Friday, September 27, 2013

Diane Ravitch Brings the Fight to the Ed Deformers in "Reign of Error"

Well once again, I am finishing up a post over a week later than I promised myself I would.  One day I am sure I will get the hang of it and these posts will come more consistently than once every three weeks.  This time though I have a bit of an excuse.  I had to read an entire book before I could even begin.  So without further ado, here is my review of Diane Ravitch's new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.

Disclaimer:  As is the case with many teachers/bloggers in my world, Diane Ravitch is a personal hero of mine.  At age 75 Ravitch blogs several times a day, tweets non-stop, gives talks all around the country, and still has time to write very thoroughly researched books on education.  Ravitch does all this while being constantly attacked and slandered by some of the most powerful players in the education reform movement in the county.  Talk about one tough lady.

Over the past few weeks, dozens of bloggers across the country have come out in support of Ravitch and written glowing reviews of Reign of Error.  At the same time her opponents have come out to slander her, mainly out of a very real fear that the tide is turning back against them.  I doubt this book will change the opinion of people on either side of this debate.  If you are a teacher who has been in the trenches, you know that what Ravitch speaks is true.  At the same time, if you are a member of E4E, StudentsFirst, or any other Walmart/Gates backed dummy group, you will jump on any "reform" in education, no matter how damaging it is to children, as long as it keeps your society meritocratic, and your pockets lined.  (Just consider the fact that all the people praising the book are actual classroom teachers, parents of public school children, and prominent researchers and professors.  While the people bashing the book are conservative hedge fund managers and their cronies.)  However, if you are someone who has not picked a side yet, someone who still needs more information on the debate itself, or just someone interested in learning about the climate of education in this country you will certainly gain a lot from reading Reign of Error.

In her book Ravitch tells the entire story of the current national movement towards privatization (often cleverly disguised as "school choice").  After spending a few chapters carefully shaping the debate Ravitch goes on to point out and debunk many of the myths of education reform being pushed on the American public by the plutocrats that run this country.  Each chapter starts with a "claim" of the reformers, and then the "truth."  Each myth is very carefully disputed and made clear through evidence, charts, and clear explanations (all of which are end noted with sources).  Here are two of my favorite "claims" and "truths":

Claim:  Charter schools will revolutionize American education by their freedom to innovate and produce dramatically better results.

Truth:  Charter schools run the gamut from excellent to awful and on average are no more innovative of successful than public schools.

Claim:  Virtual schools will bring the promise of personalized, customized, learning to every student and usher in an age of educational excellence for all.

Truth:  Virtual schools are cash cows for their owners but poor substitutes for real teachers and real schools.

In the final chapters of the book Ravitch takes the next step by offering many solutions to our current problems in education.  It is in this final third of the book where I believe she exceeds her previous book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  The solutions she offers are nothing radical or earth shattering, and none of them would change the system overnight.  However they are real solutions (not the next big thing that will be thrown out in 3 years, after several billion dollars are wasted and millions more have dropped out) that would bring real positive results over time.  Things like reduced class size, wraparound services, and strengthening the teaching profession.  These are real solutions that any teacher who has spent more than two years in a classroom knows are necessary for progress.

Ravitch has done all of the hard work for us activists.  She has made many clear and well researched arguments, and advocated for the real reforms that real educators want.  Reign of Error may just be the catalyst that finally pushes back the tide of education reform.  Once the public is truly informed and sees through the lies, double talk, and half truths, of the reformers it will be impossible to stop the push back.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Accountability for Some, Cushy Jobs and Multi-Million Dollar Contracts for Others

It is September, and thus another school year begins.  For the over 75,000 teachers, and thousands of Principals and Assistant Principals in NYC this will likely be the most challenging and frustrating year we will face in a very long time.  The Common Core Standards are in full implementation, and for many teachers that means preparing students for a new crop of Common Core exams.  The biggest change for teachers though, will be the new teacher evaluation system that the DOE is now calling ADVANCE.

On Tuesday, much of the first day back for teachers was spent on this new system.  For the majority of teachers who do not follow these things closely or read the blogs, it came as a pretty big shock.  Teachers learned for the first time, the specifics of how the test component would work for their specific evaluation. Many teachers were both stunned and appalled to learn that 40% of their evaluation would be based on students' scores in subjects they do not teach.  Since many people do not teach tested subjects, their evaluations will be based 20% on regents scores for the school as a whole.  The other 20% of their evaluation will be based on student performance on an English task.  (Now I know all teachers should have plenty of reading and writing in their curriculum, but is it truly fair to judge a Physical Education, or Art teacher, based on how a student does on an English task?)

Many people believe that this whole system will quickly crumble once teachers start to sue.  It does seem hard to believe that the firings that come from this system would hold up in a court.  How can you fire a wood shop teacher based on Regents exams and a writing task?  How can you fire a first grade teacher based on the scores students receive on 3rd-8th grade tests?  I certainly don't believe you can, but it seems that our city/state/union officials are more than OK with this.  In fact, many of them believe this is the best thing to happen to education in decades.

Although I am bothered by this system for a million reasons, there really has been one part of this whole thing that keeps me up at night.  What bothers me the most, is the fact that this system holds teachers, principals, and assistant principals accountable, yet it lets all the other high ranking officials completely off the hook.  It seems that if you are a multi-million dollar corporation, or have a cushy job with DOE central, or a network, there is no real accountability for you at all.  So while teachers are being bludgeoned by this system, let's look at the track record for some of the people that are not only avoiding accountability but making a lot of money off of this system.

First we have the testing/textbook/curriculum companies.  These are the people most likely profiting the most from the new standards.  These companies have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars to create tests, text books, and other materials for districts all across the country.  Despite the millions of dollars invested into these companies, it seems that they are not held to any standards at all.  As reported yesterday on gothamschools and a few months back by the awesome Lindsey Christ at NY1, hundreds of schools across the city have still not received their materials from Person, McGraw Hill, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin. All this money spent, and they can't even get these materials before the school year starts?  Normally teachers plan for the year during the summer, and now they have to start a new school year with no materials.  (This is of course after going a whole year with no materials for the 3-8th grade teachers, who despite this, still had their students tested in the common core).  Two major pieces of the Danielson Framework that teachers will be evaluated on is their lesson plan, and their unit plan.  If any teacher told their principal that they didn't have a lesson plan today, but that it will be ready next week, they would be "I" rated instantly.  Yet we allow companies with multi-million dollar contracts to get away with just that...And let's not forget this debacle by Pearson, and this one by McGraw Hill.

Secondly, we have the city and state education departments.  These two entities put the ADVANCE system into place, and have been fighting to make it easier to fire teachers for years.  Yet both of these entities can't even live up to their own ridiculous expectations.  Like our beloved testing companies, the State Education Department promised teachers curriculum via their site Engage NY.  The timeline the state gave High School English teachers indicated that by June 1st we would have the "lesson seeds" for the first "module" of 9th grade English.  (So literally all we were expecting was one unit, for one grade, for one subject.)  Yet as of Wednesday September fourth (the last planning day before students arrive) no lesson seeds exist.  Again, would it be acceptable for a teacher to not have a lesson plan on the day of a lesson?  I think not.

Even more ridiculous is the fact that the growth models (formulas used to determine the test part of a teacher's evaluation) have not been official decided yet.  So as a teacher, we have no idea what equation is even being used to show that we helped students grow.  The school year is starting, and students will be taking their pre-tests, in a week or two.  How can we fairly be judged on a system that neither the city or state education departments have finished creating yet?

As for the city, they apparently have created a brand new website for their system ADVANCE so all school administrators can have their many questions answered.  This is also the space where principals will put in all the information and data regarding their teachers.  Yet apparently, in typical DOE fashion, currently the website is completely blank.  Principals can use their log-ins to go on the site, but when they do they are met with nothing but a blank page.  Again, a typical case of standards for the people in the trenches, and zero accountability for the people at the top.  Let's not forget that the chancellor himself admitted that he does not even give his own people performance evaluations.

Can we please stop putting the cart before the horse?

Finally we have the hundreds of administrators working in network offices across the city.  Generally these people make the same salary as an assistant principal or principal, (some of these jobs are still on teacher salary lines) but once again we see a lack of accountability.  If you asked 99% of teachers, and likely the majority of school based administrators what these "network" people do, the best you would get is a very vague response.  These people have titles like network leader, cluster leader, achievement coach, talent coach, math coach, curriculum coach (well a whole bunch of "coach" names), and a whole wide array of other silly titles.  From what I gather, most of these jobs entail going to different schools and "advising" teachers/administrators, and occasionally running a PD.  My question is, if these people are making the same amount of money as a school based administrator, and far more than a teacher, how come they don't have the same accountability?  Why aren't they subject to growth scores, based on the performance of the schools they advise?  It seems like their jobs are far less stressful than running a school or a department, so shouldn't they at least have some accountability?

As Bill de Blasio has put it many times, we live in "a tale of two cities."  If you work in the trenches, and really want to help the lives of students you get demonized by the media, and have to go through a thousand and one hoops just to prove you are a good teacher.  However, if you are somewhere at the top, you get to make all the mistakes in the world, and receive no punishment for it.  In fact, you might even make a lot of money off it all.

If you agree with any of this, and believe the APPR system is truly unfair and an attack on the teachers of New York, I suggest you sign this great petition created by members of the MORE Caucus.  They are the ones fighting the fight that our UFT leaders should be fighting.

-DOENUTS 2.0  Has taught High School English in NYC for several years.  I sometimes post on other education blogs as "Former Turnaround Teacher".  I took over this blog from the original DOENUTS in July.