Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Common Core FAQ Part 1

Please read this piece of much misinformation first and then you can read my thoughts. I am just answering 14 questions today, more for tomorrow. I can probably write a whole blog entry on question #15.


The educators that supposedly wrote the CCSS had not spent much time teaching school. None were current school teachers. College experience doesn’t count. The two profs when were experts in their fields refused to sign off on the standards because they felt they needed tweaking. They forgot in mention that among the “experts” were 16 representatives of the standardized testing industry. No elementary/middle school teachers were involved in writing the standards, only approving them. No early childhood ed teachers were involved in either writing or approving them.

1) What is the Common Core? Yes the states adopted them because they were told it was the only way to get the Race to the Top Money.  They were written because the corporate education big-wigs decided they were needed. Same reason why they adopted VAM, PARCC, etc. Can’t get federal money without paying the bribe of approving the CCSS, which includes the VAM evaluation of teachers and the standardized testing.

2) OK, so what is the relationship between Common Core and my kid's math homework? New math standards have been on place for 40 years. The NCTM standards are good. The new math is not new, indeed, some methods have been around for centuries, just not here in the USA. The problem with the math standards are that many of them are totally inappropriate for the K to 3 kids. They just don’t have the brain maturity to think in the ways the CCSS wants them to think. This is why Early Childhood Ed teachers should have been on the committee that established the standards. The math questions are like those on the standardized tests associated with the CCSS. The same people who made the standards, make the tests and are in charge of the computer programs connected to the CCSS.

3) Why do we need the Common Core? In the grand scheme of things, not that many students are moving state-to-state, most move in-state. Not speaking against the military kids, just pointing out that it doesn’t justify a whole new set of standards and therefore a whole new curriculum. And the federal government is supposed to leave the standards up to the states, not make money contingent on their adoption of standards that they really had no big part of. States already had standards in place and in many cases replaced superior standards with inferior CCSS ones.

4) Where did the Common Core come from? They came from many CORPORATATIONS, the ones that are trying to close public schools and privatize education with charters and vouchers. The so-called “reformers” who have done nothing more than DEform public schools. Notice in the Family Tree, how big a part educators played. Hardly any input was from K-12 educators who know their students’ psychological, physical, and maturational abilities. And, as mentioned before, there was NO input from current teachers of grades K-3. The union heads approved the standards without seeking opinions about them from their union members. They have since changed their minds about much of the CCSS since their membership is up in arms about them.

5) What was the federal government's role in creating the Common Core? The Federal government made sure all the players understood that approving the standards would get the states’ money. That the people they appointed to the committee would rubber stamp the standards is a given.

6) What do "standards" mean? Are they the same as curricula?New standards begot new curricula written by the people who wrote the standards. New standards begot new standardized tests written by the writers of the standards. Schools’ performance depends on test results of the new standards, and so new curricula aligned with them. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? New curricula would not have been necessary if the standards and tests remained the same.

7) What are the standards replacing? The standards are replacing other standards previously written by educators in each state. Yes, some states had “inferior” standards, but others had to give up their superior ones to comply with the “incentive” for federal money. It is true that some states adjusted their standards to have some way to make the impossible No Child Left Behind goal of 100% of the kids scoring at proficient and advanced levels. The current addendum to NCLB, Race to the Top, has the same impossible goals, especially for ESL, Learning Disabled, and Pervasive Developmentally Disabled kids.

8) Are the Common Core standards harder than my state's old standards? See above.

9) Do other countries do this? Not all high performing countries do this. In fact, you really cannot compare the PISA scores of kids in other nations whose poverty level can be only 4%, while ours is 23%. When you remover the schools with more than 10% poverty levels, the USA is either first or second in all categories. In fact Singapore is talking about pulling out of the PISA tests because of the pressure associated with the tests.

10) What do the standards mean for math? For math, the CCSS mean that everyone will now be totally confused about what the kids are learning in math. Like I said above, “reform” math programs and methods have been around for at least decades, the idea being that each child should have the opportunity to take calculus in high school, and algebra by 8th grade. A lofty goal, but it is possible for those who have been taught to think like a mathematician. You cannot implement these methods and strategies for solving in one year, or even in 5. Each year, another layer should be added, with the teachers in elementary and middle school given extensive, intensive, on-going professional development. At the same time, parents should also be given opportunities to be taught new methods and invited to attend their children’s class during math.

11) What do the standards mean for English? The writing portion of the CCSS is the most troubling to me. Elementary students are very egocentric. It is perfectly normal for them to be like this. They find it hard to be understanding of someone else’s point to view. Maturation will take them there, but certainly not at third grade age. Children should learn to write what they know first, to form coherent thoughts and expound on them through telling their own experiences. Third graders are still learning how to read, not reading to learn yet. Same with writing, learning how to form a story of several paragraphs which has a sequence, a beginning, middle and an end. To ask them to write an argumentative essay is asking too much according to ther child development milestones. The books that they list for children to read are also ridiculously hard for the younger grades. The words may not be too difficult, but the themes are meant for older, more mature kids. To require a 2nd grader to read and understand the nuances of Charlotte’s Web is ridiculous. And although Dr. Seuss books are popular with the younger set, the vocabulary in them is not at a first grade level. Most picture books are actually written at a 4th-5th grade level, but meant to be read to young people. A 50-50 balance of fiction and non-fiction is probably not going to make smarter kids, but ones that are reluctant to read for pleasure.

12) What's an "informational text"? Kids have been reading informational for centuries, especially Science and Social Studies texts.

13) How are Common Core standards affecting state tests? CCSS is affecting the state tests in hat it will be replacing them, except ion those states that have backed out of it for 2014-15. The two new tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, are meant to be taken on the computer and/or computer graded. Many problems have arisen this year with states administering the tests via computer. Some crashed, some did not perform the way they were supposed to, some of the tests required computer skills which many kids did not have. The length of the tests were not developmentally appropriate for young children – some kindergarteners spent FIVE HOURS completing their computer tests. Almost all of the grades spent more time on the tests than are asked of the bar exam, medical boards, etc.

14) What is the "assessment cliff"? The assessment cliff is a totally arbitrary line of proficiency, drawn so the results would show failure in the beginning to prove that schools were not doing their jobs. It’s very strange that they were able to predict how many would fail. How can you do that with a test no one has taken yet? Unless you have rigged it that way...

Still learning!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cheating is NOT an Option

A familiar, frequently-used phrase used to describe “good” schools is “No Excuses.” It’s supposed to mean that no matter what circumstances are blocking your improvement, no excuse will be accepted for not reaching your goal. Many influential people who consider themselves “reformers” will wax poetic about the idea of no excuses.

While the thought behind the phrase may be noble, in real life there are plenty of things that can make a child’s school achievement just about impossible to happen on time. These may include physical or mental abuse, lack of sufficient health care, violence in the house and neighborhood, insufficient food, heat, water, and other factors. “No Excuses” was even a motto of the year during a recent time when our region had a horrible superintendent. It meant that only the teachers and principals were blamed for their students nor performing as well as the children in the richer suburbs performed.

“No Excuses” promoters feel that everyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps, and often use this phrase to denounce the low scores of high poverty schools. Although it is not impossible for children to score well, it requires a certain mix of ingredients to make it happen. A supportive family, a caring community, and school personnel who can point the families towards the right services, can lay the groundwork for higher achievement of the child who is lucky enough to have all three ingredients.

No Excuses is a zero tolerance policy. I have a huge problem with zero tolerance. Everything is NOT black and white; there are more than 50 shades of grey in school and in legal situations. No excuses touts that the teacher or administrator is ALWAYS right. Not true! There are many reasons why a child acts the way they do or doesn’t act the way we want. The motivation behind a child’s disrespect almost always lies in their not feeling respected themselves. The root could have been planted at home, in the community or at school itself. Kids like this must be shown the we feel they are worthy of respect and only then will be able to teach them how to show it to others.

Teachers are on the front lines in school for these students. Teachers need to make sure they are cultivating a culture of respect in their classroom. This does not mean total acquiescence on the part of the students. If the students feel they are respected, they will be able to question the reasons behind certain rules and policies. They will be able to respectfully question and argue their point and agree to disagree, if necessary. No excuses demands total subjugation to the whims of the teacher and school. Subjugation is NOT the way to get students to work hard and contribute to society. It feeds a subculture of resistance and revolt and will come back to sting you eventually. Questioning rules is a rite of passage for teenagers coming into their own, a necessary part of growing up and finding your place in this world.

No excuses requires sick kids to come to school and have eye contact 100% of the time the lesson is being taught even though their headache is stabbing their eyes. No excuses means even though you spent 6-8 hours in the ER trying to get your asthma under control, you have your homework completely done the next day. No excuses means not being able to speak at all during the school day unless your teacher speaks to you, except for your 30 minute lunch which is often eaten in silence as a punishment for some infraction against the rules. No excuses means when you are being bullied unmercifully and you get punished for your outburst. A recent “no excuses/zero tolerance” issue came to light a few weeks ago when a bully accused a kid who was twirling his pencil of making gun shooting motions at him. The bullied kid with the pencil was suspended, questioned at the police station, given a slew of psychological tests, examined by a psychiatrist and ultimately returned to the classroom having been vindicated. No excuses put all that into motion automatically without giving the pencil-wielding kid a chance to explain. No excuses means many round kids who don’t fit in the square holes get excluded from schools unfairly.

Behavior is one no-excuses way to get rid of recalcitrant kids, academics is another. A popular law, sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC) and written into many states’ educational regulations, is the Third Grade Reading initiative. This means that if a child isn’t reading on grade level by third grade, they are retained until they can. If this includes Special Ed kids, as some school districts believe it does, then some children are going to spend a long time in grade 3. There could be many reasons why a child is not reading on grade level by third grade. I am not saying they should NOT be retained, just that you have to go on a case-by-case basis to decide. This No Excuses mantra doesn’t accept that there are exceptions and many shades of grey.

There is one area however, that I truly feel there is no excuse for, and that is cheating on standardized tests. Over the past few years, cheating scandals have occurred in many major cities such as Atlanta, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. In many cases, the teachers were either strong-armed or made to feel threatened with being fired or laid off if they didn’t help the kids or fix the wrong answers. At the same time, the principals of the schools were also being strong-armed and threatened by the superintendent in increase the scores or lose their job. I know from close association that threats and embarrassment were being foisted upon principals in Philadelphia by both the Regional and the City Superintendents. The principals would face berating remarks and have to sit there as principals whose scores had increased got special rewards and favors. They were expected to go back and do the same to their teachers. Thank God our principal would stand up for the teachers in those meetings and refuse to make our jobs any more stressful than they were already. She truly did succeed in keeping the specter of cheating at bay.

Our Test Coordinator was very thorough in her handling of the tests and in enforcing the security imposed by the state. We were trained and had to sign that we understood the procedures. She collected the tests every day before lunch and locked them in a safe place until the next morning. We had been able to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) every year or two. It was nice to be recognized when you did, but we didn’t let it ruin our year if we didn’t. We tried harder and changed what we thought we needed to change and tried again the next year. I never felt the need to have higher scores than anyone else, although their were some teachers on the staff who wanted to be better than their grade partner. I can honestly say that I have never allowed cheating on any standardized test in my classroom during my 37 years working in Philly schools.

Was I aware of cheating? Yes, but way back in the 60’s when we had a different principal. In fact, it was the principal who would come in the room and ask a child who had bubbled the wrong answer, “Are you sure you want that answer?” She’d ask the question as many times as it took to get the kids to mark it properly. She was obsessed with being the best school in our region, but I didn’t let that convince me to cheat, I just felt that I’d rather know honestly how the kids were doing on the test, than not be sure.

My brother-in-law is a lawyer who worked for our rival union for a while and told me stories of teachers losing their certification because of cheating. I decided that I liked teaching and didn’t want anything to happen so that I’d find myself losing my teaching certificate. I warned teachers at school about the consequences. I really don’t know if my colleagues cheated or not, but our scores didn’t go up precipitously or unexpectedly. Our test scores pretty much aligned with our report cards and reading levels, so I think that would indicate that we weren’t cheating. That coupled with the fact that we didn’t always make AYP is a fairly good indicator that our school was on the up and up.

But in these times of Value-Added metrics and 50% reliance on test scores for a teacher’s evaluation, cheating may look better and better for those principals and teachers who are trying to hang on but whose kids are not making enough progress. I retired before the 50% test score rule and I am sure I would not have received a good score on that end because of our school’s less-than-stellar performance. But the difference between me and the teachers who cheated is that I know I am a good teacher, whereas newer teachers may not feel confident in their teaching, I know that I only have so much influence on a child and the bulk of their score is molded by home, health, poverty, and community. The teacher’s roll in all that accounts for at most 15%, 85% being influenced by out-of-school factors. I know what my kids can do or not do yet. I know that each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and those strengths may not be in an academic area. I know it’s important to develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem so they will be able to recognize when they have to persevere, and the way to do that is play on their strengths first. When I do that, I know that I am giving each child the best chance to succeed, and eventually they will.

Teachers and principals, superintendents and school board members must understand that there is no excuse for cheating in a district that supports its students well.  And that if you feel the need to cheat, maybe it’s time to leave.


Still learning!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Teacher Appreciation?

It's Teacher Appreciation Week!

This is a week of gifts from students and principals if you are lucky. If  you are not lucky, it's just another week. No matter your luck there are some things teachers would really enjoy during this week.

From the students - how about a week of good behavior? A week of  doing all your homework? A week of please and thank you, excuse me and I'm sorry. A week of good behavior. A week of walking quietly in the hallway, of trouble-free recess, of copying homework in a timely fashion. And most importantly, how about a week of doing your best and working hard?

From the parents - you know what would be a lovely gift for a teacher? A letter of thanks for the little things, checking your child's bookbag every night this week, volunteering to come in and help, supervising homework, reading your child a book, maybe even a letter to the principal about how much you appreciate the teacher. And most importantly, showing your child that they are loved and valued so they will come to school in a good frame of mind.

From other teachers - Nothing says we can't celebrate each other! We can give each other encouragement and a listening ear. We can share a great activity or lesson, we can keep a sense of humor about all the crap in school, we can compliment another class or teacher on something special. We can keep our class in the room for a prep period and give the prep teacher a break they weren't expecting. We can support each other in these times of uncertainty and attack. We can stick together.

From the principal - How about giving a week off from lesson plans and observations? Picking up the class from lunch and bringing them into the classroom would be wonderful - a teacher might even have a chance to visit the rest room! How about showing a movie in the auditorium the last two periods to give everyone a needed break? How about taking the time to write a nice note to your teachers to tell them you appreciate them and why?

From the general public - I know teacher-bashing is fashionable these days, but can you take a minute to research the thing you're up in arms about? I can clear some things up right here. 1)In K-12, tenure means due process, nothing more. It means that if I am accused of something, I have the right to defend myself. It doesn't mean teachers have a job for life. There is no such job in education. 2) Test scores measure how much a student knows on one day out of 180. Because they measure student learning, it is statistically wrong to use them for anything else, like evaluating the teacher. 3) Teachers are not responsible for our failing schools. First of all, standardized scores are the highest they've been, graduation rates are the highest they've been, college attendance is the highest it's been. The achievement gap is the smallest it's been. Not all schools are failing. In fact, most schools are not! The schools which score the lowest on standardized tests are schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty. Countries who score higher than us on PISA tests do not have near the poverty level the USA has. When we only consider the students at the level of poverty other countries have, the USA leaves the other countries in the dust. We're #1 as long as we ignore the 25% poverty level of our country. 4) Our teachers unions are for improving the working conditions for teachers AND pupils and do not support keeping bad teachers working. They DO support helping teachers get better at their craft and making sure teaching conditions are healthful and fair. Our unions are proud of the job we are doing to make the future lives of students better through education and guidance today.

For politicians - It's Teacher Appreciation Week. Also Charter School Week. I think those two cancel each other out. I'm not saying that charter schools don't appreciate their teachers. Clearly some of them do. What I am trying to get across is that the advent of charter schools was also the advent of teacher bashing in the name of "choice." Charter school proliferation will be the death of quality public education if allowed to continue as it has been. Give the public school teachers a present and evaluate the charters the exact same way you evaluate the neighborhood public schools. And make the charters open their financial books the way the public schools have to. Make the charters educate the same level of ELL, Special Ed and behavior problems that the public schools in the neighborhood MUST educate. If President Obama wanted to appreciate teachers, one of the things he should undo is making this Charter School Week.

So, while we love the chocolates, flowers, mugs, and gift cards, the above things mean so much more.

We appreciate you, too. Thanks.

Still learning!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

You Make Too Much Money For Having Summers Off!

“You make too much money for having summers off!”

That has to be the most frequent statement told to teachers when John Q. Public wants to know why they pay so much if teachers their have summers off. Believe me, no teacher worth their pay spends the summer goofing around! If you pressed further, the person telling you this most likely thinks that teachers have weekends off, and only work a quarter of a day, too.

First of all, a teacher’s work does not only happen during the six or seven hours you are standing in front of a classroom. Teachers who are lucky enough to have a preparation period every day have this time to mark papers, run off lesson activities and assessments, research activities, plan lesson specifics, consult with the counselor or a colleague, meet with a parent, make phone calls to parents, and do something as mundane as use the rest room. Teachers do not get a break to use the restroom during class time. Lunch and prep times are the only periods available. Since there is no way a teacher can get all of the fore-mentioned things finished in one 30-45 minute time frame, she must take home the paperwork that has not been completed.

Most states have continuing education requirements wherein every teacher has to spend a certain amount of hours in undergraduate or masters level classes or seminars designed to improve their teaching. Many teachers elect to take one college course per year during the summer so they can spend the time learning the information. Courses taken during the school year always seem to have real life intrude upon them and you can never give them the attention they deserve. So summertime is the best time to take the required continuing education courses. Any new programs initiated by the school district regarding curricula have to be introduced to the teachers so they can implement the new ideas well. Most of the time these programs are rolled out in a week’s worth of classes during the summer.

As the doors to the school are closing in June, most teachers are reflecting on the triumphs and tribulations of the past year. Depending on how tumultuous a year it was, it could take up to three weeks to wrap up the year in your mind so you can get on with some relaxation during your vacation. Teachers just can’t turn off their minds and go into rest and relax mode. Some of those beginning weeks of vacation are also spent decorating your class for next year or taking down from the end just ending. Many schools require that everything be taken down from bulletin boards and walls, and all bookshelves be cleared before you are relieved of your school responsibilities. For obvious reasons, bookshelves cannot be cleared while school is in session. Therefore, these things are done after the children’s voices fade away on the last day of school.

Vacation is usually ten weeks long. Two weeks on either end to clear your class and then put it back again, leaves you with eight weeks left to relax. Eight weeks is a little more than the time it takes to complete a summer course. If you do take a class, then you end up with only two weeks vacation, technically. If you do not take a class, school is still never far from your mind. A teacher’s mind is rarely “off.” Even when a teacher is on vacation, he keeps a lookout for books, equipment and activities that he can share with his class. He is always evaluating how a summer experience can be used to help his students acquire background knowledge for reading and social studies. Teachers in high poverty schools are claiming all the back-to-school bargains they can so their students can begin the year well equipped. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars on supplies that the school does not provide in order to be able to provide the best instruction for their pupils who might not be able to buy those little extras such as notebooks, paper, pencils and crayons. Some teachers may stock up on bookbags for a needy student or two.

One summer, my colleague and I had to roll out the new Math curriculum we had helped to write. We worked 6 hours a day in addition to our classroom duties from January to July 1st. Then we spent two weeks teaching professional development for the Math series we were introducing. After that, we spent three weeks rolling out the new curriculum to the teachers in our region. This brought us into the second week of August. Each of us took two weeks off and then went back into the school to ready our classrooms for the new school year. That school year ended up being the hardest year to teach because we had not gotten enough rest and relaxation over the summer. We were both pretty burnt out by the time the following June rolled around. It truly was not worth being busy all summer, as we couldn’t give our best to the students that year.

Do you still think teachers have too much vacation? Let us examine the hours teachers put in versus the worker who has a forty-hour workweek, with two weeks vacation. That worker works approximately 2,000 hours a year, 40 hours x 50 working weeks. A teacher performs teaching activities about 6 hours a day, including his 30-45 minute preparation period where he prepares materials to teach various subjects, communicates with parents and staff about students, grades tests and writing.  That makes 30 hours a week performing teaching duties x 40 weeks of school = 1200.

The preparation period is not sufficient to perform all the necessary tasks in a teacher’s day. So he takes paperwork home to work on.  It is not enough just to grade a test and slap a mark on it. These days, teachers are expected to comment on both what the student did well and what they need to work on. Twenty-five tests can take 10 minutes apiece to grade = 4+ hours at home. Tests are not graded every night, but two or three nights a week (12 hours total) would be common for an elementary school teacher who has to teach all subjects. If you are grading a writing assignment you should figure on 20-30 minutes on each essay. Reading through them all once, separating into piles to compare easily, using the rubric as you read again to more closely examine the writing quality, making notes on the sides about content, style, grammatical and spelling conventions and so on. Thirty minutes x 25 papers= 11 hours. So far that makes 23 additional hours per week performing grading tasks x 40 weeks of school = 920 hours + 1200 in-class hours = 2120 hours already in only 40 weeks!

Then there is the matter of researching activities, standards and lesson planning on the weekends, which, if you are doing it right, takes a good six hours a week minimum. That makes 6 x 40 weeks = 240 hours + 2120 hours of teaching activities = 2360 hours, at 40 hours weekly yields 59 work weeks in a year. Here are only 52 weeks in a year! Even though we are not physically in school, we are working as though we have no vacation time and there is plenty of overtime, which we do not get paid for.

The next time you hear someone chide a teacher for only working 40 weeks a year, please help them understand why we need all the time we get.

Still learning!