I have been involved in four different schools over the past four years and in each year I have been somewhat involved in administering and/or proctoring the PSSA exam. This exam, which has been in the center of a cheating scandal in Philadelphia
, is one of the major criteria for the Renaissance School program and various other so-called "Empowerment" programs that really just restrict curriculum by forcing scripted curriculum in the classroom. Schools with low test scores are now being "turned around" by becoming Promise Academies (restricted curriculum) and/or Renaissance Charter schools (becoming privatized).
The high-stakes nature of this test has been affecting not just schools and curriculum, however. The cheating scandal is a perfect example of how individuals can make poor decisions in order to save themselves or their schools. The analysis of this scandal is causing an uproar to demoralize and de-professionalize the education profession even more than it already is.
The decision by the PA Department of Education to restrict the administration of the PSSA
to those who do not have a direct connection to the tested students is the most recent attack on the trust of teachers and also - in my opinion - degrades the relationships with our students. As proctor for the past two years I have known students that took the test seriously and those who did not. While I generally had a positive, respectful relationship with those who did, I usually did not for those who didn't. In fact, the worst test-takers were the ones I had never met before.
If this last-minute decision affects schools like I think it will, I imagine classrooms across Philadelphia where teachers are battling with students who don't respect them and will not perform their best because they feel slighted for not having their
teachers in the room with them.
Some might criticize my viewpoint and say I carry low expectations for these students. To those people I would ask you to spend 6 months developing a relationship with a low-income student in a neighborhood school in Philadelphia. Then tell that student someone entirely different who they do not know is going to proctor them on an exam that has so much emphasis on it that it might change the entire school. When you see their reactions, you will know why I point out this flaw.
While I cannot hope for the DOE to change their mind and retract their policy change, I do hope our students are able to work under this decision and it does not affect schools as I think it will. And to all readers who feel slighted by this decision in anyway, call Tom Corbett, Governor of PA, at 717-787-2500 and complain.
As a teacher only 90 miles away from New York City I am particularly aware of major changes occurring within the Department of Education of NYC, specifically their recent publishing of 18,000 teachers' evaluation scores
. I agree with many others out there that these data are so demoralizing
and often untrue
that they should have been kept internal. Promoters tell us that readers should take the information with a grain of salt in order to seek the truth; but in reality it will be used as a tool for parents and communities to attack teachers more and more.
While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may extoll the freedom that the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative provides to states to determine their own measures of evaluation in order to receive waivers on the No Child Left Behind act's insane demands, it is still approving (or not) the individual plans. In cases like New York, the RTTT funding hinged on the development of a new evaluation system that included a large percentage of a teacher's quality to standardized tests. If a plan does not have that, it will not be accepted. New York's money was almost rescinded until a new plan was developed.
As always, the arguments come down to how effective can a standardized test truly be at evaluating teacher quality. In theory an algorithm could be used that would measure the change in knowledge that a student has after being subject to an individual teacher for a few months.
Graph credit: Gary Rubenstein's TFA Blog
In practice, these calculations are so difficult that they often have no correlation whatsoever. Gary Rubenstein, a TFA alum from Houston, has started analyzing the data
to show how the model algorithm fails to predict high quality teachers year after year.
Other issues abound as well. In Florida, some teachers are evaluated based on test scores for subjects they do not teach
Recently in the same state, Rick Roach, representative for District 3 on the Board of Education, took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and analyzed his poor results
. By his own admission the test does not focus on what it should.
So if all of this is true and known, what can we do? At this moment, it is important to remember what networks are available and what networks can be created in order to fight back against this movement. Examples like this school in North Carolina
that has great success without emphasis on testing could become ubiquitous if only they were celebrated louder.
The key thing right now is to keep up-to-date on what is happening in the realm of teacher evaluation and how it will affect the future of our country. If you want to try out some standardized tests yourself
, go for it. If you would like to read up on current education news, read a few of the articles linked in this post.
Be sure to do what I tell my students every day: maintain a critical eye and ask good questions.
I don't say this often enough: my graduate program at Penn GSE
gave me great experience and prepared me (as well as possible) for the unexpected to come in my first year of teaching. I chose a one year MSEd program because I wanted to get into the classroom as fast as possible and Penn's was the one with the most clinical experience required (nine months of student teaching) and most collaborative process (everything was cohort-based).
Over the past few years I have met many student-teachers from various programs across the Philadelphia area and have yet to find one that provides as much trial and error as mine. In fact, under Chapter 354.25 of the PA Code
, "the preparation program shall be designed to provide a minimum 12 week full-time student teaching experience." And with just 3 months of time in a classroom (not all of which involves running the class) a student-teacher can become a full-time teacher. At the end of my 9 months in a school (7 of which were spent running at least one class) I still was not completely prepared for what lay ahead.
In the report that came out in September 2011 entitled, Our Future, Our Teachers
, Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education want to change the way teacher preparation programs work so that they create effective and knowledgeable educators for our children. Over and over it emphasizes "clinical experience" that is necessary to become a good teacher, yet the recommendations made include tracking systems to identify these teachers and use these data to reflect back on their schools.
Instead of focusing so much on the punitive measures that seem to be come from the Department of Education, I would rather push for new teachers to get more experience sooner and not be let off the hook once finished. Teacher mentors are useful people who can support people in their first five years of the job. Thinking and acting positively like that will truly make a difference.
Yesterday I attended the first in a series of workshops on entrepreneurship in the Philadelphia school system called Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education
. I first became interested in this program because it combines two of my passions (education and advocacy) in its mission to collaborate on proposing solutions to ills in local schools. Co-sponsored by Teach For America (TFA) and Technically Philly, it seems like an intriguing venture to include more than just TFA alumni in a structured program to discuss and collaborate on entrepreneurial solutions to problems in Philadelphia schools.
The first workshop focused on the idea of root causes
that plague our local education system and trying to figure out the true reasons for their existence. Through thorough discussion and thought process answering numerous questions of "why" four or five levels deep, a number of us separated as individuals or small groups to to focus on particular topics (if interested, download the attached file below).
The focus I eventually chose has a lot to do with my current status as a new teacher in Philadelphia: teacher recruitment and retention. One of the things I was constantly told at the outset of my teaching career is that I would become less and less idealistic as I gained more experience within the system. I kept responding that I would be different and believe I have proven that by feeling more
idealistic now than I was 3 years ago.
That being said, it is a shame that new teachers are often thrust into situations that make them uncomfortable, unprepared, and unsupported. As I read more
about this issue it becomes clear that it is not as simple as giving teachers higher salaries or providing "new teacher coaches" in your first three years of teaching. There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of a School District, the Administration within a school, and teachers on a staff. If policy cannot match the needs of our new teachers there will not be enough veteran teachers out there soon enough.
I am hoping to use this forum to get feedback on the workshop series I am attending and to leverage my personal learning network to help craft a policy suggestion that majes sense for Philadelphia. More to come.
I tried to get myself organized enough at school today in order to attend the School Reform Commission meeting this evening but unfortunately I did not. Instead, I had the great pleasure of watching over the livestream link on the main School District website - thank you for transparency!
The meeting was focused on curriculum and instruction - a topic near and dear to my heart. I have had experience at two neighborhood comprehensive high schools as well as two city-wide admission high schools (one a magnet school) and have seen such different implementations of the same curriculum. Some schools have more autonomy than others (usually better-performing schools) and some schools are given more mandates (usually schools in poorer neighborhoods).
A main point that came out of this meeting was the impression that the School District will be providing autonomy to all schools, regardless of performance. Instead, the principal becomes the decision-maker regarding implementation of the curriculum and could purchase scripted programs if she or he sees fit. As a teacher I see this as a good thing and a bad thing: the District (a body so amorphous it is hard to delineate who makes decisions) will no longer mandate what I do in the classroom; but the principal will (a person who may or may not have the leadership qualities to see a good thing when it happens).
I hope that principals will take suggestions from their teachers on what curricula might be a good idea to purchase or not. As we are the ones directly teaching kids every day we do have valid points and would like to share them with people who listen.
Unfortunately, the pressure from standardized testing does not foster collaboration; rather, it creates an environment of intimidation. I hope we can get away from that mindset and instead just help kids learn something.
I consider myself to be a digital native: I used Netscape until it went out of fashion, surfed Wikipedia for information to write in papers, and signed onto Facebook when it was only available for Ivy league universities. All of those experiences and more allow me to use a very specific skill set to get the information I want using the powerful tool that is the Internet. While I am, perhaps, one of the more proficient of my generation as it relates to this ability, I am by no means alone, and I am happy about that.
What I am worried about, however, is this: if kids are all over the Internet these days, why don't they have the same skill set?
Last April, the New York Times posted an article
about how the modern concept of "family time" consists of using some type of screen-based device while in the same room as your parents. If kids are being raised not by television but by iPads, Wii, YouTube, and Facebook, shouldn't they understand how to use the Internet for everything?
The problem is, that's simply not true.
Students in my classroom have no idea how to properly refine a search on Google; they don't understand how to use Wikipedia to find primary sources; they don't know how to discern the validity of a website by the look of its content.
I believe it becomes the responsibility of teachers like myself to ensure our students know how to use concepts like Boolean Logic
in order to find specific information. I also think it is our task to make sure they understand the repercussions of their contributions to Web 2.0: posting inappropriate things on Facebook and Twitter may seem like fun at the age of 14 (or not)
, but when applying for jobs it will become a large issue (even in 2007
As more and more people rely on the Internet to gather information and share more of themselves through various online profiles, we need to ensure that our students understand what is really out there waiting for them. Without that knowledge it is as if they are hiking in the Amazon jungle without a guide - and shouting for poisonous reptiles to bite them.
in the Inquirer today upset me. The author has seemingly been exposed to a few very specific arguments tailored to make teachers into the "bad guys" of the problems in education and create an "us or them" mentality with regards to teacher unions and the country. In reality, things are not so simple.
Let's start with one of the author's arguments: "many teachers provide private tutoring services to students from affluent families at a typical rate of $50-$90 per hour." Inherent in this argument is the complaint that teachers are not spending enough time on their own students when, in reality, they probably spend every moment of their day on the kids in their schools. From my own experience as an educator, my "lunch break" is anything but.
Personal data collected in 2011-2012 school year.
Additionally, the author cites research from the Manhattan Institute
, a well-known right-wing think tank whose stated mission includes "shaping American political culture and developing ideas that foster economic choice and individual responsibility." Again, this idea is contrary to the mission of of public schools who seek to use knowledge as an equalizer in order to foster communal responsibility.
The research stated also mentions the median work week as 36.5 hours. I find this incredibly unrealistic. Assuming I do not work on weekends, my average daily workload is already 10 hours (multiplied by 5, that is 50 hours/week). If I, like so many other teachers, had to take a second job to pay my bills, that number balloons.
As a teacher I am constantly reminded by the adage, "it takes a village to raise a child." If we only would stop blaming each other and start taking responsibility for each other, things would get better. As President Obama said during his State of the Union address, "As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong."
I haven't posted on this topic in a while, mostly since so many other political struggles have taken place recently. That being said, I still notice some major differences between these two types of schools. Most recently I focused on how my current students take tests (both my own and standardized versions) in comparison to students I taught in neighborhood schools. To put it simply: they just take them.
On the whole the students I taught at neighborhood schools were willing to take tests, both ones I created and standardized versions. That being said, there were always a large enough number of students who put their heads down, didn't try, complained loudly, or walked out of the room. I found myself begging students to try their hardest. My one major argument: if you leave it blank, you guarantee yourself a zero; if you try, you could get partial credit. Still, it didn't matter that much.
In comparison, when I administered midterms to my current students last week they focused just fine. There were a few times when a head was down for a few minutes, but that student got back to work after a brief respite. No begging necessary.
So why does this happen?
Again, I am no expert at teen psychology but I think the issue is mainly one of preparation and expectation. Students at my current magnet school (for whatever reason) are mostly at the level they should be for high school math and so have the background knowledge to push ahead. Additionally, they have a positive association with putting effort into tests.
In contrast, my students at neighborhood schools were not as well prepared and, I think, felt that if they tried and failed it was a determination on their future. Instead of putting effort in only to be told they had failed, they put no effort in and so could not be blamed for the failure. In my belief, this view was held by many of the students who decided to take a nap instead of finishing their Algebra tests in my previous schools.
I'm not sure exactly how to solve this one but I think one major factor that would help is having fewer unprepared students in one classroom. Peer pressure can be a strong thing and if the one or two less-prepared students see everyone else putting in effort, they might just do the same.