Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

01/08/2013
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.


Paranoia in Education Strikes Again!

03/26/2012
cover shot of Children of Paranoia

cover shot of Children of Paranoia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I work for a paranoid school district.

It doesn’t trust students.

It doesn’t trust teachers.

It doesn’t trust administrators.

It doesn’t trust parents.

It doesn’t trust the public.

It is afraid that students will learn things that aren’t in the curriculum.

It is afraid that students will learn things that haven’t been approved in advance.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of the internet.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of social media.

There is a lot of good educational content on YouTube and YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let students access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let teachers access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let school administrators access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let principals override the filters that prevent access to those and other useful websites.

This can only be because it does not trust us. Any of us.

It does not let students, teachers or school administrators access Facebook in school, even though there is a lot of educational content on Facebook.

Even though we are required to teach students how to use social media responsibly.

Soon we won’t even be able model social media use for students.

The City is going to ban teachers and students from interacting over Facebook.

It doesn’t trust us.

Not at all. I bet the City would love to figure out how to stop teachers and students from interacting in the supermarket, the Laundromat, the shopping mall.

Heck, they’d probably even like to find a way to keep us from interacting in the classroom. Everyone knows how much trouble we can get into there.

There is an old adage that says you should treat people the way you want them to be. If you want young people to act like adults, treat them that way. That’s what I try to do in my library.

But the NYCDOE treats me and my colleagues like little children.

They are illogical.

They are insulting.

Or am I being paranoid?


I’m Tired of Talking About Education

12/28/2011

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

Learning and Schooling

Image by colemama via Flickr

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

Image via Wikipedia

From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.

Resource:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

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The End of an Era

04/07/2011
Black

It is over.

It didn’t even last five full months, but it is over.

Kathie Black, the woman Mayor Bloomberg said was the best person to “provide the leadership our school system needs to carry out our reforms,” resigned as schools chancellor today.

Her appointment, despite having no experience in education, was justified by Mayor Bloomberg who, in a letter to the State Commissioner of Education, said her “broad range of experience and skills to solve complex problems in the face of controversy, motivate staff, communicate with and bring together diverse constituents, manage labor relations, use data in decision making, and create and maintain a culture of change and excellence” qualified her for the job.

In fact, he call repeatedly called her the only person he even considered for the job because she was the best candidate.

But Ms. Black never developed credibility with parents, teachers, administrators or any of the other constituencies involved in the NYCDOE. Her popularity plummeted from what never were high levels, but as late as Monday the Mayor said he didn’t care what the polls said because Ms. Black was the best person for the job.

I guess now we’ll get the second best.

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Jumping Through Certification Hoops Should Be For Everyone

01/10/2011
Cathie Black Visits Hillcrest High School, Dec...
Image by lancmanoffice via Flickr

I’ve spent the day learning about the hoops I have to jump through — a 2nd master degree, for one — to be certified as a school librarian. Oh, and I have until August to get 18 of the 36 required credits if I want to be able to do the job I’m doing now next year.

I think our new school’s chancellor should have the same opportunity I have, get half the credits for an education leadership degree to be allowed to continue to do her job past Labor Day.

If I worked at an elementary school it would not be an issue but certified librarians are required at all secondary schools.

That I’ve done more in one month in and for the library, and for the students and teachers who now can use it than the certified librarian (certified in 1956, btw) did in the past six years is apparently not as important as having that piece of paper certifying me.

That I can teach the students and teachers about technology and how to use it effectively and safely where the certified librarian thinks the electric typewriter is a threat to society is not as important as having that certificate.

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...
Image via Wikipedia

If the certificate is that important for me to have, shouldn’t the school chancellor have one, too?

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I’ve Failed, and I’m Almost Glad I Did

12/06/2010
A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

Today was my last as a classroom teacher

My classes are being taken away from me.

My principal has lost confidence in my teaching ability.

So have I.

Oh, I do okay with my high-flying 7th grade class and they were distraught when I told them that I would not be their social studies teacher anymore. There were tears, some of them theirs.

I did not do so okay with my low-level 8th grade class.

I completely failed as their teacher.

I can make all kinds of excuses: there are 35 of them; all their other teachers struggle with them; they were a ‘bad’ class last year and more difficult students were added this year; and more, but the fact is, I did not reach them in any way.

Oh, there are one or two students in the class who I connected with, but not the other 33. My lessons were flat, my class management totally ineffective. A good day was one where the books flying around the classroom was the biggest behavior problem.

I had a double period with them today and they were oddly well behaved. Some of them even worked, but only three had the draft of their exit project written report due today. They did not know it was our last together.

They are not learning and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Tomorrow they will have a different social studies teacher. So will my other classes.

I have long championed the value of failure as part of the learning experience and I already know one of the ways this failure will benefit me (more on that in a moment), but it still does not feel very good to fail and I’d much rather have been a better teacher for those 8th graders and my three other classes.

Then again, had I not failed I would not have the exciting new opportunity presented to me.

Tomorrow I start my new job as the school’s media specialist.

I will be taking over the library and trying to drag it into the latter stages of the 20th Century.

I’d rather drag it into the 21st C. but the budget and some Department of Education regulations won’t allow it.

Even so, the late 20th C. is a big step forward from what we have now.

Now I know nothing about being a librarian.

TL09 View of School Libraries
Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Nothing.

No worries; I’m fortunate to have some of the best school librarians in the country offering to help me out.

Through Twitter I have ‘met’ Shannon Miller from the Van Meter, Iowa schools, DM Cordell, a retired school librarian from upstate NY, Beth Friese from Georgia, Melissa Techman from Virginia, and Susan Myers from South Carolina. I am sure they will get me off on the right track.

What one does as a media specialist is undefined and seems almost unlimited, but I think it will have a lot to do with helping students make connections that will be as important to their learning as those librarians will be to mine.

Today one door slammed shut.

Tomorrow a different one swings open.

I will go through it smiling.

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The Left Hand Doesn’t Know…

09/03/2010

I’d laugh if it weren’t so frustrating.

I’d cry if I thought it would do any good.

I spent today like I’ve spent every day this week, at school on my own time setting up my classroom.

I’m setting the network of five laptops and three desktop computers that will be available in my classroom and I test them to make sure they can access the internet. It was a good thing because several were having connectivity issues.

The homepage for NYC Department of Education computers is the NYCDOE homepage.

As I launch each computer’s browser that is where I am taken and each time there is an item on the homepage about helping two NYC schools try to win $500,000 through the Kohl’s Cares program.

The item tells me that the voting deadline was today, Friday, September 3, 2010, and a link to the contest is provided.

Being the caring guy that I am, I click the link to do my part to help these two NYC high schools win the prize.

Here I am all ready to vote and…

The site is blocked.

Yes, the NYCDOE Web Sense filter blocks access to the contest promoted on the NYCDOE’s homepage.

It is insulting that the NYCDOE doesn’t trust teachers and administrators enough to allow them unfettered access to the internet, that they don’t trust me to keep my password secret to only I can use the administrator account visit websites verboten for students.

I’m not talking porn here. Not even soft porn.

Here’s where it gets really ridiculous.

The Kohl’s site was blocked because “social networking” sites like Facebook and Kohl’s Cares are not allowed. But I can go to Twitter.

The category “games” is blocked, keeping my students away from hundreds of sites with really good games with high education value, but I have no problem entering contests like the ones at MyRecipes.com or HGTV even when using a student account.

So I can’t help two schools win $500,000 but I can try to win myself $5,000 or some tools.

The NYCDOE runs a really good help desk for employees having computer hardware or software issues. The folks there are efficient and know what they’re doing, which immediately distinguishes them from many divisions of the NYCDOE.

I wasn’t sure this was under their domain but I called the help desk to point out the silliness of promoting something on the homepage and then blocking it on the network.

The fellow on the other end of the line listened and asked me to hold on while he checked it for himself. When the same thing happened to him he gave me a web address on which I could fill out a form asking that the site be unblocked.

Despite having plenty more to do to set up my classroom for the first day of school next week I tried to go to that website. A couple of minutes filling out a form would not set me back much.

I entered the address carefully.

I tried again, this time with a slight change.

I gave up.

Sorry East Side Community High School. Sorry Brooklyn Tech.

I tried to help but found myself bucking the inconsistency, inanity and inefficiency that is the NYCDOE.

But boy am I excited about the new school year!

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The Bulletin Board Paradox

11/11/2009
Simple cork
Image via Wikipedia

Some teachers look at a blank bulletin board and imagine a dazzling educational display. They revel in cutting, pasting, crimping and primping; glory in getting everything placed-just-so, and otherwise happily go about making eye-catching, colorful, creative and highly attractive displays.

I am not one of them.

I, the oldest of four children of a writer and an artist, seem to have gotten just the former’s set of talent genes, and not many of them at that.

I’m so non-artistic that when I was a student teacher in a second grade classroom, my host teacher forbade me using scissors lest some child copy my technique.

I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler.

I have done exactly one good bulletin board in my five-plus years of teaching. It occurred in my third year for what was then and remains my best extended bit of teaching: The Pizza Project. Even then my students actually hung most of the display.

When it comes to creating bulletin boards I am a conscientious objector.

But no matter how conscientious I am about objecting I am still expected to produce them, a situation that leads to one of the most ridiculous teaching practices I know of: creating assignments solely for the purpose of having something to hang on a bulletin board.

I am teaching my students to use a Ning; to create Wordles, to podcast and to develop stunning multi-media presentations by exercising those vaunted 21st Century skills using 21st Century tools.

Its good for them and it is far easier for me to demonstrate those sorts of things than it is for me to hang papers neatly.

But hang I must.

The school hallways are lined with bulletin boards and they cannot be left empty. After all, they provide the evidence that students are doing something besides enduring rolling waves of diagnostic, predictive, practice and other versions of standardized exams.

It is a frustrating paradox.

Everyone wants students to learn new skills but, because my and many other schools are not set-up for demonstrating and displaying learning using those skills, we continue to have students practice the same kinds of skills used to produce billboards in the 18th Century

I know I teach history, but…

Meanwhile, the billionaire Mayor who runs our schools seems to have given up on my students and others like them.

There’s no money to buy bookcases so I can display the books in my sole-purpose reading classroom, but there is money to lobby for and open new charter schools.

For the past three months there’s been a brand new exterior display sign leaning upside-down against the wall outside our main entrance. There was money to buy that, but none to put it up.

Some schools get document cameras, GPS units, video editing programs and the cameras to feed them material, but I have to buy my own backing paper for those damned bulletin boards.

My students are capable of creating documentaries but I might as well assign dioramas.

A couple of decades ago the United Negro College Fund ran ads with the message that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

It still is.

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Learning A New Lesson About What I Already Knew

10/01/2009
Diagram of neuron with arrows but no labels. M...
Image via Wikipedia

I had a lousy day yesterday.

Today was much better even though my leg hurts more.

My PLN helped make it better.

For those who are not teachers, a PLN is a Personal Learning Network. Mine is made up from my colleagues at school and elsewhere in the New York City Department of Education along with a couple of hundred really generous smart teachers I know only through Twitter.

Those Twitter friends really came through for me yesterday by teaching me what I already knew about what to do with that 34-student 8th grade social studies class.

When the class came in at first period today  they saw a map of the Missouri Compromise on the interactive whiteboard we finally got to work (well, mostly work) early this morning, the homework for the next two days on chart paper, and heard Ashokan Farewell, a Civil War era song, playing on the speaker I bought for my iPod that I forgot I had.

The class entered in almost stunned silence. I taught a mini-lesson, we had a discussion, they did some group work, and for about 38 of the 45 minutes in the class they were engaged and participating

We still have to work on those group-work skills so we can get through a whole period, but I came away with a totally different feeling than I had when I left work yesterday.

I’m actually sorry they’re going on a field trip tomorrow and will miss our class. I’d really like to go with them and let us see each other in a different light, but since I can’t really walk much I’m staying behind.

As I thought about the difference between yesterday and today I realized that I owed a lot of the improvement to my PLN.

They didn’t teach me anything new; they just helped me remember what I already knew and couldn’t access.

And that’s when it hit me.

I couldn’t access what I know I knew because of stress, frustration, pain and other forms of dismay.

My students have the same difficulties remembering what they know, usually for much the same reasons.

All I needed was a little reminder, some sympathy, and a good dose of encouragement.

Maybe that’s all they need too.

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Hard Beginning, Harder Ending?

09/13/2009
Bloomberg giving a speech.
Image via Wikipedia

This has not been the best start to the school year and definitely not the beginning I Imagined.

First, the teacher whose room I was to move into, let’s call her Z, refused to move out.

Back in June I suggested that she box her stuff and I would come in and move it to her new room before we were due to report to work for the new term.

I arrived a week early on wheels. The wheels were on my hand truck and mover’s dolly. I was ready to work, but the room wasn’t.

Nothing was packed.

Meanwhile, the new teacher moving into my room from last year was also in the building ready to start fixing up the room for her students.

I had to take all my things out of the closets and move them to the front of the room where they sat for a week until all teachers had to report to work on Tuesday.

I was sure Z would start moving her stuff.  I was wrong.

At two PM, just three hours before the building would close on the day before students arrived she finally came to the room where I was doing my best to set-up around her stuff.

When she said, “I guess I should go find some boxes,” I just growled.

Needless to say, my room was not ready for students when they arrived on Wednesday. Or Thursday.  Finally on Friday I had students in my room.

But I had no desk and no bookcases.

Eventually desks and chairs arrived, but still no bookcases.

The school was out of bookcases.

Imagine, a reading program with no bookcases.

Also on Friday the room’s computer arrived, but without a keyboard or mouse.

The school was out of them, too.

In addition to teaching reading to special education students I teach social studies to general education 6th and 8th grade students in a different room.

The sixth graders fit into the room. There are 28 desks and chairs and there are 28 sixth graders in the classroom.

There are 35 eighth graders and when they came into the room they were sitting on the bookcases (yes, that room has them), on the windowsills (not allowed, but what could I say, the only alternative was the floor), and leaning against a wall.

There are 35 desks in their homeroom just down the hall, but that room’s teacher was giving the seventh grade students ELA instruction. There were seven empty desks because there are only 28 of them, but it is too difficult to move desks and chairs from room to room every period change.

It is especially difficult because in the process of moving the dozens of boxes of books from my old room to my bookcase-less new one, I pulled muscles in my groin and abdomen, which set off back spasms.

Like I said, not the best of starts.

Now I’m not a complainer, but I was frustrated and posted about it to Twitter. My Personal Learning Network responded. My PLN includes classroom teachers, tech specialists, principals, librarians and university professors from around the world, and they have taught me more in my year on Twitter than all my years of college and grad school did combined.

Ironically, my first responder was former NYC policeman Ira Socol, now a doctoral student at Michigan State University

tweetdeck 5

Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of NYC, insisted that if he got control of the schools they would run better and he’s been loudly and consistently claiming success ever since.

Ira doesn’t vote in NYC anymore, so he set his sights a little higher in trying to get me what I need.

ira #1

This was quickly followed by…

courosa

Retweets spread news and ideas like ripples around a stone dropped in a pond. Each retweet is a new stone.

tweetdeck #3tweetdeck #2tweetdeck #1

A little time passed, then a second wave began…

secondwave #1

And so on.

I haven’t heard from the White House yet, but I understand the President’s been busy trying to get health care straightened out.

Maybe when he gets done with that I’ll get some bookcases, a keyboard and a mouse.

Don’t hold your breath.

Unless you have really good health insurance, that is.

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