Monday, January 2, 2012

Educators: NCLB's Whipping Posts: Thoughts on "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" by Diane Ravitch, Part 2

"It takes a beating and keeps on ticking." The tag for the old Timex commercial seems particularly relevant to the teaching profession. For ten years, one decade, educators have been submerged in the draconian No Child Left Behind mandates, yet we keep on keeping on despite the corporate reform movement's efforts to deprofessionalize our profession.

Diane Ravitch offers a copious account of the attacks on educators in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. 

My first encounter with a charter school occurred in the 1980's. Ronald Reagan elementary opened in Yuma, Arizona and immediately siphoned students from around town into it's state-of-the-art, brand new facility. Admittedly, I sensed something out of kilter and undemocratic about a public school not required to follow the mandates of its sister institutions in the same district. Although a young teacher at the time, I had familiarized myself with the inequities of Arizona education.

The charter school movement began when Al Shanker, president to the American Federation of Teachers, proposed in 1988 that groups of teachers organize to create curriculum-rich, innovative schools within their districts to teach "disaffected students" (Ravitch, Location 2272). Shanker's idea grew from A Nation at Risk and envisioned organic education reform in which teachers created models of effective instruction within their own buildings.

Corporations, entrepreneurs, and others hijacked Shanker's idea, pushing teacher-leaders aside and embracing a privatization model of education reform. Back in the '80s a colleague told me that charter schools would lead to the destruction of public education and to the complete privatization of schools. How fortuitous her words were at the time.

Shanker "withdrew his endorsement of charter schools in 1993 and became a vociferous critic" (Location 2296). In no small way, the charter school movement has ballooned the education industry, increasing corporate profits at the expense of student learning and inviting lay people, including members of the billionaire boys' club and their corporate, pseudo-philanthropic foundations, to profiteer at the expense of the most innocent among us: children.

For Americans, choice is sacrosanct, and charters offered choice and a promise to transform American schools. One of the saddest outcomes of the charter movement is the closing of most Catholic schools, 1300 from 1990-2088, says Ravitch. Moreover, "vouchers, charters, and choice were rapidly eroding the public education system" (Location 2444). Especially in urban areas.

Those who espouse the virtues of charters might consider their history in Milwaulkee, which includes religious schools, and has produced "no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind" (Location 2257).

Virtual charter schools erode and de-professionalze teaching by diminishing the face-to-face relationship and personalization of the teacher-student relationship. Private companies often run virtual schools for profit, so the fewer teachers and the more students in a virtual charter, the greater corporate profits. It's a multi-million dollar industry. Ravitch cites Pennsylvania as a state where virtual charter schools have collected funding for special education instruction without having to use all the money for that purpose (Location 2485).

KIPP Academy schools, arguably, increase student learning. Ravitch describes them as resembling public education from the 1940s, a time when schools adhered to strict disciplinary codes for students and no contracts or working condition codes for teachers.

However, the KIPP model undermines the professional status of teachers and their hard-earned contracts. Moreover, KIPP's "high levels of student attrition and teacher turnover raise questions about the applicability of the KIPP model to the regular public schools" (Location 2526).

Over time, charters, originally designed to support public education, have instead undermined neighborhood schools. "Charters were supposed to be research and development laboratories for discovering better ways of educating hard-to-educate children. They were not intended to siphon away the most motivated students and families in the poorest communities but to address some of the public schools' most urgent problems" (Location 2705).

Thus, if the litmus test for a charter school's success were based on Al Shanker's original vision, in their totality, charge schools represent a monumental failure in ed reform, particularly when we consider their detrimental impact on urban schools and neighborhoods.

NCLB claims to make educators accountable for student learning, as though acquiring knowledge and skills, the components of education, happens on a one-way cognitive street. No education reform, law, or fad has done more to construct a bold-faced lie corporate reformers and politicians peddle to the public. Simply, the lie states that only educators determine student learning and success. NCLB states nothing about the role of parents in raising children in a literacy-rich home. NCLB states nothing about parents' and students' responsibility to attend school and to prioritize academic pursuits over leisure activities. NCLB states nothing about parental role models and age-appropriate behaviors, such as homework routines, self-discipline, respect for one's health and for others.

A public that sees education as the sole responsibility of teachers opines that getting rid of bad teachers will increase student learning. To that end, 2011 might very well be labeled the anti-union year. Attacking those "lazy, over-paid" teachers and their unions (AFT and NEA) occupied the minds of governors from Wisconsin to Idaho last spring. Yet the best performing students live in the highest unionized state: Massachusetts while the lowest performing students live in non-union or weak-union states such as Mississippi. When teachers must worry about their job security and working conditions and income, they spend less time concerning themselves with student performance. It's human nature. It's basic Malow hierarchy of needs.

"No one...has demonstrated a clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive" (Location 3179-81).

Ravitch names many of the dubious reasons for teachers' dismissal: religion, race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, group membership, etc. Some have lost their jobs "for not paying a bribe to someone for their job, for speaking out on an issue outside the classroom, for disagreeing with the principal, or simply to make room for a school board member's sister, nephew, or brother-in-law" (Location 3204).

Now the assault on teaches embraces value-added assessments, a practice by which teachers are evaluated based on standardized test scores. "Value-added assessment is the product of technology; it is also the product of a managerial mind-set that believes that every variable in a child's education can be identified, captured, measured, and evaluated with precision" (Location 3269).

Value-added evaluations ignore curriculum, students' lives and experiences, etc. Only data matters in a value-added education world. Value-added models tell the public that teacher salaries, certification levels, advanced degrees, pedagogical knowledge, and experience don't impact student learning. Value-added models further erode the professional status of teachers.

Yet Ravitch cites research showing that teacher quality shifts from year-to-year, that teaching excellence isn't static or unchanging (Location 3379). Most teachers will testify to having good and bad years, to the shifting nature of their effectiveness, which often depends on the student behaviors and learning readiness of their students.

Research from economists Brian A Jacob, Lars Lefgren, and David Sims suggests that "teacher value-added measures may overstate the ability of teachers, even exceptional ones, to influence the ultimate level of student knowledge since they conflate variation in short-term and long-term knowledge. Given that a school's objective is to increase the latter, the importance of teacher value-added measures as currently estimated may be substantially less than the teacher value-added literature indicates" (Location 3388).

The truth about value-added models didn't stop the Los Angeles Times from ranking elementary teachers from the LAUSD last spring based on value-added assessments. Other newspapers have followed the LAT's lead, and we are on a course of increasing use of value-added evaluation models.

Teaching is both art and craft. Teachers must know their subjects and know how to teach them. This is a core standard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Yet Teach for America dupes the public and potential teachers into thinking five weeks of pedagogical training adequately trains them to teach. Drawing academically gifted young people into education should be a national goal, but to do it by treating teaching as a temporary job and TFA recruits as Peace Corp workers or temps is nothing short of disgraceful.

I've long believed and written that teachers in secondary schools should have subject-area degrees and should be required to take graduate-level classes for recertification. However, without pedagogical knowledge, all the subject knowledge is rendered impotent.

Michelle Rhee, a former TFA teacher and former chancellor of the Washington D. C. schools, has been instrumental in constructing a narrative that de-professionalizes teaching by suggesting that TFA teachers and other teachers with little experience and pedagogical knowledge are as effective as their counterparts.

Yet Linda Darling-Hammond studied 4,400 teachers and 132,000 Houston students "and concluded that certified teachers consistently produced significantly higher achievement than uncertified teachers, and that uncertified TFA teachers had a negative or nonsignificant effect on student achievement" (Location 3444). An additional study in North Carolina confirms Darling-Hammond's findings, finding "that traditionally prepared secondary teachers were more successful than beginning teachers, including TFA corps members, who lacked teacher training" (Location 3452).

As Ravitch notes: "most studies find that new teachers are less effective than experienced teachers and that the first two years of teaching are the least successful" (Location 3452). A TFA contract lasts two years, at which time most leave the profession, pad their CV's with their philanthropic teaching experience, and pursue more lucrative professions for which they earned their degrees.

TFA teachers who remain in the profession develop the pedagogical skills that elevate them to the levels of master teachers. We need a national effort to recruit and retain the smartest summa cum laude and magna cum laude graduates from the best private and public universities to teaching, and I'm in complete support of intensive, long-term, government-funded programs to train these intellectual graduates who commit to careers in education. My philosophy has long been that students deserve the smartest, hardest-working, most academic adults teaching them in both elementary and secondary schools. Ravitch calls on teacher education programs to "ensure that their graduates have a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences and are deeply grounded in the subjects they plan to teach" Location 3473).

When the public listens to lay people like Bill and Melinda Gates who claim that experience and education don't matter and that a first or second year teacher is just as effective as a career educator with an advanced degree, we should examine their motives, motives I believe are corrupted at worst and ill-advised and naive at best.

Despite the public, political, and philanthropic flogging the teaching profession has endured in the decade of NCLB, I'm hopeful that this too shall pass and that like the enduring Timex watch, our profession will survive the onslaught. In Part 3, more about the Faustian deal education has made with corporate philanthropists and the ways money with strings attached chokes democratic dialogue about education.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

NCLB: The Worst Education Legislation Ever Passed: Thoughts on "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" by Diane Ravitch, Part 1

When I was a student at Mark Twain Elementary School in Webb City, Missouri, our principal roamed the halls with a paddle stuck up his suit sleeve. When he spied a wayward child, perhaps someone talking in the lunch line or out of line, the principal  grabbed the unruly student's arm and whipped out the paddle, and in one continuous action applied that specific board of education to the student's backside.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, public education has been whipped and beaten down with the long arm of the education law much as students in my elementary school felt the stick of a wooden paddle during the 1960's.

Sometimes I get whiplash from the plethora of education fads, programs, and reforms I've observed and experienced during my career. There aren't many teachers who entered the profession prior to 1983, the year the groundbreaking report A Nation at Risk ushered in the standards movement. I started teaching in 1981.

Reading Diane Ravitch's insightful, clear history of education reform The Death and Life of the Great American School System offered catharsis and validation for the positions I've articulated about No Child Left Behind and the data-driven, test-prep trajectory of education in the past ten years.

Ravitch reminds readers that the "federal government is prohibited by law from imposing any curriculum on states or school districts" (Location 300). Yet states (read: the public) has tolerated the federal incursion into states' rights via NCLB. Ravitch writes that NCLB is the worst piece of education legislation ever passed, a point on which I agree. In time we might realize that NCLB's most harmful effect emanates from its diminishment of federalism.

Like many teachers, the election of Barack Obama gave me hope for the death of NCLB. Sadly, from President Obama students and teachers got Arne Duncan instead of Linda Darling-Hamond. Duncan gave us the ill-conceived and immensely harmful Race to the Top, suggesting that there should be winners and losers in the education lottery. Obama's and Duncan's education philosophies march lock-step with the corporate reform movement that Ravitch describes:

"The new corporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business. They think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing and by developing a good data-collection system that provides the information necessary to incentivize the workforce--principals, teachers, and students--with appropriate rewards and sanctions" (Location 371).

The corporate mentality grounds itself in competition with winners and losers. Ironically, corporate reformers frequently reference Finland's education system as a model. They fail to recognize that the Finnish system is based on equity for all students. The corporate model seeks to destroy neighborhoods by closing "failing" schools. Schools ground communities, serve as meeting places for neighborhoods, and promote democracy among citizens, a theme Ravitch repeats throughout the book. Thus, closing schools translates into diminishing our democracy.

The standards movement that began with A Nation at Risk morphed into the accountability movement with the passage of NCLB: "What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy: Measure, then punish or reward" (Location 437).

Standards offer educators an opportunity to develop a curriculum-rich program of learning, unlike test-based accountability that has evolved into a numbers game states and schools play at the detriment to student learning. "NCLB was all sicks and no carrots. Test-based accountability--not standards--became our national education policy. There was no underlying vision of what education should be or how one might improve schools" (Location 529).

As Ravitch writes, "No Child Left Behind had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated that data as evidence of its 'success.' It ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic, profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant" (Location 687).

Side Note: Since we're still in the NCLB age, I wish Ravitch had used the present tense rather than the past tense.

Ravitch offers ample evidence of NCLB's harmful impact on the New York City school system that relinquished control of its system to mayoral control and on the San Diego school district that "emphasized 'how teachers should be teaching at the expense of conveying what students should be learning'" (Location 1237). Both districts adopted Balanced Literacy pedagogy that filled students' heads with educational jargon such as "I can make a text-to-text connection!" (Location 1296).

Gaming the NCLB system has become a favorite pastime among states and districts. To increase graduation rates, schools often use what Ravitch characterizes as "a dubious practice called 'credit recovery,' a covert form of social promotion for high school students" (Location 1721). Ravitch offers a description of CR: "Under credit recovery, students who failed a course or never even showed up for it could get credit by turning in an independent project, whose preparation was unmonitored, or by attending a few extra sessions."

Credit Recovery has many incarnations, but regardless of its form, it undermines attendance policies, teachers' efforts to set high academic standards for students, and the value of other students' diplomas. We have CR in my school. I'll comment more on its impact on the learning program in a future post.

Another, more egregious why states game the system occurs from rewriting the state tests. Ravitch names five states that have not engaged in this practice: Missouri, Maine, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wyoming. She compares student outcomes on various state tests to the NAEP. Rather than test prep, which teachers are encouraged and mandated to do, students need to "expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills when they learn history, science, and literature, just as they may sharpen their mathematics skills while learning science and geography" (Location 2058).

Test-taking skills developed to pass one test, the NCLB mandated state assessment, mean students know how to take a single test but not necessarily know the subject content. Nor can they pass a comparable test based on the same subject when the format changes. "They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself. In the new world of accountability, students' acquisition of the skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary" (Location 2911, 2932).

Not only does the accountability movement with its emphasis on states' high stakes testing diminish student learning, it also creates a false notion among the public about the criteria on which we judge successful and failing schools and teachers.

NCLB is a stick used to beat students, educators, and stakeholders. Ironically, schools no longer tolerate corporal punishment in schools, but the federal government continues to flog public education with the NCLB paddle. More about the beating educators have taken under NCLB in Part 2.