One of the large upsides of my new school in Brooklyn is that we take time out of our afternoon schedules to form Inquiry Groups that focus on particular topics for set periods of time. The first was by department and focused on what aspects of math instruction we wanted to change and how to do so - it was innovative and exciting to talk with my peers about this topic and we've tried to incorporate more struggling and demanding problems in our classrooms.
The second round began two weeks ago and has since extended into a discussion about racism and our classrooms. As many can see across the country, even corporations are dealing with similar issues (sexism for example
), teaching us that even though some think of these things as old-world problems, they are very much in our purview.
We began our inquiry by discussing two articles assigned with regards to race: a chapter from Dr. Beverly Tatum's Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
wherein racism is defined and classified; and a piece on "racial microaggressions" from a May-June 2007 issue of American Psychologist.
Each piece brought out more dialog concerning racial tensions - how White men and women might perceive racism to have ended with the Civil Rights movement due to their lack of interaction with it yet Black men and women recognize how it limits their lives. Faculty and staff alike shared moments from their lives, how they teach their children about the outside world as Black, Asian, Latino, and White parents. It has started off well.
One point I brought up was the idea of experience and exposure helping to alleviate some of the issues created by racism. When students react to racial epithets and situations by saying, "It's not that serious" it raises a cause for concern in me. I only wish my students would be able to visit Ghana, Thailand, Morocco, Guatemala, and more so that they can see what it means to be different and how deep down we are all trying to just get by in life. I am very glad for the existence of programs like Global Glimpse
, EF Tours
, and more that try to help bring students into the world. I urge you to do so with your children as I plan to with mine.
Today I had a particularly interesting interaction with a student who came for after school assistance. This student had her class switched recently from my class to another due to concerns regarding her IEP (individualized education plan). While not ideal, this decision made my class calmer as she was often the loudest and most disruptive in the room. With that in mind, when she sat down next to me for help, our interaction was more calm at first.
During our tutoring session, I attempted to ask her questions that guided her towards using skills she already had demonstrated in novel problems. She repeatedly asked me to just "tell her the answer" and said that she would understand. Additionally, she did not want to continue working on particular problems, saying she would "get it later." When pressed for an explanation of her work, she simply replied, "it doesn't matter." I am supremely worried for this girl since - to me and many math teachers - the content we teach is not as important as the justification of an answer or the explanation of a train of thought.
In theory, however, changes are afoot that will modify the classroom to ensure these requirements.
The Common Core that has been mostly adopted by 45 states across the US is supposed to foster those changes through its reinvented Standards for Mathematical Practice
. While not the most succinct document, it explains how students need to be pushed to persevere in their struggles, learn the tools of the trade, find structures and patterns and use them effectively, and more. My fellow math teachers and I love doing this and - to be honest - probably would be doing so even without the new standards. The only way to ensure these ideas are followed is to put them into a solid curriculum that is very different from generations past.
If teachers, administrators, parents, and community members truly want to make the 21st century classroom model what the Standards preach, we need to be more focused on innovative techniques to engage students
. Many teachers understand that their role is not that of a banker "depositing" information into the brains of their students. Instead, it is to help foster ideas and question their students in order to build skill in justification and reasoning. When I ask a student to explain their work and hear the response, "I can't explain it, but I know it," I want to scream and yell that without the evidence of an explanation, there is no true understanding.
Current math teachers across the country are locked in a battle whereby they are being required to innovate but are not sure how to do so nor are they being given the resources. Additionally, they are being pushed into an atmosphere of state testing that has aggravated parents and community members too
, all while not truly understanding the goals of the Common Core.
If we really want our students to gain more math knowledge and be prepared to challenge others on a global scale we need to make sure we actively search programs and trainers to make sure our teachers understand what they should - and should not - be doing in their classrooms.
Today the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, announced its scores for 65 countries worldwide on standardized tests of Math, Reading, and Science. As usual, the US had flat growth and scored somewhere in the upper middle of the pack
. Over the past decades the United States has shown itself to be an average performer when compared to countries around the world. Some speculate this has to do with low-quality teachers or curriculum; others believe it has to do with the US emphasis on teaching all children, regardless of background (unlike some countries who do not). In either case, what is interesting to note is that achievement scores like these have almost never mattered when it comes to creativity and critical thinking amongst our students
Many adults (especially teachers) are keenly aware that standardized tests are not true preparation for the real world. Only in niche jobs does one need to be able to prove the Pythagorean Theorem in order to demonstrate marketable skills. Yet, our country seems obsessed with comparing these scores in order to rate and evaluate students and - more recently - teachers. Not only does this seem quite narrow in focus but it misses the entire point of fostering a creative society.
Recently a guest columnist on the Seattle Times wrote
, "the preponderance of data clearly demonstrates that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement." While this statement is fact, there are a number of other pieces of information missing. For example, teacher quality is not the majority
(over 50%) of the influence on students, just the plurality
(largest percentage). Perhaps other factors would add up to more than teachers if combined. Additionally, what about the out-of-school factors? There are a host of things that could be wrong holding back a student's achievement
before s/he enters the classroom. 31% of children under the age of 17 currently live in poverty in New York City
; that number is 40% in Philadelphia.
Now, of course it is important to remember the motto shared by so many education reformers: Poverty is not Destiny. I truly believe that and push my student's to succeed even if they lack basic supplies. But, that motto does not mean it is not a large factor.
When I have students who have not eaten in the morning, they will do worse; when I have students who are child parents, they will do worse; when I have students who have no consistent adult figure in their lives, they will do worse.
The best way for teachers to get involved in all of this is to forge positive relationships with children and make them think critically inside the classroom. Unfortunately, these are the exact traits that are so difficult to measure: empathy, caring, and perseverance. Perhaps it is better to put money into that
evaluation instead of the New York Regents Exam.
This week the holidays of Thanksgiving and Chanukah will be celebrated, heralding a time of thankfulness and giving that won't end until after the New Year parties die down. All the while children in Philadelphia are still fighting for funding
and access to basic supplies, while class sizes have ballooned and some are over the legal limit (teachers are deciding to fight other battles they deem more important instead of hitting that issue head on). More students are beginning to struggle against this in planning student walkouts (albeit not the best planned ones
). Yet funding is still in crisis and the budget gap is only going to increase for next year
One thing to note is that costs continue to increase for the School District of Philadelphia, especially as charter schools siphon off more funding for their student bodies with little to no supervision on the administrative level (the Charter Office has six people listed on its website
with a student population the size of Pittsburgh's). Pension costs are also increasing, a problem known quite far in advance thus should not be the sole focus of these proceedings.
Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania government is seriously looking into legislation
that would allow charter schools to be approved and operated by non-School District bodies across the state. This possibility decreases funding for public schools in the state (especially Philadelphia, home to most of the state's charter schools) even though fixed costs will not change. All this while many charter schools are under investigation and some are being shut down due to mismanagement.
Helen Gym, founder of Parents Unite for Public Education, recently wrote a piece on what the next Governor
will have to deal with and it is spot on. Without the public school systems many students who could become strong-willed, civic-minded taxpayers would be shoved under the rug and forgotten. I can only hope whomever takes the reigns away from Corbett has it in them to succeed.
Over the past few weeks I have gained ground in my understanding of College Prep Math
, the curriculum being used at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies
where I work. I feel more comfortable using the online resources; I understand how the textbook works; and I've learned to trust that when things go wrong in an individual lesson, the textbook will circle back to those concepts later. I am by now means an expert and have been relying heavily on my co-teachers, but I see how the structure fits what I've been building to over the last few years of teaching: instead of chunking information together, it spreads it out and "spirals" so that students see the same content over the course of the year.A friend sent me this article
two months ago which discusses how "blocking" of information (teaching one concept intensely and then moving on) may provide short-term beneficial feedback but long-term detriment. When students are presented with material they are familiar with they will likely persevere and come up with a close-to correct answer. But what about when they are presented with a novel situation - will they know what formula, procedure, or algorithm to use?
One thing we are attempting to do is change the mindset of our students using CPM. What I mean by that is best summarized by a resource from Carol Dweck's mindset website
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.
What she is getting at with this quote is that too often people think of themselves as "bad at math" (or are told as much) and then internalize that for the rest of their lives. If we recognize this fixed mindset and move past it, we will be able to persevere against all odds. A recent article in the Atlantic continues the argument by saying, "For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way
—is believing a lie. IQ itself can improve with hard work
While teaching with this spiraling technique I am beginning to understand how we can change student perception by offering multiple entry points for a given piece of content. Moreover, by focusing on how they approach the content instead of the outcome of the content itself, we might be offering a way out for all those who say they are "bad at math."
I hope that over the course of this year I have many more conversations with people about how to ensure this happens with my students.
Over the past few weeks I have grown more comfortable with the curriculum I have been tasked in using as well as following the procedures and policies set forth by my new school. It's quite amazing how a new environment can throw a semi-experienced teacher for such a loop; the past two months have been a whirlwind of learning how this school functions and how I can make a positive difference in it.
The curriculum we use - called College Prep Math
- emphasizes longterm understanding, sometimes to the detriment of the short term. That often means I have students who demand that I "teach them" by standing in the front of the room and lecturing instead of more thorough methods of educating like investigations and questioning. One student in particular keeps demanding that I give him what he wants (direct instruction) instead of asking him to try things. I have faith in the curriculum that over time my students will develop deeper understandings but it is quite hard at the onset.
An additional tool we have at my school is a modification to the standard grading system known as Habits of Working and Learning (HOWLs for short). Every week we track the behavior and performance of our students based on six standards in two categories:
RESPONSIBILITY FOR LEARNING (RfL:
1.1 - I take initiative in developing strong academic habits
1.2 - I am persistent in completing quality classwork
1.3 - I demonstrate college readiness by doing homework by deadline
RESPONSIBILITY TO THE COMMUNITY (RtL):
2.1 - I treat others with kindness
2.2 - I support learning for my classmates by being collaborative
2.3 - I am courageous in sharing my ideas and open minded in considering other points of view
If a student performs well on these categories they will receive whatever academic grade they earn for the class. If they are exemplary, they can earn 4 additional percentage points - a great incentive, indeed. But, if they perform poorly and fail either category, they will fail the course (even if their academic grade is not failing).
I find this system to be quite amazing since it creates a large measure of accountability to not just the academics of a student but also their interaction with people around them. I have tried to incorporate this into grades of my previous students but have never gone to this level. Having policies like this for the entire school is a profound change and I welcome it.
Overall I am really enjoying myself in my new setting. It has been difficult but I am learning quickly and enjoying what I do. I'll share more notes here soon!
I wrote this piece a little while ago in an attempt to be posted on Gothamist. Since they haven't responded to it I assume they are not going to run it. So, with that in mind, here it is in all its glory.
Schools across New York City opened their doors in September to what might be the most tumultuous year in teacher evaluation history. As students got settled into their first few weeks of classes, teachers across the Department of Education have been learning about Advance
, the new evaluation system being implemented this year. The new system grew out of disagreements
between Department of Ed and the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents 75,000 people in schools across the city. While the implementation of Advance has certainly begun, there are many questions that have arisen at meetings. Amongst them: why do we need the system? how does it work? will I be able to keep my job?
A lot of the reasoning for teacher evaluation stems from a desire to know what the most important factor is in the education of an individual student. Studies and analyses by various stakeholders have shown that teachers are the most important “in-school factor”
to make this prediction. With that in mind, it makes sense to determine which teachers are actually the best in order to remove the “bad” ones and replace them with new blood. At the same time, little creed is given to the out-of-school factors that account for up to 60% of student success
But what truly measures the effect one teacher has on a given student? The new evaluation system put into place in New York uses a multi-pronged approach to decide:
- 60% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on in-class observation by a trained evaluator (usually a principal or assistant principal). The evaluation is conducted using a rubric designed by Charlotte Danielson that refers to four specific domains of teacher and learning.
- 20% is provided by state-mandated measures and decided on by the principal. For example, these scores might be based on the High School Regents exams.
- 20% is provided by local measures decided on by a committee of UFT representatives and the principal and are chosen from a menu provided by the NYC Department of Education.
While this new system seems like the perfect balance of qualitative and quantitative data, it is important to analyze each section more thoroughly to understand how a teacher would see its use.
The first category is quite practical: in-class observation is probably the most honest way of getting a read on the quality of a teacher. If s/he seems to have control over the class, planned an engaging lesson, and is respected by the students, s/he is probably doing a good job. If not, then s/he needs help. That being said, there have been issues when principals hold grudges or are not open to new and innovative ideas. Relying entirely on one person’s evaluation of a teacher may not be the best idea of that teacher has a negative relationship with the principal.
That being said, is the second and third sections that create more of an issue for a teacher. These two sections contribute what are called “Measures of Student Learning,” or MOSL for short. It might be easy for outsiders to believe in so-called objective assessments of knowledge. Unfortunately, there are many critics of these standardized tests who call them less-than-objective
while some believe their use is actually “junk science
.” Regardless of your belief system, it does seem strange that some teachers are being rated on standardized tests that have nothing to do with their subject area
These so-called objective measures are based on a variety of difficult statistical calculations that few people truly understand or can explain. A brief example:
Mr. Mullin is a 9th grade Algebra teacher and has 150 students to teach on a daily basis. His students will take the Algebra Regents exam at the end of the year and he will receive a score based on their growth (also known as a “value-added” score). This score will likely be included in his evaluation.
But, as many people know, student growth is a hard thing to expect. What if Student A lives at home with no parents and no access to assistance for math? Compare that to Student B who has a math tutor and her parents both have PhDs. What Advance attempts to do is compare “apples to apples” and only grade students on the growth of their peer-group (a determination based on socioeconomic background, IEP status, limitations, etc). In determining a student’s percentile of growth, Student A will only compared to other students of low-income and Student B will be compared to her peer group.
While these comparisons are fairer than simply looking at raw scores, they more confused by the fact that there is a statistical calculation for how well Students A and B should have done and that is used to evaluate a teacher. If it is so difficult to explain this system to others, perhaps it is too difficult to truly use.
Some of these major issues with evaluation systems like this is the lack of understanding on how it affects teachers. Perhaps the Social Studies teacher who is being rated by the Regents English Language Arts test will de-emphasize pre-Naxi Germany in order to practice spelling. Or maybe math teachers will forego a deeper knowledge level of the material in order to “cover” matrices. Whatever the case, a dramatic paradigm shift is occurring right now and is changing the face of the teaching profession. It behooves all of us to be better educated on how teachers are being treated nowadays - whatever their teaching conditions are also our children’s learning conditions.
With the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers still negotiating a contract with the current administration of the School District of Philadelphia all chips are on the table and people are asking questions and pointing fingers. One of the most often-pointed issues is that of seniority
, and it's one that comes with a host connected problems that are brought up.
Those with narrow focuses often say that seniority is one of the biggest parts of the teacher's contract to be changed. After all - when looking at today's fiscal crisis, isn't it unfair that high-quality teachers with fewer years of experience are being let go when the older, more prone to sit-around-and-wait-for-a-paycheck teachers get to keep their jobs? This is an unfortunate dichotomy that has been set up as the grounds for any conversation of the issue. In reality, there are more people in between than can be properly counted.
Inherently related to this problem is that of teacher evaluation. If the idea that those hired more recently would be let go in a fiscal crisis (the so-called last in - first out rule) were to disappear, one would have to base hirings and firings on something. Enter: value-added modeling, a system in which teachers are rated on how much they raise their student's scores compared to similar student populations. Many proponents of ditching seniority (Philadelphia School Partnership and PennCAN to name two
) point out that a system based on data is a better idea that one based on seniority in order to retain the high-quality teachers needed in the classroom. One need only read pieces by Gary Rubinstein
(a public school teacher in NYC) to understand its faults.
This graph here shows the value-added data for 13,000 teachers over two years. The x-axis represents scores from the 2008-2009 year and the y-axis represents scores from the 2009-2010 year. In theory, if "good" teachers stayed "good," then there would be a strong linear correlation. Unfortunately, as you can see here, there is nothing of the sort. It is graphs like this that make value-added modeling seriously suspect.
Seniority is also about more than just hiring and firing. In Philadelphia right now teachers are being shuffled around due to a process called "leveling" where the number of students who were supposed to show up at school is balanced with those who actually do. That shuffling is usually based on seniority - up until now
. Now, "other factors" are being considered. What's interesting here is that I might agree with some of those factors. When teachers are moved or bumped from students they have great relationships with, I have serious issues. But, if it is a question about a more senior teacher being moved vs. a less senior teacher with similar populations, I would probably err to the side of the less senior teacher being moved.
It is obviously very complicated but one thing is fore sure: these policies are making the teacher profession seem more like a "job" than many want it to be. It's possible that the revolving door of the newbie educators could become a regular thing, jeopardizing our students due to lack of experience. I can only hope that any new policies presented involved actual teacher dialog to ensure buy-in and knowledge that we have to offer.
Over the past few weeks I have gained more confidence in my understanding of school systems and have begun to think about the larger issues affecting students across New York City. With that in mind, today I attended my first Union meeting of the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE) Caucus
. This group is a part of the larger United Federation of Teachers (UFT)
as a political party of sorts. Apparently, there are so many educators with differing views there have been six so-called "opposition" caucuses over the past few decades. Some, like New Action
, have joined forces with the larger base called Unity, whereas others have fought tooth-and-nail and have had some success influencing policy. I find this all fascinating because I think this type of split is occurring in teacher unions across the country.
In Philadelphia there is a rising tide of teachers who are somewhat disgruntled by the actions being taken by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)
. Groups like Teachers Lead Philly
and Teacher Action Group
have formed to take a stance on various policies in the city in an attempt to affect change. While these groups are not exactly political parties as the caucuses in NYC seem to be, they are still fighting to change a system that has been very slow to change.
One major unfortunate comparison I have between the UFT's Unity Caucus and the PFT in general is the general meetings during which resolutions are voted on. The story in Philadelphia goes back to the Fall of 2009 when the contract was being decided and the official vote was very undemocratic. Instead of using the paper ballots to end the meeting, Jerry Jordan instead asked for "aye" and "nay" votes, declaring that the "ayes" had it. Only later were paper ballots counted but by that time so many people had left any opposition would have been useless.
I was told today that similar issues take place at the UFT's Delegates Assembly where chapter leaders and delegates from each school come together to decide on things. Here, too, there are no paper ballots and yelling is the way to approve or disapprove of a resolution. This unfortunate and undemocratic method is now coming into question by groups like MORE and others.
While I am unsure where I stand in all of the UFT politics currently, I definitely want to ensure proper democratic processes in the future.
Last Thursday, New York State Education Commissioner angered parents and community members from NYC to Buffalo when he announced that the scheduled meetings "between members and the Commissioner of the State Education Department regarding the Common Core Initiative and its implementation in New York" would be cancelled for the near future. Citing an issue with the implementation on the part of the audience members, the commission decided to disallow any more meetings
for fear of more "special interest groups" creating larger upheaval.
It is unfortunate when a state, public entity decides to unilaterally remove a public forum meant to allow democracy to take place. At this forum there was time allotted for questions after the marathon 90-minute presentation on the Common Core; this was taken up by shouts and questions from the audience as to the validity of the Common Core in general. These protests are echoed in the news from Buffalo to NYC
. In fact, people are now pushing for an end to the reign of John King:
What I find interesting is the comparison of this meeting to those I've attended of the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia: there have been numerous meetings filled with shouting and protesting that still took place and the commissioners pushed through. It seems that King does not have the kind of time to at least pretend to hear what parents and community members want to say.
I hope these outspoken community members continue their work and that someone listens to their pleas about how the Common Core has been misused and misrepresented in New York.