaining time he would have had to complete the test. Pictures had to be taken of the blood splattered test and sent to the state education department to justify the "missing" test booklet. The blood stained booklet was to be "medically disposed of." This is the "procedure" when children compromise a test booklet due to illness.                                    

Are you aware that in the interest of protecting Pearson's ability to reuse test questions in other states, these books are kept so secure that they must be counted and sent back to the state for destruction? Are you aware that teachers are told, under threat of disciplinary action which includes dismissal, that we cannot discuss the contents of the tests with each other, with our students, or with anyone else? Think about that. WE CANNOT DISCUSS THE TESTS WITH OUR STUDENTS. How is there ANY value in a test that cannot be discussed with the very population it was supposedly written to assess? How are these tests of any value when we can't see them after they are administered? In fact, we are cautioned not to look at them while the children are testing. If this does not make the agenda clear, what will? This is supposed to improve education? This is supposed to help students or make teachers more effective? Obviously not.
Millions of children are being harmed. We speak out for them every day when we protest. We will continue to protest because we are NOT "Pro-test". We are pro children. We are pro public education. We are pro teacher. This huge corporate funded "gotcha game" needs to be reported for what it is. Someone has to start telling the truth about this story. So I will repeat my question. 
                                                                                                                                             When will this side of the story be told and who will tell it? Will you be that person who steps up and lets the truth be heard?                                                                                                  

I am hopeful that Mr. Merrow has opened this dialogue with the intent of balancing the false reform narrative with the truth. Only time will tell.