This Blue Fairy’s Life

Random stuff…straight from my head to your computer.

Why Teachers Decry Test Scores as Teacher Evaluators April 27, 2011

Filed under: Education,Political Commentary,Teaching — merrywether @ 2:31 pm

I wrote this piece to the members of the Board of Education in Massachusetts to be read today, prior to a vote which would tie student test scores to teacher evaluations. Ann O’Halloran, an educator in Waltham, was collecting statements like mine from teachers across the Commonwealth and would be present at the Board of Education to give our words a voice. So here it is for you to read, wherever you live – because data and testing are the catch words of the decade and reformers everywhere are using them to vilify the very people they have trained and encouraged to teach our children without addressing the real issues of poverty and educational equity. Comments are welcomed.

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While teachers may be able to control the security of materials, the testing environment, and the tools used for MCAS, here’s what we cannot control: the will of each student to try on the test, the school attendance of each student in the months prior to the test, the student’s ability to understand the questions being asked, or the environment each student comes from before the test takes place. Ask any teacher and he/she will tell you how they have observed students scrawling foul language on an open response answer sheet (due to frustration or apathy), or simply making a pattern with the circles they are tasked with coloring in on an answer sheet, with no reading of the questions taking place prior. The anxieties and home environments of many of our students are of more concern to many students than the government-imposed standardized testing that has become the answer du jour to measure student learning and teacher accountability. Shall we now be forced to beg our students to try because our jobs depend upon their scores?

As a special needs teacher, I cringe when MCAS time comes, because I know that I will see increased anger, anxiety, and out of control behaviors no matter how many accommodations I am allowed to provide for my students. A brilliant mathematician may score poorly on the math MCAS simply because his reading level is not up to par. A talented writer may write a substandard response to a writing prompt having to do with a family vacation, because she lives with her aunt in a subsidized housing development and has never been on a vacation. There is too much which cannot be controlled by the teacher or the district to put such blind faith in a single test to determine a professional teacher’s worth to her students and her district. Our students are people, not products that can be manipulated and redrawn to become “new and improved” like a shampoo or tile cleaner. They will take the MCAS because they are told they must, but they will not put forth their best effort if they are frustrated or unmotivated to do so. That is something we cannot teach, and as such is not a proper indicator of teacher value.

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Testing, Conforming, and All That Jazz April 10, 2011

Filed under: Family,Political Commentary,Rant,Teaching — merrywether @ 10:20 pm

I’ve been posting a lot of links to education articles and opinion pieces on my Facebook status lately. Probably more than my friends care to read. I can’t help it. Our students’ enthusiasm for learning has taken a nosedive in the past several years, and for my colleagues and me, it’s been more than disheartening; it’s been sickening. Watching those who have no experience or training in education (read: billionaires who contribute funds to education-related issues) push meaningless high-stakes testing (and using the results to evaluate teachers into our laws) is killing – not damaging – KILLING effective education. Your kids and mine deserve more.
Several years ago, our federal government sought out the private sector and invited them into the discussion of school reform because there was a concern (credible) that students weren’t leaving schools (both high school and college) with the critical thinking and communication skills necessary to be successful in the business world. The problem with government seeking business involvement with education is that our government is cash-strapped, big business is not, and quid pro quo means that education gets money, big business gets a nation of boutique school reform and tax breaks, and students and their teachers get told to perform or quit. As a bonus, students become very adept at filling in little circles completely within the lines and panicking at not being able to write to an artificial, meaningless writing prompt because either a) they can’t relate to the topic or b) they can’t read some of the words in the prompt and have no idea what it’s asking, as they are not allowed to utilize a dictionary, and the test administrator is not allowed to tell them what any word says or what it means – even if the student has learning difficulties, and even if they are reading at below grade level.
So, why, as a professional, are my (read: teachers’) opinions met with the public outcry “teachers are just whining!”. This makes no sense to me at all. Why am I not treated as a professional? I’ve been required to attain 150 hours of professional development every five years to maintain my certifications. I hold a master’s degree in education, and I spend six hours a day with children who need me to teach them how to read, write, compute, and express themselves coherently while making sure they are comfortable and safe, and comforting them about the police raid that happened at their apartment last night or the beating that happened this morning, and reassuring them that their friend’s snub on the playground wasn’t the end of the friendship. After those six hours a day, I spend at least 2 or 3 more hours thinking about them and planning how I might improve my practice the next day and hoping that they are safe at home. I occasionally get bit, punched, spit on, kicked, and more often than not, sworn at for my efforts. Yet I can’t be trusted to tell the Department of Education what I think might work to improve teaching and learning in our nation’s schools?
Unlike the computer chips in Mr. Bill Gates’ factories, my students cannot be sent back to the manufacturer because they have faulty behaviors. Every student in this country is entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Teachers in public schools cannot be choosy about which students they would like to teach. We get our kids each day, warts and all….and we teach them – even when they are hungry, tired, scared, or manic. Even when their parents have forgotten to give them their medication, or have dumped them at their aunt’s house for the week because they went to Boston “on vacation”, even when they got no sleep because mom or dad’s “clients” were in and out all night, we teach them. Yet the complaints from teachers have garnered no more than ridicule and grandstanding from individuals woefully lacking in any real and credible information about what it means to educate a child – yes, I’m talking to YOU, Glenn Beck, and YOU Michele Rhee.
I’m also calling out NBC and Oprah Winfrey, who both decided that a discussion about education could be complete without the balanced participation of public school teachers. NBC’s Education Nation was a glorified “privatization of public education” hootenanny. Public school teachers who were invited to attend were given nary a moment to present alternative opinions to those of the champions of privatization and high-states testing who were given much more time to state their cases. They’re planning on having another Education Nation this year. Oprah Winfrey’s coverage of education reform happened in much the same regard. When the whole country is debating public school reform, why are no public school teachers included in that discussion? How can you call my colleagues “whiners” for asking that question?  If you want highly-qualified teachers, and you retain highly-qualified teachers, then you should be intelligent enough to realize that you NEED highly-qualified teachers to help this country pull schools out of the black hole that it has created with all of this bickering.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is up for renewal soon. NCLB is what started this brouhaha in the first place. It, and its equally sinister program “Race to the Top” have had good intentions, but terribly damaging results – making schools compete for funding, and with strong and dangerous strings-attached, instead of working with all stakeholders (health, education, social services, families) to improve education. If you aren’t aware, at NCLB’s inception, in order to qualify for federal funds, all public school districts in the country had to commit to make sure every student in their district is proficient in reading by the year 2014 – EVERY STUDENT. Yes, your child, his classmates, and their friends. Your nephew in Arizona and your granddaughter in Vermont. PROFICIENT. Dyslexic? Proficient. Developmental Delay? Proficient. Missed 74 days of school this year? Proficient. Homeless and no safe place to sleep? Proficient.
But I’m just a whiner.
For your perusal:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/standardized-tests-prove-im-better-than-michael-jordan/2011/03/29/AF4sdL4C_story.html
http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_of_the_year/2010/01/teachers_should_be_seen_and_no.html

 

Education Disaster Marinade March 26, 2011

Filed under: Political Commentary,Rant,Teaching,Uncategorized,Writing — merrywether @ 9:16 pm
Tags:

Education Disaster Marinade:

dash of Glenn Beck ruminating about how teachers only work until 2:30 and get summers off

1 Tablespoon of political pundit No. 731 asserting that teacher evaluations be tied in directly with student test scores

five ounces of the Los Angeles Times publishing teacher names and labels of “effective” or “ineffective” based on test scores of students (which arguably led to the suicide of one such “ineffective” teacher)

3 pounds of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other billionaire businessmen who have decided that schools should be run a la business model (and that smart kids are a product)

3 pounds of salivating U.S. politicians willing to accept the millions being forked over by said billionaires in exchange for selling our children down the river and gaining popularity with voters who have no choice but to accept the assertions of the ingredients listed above, because teachers (despite all the rhetoric to the contrary) are not lining their purses with your hard earned money, and as such, do not have funds to mount a public relations campaign the size and scope of the one the talk news folks, businessmen, and politicians have been able to weave for ratings and votes.

4 cups of National Writing Project funding (dissolved). The National Writing Project has been written out of the Federal budget. Oh, another special pet project gladly zapped out of existence in these tough times? Hardly! NWP began in California in 1974 as a small but powerful contingent of educators hell-bent on promoting the teaching of literacy by collaborating with other teachers. Now, 37 years later, it boasts over 200 local sites across the country, which partner with colleges and universities (who match the grants given to each site by NWP) to offer premier professional development to K-16 educators across all curriculum areas.

My experience with NWP began with my fellowship to the 2008 Invitational Summer Institute held by my local site, the Buzzards Bay Writing Project in Fairhaven, MA. For 16 days in July, we teachers, (who remember, are lazy – we get the summer off) shared writing, favorite authors, tips and poetry, gave demonstration lessons to colleagues, researched literacy issues, created inquiry questions essential to our classroom practice, and then researched those for possible solutions in the next school year, and networked with colleagues in districts across Southeastern Massachusetts in a way that made each of us better readers, better writers, and better teachers of writing. I returned to my classroom in the fall ready to see what my research in The Writer’s Workshop model could mean for my class of socially and emotionally impaired special needs students. The Institute gave me the time to go with my gut and research something that I thought could really work…and it did. Three years later, I’ve presented at workshops – the most prestigious being the NWP’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in November 2009, where I was able to network with teachers across the country who are invested in student literacy, as I am. I’ve attended conferences and continued to learn from the teachers who frequent the Buzzards Nest (as we lovingly call our office), and am now Co-Director of the Summer Institute. NWP has given me (and my colleagues) the opportunity to learn what I need to teach my students to write stronger, better, and with conviction. It is quite simply, the best professional development I have ever experienced. Aside from the Institute, I can go to my local site for Drop In Saturdays to do some personal or professional writing, bounce lesson ideas off another teacher, or help colleagues with their own research. I can present a workshop for a district in need of specific help for their writing programs. I can create professional development topics and present them to others who need my expertise. Just last weekend, BBWP partnered with our sponsoring school (UMass Dartmouth) to bring four nationally-renowned authors to campus for a brunch and authors’ talk. BBWP brought one of the authors, Sondra Perl (author of Teaching Those I Was Taught to Hate) to the Nest for lunch and a Q&A session. We had read Perl’s book as the text of our 2009 Institute and I was anxious to ask her about some of the things she wrote about. Perl is an NWP girl, too. A former director of one of the NY area writing projects, she made us smile as she told us how she felt like she was back at home being with writing project people!

So why, with all that good stuff going on in NWP, is the federal government suddenly flicking us off the budget like a piece of lint? NWP is, by today’s standards, cheap! We’re talking less than $50,000 cheap per site. Cooperating universities match the funds provided by NWP’s federal grant, and the local sites supplement that by providing quality professional development to area school districts. We’re on board with what the Federal government has imposed. We weave states’ standards into everything we do. We keep abreast of changes in education law that might affect literacy instruction. We welcome teachers from ALL curriculum areas, as writing is universal and not limited to the English Language Arts. We create sub-networks of teachers from rural sites and urban sites to address literacy issues that are specific to those areas. We take responsibility for the task of educating our children, and sharing what works to that end with the politicians who need to hear it. There is no downside to the National Writing Project.

There is a downside, however, to taking away superb professional development of teachers who are required, by the Federal government, to retain the skills essential to be “effective”. With budgets hurting in every state of the Union, local school districts are limited in their abilities to fund professional development that is effective. With NWP, you know what you’re getting, and you’re getting way more than you pay for.

This Education Marinade doesn’t taste so delightful. I think next, America, we should try a more savory stew.