Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Save Our Schools and The State of Education Today

What follows is a response to a message board post by Valencia Hokie that I wrote today. I hope you can figure out what the original poster questioned. I share this to prove to my readers that I actually am alive and still can write sometimes.

Valencia, I’m glad you brought up Matt Damon and the Save Our Schools March. The march and rally took place this past Saturday on The Ellipse in front of the White House. About 5,000 education supporters (and a few non-supporters) attended including my wife and me. We stood out in the baking sun for hours listening to speeches from nationally renowned education experts and partisans. Linda Darling-Hammond (once Obama’s top education adviser), Jonathan Kozol, author of “Savage Inequalities” among many other books, Diane Ravitch, HW Bush’s Deputy Education Secretary, and Matt Damon, son of a teacher all spoke at the rally among many others. Coverage of the rally was drowned out by the debt crisis, but it was loud none-the-less. I’m so very glad I went.

Here's a look at a video collection I made from the rally.

In Virginia, SOL’s really aren’t the problem. SOL accountability measures are. First a little history…

Basically, the SOL’s in Virginia (other states have different accountability systems) are quite an improvement over what was in place back in the early 1980’s. Back then, there were no state standards. Hence, if a fourth grade teacher decided that she would like to teach about plants, then she’d do that, even if the first, second, and third grade teachers had already covered the topic. In that age before electronic communication, there was little contact between classrooms. The teacher ruled her four walls. Additionally, if a child transferred from one state school district to another, they’d most likely encounter huge gaps in their educations, since there was no core standard curriculum. The SOL’s in Virginia, first developed in 1988, were a serious attempt to standardize the core curriculum across the entire state, which was wildly successful.

In 1994, George Allen was elected Governor. One of his first moves as Governor was to implement a test accountability system to become effective in 1997. Secrecy shrouded these tests. No one knew what exactly would be tested, only that they would cover the SOL’s. When the results came out, it was determined that only 45-50% of the students passed fourth grade Reading. Similar scores were charted for Math, Science, and Social Studies. After a few years of testing, the state decided to introduce blueprints and frameworks, so that teachers had some kind of guide for instruction. Up until this time, all teaching material was developed by individual teachers. Textbooks simply didn’t exist that met Virginia’s standards. Teachers referred to this strange era as “The backwards time”- when the accountability came first and the diagnosis came second.

NCLB came along in 2001. NCLB is actually a federal bill called “The Education and Secondary Education Act.” It’s up for reauthorization by Congress this year. George II and Teddy K liked to refer to it as “No Child Left Behind.” NCLB, for the first time, instituted sticks to beat teachers and school divisions with if they failed to meet designated standards. These standards were graduated so that by 2013 100% of ALL children in public schools would meet or surpass predetermined pass scores. ALL children means just that. No excuses. Blind…pass the test. Retarded…pass the test. Learning Disabled…pass the test. Poor…pass the test. Black…pass the test. NCLB also instituted a sub-group game, sort of like a side bet at a football game with unusual and quirky rules. If your school has 50 or more special education students and less than ____% fail the state tests, then the whole school is deemed a failure. If your school has 50 or more economically disadvantaged students and more than ___% fail the tests, your school fails, etc. Fail once, you’re shunned. Fail twice, you’re on double secret probation, fail a third time, you’re shut down-teachers transferred and poor, unsuspecting teachers are sent in to replace you and your colleagues. (side note: I remember when my wife taught at an inner city school. There was no way in hell they would pass the tests or meet the standard cut scores. No way. The teachers were vilified in the press and in front of their peers and accused of being horrible teachers despite the fact that they were working harder for their children than any other faculty in the district…Across town, there was a school where all of the economically advantaged children went to school. They passed the tests, although their faculty really didn’t have to work hard to make that happen. They were praised in the media and in front of their peers. My wife and her friends looked forward to the day when they were transferred out and sent to other schools and were replaced by the golden teachers:) Once implemented, these ratcheting standards have forced teachers to “Teach to the Test” in order to meet expectations. You are even hearing of cases where teachers cheat the tests (Atlanta) to meet expectations.

Your question had to do with should Virginians keep the SOL’s or ditch them. It’s rather complicated, but I think that we may need to ditch them in the end. One other poster here alluded to the necessity for a common set of standards across the USA. I suspect that’s where we are heading. Virginia is one of six states that have yet to buy in to the “Common Core” curriculum standards. Part of the reason why is that Virginia was way out ahead of the “reform” movement when we developed the SOL’s in 1988. Now, however, most states have joined hands in the common core race and Virginia is slowly getting left behind. Why can’t Virginia go it alone? We can, but teachers need resources, especially resources that tie to the curriculum. We’ve just spent the past 23 years developing our own resources, but most teachers across the country utilized packaged materials from textbook and resource companies. Make no mistake, there’s big money (billions) to be made in this field. Texas, New York, and California drive the textbook and resource market. That’s the way it’s always been. New York and California are both on board with The Common Core. Texas and Virginia haven’t signed on yet.

Ask any public school teacher today…they will all tell you that the job has become impossible and shitty. Few are entering the profession. Since rigid evaluation standards have been implemented across the country without commensurate increases in salary, interest in teaching as a career has declined. In California over the past seven years, 45% fewer people are working toward a teaching credential. Yale has dropped their undergrad teaching prep program. In New York City, the poster child of reform, 50% of teachers leave by the end of five years in the classroom.

Why such disillusionment? Teachers have become the enemy of America. One reason for that is that most teachers are unionized (not in Virginia). Not just an ordinary union…but the largest union in the country. NEA has 3.2 million members. AFT has another 1.5 million. That means that teachers have the #1 and # 3 largest unions in the country. That makes them a very large target to people who want to politically devalue that base. One particular party views union voters with antipathy. If they can devalue the powerful teacher unions, they will have a clearer road to control of government. Another reason for the disillusionment is that teachers have become testers. The art of teaching, that which brought joy and want to the profession, has been replaced by sterile numbers and a business model for education, one where we don’t teach students; instead, we administer to clients. Teaching has become joyless, stress-filled, and empty for so very many. Again, that’s one reason why so many are leaving and so few qualified people are replacing them.

Teachers are now coming under the control of VAM’s (Value Added Models of evaluation) VAM’s sound like a great way to evaluate teachers and weed out the bad apples. Compare student achievement on standardized tests at the end of one year with the test score at the end of the next year. Simple. You can even tie teacher pay to test results. That’s where the Governor of Virginia wants to head before he becomes Vice President. The problem is that schools aren’t that tidy. Break points are arbitrary and subjective. The VAM’s really can’t determine which teacher is effective or ineffective, good or bad. Only which ones have their students answer questions on the standardized tests correctly. Plus, how do you compare growth using a Geometry score compared to an Algebra score? How do you factor in team teaching? How do you account for the effects of outside tutoring that only some students receive? How do you facor in kids who don’t come to school or suffer traumatic events? How do you factor in the wide variance of gains or losses students experience over a summer? How do you factor in transfers from out of the district, school? How do you evaluate Music, Art, PE, Kindergarten, First grade teachers? How do you disincentive teachers who teach to the test? VAM’s make no sense when you really get down to it. Yet, they are popular. Why? $$$$ There is gold in those hills. Testing companies stand to make millions/billions developing the tests that will determine a teacher’s future in the career.

What would be a better way to evaluate teachers? I think that the best way would be to develop PAR’s (Peer Assistance and Review) committees. Some of these programs have been used successfully to evaluate teachers since the early 80’s. (Toledo, Cincinnati, Rochester, etc) PAR panels observe and evaluate all teachers, and take the evaluation burden away from the school principal and building administrators, freeing them up to assist in content and instructional delivery methods within the school. The panels are made up of 6-12 people, half teachers and half administrators. These panelists take over the responsibility of observing and mentoring teachers throughout the year. At year’s end, they recommend to the panel whether a teacher should be retained, dismissed, or receive more assistance. The panel then reviews these reports and records, interviews the teachers, and makes a decision. No test arbitrary scores. No “gotcha” media. No $$$$ Bill Gates/Harcourt Brace money grab. Real, powerful professional standards enforcement by the professionals themselves.

You asked two other questions. How would you appropriate money and how would you keep teachers from cheating?

Regarding funding, the state of Virginia has been shirking its constitutional obligation to fully fund public school education for about the past five years. The state has an independent assessment of what investment it would take to fully fund education. This assessment is brought before the General Assembly each budget cycle and the GA then determines what its share will be. When I first started in the profession 30 years ago, the state was kicking in about 55% of the cost with the localities picking up around 40%. The feds usually carried the last 6%. These days, however, state support has shrunk to around 33% with the localities picking up around 51% and the feds kicking in around 6%. In addition, the state has redefined what it considers fully funding its share. For example, the battle every year is whether or not elementary school guidance counselors, art teachers, and music teachers will be included in the formula. These decisions really impact how the locality handles school funding, their instructional program, and local tax structures. Ultimately in Virginia, the General Assembly is constitutionally obligated to FULLY fund its share of educational costs in the commonwealth. This has NOT been happening.

As for keeping those nasty teachers from cheating. I’d fire them if they are caught. That’s a violation of the basic teaching contract in the state and punishable by immediate termination. Contrary to popular lore, no public school teacher in America has tenure. Tenure is a lifetime appointment that’s generally used at institutions of higher learning. Most teachers in union states have the specific right to hear and refute evidence if they are dismissed, binding arbitration through due process. In Virgina, a right to work state, teachers still have the right to know why they are being dismissed if they have attained continuing contract status, due process. Such status generally comes after a three year probationary period. Such a hearing is NOT binding, however. In other words, teachers can be dismissed even if the panel rules in the teacher’s favor. Non-continuing contract teachers can be dismissed at any time without cause.

Moreover, teachers will be less likely to cheat on tests if the tests are used for their original purpose, as a diagnostic tool to help guide instruction. When tests are used as hammers to determine career status or merit pay, there’s a ripe incentive to cheat.

I recently came across some interesting information regarding America’s schools. You know that we’ve all been conditioned by the media to believe that our schools are failing. I suppose they are in one way, but not another. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15 year-old students in 60 developed countries, the USA generally scores about 14th in reading scores. That’s not good. However, if you mine down a bit, and compare countries with low poverty to US schools with low poverty and suddenly we come out on top WAY on top. This holds true when you compare our kids at schools with 10% or less of poverty and schools with 20% or less poverty. Finland, for example has a poverty rate of 3.4%. If we compare that country to our schools with less than 10% poverty, we blow them away. Only when you compare our schools with their 20.7% poverty rate against those other schools with their low single digit poverty rates do we fall to 14th.

Another piece of research I recently came across was “The Coleman Report” from 1966. That was the first research based study that identified “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Results from that initial study have been validated, most recently in 2004 (Class and Schools). So student achievement isn’t just a school issue, it’s a larger societal issue. As a career teacher, those conclusions make sense to me and ring true.

What does this all mean? To me, it means that we have a poverty problem. Until we figure out as a society how to deal with that, we won’t see improvement.

Monday, August 01, 2011