Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Tis the Season for Mudslinging

It’s the time of year when education bureaucrats get into a bullying mood and this time their target is teacher education. The U.S. Department of Education has released the proposed teacher preparation regulations that are open for public comment through the federal register through February 2nd and they contain the same problematic features of the new CAEP standards (see my previous post). Here in New York we’ve had the public release of college-specific certification exam results with inflammatory headlines proclaiming future teachers are flunking and are illiterate (here are results). Our education commissioner, John B. King, continues his aggressive agenda to close teacher preparation programs with dubious justifications of accountability and transparency, only now he’s headed to Washington D.C. to work side by side with Arne Duncan.

There have been some badly needed responses from teacher educators. Fred Kowal described why the release of the certification exam scores was irresponsible and unfair in a radio interview and my colleague Howard Miller wrote an excellent letter in response to coverage in the New York Times. What has me in a rage is that I know firsthand from my student teachers at Mercy College’s Bronx campus just how impossible life is for them right now. Yet they are getting through all this adversity with admirable professionalism and poise and I am bursting with pride. The schools where they have been doing student teaching are equally impressed, and their cooperating teachers are despairing that their internships are coming to an end this week. So in our weekly seminar meeting we talked about what might be an appropriate response. They helped me with ideas for the parody below. We hope it makes you laugh, but mostly, we hope it makes you think. These exams are really that bad.

Commissioner Regents And Policymakers Test

 (Time allotted: 60 minutes - tic tic tic)

Should Teachers Be Required to Pass Tests Before They Can Be Certified to Teach?

Use the passages below and the information in the graphic to write two focused responses and an extended response. Your responses should be written for an audience of educated adults. You must maintain an appropriate style and tone and use clear and precise language throughout. With the exception of appropriately identified quotations and paraphrases from the sources provided, your writing must be your own. The final version of your responses should conform to the conventions of edited American English.[1]

Focused Response Assignment: Use Passages A and B to respond to the following assignment.
In a response of approximately 100-200 words, identify which author presents a more compelling argument. Your response must:
-       outline the specific claims made in each passage;
-       evaluate the validity, relevance, and sufficiency of evidence used to support each claim; and
-       include examples from both passages to support your evaluation

Focused Response Assignment: Use Passage B and the Graphic to respond to the following assignment.
In a response of approximately 100-200 words, explain how the information presented in the two charts can be integrated with the author’s central argument about the impact of licensure requirement reforms on preservice teachers. Your response must:
-       explain how specific information presented in the charts either supports or counters the author’s claims, reasoning, and evidence with regard to new licensure requirements; and
-       include examples from the passage and the charts to support your explanation

Extended Response Assignment: Use Passages A and B and the Graphic to respond to the following assignment.
In a response of approximately 400-600 words, present a fully developed strategy for policy reform that satisfies the needs of stakeholders, is informed by current research in the field, and balances benefits and drawbacks of testing preservice teachers prior to initial certification to teach. Your strategy for policy reform must:
-       include evidence that you are knowledgeable and understand the issues
-       use research evidence and valid reasoning to support your strategy for reform
-       support the claims made with relevant and sufficient evidence from all three sources; and
-       anticipate and address the counterclaims of those who will undoubtedly oppose your strategy for reform

By Imani Diot 
Pro: Dubious Funders of Education Reform (DFER)

Are most teachers smarter than a fifth grader? Probably not. Researchers from The Institute for Obscure Equations conducted a survey in 2009 and found that over 90% of currently employed elementary teachers could not solve this problem[2]:
How can our students be ready for college and careers if they aren’t taught to decode important secret messages such as these? We will end up with an entire generation that is completely reliant on Google for all knowledge.

Until now, we have asked colleges and universities with programs that prepare teachers to be responsible for ensuring they are smart enough for the job, but it turns out that those professors aren’t smarter than a fifth grader either, so we need a more objective measure. In fact, we need lots of objective measures. Research suggests that the harder the test, and the higher the cut score used to determine a pass rate, the less likely people are to question the validity of the test (Preason, 2012). In the past, teacher tests that were piloted and field tested nationally produced high passing rates and were the subject of ongoing debates about how the results must be unreliable and invalid.

To address this need, new tests have been designed that will ensure we are able to determine who is smart enough to be a smart teacher. Research has shown that smart teachers are hard to come by, because most teachers are lazy and only chose to teach because they want extended vacations and a shorter work day (Grates Foundation Report, 2011). These tests will require the ability to look at very small typeface in a florescent-lit room while using multiple tabs and windows to examine documents for hours without a break. These testing conditions have been proven to cause weaker candidates to experience panic, fear, and loss of confidence, especially when distracting noise is present. Testing topics have been preselected to be of interest to only a very small minority of the population to ensure maximum distractibility.

While computer-based testing can resolve most of the concerns about making sure our teachers are smart, practitioners will never give up the argument that they are insufficient measures of how teachers perform in front of real, live students. To counter this argument, a new test was created by brainiacs at Smartford University that will end this debate once and for all. This one requires weeks of preparation, decoding hundreds of pages of documents and guidelines, videotaping in public schools (which can require cumbersome permissions and paperwork), and months of writing up detailed analyses and data summaries. An added bonus is this exam can also lessen the power that colleges and universities have over the preparation of teachers, eventually eliminating the justification for useless theory and foundation courses.

Together with the other tests, we can be sure that only the very smartest and brightest will teach in our nation’s schools. Even if they only stay in the profession for two years, at least they will have provided our students with the googling skills they need to succeed.

By Wendy Tessurbad             
Con: No Test Is Fair (NTIF)

Teachers today have to be prepared for a myriad of unexpected challenges: a student throws up on you, the door to the classroom breaks and you’re locked inside, or the intercom speaker in your room has a persistent buzzing hum. Can a test predict if you will know how to handle such situations? Of course not. But somehow the public is reassured that if teachers take tests they’ll be well equipped for the problems facing them once they have their own classrooms.

Multiple choice tests are notoriously silly and useless, and research has shown that high scores correlate with good test takers (ETS Report on the SAT, 2002). In the case of licensure tests for teachers, most present short examples and cases for analysis that do not reflect what teachers have to think about in a real life scenario. Bias is also unavoidable as in the following example:
            Marcus offers you a smushed, half-eaten cupcake. You should:
a)     Accept with a smile and eat it immediately to show your appreciation for his kind gesture
b)    Tell him you can’t eat gluten but appreciate the thought
c)     Split the cupcake into two parts and give one to your teaching assistant
d)    Split the cupcake into lots of tiny crumbs so everyone in the class can have some
Were you fooled into thinking b was a good answer? The question is designed to trick celiacs and gluten sensitive people into choosing that answer, but the correct answer is d, which has the most equitable outcome.

Another problem with the teacher exams is the scoring process. While computers can score multiple-choice questions, they are not very good at scoring essays, at least not yet. People who are hired to score teacher exams are not paid very much, and would probably find a job at a fast food burger restaurant more enjoyable and satisfying. Research has shown that hours and hours of reading similar responses can lead to an inability to distinguish between a STRONG grasp of writing skills and a SATISFACTORY grasp of writing skills (Minduming, 1998) and in at least 15% of the cases studied, to inappropriately selecting NO grasp of writing skills whatsoever. Some testing opponents have even suggested that test scorers outsource the work to their children and bribe them with candy and video games (Nutjob, 2012).

Finally, it’s self evident that licensure exams are not necessary. Preservice teachers have to pursue their degree while juggling jobs and family responsibilities, they have to write endless lesson and unit plans using original ideas, and prior to student teaching they have to squeeze in time for fieldwork in school settings without conflicting with their current employment. Then for the semester of student teaching, they have to wake up very early every morning even if they were up late studying and writing papers, or if they suffer from various symptoms related to the constant exposure to germs, and they have to do all the work their cooperating teacher doesn’t feel like doing, plus help all the students the cooperating teacher doesn’t know how to help (or doesn’t like), and they have to prepare and deliver perfect lessons for their supervisor’s visits. “I just love student teaching!” said no teacher candidate ever. Furthermore, if they are unable to control the most unruly and disobedient students, they are deemed unfit for teaching and may be told they need to repeat student teaching again. Only those people who really, really like kids and the challenges of teaching would put up with all of that for a measly starting salary and unacceptable working conditions. Why put them also through difficult to pass exams that cost hundreds of dollars? That’s just rubbing salt in the wound.

Tests are bad, tests are dumb. Here’s my verdict: A pointing down thumb!


New York State Preservice Teachers Survey (NYS IHE, 2014)
3,278 teacher candidates throughout New York State were surveyed about the new licensure exams: Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST), Educating All Students (EAS), Content Specialty Test (CST), and the Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA). They were asked to check boxes correlating to a range of symptoms reported from pilot testing. Percents reported below have a margin of error of 0.00001.

Financial ruin
Panic, stress, depression
Need new eyeglasses
Migraine headaches
Broke up with partner

Washington State Preservice Teachers Survey (WAS IHE, 2014)
Following five years of pilot testing, the edTPA requirement went into effect in Washington State. 1,003 preservice teachers were surveyed about their response to the edTPA requirement.

[1] The wording and format of the CRAP test is identical to the ALST. A study guide can be found here.

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 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.