Tag Archives: tenure

Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable.

Ravitch summarizes that “there is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

[A] belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why [people would] oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

Why teachers need tenure

The article in the 19 May New Yorker about the push for reform in the Newark, New Jersey, public schools — a push led by local politicians and outsider rich donors — contains a lot of anecdotes that fuel the arguments of those who would be skeptical of such highly hyped (this particular effort was first announced on the Sept. 24, 2010, “Oprah” show) endeavors.

This particular reform was led by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support and permission (as the state of New Jersey had official control over the Newark school district) from Governor Chris Christie. Through connections with Wall Street supporters, Booker also got the support of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, along with a promised donation of $100 million.

It was remarkable to read about how fluidly connections can be made among people at the upper echelons of government and business, particularly in contrast to the lack of helpful connections obtained by the teachers and students in these public schools. The article describes it thus:

At the start of Booker’s career, Ed Nicoll [Booker’s Yale Law School friend] had introduced him to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick, who became an admirer. Bodnick was an early investor in Facebook, and he married the sister of Sheryl Sandberg, who later became the company’s chief operating officer. In June, 2010, Bodnick tipped off Booker that Mark Zuckerberg was planning “something big” in education. Bodnick also told him that in July Sandberg and Zuckerberg would be attending a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Booker was scheduled to speak. Booker said Bodnick told him to be sure to seek out Sandberg, who would connect him to Zuckerberg.

And it’s not entirely novel for the Facebook founder to be interested in paying to advance a particular ideology of education reform, as wealthy people have been doing so for a while:

In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

When Zuckerberg started learning about public education, he was struck by the contrast between the cultures of public education and software start-ups:

Zuckerberg attracted young employees to Facebook with signing bonuses far exceeding the annual salary of experienced Newark teachers. The company’s workspace had Ping-Pong tables, coolers stocked with Naked juice, and red-lettered motivational signs: “STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING”; “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS”; “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?” In the Newark schools, nothing moved fast, and plenty of people were afraid. Like almost every public-school district, Newark paid teachers based on seniority and on how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither qualification guaranteed effectiveness. Teachers who changed students’ lives were paid on the same scale as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wanted to know.

On reading this quote, I realized Zuckerberg and the other leaders involved in this effort had no idea of what brings teachers into the classrooms and motivates them through the 30-plus years of their careers.

As a teacher myself, let me try to explain why I want to work in a system like that.

Sure, at first hearing, it sounds like it would be nice to get a big signing bonus, free juice, and merit pay. But instead of taking the upside reward, I’d prefer to teach under a union contract that protects me against downside risk. Zuckerberg may see that as an attitude of fear, but his attitude that teaching is just like any other job is part of what I fear.

First, let me say that becoming a teacher is, for most of us, a career-long commitment. While some teachers become administrators, and many leave teaching altogether, those teachers who stay understand that there are no promotions (which promotions are a primary motivation for most corporate-type employees, I’ve been told). Teaching requires a different mindset from private-sector employment. Teachers expect to be doing the same job — in my case, spending every workday trying to supervise and teach over 100 teenagers — for 30-plus years. Not every adult would want to take on this job, but in all honesty, what is worthwhile about the job is seeing growth in the particular students — funny, creative, smart, shy, difficult, frustrating students. Also, while my job definition is the same every year, what I do in class is not: every year has new students to work with and new assignments to create and use, and every year I’m a different, hopefully better, teacher.

But this is also a job where successes are not always easy to see. Students continue to make mistakes in their essays that I know I’ve corrected for them earlier in the semester. Students who have disabilities and disadvantages may require more of my time and energy and still not accomplish things as well as students for whom schoolwork comes easily. Particular combinations of students in a class may work well together, while other groups have clashing personalities (and thus may accomplish less). And when school reformers want to measure my teaching performance by a test (of questionable validity) that is mostly meaningless to students themselves taking it, I don’t expect the resulting test scores to really be meaningful for my teaching, either.

And there is almost no way to truly measure one of those aspects of teaching that matter most: how a student responds emotionally and intellectually to a teacher. Does a student feel respected by the teacher? Does the student feel the teacher is “with it” and capable? Does a student feel interested in the classwork and motivated to try to learn?

These are just some of the multitude of issues that affect teaching and learning. So when ideas to fix education by introducing “sweeping changes” — such as charter schools and more high-stakes testing — come from politicians seeking promotion, we teachers tend to be skeptical. We’ll keep our union contracts that ask us to keep at the never-resolved struggle to teach without having to concern ourselves about whether we’ll get merit pay. We’ll keep our tenure protections that, not unlike civil-service protections, keep us front-line workers insulated from the whims of political leaders. We’ll still be in the classrooms when the politicians have moved on (as Newark Mayor Booker did, just three years after his announcement on “Oprah”) and when newly elected politicians, all too often ignorant of what actual teaching is actually like, have announced new and different reform measures.

Education is not a problem that will ever have a clear and simple solution. The problem/solution formulation may be a business paradigm (the “putting out fires” mindset), but it’s not the rhetoric of teaching and learning, endeavors in which every individual starts from his/her own unique perspective, and advances in his/her own way, and heads toward an outcome (of life-long learning) that may never be fully known. Learning has no end, no goal, ultimately, and is an ongoing, nebulous thing. Any attempt to define ideal or perfect teaching and learning is absurd.

So of course, there are schools and teachers that are not as good as others. (And half of all doctors graduated in the bottom of their med-school classes.) It’s a shame when any student must spend time every day with an inept or cruel teacher. But short of us all living in a perfect world, I don’t how to prevent that. We do what we can. We try to improve. And maybe students will learn the social skills of how to deal with teachers like this — as have we adults all had to learn to deal with people like this.

I see the public school system as an effort to help as many people as possible to become more educated. This attempt occurs within certain constraints — for example, we don’t have resources to tutor students, so we put them together in classes of 20 or more; we have school calendars and day-schedules to stick to; we have limited, sometimes severely limited, resources — and most of us in public education try to do as much as we can for students under these conditions.

Our public schools are for the children of the public and are operated by the representatives of the public. This sometimes puts schools in the position of reacting to the shifting demands of democratic voters and bureaucratic “visionaries.” As a teacher, I would not reject oversight, but I would hope that such oversight interrupt as little as possible the daily, never-ending challenge of helping each student partake more fully in the intellectual and cultural life.



Links: 30 million words, U.S. customs, etc.

1. A project to make sure children hear more words. A “study in the 1990s found that a child born into poverty hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a child born to well-off parents, creating a gap in literacy preparation.”

2. “Earlier this month, On The Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman, her family, and her friends were detained for hours by US Customs and Border Protection on their way home from Canada. Everyone being held was a US citizen, and no one received an explanation.” More here.

3. James Fallows describes the Republicans’ recent obstruction: “Compromise itself is as much their stated enemy as is Obamacare.” And from a commenter to Fallows’s blog:

The Republicans don’t simply reject health care reform, they reject the legitimacy of the elected President, and, even more important, the legitimacy of the voters, along with their elected representatives, who rejected their positions in the last election.

4. In order for there to be civil discourse, there has to be an agreement on the rules of discourse, or as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote this weekend, “the state requires for it to function a penumbra of norms surrounding the formal mechanisms of government.”

5. The U.S. government shutdown, as if it were a political situation in another country. A sample:

While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards.

6. Matthew Yglesias: “Why Obama Can’t Compromise on the Debt Ceiling. Jonathan Chait’s take is here.

7.When A&E used to be about arts and entertainment.

8. Fonts that can’t be read by computers.

9. Punctuation history.

10. Someone who quit Teach for America.

11. Medium’s new homepage.

12. Teaching quality: Tenured professors, full-time non-tenured profs, adjuncts.

13. Auden.

14. Free will and science.

15. One of the recent MacArthur winners is — Robin Fleming, a medieval historian at Boston College who’s written extensively on the lives of common people in Britain in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire. A review of her book is here.