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.