Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Sad Day at the Circus

Yesterday the New York State Board of Regents had a meeting. Most of the time they were apparently trying to wrap their brains around HEDI, a new ed acronym you’ll be hearing a lot about. New York’s Chalkbeat  called it “matrix madness” and the education summit held on May 7th in Albany was dubbed “evalapalooza” on Twitter  and elsewhere. But for those of us in teacher education, the real nail biter was the discussion about so-called “safety net” provisions for the new teacher licensure examinations that have been a source of chaos, confusion, heartache, and despair. Send in the clowns, because you are in for a helluva ride.

Let’s start with how the news was officially reported. Jessica Bakeman of Capital New York wrote that the Board of Regents voted to further delay full implementation of new teacher certification requirements. The specific provisions of the emergency amendment which goes into effect immediately can be found on pages 5 and 6 here. The good news for students who are struggling to pass these exams is as follows:

  •           Anyone who takes and fails the horrible ALST exam before the end of June next year can use a grade of 3.0 or better in equivalent coursework approved by the institution’s administration.   
  •           The EAS exam’s cut score will be temporarily amended and lowered to an as yet to be determined number (this will happen in June apparently) and will be retroactive, so for those who missed passing by a small margin, it’s likely you won’t need to retake the test. You will eventually receive a written notification with an updated score report.
  •          If you take and fail one of the new CST exams, you can take the older version, which is presumably easier, and use a passing score on it to be certified. Pearson is always happy to reactivate an obsolete test if it means more potential revenue!
  •          Which brings me to the last but not least safety net extension of the edTPA. Remember I wrote about the earlier revision to the edTPA safety net provision,  so now just add a year and it should all be clear. You submit your edTPA, and if you fail, you get a voucher from the state to take the obsolete ATS-W, which you must pass by the end of June next year, but you still have another year to meet all other certification requirements. This means we won’t be fully out of the safety net woods until June 30, 2017.

Of course behind the scenes there has been a massive effort to educate and inform stakeholders of just how nightmarish this bungled rollout has been. Even David Steiner, architect of Relay and member of the Deans for Impact was quoted by Yasmeen Kahn of WNYC  as saying the edTPA was “over ornate” and the “multiple hoops to jump through to get it all organized feel a bit heavy to me.” I suspect he and others behind the close-down-bad-teacher-education-programs agenda had to back down when they saw the enrollment numbers across the state take a gigantic nose-dive. Brittany Horn, an education reporter for the Times Union tweeted yesterday:

Jessica Bakeman reported that Chancellor Tisch blamed colleges for poor performance on the new licensure exams. Otherwise, she reasoned, how could one college have high passing rates and another have low scores? I guess this means that she hasn’t fully grasped the clear connections between performance on standardized tests and factors beyond the control of the teacher. It is sad and scary that the person in charge doesn’t seem to understand how the South Bronx is different from the Upper East Side, or how Teachers College is different from City College just up the street. Luckily the Regents are asking tough questions and raising serious concerns that are likely to end up back in the hands of lawmakers.  
Meanwhile, those who want to balance on the high wire, fly on the trapeze, and enter the uncertain teaching profession have a safety net to fall into – for now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

10 Takeaways from the Network for Public Education Conference


In case you haven’t noticed, we are in the middle of an ideological battle over the purpose of schooling. Those of us who see the potential of education to make society more democratic and equitable convened for two days in Chicago to listen, learn, connect, and strategize. Despite the onslaught of negative forces, in particular the worsening racial and economic segregation, political polarization and the lack of trust that enables pure vitriol toward educators, and our addiction to testing and competition, there are some positive signs that I wish to focus on to help the momentum of our movement to save public education.

Before I continue with my list, I must say that my optimism was fueled by seeing the absolutely incredible art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works. I have seen a lot of art exhibits in my lifetime, but this one is really something special. Exquisitely curated with contextual material that enriches your understanding of the work, the artist, and the historical period, there are also commissioned poems and linked events happening that enhance the ways in which Lawrence’s works have an enduring resonance. Spend a wonderful hour watching Migration Rhapsody, hosted by Terrence McKnight, a performance I attended at MOMA last Thursday. Then explore the Lawrence paintings one by one through MOMA’s website. Your understanding of this American masterpiece, and this history of oppression and resistance will inspire and uplift you.

    1. PROVIDE HELP AND SUPPORT TO SCHOOLS, TEACHERS AND STUDENTS. The brutality of the “turnaround” notion for schools mislabeled “failing” is undeniable and devastating. Use findings from research and projects such as NEPC’s Closing the Opportunity Gap that detail what is working to assist schools and to generate a spirit of collaboration. We need less ranking and more recognition of the good work going on that is not going to show up on the meaningless test scores. José Vilson  advised, “Be more caring, do not forget to thank one another.” I say amen to that.
    2. BUILD MORE WAYS TO TALK ABOUT RACE AND RACIAL ISSUES. Regardless of your own identity, you can and must be willing to engage others in open, honest conversations that help build multiple perspectives and reduce the racist clichés. A good place to start is with Mica Pollock’s  book Everyday Antiracism. 
    3. DEVELOP A BIG VOICE. José Vilson explained in his interview with Jennifer Berkshire and Peter Greene that he is an introvert, but learned to embrace a big voice in his writing, grateful that he has been able to make people feel something. We must break the complacency and passivity if we are to engage the people power necessary to move forward.
    4. TEACH AND MODEL CIVILITY. In person and online, be your best possible self to sustain and grow advocacy for public education. If we are above reproach, we will prevail. Critique ideas, not people. In the end, it makes for more persuasive reasons to reject all the negativity and personal attacks of others.
    5. THINK STAR TREK. Boldly go, seek out new frontiers. Get out of your comfort zone. Stefanie Keiles, a parent activist in Ann Arbor, and co-organizer of a Michigan rally event two years ago , said she began attending meetings of Republican lawmakers, despite being the only Democrat. They began to recognize her expertise in education and she invited them to visit her school for a whole day. That’s how you make a difference.
    6. JUST SAY NO. Refuse the tests. As Mark Naison has said, “Stop the data train by any means necessary.”
    7. SWAMP THE MEDIA. Write letters, editorials, blogs, articles, get interviewed, use social media to pass on and promote your good ideas. Karen Lewis said in her interview with Diane Ravitch that we don’t have the money for airwaves and ads, but we have people power. Social media, it turns out, can bring ideas from the margin to the mainstream. We must coordinate our efforts.
Courtesy Network for Public Education
   8. DISSEMINATE STORIES, IMAGES, AND VIDEOS OF TEACHING. The work that goes on in schools is often invisible to the public, and we must work hard to debunk the prevalent myths of bad teaching. Use documentaries such as the excellent Go Public produced by James and Dawn O’Keefe about a day in the life of the Pasadena Unified School District to spark discussion and dialogue. Remember the Humans of New York story about the student Vidal, and his principal, Ms. Lopez from Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn? That raised over a million dollars.   

Courtesy Humans of New York
    9. PAY ATTENTION TO THE CORPORATE REFORMERS. It can turn your stomach at times, but as filmmaker Brian Malone said, “They can’t hide from the money trail.” Be inspired by Bill Moyers and his tireless crusade for the truth. Mercedes Schneider offered a practical tip when searching the internet: use “pdf” and you will discover hidden documents from archives that don’t turn up in other searches.

    10. STOP USING SCARY TERMS. Educational jargon is rife with them: underperforming, struggling, failing, data-driven, evidence-based, effectiveness, best practice. Eliminate them from your vocabulary. This was the excellent advice of Yong Zhao, who rightly reminded everyone that “every talent is useful.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Cause for hope. That's right, hope!

A decade ago, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, then president of AERA, gave us a portrait of teacher education at a major crossroads – for better or for worse – and invited us to see where these divergent paths might lead us. At the time, in that hotel ballroom, her bleak portrayal of a future hostile to the ideals and values so many of us held, brought me to tears as I thought of my graduate students who were making so many sacrifices and working so hard to become exemplary urban educators in schools others had written off as “failing” or “ghetto” and doomed.
Why then today, when the draconian education reform ideas of Governor Cuomo have succeeded in a budget vote last night in Albany, do I feel there is cause for hope? Because last night I attended a lecture at Teachers College by the brilliant scholar and public intellectual David C. Berliner. Known especially for his exhaustive defense of public education, The Manufactured Crisis, a 1995 book co-authored with Bruce J. Biddle, Berliner is a master of reasoned argument and robust evidence, all presented with clarity and that wow factor that makes you wonder how anyone could possibly disagree with him. His latest book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, written with Gene Glass, is a must read. He began by characterizing current efforts to evaluate teachers and teacher education using standardized test scores of students as “ridiculous” and proceeded to enumerate a dozen slam dunk arguments against these misguided reforms. I was reminded of the spell Harry Potter learned from Professor Lupin to cast on a boggart, Riddikulus, transforming the scary into the humorous. Below is a photo of the final slide summarizing his reasons.
Berliner, D. C. (2015) "Evaluating Teachers and Teacher Education Using Student Test Data: A Misunderstanding"
            The Teachers College Sachs Lecture Series has set out to explore teacher education – its future, worth, and change (both reactive and transformative) – by examining curriculum, current practices, beliefs about knowledge, and needed research. Prior to Berliner, Marilyn Cochran Smith spoke of education reform, a “hot and huge topic” she defined as “a set of practices and policies, many of which were set into motion with NCLB, although with deeper roots, and continued or accelerated by RTTT. These were intended to fix America’s broken education system keeping with a neoliberal, market-based approach and a heavy focus on accountability.” She described the current state of teacher education as at best, uneven, and at worst, uninspired, ineffective, and out of touch.
            Many of the pessimistic ideas outlined in her AERA address ten years ago are now in motion. We are getting closer to a national database to track teacher education programs and their impact on student test scores, rewarding those effective in test results and enabling them to become, in her words, “lucrative national franchises.” Just look at the expansion of Relay. Politicians and policymakers continue to believe that creating competition and ranking programs, rewarding winners and sanctioning or closing down losers, is going to lead to improvement.
            What concerns me is that current ideas about teacher quality are terribly ill-defined, in large part because much of the research is based on statistics of standardized test results, which are horrible proxies for anything meaningful, and as Berliner pointed out, they measure next to nothing about teacher effects. Right now we are stuck, trapped in the bad idea that all that matters is successful teaching defined as making test scores go up. We have lost all regard for whether good teaching matters, whether the ends to means are ethical and justifiable. Driven by data Data DATA, it seems there is no trust in human judgment, or testimonials of stakeholders who can speak passionately to the difference teachers have made in their lives. They only want numbers.
            Take for example the latest incarnation of the bad ideas in teacher education reform, the Deans for Impact. Based in Austin, Texas with a million dollar start up grant, a group of deans from various colleges of education across the country have resolved to be “data driven, outcomes focused, transparent and accountable” and to use “empirically tested” features in their programs that improve student learning. On their website they boast, “We want to inject some of the values of start-up culture into higher education.” Their first order of business was to write a support statement in early March for the new accreditation organization, CAEP, stating “Deans for Impact stands ready to bring all hands on deck to help CAEP succeed.” Mercedes Schneider has already done the necessary investigation to connect the reform dots and money behind this venture. 
As Jorge Cabrera wrote recently, we are witnessing “a form a social engineering under the guise of ‘urgency’ and ‘reform’” and it comes as no surprise that these deans want to speed up the phase-in of new federal regulations by two years. A rush to implementation will create exactly the sort of chaos and havoc that allows them to ramp up the rhetoric of failure. Their litany of complaints is all too familiar: “teacher prep” is awful, there’s too much theory and not enough practice, it’s too easy to become a teacher. Backed by the simplistic critique of Arthur Levine, these ideas have paved the way for erroneous experiments of throwing beginners to the wolves with little more than a few weeks of boot camp preparation.  
            But the hopeful side has some promise and I believe that we have reached a tipping point. The misuse of value-added measures, or VAMs, in evaluating teachers and teacher education programs is poised for some harsh pushback. The AERA publication, Educational Researcher, has dedicated its latest issue to the VAM controversy. In a succinct and lucid editorial by my former professor at the University of Michigan, Stephen Raudenbush, he deplores the distorted use of VAMs. He cautions, “The hard question is how to integrate the new research on teachers with other important strands of research in order to inform rather than distort practical judgment.” He goes on to pose the question, “Does the answer to a precisely focused research question, by itself, have implications for practical action?” Aside from consistent and reliable evidence, he argues the need for a powerful theory of action to synthesize all of the evidence.

            Get ready for some intense work ahead of us. They will continue to put lipstick on the pig with slick ads, propaganda and celebrity endorsements, and splashy rallies, but money and political power can only go so far. Parents, teachers, professors, and students of all ages must work together on their common educational goals to restore sanity for the good of our universities, schools, and communities.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad teacher certification exams

Are you familiar with a recurring anxiety dream where you are taking an important examination on material you are not familiar with, have not been able to study carefully, and feel you will most certainly fail? Well, students studying to become teachers in New York State are living this dream as reality. In what is clearly an intentional effort to produce higher failure rates on licensure exams, the New York State Education Department has rushed to implement new, harder tests and to make the edTPA a certification requirement as part of a political agenda backed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Cuomo, and former Commissioner John King.
Teacher education programs are frantically scrambling to accommodate students who are in a full-blown panic and understandable confusion over the sudden change in regulations. Even the Board of Regents is attempting to reduce the disastrous effects of this completely bungled roll out, perhaps making things worse. Meanwhile, the public is in the dark about what is happening in part because of the technical nature of teacher licensure, and in part because of a lack of attention to teacher education in journalism.
What is so terrible about these certification exams? Overall, there are six issues in my opinion that top the long list. I’ll start with that overview, and then I’ll get into specifics about each of the exams. Consider this my attempt at a 101 course on what it takes to become a teacher in New York State, besides getting a masters degree from a college or university.


            Each of these tests is timed, with the exception of the edTPA, although that must usually be completed within the one semester of student teaching in the vast majority of programs. No one reports having leftover time, they work right up to the last minute. The timing of when you must take the tests is dictated by individual programs. Some are required for admission, some after a certain number of credits, some prior to student teaching. The problem is if you fail, you are likely to be derailed from your progress in the program, which costs you more than just a retake. There are time limits on when you can retake the exams. Some students are also taking CLEP exams to compensate for missing undergraduate course requirements. Let’s just say that throughout your time in a teacher preparation program you are worrying about certification exams.


            The new exams are computer based, and cost more than the old exams. You will easily spend upwards of $1,000 on these exams. Even practice tests cost you $30. There were a handful of vouchers distributed to colleges for some exams, but not nearly enough to meet demands of those with financial aid. If you schedule an exam and need to cancel, you only get a partial rebate. If you want to contest your edTPA score, you must pay $200, which does not entitle you to a new evaluation, only to an internal investigation of the scoring process. It’s half as much to do a one-task retake, so that’s the likelier choice in the event you don’t have a passing score.


            There are now four exams required for initial certification. It seems they want to cover all the content of the preparation program, maybe so that eventually someone can circumvent a masters program altogether. The state says the tests measure “knowledge and skills that are necessary for service in the state’s schools.” The type of knowledge that can be measured in multiple choice and short essay questions is quite limited, and I think to assume the tests measure skill level accurately is really a stretch. There’s certainly no shortage of the encyclopedic factoids to invent as essential for teachers to know, so they will probably continue to invent new tests and questions ad infinitum.


            Teacher educators would like to know what makes these tests valid, what research has been done to show that those who pass are better teachers than those that don’t. Good luck Googling that! There is virtually no transparency regarding who designed and developed the exams, how and when they were piloted and normed, and zero studies on their validity.  The state provides vague details on the “standard setting committees”  and cut score processes, claims they were field tested, and that individuals on the committees are qualified to make these important determinations. Even without expertise in psychometrics, it’s easy to see that someone is trying to hide something.


            In order to be inexpensive to score, the format of the exams tends to be all about one right answer. Even in the edTPA, supposedly the most holistic of the exams, the rubrics and scoring guides are so rigid that there is virtually no room for human interpretation. Those exams that claim to measure writing skills are actually asking for robotic 5-paragraph essay style answers that having nothing to do with real writing. On multiple-choice questions, how is it possible to differentiate between a right answer and a good guess? It isn’t. It might just be a lucky guess.


            At least two of the exams are racially discriminatory, as Peter Goodman showed with data that was not made publically available back in November on his blog. “The pass rate for White test takers on the EAS was 82%, Non-White test takers 74%. The pass rate for White test takers on the ALST was 74%, Non-White test takers 55%.” You’d think that losing prior civil rights lawsuits over the old certification exam would prevent the state from continuing to take actions that reduce the diversity of the teacher workforce. You’d be wrong.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) 
            In my opinion, this is the absolute worst test on the planet. Touted by Governor Cuomo as the equivalent of an 8th grade reading and writing test (he should try taking my version), this new test has virtually no relationship to the previous test with the same letters in the acronym, the LAST, which attempted to measure liberal arts knowledge gained in college years. Instead, in 3.5 hours, you must answer 40 selected-response questions pertaining to reading passages, write two focused-response 200 word essays and one extended-response 400 word essay pertaining to pro/con reading passages and a graph or chart. Topics for the essay portion seem to have been selected by someone searching the tax code for the dullest “controversies” swimming in economic and legal jargon. Here’s a sample of two focused-responses and an extended-response to give you an idea. The state describes this as “complex and nuanced writing” but I think it could be used to cure insomnia. Results from the first 11,371 test takers  were just what the politicians hoped for: only 68% passed, and only 7% at the “mastery” level. Look at all those illiterate wanna-be teachers who can’t pass a middle school test!

The Educating All Students Test (EAS
At least the content of this 90 minute selected-response and constructed-response test pertains to something teachers care about – their students. Five areas are tested, but the two types of responses pertain to the three most important (according to the test creators): diverse student populations, English language learners, and students with disabilities and special learning needs. There are a few multiple-choice questions on teacher responsibilities and home-school relations. I fear that this test contributes to problematic notions that students who are multilingual or have disabilities should be flagged as potentially students of concern. Sample questions contain oversimplifications of classroom contexts as having a majority of students from “one culture” with a new minority “immigrant population” and use in-vogue terminology such as “culturally responsive” with little to no depth. Again, initial results from over 10,000 test takers had 77% passing, only 3% at the “mastery” level.

Content Specialty Tests (CSTs)
These are meant to cover all of the certification areas to ensure that physical education teachers, for example, know enough about physical education to teach it. The new versions of these tests are so new that there are people still waiting for their score results, promised in early 2015, because the state “standard setting committees” haven’t worked out the harder cut scores yet. You can’t make this stuff up. The latest information says scores will be released in spring.  Sample multiple choice questions on the arts and sciences portion of the four multi-subject tests taken by early childhood through high school teachers include a few doozies such as:
Running repeated sprints at maximum speed would be the most appropriate way to develop the endurance needed for successful participation in which sport? Choices are: American football, cross-country, basketball, and soccer. The correct answer is supposedly football, because “players undergo repeated bursts of intense activity…involving running short to medium distances at high speeds.” I don’t know much about football, but from what I have seen, linebackers seem to just block the opposing team’s linebackers. The best way to pick the football answer is actually to notice that the other three choices all obviously involve a considerable amount of running and therefore cancel each other out. Therefore the question is measuring test-taking knowledge rather than content knowledge.

Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA)
I have previously written extensively about problems with the Stanford’s SCALE developed/Pearson scored monster test that is taking over teacher education curriculum like an out-of-control garden weed. As one of two “edTPA Coordinator” faculty at Mercy College, I am increasingly convinced this belongs in induction, when teachers are not guests in another teacher’s classroom, because it is simply too burdensome and time-consuming to complete in a semester of student teaching. Two semesters of student teaching are not an option for most programs due to cost and working students who can ill-afford to give up employment for that length of time. Tales from the field include such horror stories as student teachers being told to complete TWO edTPAs so the best can be submitted, videos coded as unscoreable because of sound quality issues or even students’ full names visible on desks, complex classroom arrangements to obtain optimal video (how about the book storage closet?), confusion over the difference between language functions and forms, and a nightmare over official retake policies that, heaven forbid, might require additional classroom placements after student teaching is over and graduation requirements have been met. I’m sure college lawyers are on the phone right now comparing insurance policies and trying to figure out if non-matriculated students are covered or not.

In my statement during yesterday’s UUP press conference in Albany, I tried to convey the stark difference between what my students know, do, and write thoughtfully about and what is measured (supposedly) by these exams. I included the essay written by Sami-Beth Cohen who is currently student teaching in an excellent public school in Manhattan to share her rage and frustration with these policies and the inflammatory rhetoric of Governor Cuomo. Please add your voice to ours. Now that you’ve had my 101 course, I promote you to the next level: concerned citizen.