Our National Story is Ruining Our Nation

04/22/2012
American westward expansion is idealized in Em...

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1861). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has always been paradox to me that teachers face demands to teach differentially to address learning individualities but only standardized assessment seems to count.

Perhaps there is some confusion. Some people, even some education officials and legislators, seem to think ‘standardized’ refers to holding students to standards, possibly even high ones.

That is not the case.

Standardized just means everyone takes the same test, not for the benefit of students, individually or collectively, but to make it easier for politicians and the media to rank states and districts competitively and mislead parents to think that there is some educational validity to those rankings.

There is not.

Our education system is broken. Taxpayers want to buy an Aston Martin but at Dodge Dart prices. Politicians want to brag or criticize without understanding what they are talking about.

Everyone admires Finland and Singapore but no one wants to make the same investment they make in teacher preparation, ongoing training and providing time for collaboration and reflection. No one seems to care that despite all the wonderful schooling students in Singapore and Finland get, and despite the fact that all those students and their families have adequate housing and healthcare, immigrants still come here, not there, for opportunities for better lives.

That, my friends, is our greatest national asset and its a pity that so few of our leaders are either able to recognize that or willing to acknowledge it.

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We suffer from a failure of leadership. It is not a Democrat problem. It is not a Republican problem. It is a national problem, a continuing and deepening of the long-running fantasy narration of rugged individualism in which we tell ourselves that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor, it is the teacher’s fault that education policies don’t work, and, at those times when crime is high, it is the policeman’s fault for eating donuts instead of battling crooks.

Perhaps someday each of us will take responsibility for the direction our nation is heading, take responsibility for our communities, our neighbors and ourselves. I’ll know when that happens because 90% of the eligible voters will cast ballots and show the politicians and policy makers that we really care. Perhaps then we can start addressing problems, trying to fix problems instead of cynically casting blame for them.

Perhaps then.

Perhaps.


Oh boy! Now You Can Take the Tests.

12/14/2011
Standardized Test

Earlier this week I wrote a post called Standardized Tests, good for the geese, good for the ganders in which I challenged everyone who has anything to do with the setting of education policy to follow the lead of one stalwart school board member and take the tests they make students take.

Thanks to the Washington Post’sAnswer Sheet column I took an abbreviated version of the Florida 10th grade math and English tests. I did it at 11:30 at night after being up since 5:00AM, working a full day and taking five hours of grad school classes. You’re allowed to use a calculator and look up general equations like Pythagorean or the volume of a cylinder.

I don’t mean to brag, but I did it all in my head without a calculator and without looking anything up. I got perfect scores in both sections of seven questions each, all in about five minutes.

You can take the same mini-test I did or a sample of the Texas, California, New York, Virginia, Washington DC. or Maryland tests. Let me know which ones you took and how you did. And challenge your governor, your school board members, your state department of education administrators, and your president to relive their adolescence by taking the tests and making public the results.

This should be fun. It was for me, but I’m strange that way.

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Standardized tests: good for the geese, good for the ganders.

12/11/2011
De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

Image via Wikipedia

Something remarkable happened the other day.

A school board member in one of the nation’s largest school districts had the temerity to take the 10th grade standardized tests that he and his cohorts require students to take.

I think this is an excellent idea.

After all, if the tests are appropriate to see what students know then they are also necessary to see what school board members know. School board members should be required to take the same tests students are required to take. To be fair, I’d only require them to take the 10th grade tests. I wouldn’t want to challenge them too much.

Standardized tests are necessary to see what members of state boards of education know. If the state requires an exit exam so students can graduate from high school, then that is the exam the state board members should take. If they can’t pass them they should be removed from their positions and required to repeat high school.

Standardized tests are also necessary to see what the mayors who control school systems and the chancellors they appoint know. After all, if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools.

President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama...

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Arne Duncan should take standardized tests. So should President Obama.

And the results of those exams should be made public.

In fact, standardized testing is a great way to see which of the presidential candidates is most up to the demands of the job, which one can understand the math of the budget or the tax system. I’m sure Newt, Mitt, John, Rick, Ron and even Michelle could pass those tests with flying colors.

I’m starting a movement to have everyone who sets educational policy take the standardized tests, the same ones students do.

Join me. Send a tweet, a text, an email or phone to your school board members, your state legislators, your Congress people, Senators and presidential candidate of choice. Tell them that it is time for them to sit down with a couple of #2 pencils and show us what they know.

After all, it is only fair.

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$4704

10/15/2011
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Islamic Republic of Afghani...

Image via Wikipedia

$4704

…pays for about 1/10th of one second of advertising in the Super Bowl this year.

$4704

…pays for 1.5 seconds of the US’s involvement in Afghanistan.

$4704

That’s my budget for library media for this entire school year.

$4704

That includes all audio-visual materials, books, magazines/ periodicals/newspapers, maps/globes, tapes, microfilms, and computer software for use in the library.

$4704

That’s $6.25 per student enrolled in the school last October.

$4704

That $6.25 per student rate was set by the NY State legislature in 1999.

$4704

US total inflation from June 2000, to June 2011 is 30.93% according to inflationdata.com

$4704

Inflation in the rate budgeted per student 0%

$470

“Most school libraries managed to escape the economic trials of 2010 largely unscathed––with the exception of those in high-poverty areas, which saw significant declines in spending on information resources and in collection size.”
American Library Association report on the State of American Libraries.

$4704

My school is in the poorest Congressional district in the nation.

$4704

Perhaps I should be grateful that my budget has not gone down.

$4704

I’m not.

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School Choice? Sure, but don’t expect miracles.

07/12/2011
Shell Game

Some say that instead of automatically dumping money into public schools parents should be given the money and allowed to spend it on any school or other education facility that they think might work for their child or children.

Okay, but…

For many of my students there are no parents to make those choices.

For many of my students the parents are working two or three jobs to get by and don’t have the time to educate themselves about the options, much less attend meetings or other appointments.

For many students, some of them mine, the lack of transportation limits their choices more than the lack of options.

The parents of some of my students show up for every parent/teacher meeting…drunk…or stoned.

For many of my students their parental inability to read English, or in some cases any language, limits access to information necessary to know of options and make informed choices.

School choice does not help the student who comes to class hungry, abused or unloved.

School choice does not change the housing situation of students who can’t find a quiet room or flat space to do their homework on.

School choice does not help the student who goes home and has to care for infants or younger siblings because mom is working a night shift. Or out with her boyfriend.

School choice might be the answer for some people in some situations somewhere, but my students need a whole lot more than choice to make their lives succeed.

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An Open Letter to Rupert Murdoch

06/13/2011
Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

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Dear Mr. Murdoch,

Congratulations on getting a nice juicy contract for your corporation from the New York State Department of Education. A contract worth $27,000,000, is that right. A nice healthy piece of change, that is.

And do I understand it correctly that you got this contract without bidding on it?

How does that work? No, seriously, I want to know. Not because I begrudge you getting a $27,000,000 contract without having to bid on it; after all, that seems to be how things are getting done these days. Bidding just delays things and creates a needless level of bureaucracy, right.

No, I’m asking because I want to get in on the act.

Now I’m not looking for $27,000,000. It sounds great, but I have no idea how to handle that kind of money. You do. That’s why you’re a businessman and I’m a librarian.

That’s why I’m having the problem I’m having. You see, I want to buy a circulation desk for my middle school library and I have to get bids from three different vendors to do it, even though I know which circulation desk I’m going to buy. It is not really the one I want, but at $1,231, I know it is the one my school can afford.

Sure, I’d like to have a more efficient, better-built circulation desk, but I’d probably have to get a dozen bids. It doesn’t matter. My public middle school in the Bronx (that’s part of New York City just like Manhattan, but the way) doesn’t have that kind of money, not $2500, no sir.

Now you’re probably thinking this letter is looking for money from you. Perish the thought!

All I want is for you to teach me how to get money from the New York Education Department, the New York City Department of Education, or any other entity without having to get bids and without begging.

I know you’re a busy man and don’t have the time to teach me stuff yourself. But you do have employees who could do it. Maybe that fellow Klein who works for you now, the one who was NYC schools chancellor for a few years. I bet he knows how to work the system.

With the highest regard for your business acumen, I remain,

Deven Black

Librarian

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Is it Ever About the Students?

06/02/2011
Question ?

Image by Ninja M. via Flickr

Is it ever about the students?

No matter where I turn I hear teachers, principals, superintendents, mayors, governors, education secretaries, regents, newspapers, radio stations and the President saying it is all about the students – every lesson, every decision every policy is about doing what is best for the students.

Really?

Let’s start with the President. You remember him, he’s the guy who promised change but doesn’t seem to have the knowledge, interest, ideas, or power to effect it.

Sure, the Race to the Top looks a little different than No Child Left Behind, mainly because there seems to be more of a willingness to leave some children behind (there’s not enough room at the top for everyone). Still, decisions remain based on misguided ideas about testing, teaching, learning and incentives. For the President it is all about political game playing and not doing anything radical that might interfere with his re-election is 2012.

Instead of a freethinking leader we have a gullible man doing pretty much what his predecessor did and calling it something else.

Barack Obama

Image via Wikipedia

Gullible? That’s my take, but a case could be made that the President is deliberately misrepresenting the success of the program he cited in his State of the Union Address for having a 97% graduation rate. It appears that the Bruce Randolph School in Denver didn’t actually prepare those graduates for academic life beyond high school. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Diane Ravitch cites Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University. He looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education and found that while the school did, in fact, have a high graduation rate, ACT scores there were well below the state average, meaning students are not well prepared for college.

A high school diploma should mean that the student receiving it is ready for further education or skilled employment. That would be about the students. Instead, we have school cooking the books on their graduation rate to make a program look like a success when it isn’t.

Our education secretary, Mr. Duncan, was part of the cabal that cooked the books in Chicago to produce apparent gains in standardized test scores. What gains? Where did they go? Rhee in Washington? Same thing? What gains?

I’m not even going to touch whether the tests measure useful learning; that’s for some other post.

The head of my school district, who also happens to be Mayor of New York City, is also not above cooking the books. He is fast to toot his horn when testing results seem to indicate that his programs are leading to huge jumps in student learning, but he is strangely silent the next year when those apparent gains disappear.

I have to give Mayor Bloomberg some credit. He has been willing to spend money on education, but he spends that money on data systems and consultants who set up the data systems and then interpret the data for him. The mayor cannot do that himself, probably  because he is busy running the rest of City government single-handed.

NEW YORK - JANUARY 03:  Cathleen Black (R), th...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Worse, he has utter contempt for students, teachers, parents and all the other stakeholders. That’s clear from his appointment of know-nothing Cathie Black as schools chancellor without, he claims, even considering anyone else, especially someone who actually knows a little bit about the system he or she will be running. That contempt is reinforced daily in the mayor’s comments about parents and the dismissive way parents are treated in setting the policies that affect their children.

Now he wants to spend even more money schools are desperate for to create additional tests to give students, tests explicitly designed – he claims – to assess teacher effectiveness. Even if they do that, which is doubtful, at best, what benefit do students get from these tests? How does taking even more time from their school day to administer these tests, not to mention lessons preparing for these tests, and whatever anxiety the tests might cause them, benefit the kids sitting in that classroom?

Does anyone doubt that if teacher jobs are dependent on student performance on these new tests teachers will spend time prepping the students to perform well on them?

In New York, a board of regents is supposed to oversee all education systems in the state. Despite all his money and power, Mayor Bloomberg could not get his know-nothing chancellor hired without a waiver from them. Of course they gave it. They’re all about the politics, not the students.

FOX News Channel newsroom

Image via Wikipedia

The media? They’re not for the students. They exist to sell newspapers, magazines and airtime. Most want to spend as little as possible on gathering the news. That precludes paying reporters to take the time to actually look beyond the press releases, or even ignore the press releases, and do independent, investigative and interpretive reporting. If the media reached its highpoint during and in the wake of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, we can only hope they are reaching their nadir now and can’t possibly get any worse. See, I’m still an optimist.

Principals?

I don’t know about anywhere else, but in NYC principals are rewarded financially when the schools they run show improvements in test scores and the use of the data the tests generate to drive teaching. My principal, whom I like and respect, used to ask the tough questions like ‘what do the grades we give really mean?’ and ‘how can we change our practice to focus more on genuine learning and less on test scores?’ He doesn’t ask those questions anymore.

Perhaps this is because he, with the teacher’s agreement, has decided that an additional set of meetings between parents and teachers, that fewer than half the parents come to, is more important than regular staff meetings. The teachers would much rather spend a couple of hours one evening with some parents than a monthly 40 minutes Monday afternoon staff meeting.

Now we come to teachers.

This is a hard one for me. I am a teacher, but when I look at what we do and how we do it, I am forced to admit that we are not focused on students either. Where is the activism against standardized teaching? Where is the activism against the way parents are treated in our system? Where is the activism against the huge amounts of money spent on invalid data and consultants? Where is the activism against test prep and in favor of empowering student learning? Where is the anger? Where is the energy? One would think it is all focused on saving our jobs, but fewer than half the staff comes to union meetings.

I do see some teachers giving up a Saturday to attend an EdCamp to engage without compensation in a self-generated process of developing or honing skills, methods and ideas that can lead to better teaching. EdCamps are fantastic, energizing, reaffirming events for very dedicated teachers and the EdCamp movement is growing exponentially. Excellent, but there is a dirty little secret about EdCamps; fewer than half the teachers who enroll to attend actually show up.

Half

Oddly, that is about the same percentage of teachers who show up at union meetings at my school and about the same percentage of parents who show up for the parent-teacher meetings at my school.

Slightly less than half is what you can believe of what is printed in the newspaper about education and it is about the amount you can believe of what our President promises about education policy.

I’m feeling a little better now.

When I started this essay I was convinced that nothing that happens in education is about the students, but I was wrong.

Slightly less than half of what happens in education is about the students.

Doesn’t that make you feel good, too?

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Opening Minds for More than One Day

05/01/2011
There are days and there are days.

There are days I like: Thanksgiving; Labor Day; the first day of spring.

This is a day I’d rather not see again; Bloging Against Disablism Day, the sixth in what I fear will be a rather long run.

For the uninitiated, disablism is how most of the world treats people who have disabilities, like parking in a space reserved for handicapped people “just for a minute” while you run into the store. If that isn’t clear, a detailed description is available.

I’ve come across an example of disablism in my school.

Using underarm crutches.

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday there were two students in our library all day. They weren’t there to do research; they were there because they have injuries that require them to use crutches. Apparently our school does not allow students using crutches to go above the ground floor, but all our classrooms are on

the two higher floors. We have an elevator but students can’t use it.

While all of their classmates are getting instruction, they sit in the library. The teachers are supposed to send down work for them to do but they usually don’t. Even if they do, it is a textbook and a worksheet, not exactly inspired teaching.

While all their classmates are chatting, socializing and learning together, these two boys (last year it was girls) sit and talk to each other. Sometimes they get so desperate for conversation they talk to me!

These boys don’t really think of themselves as disabled but they are, at least for the next six to eight weeks. That is not the problem.

The problem, what makes this an example of disablism, is that despite kids repeatedly breaking ankles, legs and other things necessitating crutches, my school has not come up with a better plan for dealing with these mobility issues and the students who have them.

It is truly an issue of “out of sight, out of mind.”

People who have disabilities don’t hide like they used to, don’t make it as easy to keep them out of mind as it once was. They’re on the streets, in the stores and at work more and more all the time. That visibility is helping to create mindfullness.

I hope this blog post contributes to this growing awareness. With any luck I won’t have to write a post like this next year.

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Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

03/22/2011
The principal's office of Union City High Scho...

Image via Wikipedia

I really like my principal. When his office door is open it is almost always okay to just walk in and talk to him. He’s smart, generally fair, willing to listen to ideas and different opinions. He gives useful, timely feedback on formal observations and more frequent informal ones. He talks to you in private. Most of all, he is consistent. Our school has very little teacher turnover. Our school rating has been rising steadily.

I’m not trying to butter him up; I just want to show how very different he is from the first principal I worked for.

It was impossible to just walk into that first principal’s office because it was behind a thick Plexiglas barrier and she had to buzz you in even to approach her. She was not open to ideas and had no interest in what parents or people on her staff thought or had to say. She regularly yelled at teachers in front of their students. She’d love you one day or year but hate you the next.

Barrier - PCA 93

Image by Donald Macleod via Flickr

Feedback was rarely constructive and hardly timely; I’m still waiting for the results of her 2006 observation of my lesson.

On more than one occasion she changed the rating of a lesson observed by one of the assistant principals from satisfactory to unsatisfactory even though she was not present at the observation.

She once said in public, “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.” I was a second year white teacher and turnover was so high it wasn’t clear whether I was new or old.

The first year that teachers could transfer without prior principal approval more than 70% of that school’s teachers moved on to other schools, including all of the fifteen or so first and second year teachers. The same thing happened the following year. That school’s rating declined consistently and now it is being closed.

I bring this all up because right now a 50-person state of New York task force is in a big hurry to develop a new teacher rating program. They want it written before the end of June so the regents can approve it and regulations can be developed to implement it in September.

You’d think that they’d want to test the never-before-tried plan before they broadly apply it, but no. Apparently teacher livelihoods are not so important that you’d want to make sure the system was fair, workable and accurate before using it to make decisions affecting the continuation of their careers.

Under the plan, teacher ratings as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective would be based 20% on student performance on state tests, 20% on school-district tests (that don’t now exist) or unspecified other measures, and 60% on classroom observations and other reviews. It is not at all clear what the basis for rating teachers in non-testing subjects — social studies, art, music, phys ed among others — or librarians would be.

Teachers rated as ineffective two years in a row will be subject to a hearing regarding the termination of their employment.

Governor Cuomo says, “We need a legitimate evaluation system to rely on.”

Absolutely, but this isn’t it.

The Journal News reports at least one educator on the panel creating the system, South Orangetown school superintendent Kenneth Mitchell, thinks the state is moving forward recklessly, “There’s a real potential for implosion…you need years to make these changes.”

One of the regents says he fears that forcing a new system on districts in such a short period of time could lead to unforeseen costs and worse.

“It’s gotten so far out of hand, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. If mistakes are made and the data is flawed, it would be terrible to make it public. People will say ‘I don’t want my kid in that person’s class.’”

Did you notice that not even the people worried about this program never mentioned the possible effect it could have on teacher livelihoods?

This is why teachers like me support unions.

United Federation of Teachers

Image via Wikipedia

Without my union standing up for people like me principals like my first one could ruin careers on a whim.

Without my union standing up for me I would be leery of disagreeing with my principal no matter how much I thought he might be on the wrong track.

Without my union standing up for me I would not be able to say my chancellor, a very capable woman in the publishing field, is completely inexperienced, unqualified and unsuited to run a school system of any size, not to mention the biggest one in the country, and that by appointing her our mayor insulted the students, their parents, and everyone who works in the NYCDOE, no matter how true it is.

Without my union no teacher would be entitled to a fair hearing on disciplinary matters.

Without my union no parent would have any voice in the operation of their children’s schools.

Without my union the billionaires like Bill Gates.would not have anyone standing up to them as they privatized public education. Would anyone listen to him about anything to do with eduction if he didn’t have all that money?

Without my union the special education students would get lost in the shuffle and not get their mandated services.

Without my union standing up for people like me I would not have received the quality education I got from the NYC public schools.

Without my union standing up for me I’d be afraid to write this blog post.

That’s why teachers like me support unions.


Making a Point, Missing the Point

12/21/2010
Lava Lamp Red
Image via Wikipedia

I am still astounded at the new things I’m realizing now that I am responsible for taking a library that stopped progressing sometime in the mid-1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.

The first thing is that organization, never my stro

ng point, is essential in a library. There is so much to keep track of: books, borrowers, the card catalog (more on that in a bit) return dates, trends (more on that, too, in a minute) and new releases.

There are likely more things to keep track of, but those are the ones I’ve discovered in my first two weeks. I hope some more experienced librarians I’ve come to know will inform me what I not paying attention to that I should also be focusing upon.

The second thing I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible to go directly from being an excellent 1970s library that unfortunately finds itself in 2010 to being a 2010 library ready for whatever develops in the next decade or two.
Let’s start with the card catalog.

The subject catalogue (
Image via Wikipedia

We have a lovely wooden card catalog unit with a matching four-drawer file cabinet. Both pieces would look terrific in my house. The newest item in that file cabinet is a clipping from the New York Times of November 8th about the results of the Presidential election held the day before.

The card catalog is an anachronism. I just uncrated 15 cases of books and have a stack of catalog cards about a foot high that I need to file. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of time it will take to do that filing, but I have to think there is a better use of my time than doing that.

One potentially better use of my time would be to organize our non-fiction section currently in total disarray. It does one no good to look up a topic, say the grammar of Old French (perhaps you wonder as I do why we have two books on that topic), and not have a clue where to find the books filed under 841 in the Dewey decimal system.

Or perhaps an even better use of my time would be to figure out how to sell off that non-fiction section (complete with six — count them! — six different encyclopedias) and the lovely wooden card catalog and file cabinet in order to buy a few e-readers.

My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen has been hosting an interesting conversation about e-readers vs. books on her blog. The conversation started with the news that Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas got rid of many of the books in his school’s library and replaced them with e-readers and a coffee shop.

I’m not at all interested in the discussion of whether a

coffee shop belongs in a high school, but I am interested in the fact that Lamar High School can afford to buy a bunch on e-readers. So can a lot of schools around the country. But I’m scrounging for bookends.

A black metal bookend.
Image via Wikipedia

Think about that for a minute. E-readers for a rich district and school, but my poor students get to watch me try to scrounge bookends.

While you’re thinking about that I hope you come to understand that until we find a way to make sure every student in America has access to the same resources, whether they are great teachers, e-readers, or classrooms with heat, all the other talk is meaningless.

All the education reformers, all the politicians, all the teacher unions and all the teacher-training colleges are all avoiding the central issue affecting the future of education and the future of our country: the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Find a way to fix that and you’ll see a whole bunch of other problems you waste time talking about disappear.

E-readers? Maybe someday.

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