Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Trip to Albany

Today United University Professions (UUP), the State University of New York (SUNY) union, held a news conference in Albany’s Legislative Office Building and called for an investigation of the State Education Department regarding the new state teacher licensure reforms. UUP President Fred Kowal invited teacher candidates, teacher educators, Board of Regents member Kathleen Cashin, and NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, and Tom Pinto, a parent of a teacher education student, to share their experiences with the new certification exams. I braved the snow and drove up to participate, and I'm so glad I did.
The press conference happened against a backdrop of growing public outcry regarding new Common Core aligned curriculum and tests, and Governor Cuomo’s draconian budget and education reform proposals. Yesterday, supporters of charter schools from SuccessAcademy, KIPP, and Achievement First descended on Albany while teacher unions held their own rallies
As the education debates heat up, the teacher education debacle has to fight for any attention from the public, but as Tom Pinto passionately pointed out today, many families with college students who have admirably chosen teaching as their calling, find the new exams, implemented without the customary trial period and with obvious intent to increase failure rates, cause intense frustration of dreams derailed, new obstacles and financial hardship. Julie Gorlewski of SUNY New Paltz outlined the most serious concerns with the edTPA rollout and its negative impact on a diverse teaching force, saying it “will contribute to the creation of a teaching profession that is increasingly whiter and wealthier than the students it serves.”

            Below is a copy of my statement, and a commentary by one of my current student teachers, Sami-Beth Cohen, that she gave to me to share at the press conference. I strongly urge my readers and their friends to add their voices to the debate, to write letters to policymakers and legislators, to Governor Cuomo, to comment on media articles and multimedia coverage of these events, and to make some noise before budget decisions are finalized at the end of the month.
“We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning.”
                    David Labaree, 2010

          The degree to which we are setting up our educational institutions for failure in the United States is unprecedented. To satisfy the public’s need to believe that education can mean a better life and greater opportunities for success and happiness, we promote the idea that all citizens should be entitled to a meaningful education. We look for easy targets to blame when our lofty goals of equal opportunity fail to materialize as we had hoped. At the same time, those with privilege, power, and financial security seek to protect their self-interests to ensure those advantages will endure for generations to come. As David Labaree has written of schooling, “We want it to meet the ambitions of our children and also to protect them from the ambitions of other people’s children” (2010, p. 6).
            The dominant American value of competition has led to standardized testing being misused throughout our educational system, even as we acknowledge it is a flawed measure of quality. The testing industry is expanding exponentially, with more tests and more expensive ways to administer and score those tests, than ever before. We endlessly rank, sort, compare, rewarding the winners and humiliating and punishing the losers. Inevitably, those in the bottom seek desperate measures to improve in a contest that must result in failure for some. We know that these high stakes lead to undesirable consequences such as reduced learning, cheating, skewed priorities, and more inequity.
            At Mercy College I am blessed to work with teachers seeking to make a difference in the lives of children. It may seem corny and idealistic to a cynic, but these are people who have known hardship and have been positively influenced by teachers who helped them both academically and socially. They want to pay it forward, to work in their high-poverty communities inside schools that desperately need teachers who understand both how to reach children and inspire them, and how to teach them in ways that will leave a lasting impression. They embrace the challenges and opportunities afforded them in these highly diverse classrooms.
            The botched implementation of licensure reforms for new teachers in New York State has created havoc in its wake. Exams that lack requisite validity from pilot testing and analysis, with unreasonably high cut scores, have created financial hardship, low morale, and have little to do with the goals and values of improving teaching and learning. Peter Goodman provided data not publically available from early testing results that shows two of the exams, the EAS and ALST, are racially discriminatory. “The exams are not only reducing the diversity of our teaching force,” he wrote last November on his Ed in the Apple blog, “the exams ignore standards set by prior court decisions.”
These exams are not benign. They also don’t tell us what we need to know about prospective teachers. Consider these two stories, both from real examples:

A first year teacher, despairing at the learning needs of her first graders, declares to colleagues in the staff room that she has a class of “ones” even though those students will not take the state standardized tests in math and language arts scored from one to four until third grade.

A student teacher asks a second grade girl to put away her journal for quiet reading time, and notices the girl has hidden the journal inside her book. She has written, “I want to die.” Working with a paraprofessional because the cooperating teacher is absent that day, they discover the girl is a victim of ongoing harsh bullying. In talking with the girl, they confront the bullies, work on conflict resolution, and enable the girl to spend time with the school counselor to determine the types of support she needs in her moment of crisis.

No exam, no matter how cleverly designed, can assess whether a teacher would behave as the first year teacher did, or as the student teacher did. Yet clearly we want teachers in our schools who have sufficient knowledge, experience, and personal qualities that would treat all students with kindness and compassion, and would recognize the strengths and abilities of each and every student they are charged with teaching. The stark contrast between the type of technical writing one sees on the licensure exams and the deeply personal reflective writing that is typical of teacher education coursework is indicative of the comparison between the two teachers in my stories.
            What we are witnessing in these unprecedented times in education is an erosion of trust. We know that trust is the glue that holds our schools and communities together, especially in tough times. We need a diverse teaching force because we have diverse groups of students in our schools who need teachers they can trust. We may not be able to easily fix funding inequities, and variation in institutional supports and resources, but we can certainly fight the obstacles and barriers that prevent the hopes and aspirations of future teachers from becoming realized.


Labaree, D. (2010). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Statement by Sami-Beth Cohen
M.S.Ed '15, Mercy College

A few days ago, for the first time, I felt truly discouraged about the possibility of teaching. I am not discouraged by the seemingly insurmountable odds of educating children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, faiths, intellectual capacities, with various (occasionally horrific) personal histories and experiences that I will face. I am not discouraged by long hours, low pay or complex challenges. I am not discouraged by the extreme lack of resources with which public school teachers are forced to grapple. I am not intimidated or discouraged by any of these factors, because I am an intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and passionate person who will be working alongside other such individuals. Together, we can accomplish so much. This I know.
I am, however, discouraged by our governor. Our governor, who has spent next to no time in classrooms, sees it fit to make sweeping, inaccurate generalizations about teachers. Our governor, who is not an educator, but thinks he knows how we should do our jobs. I have a college education and an advanced degree in my field. I have taken many certification exams and passed them all. I am fully capable of doing the job I have trained for over the last four years of my continuing education. Yet Governor Cuomo still believes the deficit lies with me.
How is it that educators who have chosen to work in the most challenging, difficult environments end up being punished for that choice? How am I supposed to educate children who didn't sleep in a bed last night, didn't eat breakfast and don't have clean clothing? I recently spoke with a teacher who had moved from a large urban district to a suburban one. In her old, urban school, around 50% of her students passed the standardized tests, whereas at her new school, 96% of her students passed. Did she suddenly become 46% more effective, simply by changing districts? Of course not. The difference is that she began working with a population that had infinitely more resources and attention dedicated to it.
My first job in education was at a school with the highest percentage of children living in homeless shelters in the city of New York. Routinely, children would miss several school days a week. They would lose their placement in their current shelter and have to move to another, often in another borough. This causes an unimaginable amount of stress on both children and families. Not having a place to call home is especially traumatizing for a child.   This is only one example of what teachers must consider when they walk into work each morning. This is in addition to lesson plans, assessments, differentiating material, and addressing all types of learners. How is it not obvious that the deficit doesn't lie with the teachers, but with the deplorable reality in which improvised people exist? Closing such a school...firing teachers...this is so misguided I cannot even fathom it. For these kids, their teachers are some of the only constants in their lives. Take away a trusted teacher and they have no one. Closing their schools often means that in addition to all of the other hardships suffered, these children now spend upwards of 45 minutes commuting to and from their schools each day. Sounds awesome, if your goal is to make it impossible to succeed! 
Governor, if you cannot see how the logic of punishing teachers for working in difficult conditions is entirely flawed, perhaps the faulty cog in the machine has been identified once and for all: you.

PS- I voted for you four years ago and have come to really regret that choice. You look like Frankenstein. Just an FYI!

1 comment:

  1. Alexandra, thanks so much for speaking at our press conference. You gave the event some real clout.

    Mike Lisi
    UUP Communications Director