Thursday, October 16, 2014

A PUBLIC Education Nation in Brooklyn

Last Saturday, the Network for Public Education held a PUBLIC Education Nation at the Brooklyn New School with a live feed at schoolhouselive.org that is being archived. Four impressive panel discussions preceded a final conversation between Diane Ravitch, whose blog has surpassed 15 million views since its inception two years ago, and Jitu Brown. A growing network of bloggers met prior to the event to strategize and discuss next steps. Organizer Anthony Cody intentionally, in contrast to past versions of NBC’s Education Nation, made prominent the voices of parents, teachers, and students accompanied by scholars, writers, union and community activists. Although it was not easy to sit in a hard auditorium chair for five hours, the enthusiastic audience energized the proceedings with applause, questions and insightful comments. Also providing a boost were the countless people on Twitter who kept #PublicEdNation trending at the top all afternoon.

Superstar principal from Long Island, Carol Corbett Burris, led the first panel discussion on high stakes testing and the Common Core. A parent of a third grader from the Brooklyn New School, Takiema Bunche Smith, began with the litany of problems for early childhood with barely a pause to ask, “Are you sad yet? I’m sad.” She made the good point that our deeply flawed public education system makes it vulnerable to “shiny, bright” ideas that are potentially harmful to children. The current singular focus on the new standards also obscures other important issues such as class size. In the elementary schools I visit regularly in the Bronx I am seeing the lower grades with 28 or more students, and in some cases, more than the legal number of children with special needs. Victoria Frye recently wrote of similar overcrowding in Washington Heights. 

The next speaker was Rosa Rivera-McCutchen, a former Bronx high school humanities and history teacher and currently an assistant professor at CUNY’s Lehman College, who prepares school leaders for the considerable challenges they face in these times of high stakes accountability. Drawing on the framework for facing troubling policies eloquently laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Rivera-McCutchen argued that school leaders have to not only examine the intentions, outcomes, and impact on stakeholders of the flawed policies. In the self-purification step described by King, they must also consider their own complicity in perpetuating oppression through tacit continued support of the flawed policies that contribute to the harm being done. She further argued that those with more privilege and social capital have to question if their acts of resistance will extend to other communities and provide the necessary advocacy work in socio-political realms for all school communities, which requires careful examination of the power dynamics at work. She said principals in the Bronx are somewhat skeptical about joining the efforts of those in the opt-out resistance movement for they fear the very real political and even economic consequences that might result from resisting.

Her words struck a hard truth that resistance itself can reproduce the same inequities it is arguing against. I was reminded of when Principal Elizabeth Phillips wrote an elegant op-ed last spring in the New York Times about problems with the new tests yet seemed on the defensive when bragging about her school’s performance and enthusiastic support for the Common Core. “It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.” You can’t embrace Common Core and oppose the tests, for the two go hand-in-hand in terms of their destructive impact on low-income communities. As Dr. McCutchen cautioned, we must all move beyond self-interest to consider all communities and shield the most vulnerable from additional harm. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin described non-violent resistance by explaining, “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we have to tuck them in places so the wheels don’t turn.” Yet job insecurity, contractual obligations, and fear of destructive consequences keep most teachers quiet and compliant. I feel this conflict on a daily basis in my work as a teacher educator. On the one hand, I have to prepare my students at Mercy College for the certification exams, including the burdensome and thoroughly problematic edTPA (see my previous posts), while on the other making them aware of the harmful effects of these new policies. As I sat in the auditorium listening I couldn’t help wondering: How do you stop the turning wheels of a jumbo jet that has taken off?

Other speakers offered messages of hope and possibility, calling for building awareness in communities, speaking out, standing up for the values that fuel a healthy democracy, while some provided harsh reminders of just how bad things can get. Tanaisa Brown, a student activist from Newark, described a school principal telling students to choose either breakfast or lunch, because there wasn’t enough money for both, and while money goes to more metal detectors, the schools take away dance, art, music to chain and constrain. Later Diane Ravitch reminded us that you can’t live without music, it’s human instinct to sing and dance. Edwin Mayorga of Swarthmore College tweeted in response to panelist Professor Yohuru Williams,

Tanaisa Brown has bravely protested in Newark against the powerful Governor Chris Christie and Superintendent Cami Anderson by creating a human chain a month ago to block Broad Street (see here for the story and photos). Nevertheless, Anderson said Tuesday that her heavily criticized One Newark plan will move forward, and even expand, while parents, teachers, and students held a town hall meeting to grow the protest and publicize the federal investigation through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened last spring. Tanaisa said the Christie and Anderson rhetoric of believing in order to fix a flower you have to uproot it is obviously not true: “You have to water it!”

Even more ominous were the tales of woe in post-Katrina New Orleans described in heartbreaking detail by parent activist Karran Harper Royal, who said that nearly all schools in her city are charters: “We are like the canary in the coalmine and the canary has died.” Phyllis Tashlik, the Director of the Center for Inquiry for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, posed the question, “Why do we have to plea for social studies? We are at the point of absurdity!” Jitu Brown spoke with passion and conviction that this is not merely an intellectual fight, but a spiritual one where livelihoods and promises are shattered, and children’s lives are lost due to negligence and indifference. Diane Ravitch responded that the hypocrisy of the so-called reformers to say they are civil rights leaders is what fuels her anger and keeps her going. She wants to shout back at them, “No, you are not, you are hurting people!” As a historian, she closed by pointing out that we are currently living in unprecedented times, because public education in the past has always been seen as a public responsibility. Now we see a movement funded by foundations and billionaires to eliminate public education in our cities with the political backing of the federal and state governments that are enabling this privatization and profit-making scam.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Remembering Maxine Greene

Our beloved Maxine Greene died peacefully in her home yesterday. I was blessed to have had Maxine in my life for many years as she was my mother's teacher and close friend. This black and white photo
was taken on my aunt's front porch in Tuscany, and the photo  below of the three of us at a dinner in our home in Great Neck. Besides her warmth, her generosity, her sharp wit and capacity for fascinating conversation, Maxine was the major influence in my thinking about teaching, about the arts and literature, about life really. She leaves an impressive legacy in her extensive writing, in the countless lives she touched through her work, in her friendship, and in her love. Here is just a taste of her wisdom, from her 2007 preface to the new edition of The Public School and the Private Vision: A Search for America in Education and Literature in which she wrote:
The opening of untapped possibilities through the exercise of imagination still seems important to me, even as I realize how necessary it is today to disclose the terrors so often suppressed in human consciousness. I would affirm my confidence as never before in the new beginnings implicit in the educational undertaking. So long as we remember that education has to do with the young in their unpredictable becoming, so long as we can free ourselves from today's "iron cage" of technicist manipulations and control, we may be able to illuminate the public school with a vision arising from the "community in the making" John Dewey called "democracy."




Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When “harder” is not better: The problems with the lame rationale for reforming standards

In my last few posts, I have written about the many problems and issues with edTPA and the new certification requirements for teachers that are being rolled out first here in New York and soon nationally. My friend and colleague Jessica Hochman has just written eloquently about the unintended consequences of edTPA and the fear and demoralization that have ensued, poisoning the necessary relationships that should be built on trust between teacher educators, candidates, their cooperating teachers, and the K-12 students they work with.

Now Linda Darling-Hammond and Randi Weingarten have teamed up to call for an end to the test-and-punish approach to improving education, and seek a new way to hold educators accountable with a support-and-improve model. Their suggestions would help “teachers and school leaders develop the knowledge and skills they need to teach much more challenging content in much more effective ways.” Clearly, they are responding to the growing resistance to the Common Core Standards, which got a boost from comedian Louis C.K. recently who took his parental frustrations to Twitter  and television talk shows. Using “much more” twice in one sentence, these two important educational leaders sound like a needle stuck on a record scratch. As Bob Shepherd  has pointed out, their uncritical acceptance of the claims made by proponents of the Common Core Standards suggests they are either unaware or willfully ignoring that those claims are both false and misleading. Darling-Hammond and Weingarten lament “an out-of-control testing system” and parenthetically report that there are over a hundred tests in use in New York City. Dr. Laura Baecher of Hunter College was recently interviewed by Diane Staehr Fenner about the impact of edTPA on English Language Learners in the city’s public schools. “The amount of emotional, physical, and financial stress teachers are under to complete the edTPA mirrors the stress many ELLs are under this spring – almost non-stop testing. Teachers in New York City public schools report that their ELLS will have received less than four days of instruction over the course of 4 weeks between April-May.”

Holy cow, are we really that insane? Let’s recap. Pre-K standards include things like: With guidance and support, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing; collaborate with peers. You know, so they can be “college and career” ready. In Kindergarten, we expect they can analyze and compare two- and three-dimensional shapes, in different sizes and orientations, using informal language to describe their similarities, differences, parts (e.g. number of sides and vertices/”corners”) and other attributes (e.g. having sides of equal length). I recently saw a lesson from the Go Math!curriculum where they were expected to sort three dimensional stacking and/or sliding shapes into a Venn diagram. Mostly the children were excited about building towers with the shapes. Was Randi Weingarten listening when Governor Mark Dayton said at the Education Minnesota Rep Convention on April 26th that putting a barf bag in 4th grade test packets was not education reform


Harder does not necessarily mean better. Expecting more of younger and younger children is damaging in ways that we can no longer ignore. Parents don’t want to see their kids in tears over homework and fear of the tests. We are destroying the primal human joy of learning, which is about connection and collaboration, not competition and ranking. We are not all the same, headed down a path of sameness. Instead, let’s return to marveling at our differences and teach our young that inside a classroom a small democratic society is taking form and coming to life. Let’s help our teachers know how important it is to guide and support that, and return to a foundation built on trust.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

It’s for the children: More blah-blah-blah on edTPA

I received the most depressing email yesterday. Apparently, six deans of education from across New York State sent identical letters to the chairs of the higher education committees of the State Assembly and Senate asking for the withdrawal of proposed legislation to delay implementation of edTPA. “Postponing the implementation of the reform measures has already occurred,” they wrote, and that’s when I went from depressed to irate.

I should have seen it coming. I searched the internet to see how the Regents so-called “safety net” decision would play out in the press. On Twitter, I called out journalists who wrote of the “delay” in their tweets as misrepresenting the decision, since students still have to take the edTPA and pay for it too. I wondered why there was so little coverage of the important hearing in Albany on April 30th and the seven hours of testimony about the problematic issues with edTPA and its hasty implementation in the state. At least my friend Alan Singer wrote about the real political motives at work on his popular HuffPo blog. Meanwhile, I was fielding messages from students who asked if it was true the edTPA was delayed. For comic relief, I noted the round of emails in my inbox trying to clarify the awkward wording of the State Education Department’s announcement of the Regents’ decision that made it seem the alternate test, ATS-W, had to be taken subsequent to the edTPA and passed in the event the candidate did not pass the edTPA. Even though it made no sense that a prior passing score would not count, it took several days before that was officially cleared up. There still are no testing dates up on the state site for the ATS-W as it was considered obsolete, so those who haven’t yet taken it are going to have a hard time figuring out their options. Probably best to pay the $100 to resubmit the low-scoring section of the edTPA anyway. You really can’t make this stuff up.

All of this played out against the backdrop of the end of the semester, when I was celebrating with snacks and shared insights in my last classes and helping my student teachers put the final polish on the resumes and portfolios. I nearly spontaneously combusted with pride as one of my students in a language arts methods course who had a difficult second placement in student teaching with little to no support (or even presence apparently most days) from her cooperating teacher revealed that she chose to read aloud Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy novel  to her class. They so loved the book that she bought each student a copy because there wasn’t sufficient time to finish it. Other students shared similar stories of transformations in their thinking and interactions with their students, and as I reflected on how pleased I was to see this impressive evidence of their learning, I couldn’t help but compare that richness to the hollow center of the edTPA, represented on a widely circulated graphic: Student Learning.



The deans’ letter too spoke of how “we owe it to children and youth across our State to ensure their teachers can facilitate their learning and advancement in all subjects.” And what is the holy grail of children’s learning? Test scores, preferably ones that go unreasonably and unrealistically up and up and up. Right answers, picked from a limited selection. My nephew, who is currently preparing for the AP exam in American History, is drowning in horrid test prep and endless factoid memorization, which is unfortunately what many AP courses have become. It’s as far away from the real work of historians as you can get, and it’s making him hate “history” which is breaking my heart. Here’s a practice question that my sister shared as an exemplar of the stupidity on display:

The ideology of the "cult of domesticity" popularized all of the following views EXCEPT:

A) Women were expected to educate their children about "republican" virtues.
B) Women were not supposed to have work outside the home.
C) Women were expected to educate their children on "republican" virtues.
D) Women were the moral and spiritual leaders of the home.
E) Only men were allowed to participate in the world of politics.

And the answer is…drum roll…A. Ha, were you fooled by the distractor, C? English major friends weighed in that the difference was negligible, and pointed out the bias against students for whom English is not the native language.


When can the armies of resistance rise up and shout from the rooftops, “ENOUGH!” Apparently, that day is coming on Saturday, May 17th at 2pm in City Hall Park . Maybe those of you within a reasonable distance will join us. It’s time to make some noise.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

edTPA Update: Public Hearing in Albany

Wednesday April 30th must have been a long, grueling day  for Assemblymembers Deborah Glick  and Catherine Nolan, subjected to nearly seven straight hours of hearing how panic inducing, demoralizing, and intrusive the edTPA process has been for educators and their students across the state. Other legislators from the Higher Education Committee and the Education Committee of the State Assembly were present for much of the day, including Steve Englebright, Patricia Fahy, Ellen Jaffee, Barbara Lifton, Chad Lupinacci, Amy Paulin, Edward Ra, Daniel O’Donnell, and Shelley Mayer. The controversies, difficulties, unintended consequences, concerns, and burdens of edTPA went on and on, despite the presenters’ best efforts to avoid redundancy and make last minute changes to their prepared remarks as they listened to their colleagues’ presentations.

I am happy to report some good news: the democratic process is alive and well, and there was no need for Powerpoint. It was good old-fashioned questions and answers, and yes, even dialogue and discussion. At the end, Deborah Glick promised there would be more to come and some next steps announced in the coming days. The message came through loud and clear that the so-called “safety net” compromise reached between the State Education Department and Board of Regents April 29th was completely insufficient to address all the concerns raised, and amounted to little more than a token white flag of political surrender, albeit a welcome one

The bad news is there is clearly an abyss, a disappointing lack of communication between policy makers, legislators, and educators, and clever corporate profiteers have figured out how to take advantage of this Achilles’ heel. An end-of-day tweet from Deborah Glick pointed out the hearing was “eye opening – corporate involvement in education isn’t going to be an improvement.” When told by Professor Douglas Selwyn of Plattsburgh State University what Linda Darling-Hammond said at AERA, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan lost her patience and said the most recent letter she had received from Darling-Hammond was “wishy-washy and unintelligible” leading her to wonder if she was for edTPA or not. Politics is about making decisions, she pointed out, and it was clear the lawmakers are hungry for helpful information.

At times I felt I was witness to a reunion of sorts, when people who haven’t seen each other in years but know each other well are eager for news and catching up. “Tell me, what about this, and what happened to her, and where is so-and-so now?” I was amazed at the legislators’ insightful questions, and genuine interest in knowing what we thought. For example, Catherine Nolan said she hears a common complaint from teachers that their programs did not sufficiently prepare them for the realities of teaching, and she wanted to know how we respond to that accusation. She then challenged the teacher educators present in the room to speak up and show that there is no crisis of “bad” teacher education programs and that we are doing a good job. She was outraged to learn that a student wishing to contest a failing score on the edTPA must pay a $200 fee to Pearson and called the policy “a disgrace.” She was thrilled to get a 1993 AERJ article by Wilson and Wineburg from Professor David Gerwin of Queens College, and asked for additional feedback on how edTPA is intruding in negative ways on the nationally recognized curriculum of teacher preparation programs. Even when their eyes must have been glazing over after more than five hours, and it was time to hear from some teacher candidates on their experiences with the edTPA, the assembly members demonstrated caring concern in understanding the students’ issues in detail, and how their confidence and feelings of readiness to teach were affected by those experiences.

It’s hard to imagine how those hoping for a full time teaching position in these times can hold up under the considerable demands and pressures of the new requirements for licensure. Catherine Cornbleth, Professor Emerita of the University of Buffalo, has described the changes being imposed on teacher preparation as a “day one” mandate, that is, graduates of programs should be prepared “to teach anyone, anywhere – on day one!” She worries that “to expect expert teaching on day one is expecting way too much no matter how well prepared, tested, and mentored the new teacher might be. I would not volunteer to be the first root canal patient of the new, highly credentialed oral surgeon. Would you?” (2014, p. 106). It’s curious how the medical analogy keeps cropping up, and it leads me to think of scenes from Grey’s Anatomy where the surgeons in training play out their personal dramas, mistakes, and foibles over the open bodies of their patients. I think beginning teachers demonstrate far greater humanity and professionalism, and in my experience at least, they enter the journey to becoming a teacher with a burning desire to bring joy into the lives of children in their charge. It pains me to see their noble ambitions reduced to numbers on a test score, which, at the end of the day, is what they get from edTPA, EAS, ALST, and the CST. That’s why I tell my student teachers to go to graduation, and I go find them before the ceremony to take a group picture of us in our caps and gowns. It may be old fashioned, but it’s easy to put on a genuine smile for that photo.