Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

Parents Beware! Of Unnecessary, Invalid and Unreliable Test Scores

By Judy Smizik

Are all of the tests our children taking at school necessary? Are the results valid and reliable? Should our kindergartners be assessed on reading skills? Our tests today reflect the Common Core State Standards, but are the standards developmentally appropriate? These are questions parents need to ponder when reviewing their children’s test results. They also need to ask themselves if all these tests are necessary. Are they depriving their children of valuable instruction time, as well as other vital educational components such as play, recess and creativity?

As a teacher, parent, and grandparent, my answer to that last question is, “yes.” There is no research that says five-year-olds need to read. Yet, the tests used at the beginning, middle and end of kindergarten require children to do just that. I have had many students reading in kindergarten, but these children were developmentally ready to read. Reading was encouraged, but not forced. Years ago, tests were not required at all in kindergarten. Kindergarten was once a blooming garden where children could play, socialize, create, imagine, explore, and develop skills at an individual pace.

Because of the rigorous standards of today, kindergarten is now a place where students are required to sit for long periods of time, pay attention, and perform tasks that were once considered first grade skills. Kindergarten teachers are forced to administer a plethora of individual and group tests throughout the year. Most teachers, through classroom observation and progress monitoring charts, know their students’ strengths and weaknesses without the need for standardized testing. Have you ever tried to give the DIBLES (a mandated individual test in most states) while monitoring a classroom of 25 other kindergarten students? Did the DIBLES tell you anything more than what you already knew about the students? The answer is, “no!” So why give them?

The overuse of tests has caused many students to give up. Some of our students are late bloomers and need a little more time to develop. Some have learning difficulties. Are all these tests helping them overcome their learning challenges, or are they creating anxiety, stress, and feelings of failure? Overuse of testing begins in kindergarten and continues throughout the student’s schooling. Last week, I was asked to assess a student’s readiness for second grade. When I pulled out my stopwatch, the child responded with a look of trepidation on his face. “Do you have to time me?” he pleaded. “Just this once, “I promised.

When designing this student’s individual education plan, I needed first to help him overcome his fear of making mistakes when reading and let him see he can be successful. All the testing he has experienced has had a detrimental effect on him.

This student is not alone. I have witnessed numerous children cringe when the teachers announced it was time for a test. I have seen others who have just given up and put their heads down on their desks.

What can parents do to help eliminate the overuse of testing? In Pittsburgh and other places, a group of parents and teachers are asking parents to “opt out of the testing.” Parents need to put in writing that they do not want their children taking standardized tests. Because teachers are forced to teach to the test, test results are not reliable. Teaching to the test narrows the content of the curriculum, denying students a comprehensive education. It also makes the results questionable.

Parents need to demand we go back to a developmentally appropriate curriculum, where students are encouraged to take risks, be creative, imagine, problem solve, and think critically. They need to have time to socialize and play when they are in younger grades. Too much testing is depriving them of the experiences they need to become well-rounded individuals. If a student is experiencing academic difficulty, he should be given the gift of time to develop his skills in a stress-free learning environment that accommodates his academic needs. It is not the time to put more unnecessary stress on a student who is already feeling inadequate.

It’s time to eliminate the overuse of tests and focus on the real needs of our children. We need real educators with real practical experience to establish educational policy. The Common Core State Standards need to be revisited, and a new direction in the best interest of all students needs to be taken. Our children are our future.

SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

Let’s Fix Inequality in Public Education

By Allan Fluharty

A central tenant of education is to prepare students to participate in a democratic society. We want them to value a diversity of thought and culture, as well as a commitment to equity and justice. Unfortunately, I do not see equality and justice in public education in Illinois on several levels.

Families raising children in Chicago are faced with tough educational choices, decisions that have life-changing impact on their kids. One is to stay in the city or move to a suburban district with well-funded schools. There is a vast difference between city, suburban, and rural schools in Illinois, in funding and educational outcomes. Most families who can afford it move.

Funding public education in Illinois is based on property taxes, which has created a dysfunctional system that favors the students who are lucky enough to live in well-to-do communities. Public education in Illinois is not progressive; it does not provide an equal education for all of our citizens.

In the Chicago, there are also great differences between schools. Some families send their children to private or parochial schools; however, most parents don’t have the means to pay both for taxes and tuition. Many families live in areas of Chicago with fine CPS schools, but other families don’t. Over the last 25 years, public education in Chicago evolved into a potpourri of options with magnet, select enrollment and neighborhood schools, both at the elementary and high school levels. There are also numerous charter school operations, some large and politically connected—who operate semi-autonomous schools with public funding. The “best” schools—those with the most successful results and highest funding, are the magnet and certain charter schools. Competition to enter the best schools is intense, involving a combination of grades, standardized test scores, and a lottery. Parents with students in CPS hope their children will have the grades and the luck to get into a magnet or a good charter school.

Incredibly, the separation and categorization of students also occurs inside schools, where students are placed, or “tracked,” into regular, honors, AP, and IB classes. IB classes are particularly divisive, creating a “school within a school” that splits the student body and the faculty into separate cliques. An after effect of splitting out the best students is that  “reluctant learners” are concentrated into lower level classes whose teachers must focus on social/emotional issues—such as tardiness, absent students, poor behaviors, and so on—at the expense of academic learning. It is typical that novice teachers are assigned to these challenging classes—teachers with the least experience handle the most challenging students.

Public schools in Illinois are divided by affluence, grades, behavior, and social-economic status. Perhaps the best gift a parent can give to their children is to live within the boundaries of well-off school districts. CPS separates children into neighborhood, select enrollment, magnet, and charter schools. Families pray that their children win the ‘educational lottery’ and get into the best schools. This separation continues with a vengeance within most schools through tracking and now school-within-school programs.

Enough is enough! Separating students based on class and ability is not done in public school systems of other industrialized nations as now practiced in the United States. More equitable systems in Europe, Asia, and North America—Finland, Singapore, and Canada, for example—are outpacing the U.S. by wide margins. Public education in the U.S. needs get back on track. It is time to put the “public” back into public education and introduce equity as a key provision.

Parents need to vote for politicians and policies that support the ideals of progressive education, in particular the ideal of educational equity.

Allan-FluhartyVIVA Teacher Allan Fluharty is a National Board Certified high school science teacher for the Chicago Public Schools. 

Design for Safety

By Mark Anderson

We talk a lot about the physical design of schools on this blog, as we know that the physical environment can have a great impact on learning. In this article on CNN from Paul Caron from last year on designing schools for safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, here’s some principles of school design that are worth exploring.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

Adding transparent buffering allows time for visitors to be assessed. If we consider this design feature from the standpoint of aesthetics, not only safety, we could also consider how entryways can be used to transition visitors from the external community into the school community in a manner that communicates what the school is about. For example, there might be a series of switchbacks leading up to the school doors that could be adorned with plantings made by the students, or a short hallway before the entryway that depicts pictures and artwork made by the students.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

Visibility and connectability are important design features in a school. Open space design has been tried and rejected in education and now in many offices as too distracting, but having the option to both open up and close off spaces is important. Design that allows for this level of flexibility and control would be much appreciated by teachers so that they can collaborate in bigger or small groups as necessary without the acoustic and visual distractions of an open space.

Visibility is highly critical in a school not only for safety, but furthermore when we consider the importance of allowing natural light into a building. All too often schools feel like enclosed dungeons rather than like spaces we’d want our children to grow in and spend the majority of their day within.

The topic of physical infrastructure of schools isn’t a sexy topic, and it’s not written or discussed much in the media on education, yet it is clear that it is a critical consideration in education not only for its impact on learning, but furthermore for safety. As the article notes:

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don’t have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don’t have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

This is unfortunately true. But given that we tend to ignore the impact of the physical environment of schools on learning, I wonder how long the tragedy of decrepit schools must be inflicted on our children before we realize that how we design our schools reflects how we value our future?

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx.

 

 

This blog was originally posted on http://schoolecosystem.wordpress.com on July 6, 2014

Small Steps Will Save Kids Lives

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

December 14, 2012, is in my, and perhaps all of America’s, pantheon of “days that will live in infamy”. Almost every moment of that day — when 20 of my daughter’s peers and seven of her teachers’ colleagues were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one mile from our home — is etched in my brain like a nightmare that has no end. My family and I cope with our intense pain by lending our voices to the struggle for gun violence prevention. Trips to Hartford and Washington D.C., are practically a monthly occurrence. I cold-call senators and representatives, dash off letters to the editor in less than an hour, and tweet in my sleep.  Newtown was supposed to be a tipping point. So many of us gave it our all: President Obama and Vice-President Biden, the devastated parents of murdered children, and even my daughter, who walked the halls of the Congressional Office Building to show our elected officials just how small a six-year-old really is.

Shockingly, a few cowardly politicians, beholden to the corporate gun lobby and its extremist mouthpiece, the NRA, blocked a vote on universal background checks for gun purchases. What has their perversion done to innocent children across this country? According to Everytown for Gun Safety, in the one and a half years since the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, 74 school shootings have occurred and nearly 50,000 Americans have been killed by guns. The toll that gun violence takes on Americans is an escalating crisis.

Not all politicians are craven, and progress has been made at the state level. For example, Connecticut state legislators bravely worked in a bipartisan fashion last spring to strengthen laws that will make my state safer, including a limit on the size of ammunition magazines, restrictions on military-style assault weapons, and universal background checks. Although all American children deserve these same safeguards to be federal law, progress is going to be incremental.

The intersection of domestic violence and gun violence is an area where several federal bills have recently been introduced.

KMOROSKYThe author, Katie Morosky (right), meeting with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and staff on June 18, 2014.  Sen. Blumenthal is the author of the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act.

One in particular is meaningful to me. It honors a Connecticut woman who was shot and killed by her violent husband after she received a temporary restraining order. Because the law allowed him to possess a gun before the order became permanent, this dangerous person was able to kill his wife with a legal weapon! The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act will compel domestic abusers who are subject to temporary restraining orders to temporarily surrender firearms they possess, and bar them from purchasing firearms for the duration of the temporary order. This important law will protect women and children in abusive relationships when they are most in danger. In fact, 57% of mass shootings involve the murder of a close family member.

Of course, the Lori Jackson bill and other laws designed to protect vulnerable women from gun violence can work best when the United States passes universal background checks for all gun purchases. In states like Connecticut that require background checks on all handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners than in states with no background checks. Would the Lori Jackson bill have made a difference at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2014.  Perhaps not, but every small step in the right direction creates positive momentum. The difference to me as an educator and mother is this:  the bill will have a real impact on the lives of countless children who live in homes where the intersection of domestic and gun violence is potentially lethal to them, their loved ones, and to their communities.

KMorosky-150x150

Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches science at Wilton High School in Wilton, Conn. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Race, Class, and Justice in Education- it all comes down to trust

By Annie Tan

When I started the process of becoming a teacher, I was idealistic. I was going to be Ms. Sheridan, my first-grade teacher, who made me feel confident for the first time. Or, I was going to be my second-grade teacher Mrs. Yee, who sat with me through lunch periods to work on my handwriting. I was excited. I was going to incorporate social justice into my teaching, and make sure everyone was heard! Yes! Then I started teaching.

As any teacher can tell you, it has been exhausting. It’s not just from preparing for and teaching my students who have autism, cognitive delays, and developmental disabilities. Everything seems so overwhelming when you’re new: the evaluations, testing, constant meetings, new policies, learning Common Core standards. So, it was refreshing to attend the VIVA Teachers Talk with Jose Vilson and Melinda Anderson, to hear research and personal experiences from other teachers on the ground going through cycles of reform, all while learning how to teach, and teach well.

The June 14th event, “Race, Class, and Justice in Education,” featured Vilson via video chat (his plane to Chicago was grounded by weather) and Anderson via Twitter @mdawriter. Vilson began by reading excerpts from his book, This is Not a Test, about his first years of teaching and the difficulties he faced being a teacher of color in an urban education setting. He weaves in elements of memoir and research to speak to the pertinent education issues of the day. I listened and related to his story. I know what it’s like to be a young, idealistic, and often lost teacher who’s trying to make a difference with my students. I too am a teacher of color and who knew, at least a bit, what my students were going through. The discussion that followed Vilson’s reading covered a dizzying array of topics related to everything education reform: teacher tenure, especially in the wake of Vergara in California; diversity in our teaching force; Common Core; the influx of teachers through programs such as through Teach For America; and how to incorporate social justice into teaching today.

One key thread through the conversation was about creating trusting relationships between teachers and students — something Vilson said was simply not on the top of the education policy agenda and constantly ignored.

Vilson said we cannot focus so much on building curriculum if we don’t have humanity, trust and camaraderie in teaching. That’s hard to do, especially with everything teachers are juggling.

Race and class complicate and widen this issue of trust. Vilson called it “hair-raising” how few teachers of color — all colors — there are. I am Asian, so I very much related to what he was saying. It’s not something that’s often talked about when we talk about education reform today, but as a student, I know how important it was for me to see people who looked like me. It wasn’t just about representation; it was feeling that I could trust this person, and that this person had lived, at least a little bit, what it meant to be Asian in America. I teach in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, so I don’t always look like the kids I teach. This makes me responsible for learning the neighborhood, having good parent relationships, being as open as possible while checking my own biases. Without that trust, openness and honesty, especially with parents, students don’t buy in either.

In my mind, much of the frustration in education today is based on not feeling heard. I know I oftentimes don’t feel heard when I have to administer test after test and complete different paperwork every week, without really understanding why I’m doing such work, and without feeling like I know how to apply this to my teaching. For me, it comes from a top-down approach to education. Both those who provide education services and those who fight for their rights to an education deserve a voice in the conversation.

When teachers feel they have a voice and are heard, they can do wonders. Vilson and others spoke about the importance of treating teachers as professionals, like they know what they’re doing! As Vilson said, schools succeed with teachers of all ages, teachers who are open to new methods, veteran teachers sharing their experiences, not through de-professionalizing education.

I think everything comes down to trust, in all aspects of the education system. From administrators, teachers, principals, students, community members, boards of education, secretaries of education, we need to trust each other in order for us to work together. And we need to put our kids first.

As I saunter around this summer, planning for the upcoming school year, I’m going to focus on my role in advancing social justice in education. Social justice starts from something very basic: hearing from everyone, especially those who aren’t often heard. It’s important to have an anti-testing, anti-corporate movement in education, but it’s also important to make sure those who are at the mercy of such reforms, those who have been and are marginalized, are those who are heard through these conversations. It can be hard for teachers to incorporate that social justice mindset in their classrooms. It can be especially hard as a special education teacher, when most of my students have speech and language impediments due to disabilities. But, I know when my students actually say what they mean, whether through augmentative communication systems, picture cards, one to three word utterances, or scripts and songs, they actually feel invested in building something in the classroom with me. If I’m going to be like Ms. Sheridan or Mrs. Yee, then I have to listen. That’s the way to build critically conscious and aware citizens in our country. And that is how trust is built … one step at a time.

Annie Tan PictureAnnie Tan is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools. While building up her teaching, Annie is also working with many other teachers, activists, and community members to fight for voice in Chicago.

VIVA Teacher Leaders in Chicago Call for ISAT Boycott

By Adam Heenan

ice-the-isatEarlier this week, teachers at Saucedo Elementary, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago, unanimously voted not to administer the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT).  Parents at Saucedo submitted close to 500 opt-out letters, and now that number is rapidly growing across the city.  As of this morning, the Local School Council (school-based democratic decision-making body) at Murray Language Academy, in the upper middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park,  also recommended that they “Ice the ISAT” at their school.

My hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill., weighed in to register its support of the ISAT, and condemned the Chicago Teachers Union for seemingly taking sides with the protesting parents.  I responded to the editorial with a letter to the editor, and encourage teachers across the country to do the same.  As teachers well know, testing as it is today is not the tool it was meant to be. The more we communicate to people who don’t work in schools or currently have children in the system about what’s really happening, in our classrooms, the more likely we are to create allies for better American schools.  

Below is the text of my letter to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Please feel free to borrow from it to send letters to the editor of your local papers.

Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School (CPS) on the southwest side.  I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while tests are administered.

Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys), and you know what happened?  Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic workplace tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students. In fact, I know of at least one student who wrote about his opting-out experience as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.

In the way that it is being used today, there is very little that standardized testing can tell us.  I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago.  The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created,or scored by actual educators.

In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois.  That’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day.  As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year — 60 days — on testing.  Yes, Kindergarten.

In the Civil Rights era, standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools. That doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act, which labels schools that don’t make the grade as “failing,” and the follow-up Race to the Top, which “leases” those public schools — and all our tax dollars that go with it — to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws.  With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them.  However, we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts.  I should know, I taught at a charter school.

We know that, as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know. It’s more likely a predictor for what zip-code they live in and, at best, can tell us how well any given student may do in the first year of college.  The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC (and the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway) do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.

We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure and even willing to cut programming, especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses.  Perhaps Kankakee teachers (Yes, I used to be one of them) aren’t sending in Student of the Month photos for “top-speller” because Spelling Bees have been all but eliminated along with everything else we used to love about school.

The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in Illinois: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam.  Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose.   We need parents across Illinois to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.

You can learn more about the ISAT boycott at More than a Score and Common Dreams.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.

Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

“We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent….the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, more collaborative and nurturing.” – John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine at TedxWomen Talk 2013.

Imagine your child’s day at school: In History they read and examine forms of government, the next period he or she plays soccer after reading and discussing an article on the qualities of leadership and teamwork, in Environmental Science the class examines the needs of a balanced ecosystem and reads an essay on current issues and later continues to build a terrarium in shop. At the same time in English your son or daughter is reading The Lord of the Flies and discussing Democracy and Fascism. It all fits together and reinforces itself. In this imaginary school, each teacher is autonomous and expert yet nurtures the learning experienced by the students throughout their day. Imagine autonomous teamwork.

Traveling to MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall and Common Core Teaching Institute in New York last October gave me the opportunity to revise a lot of what I thought I knew about Minnesota’s transition to the Common Core Literacy Standards. I like these standards, however, the basic truth remains that educational improvements (including the Common Core) must come from within a school where staff, students and parents work together. Mutual trust and teamwork is essential.

Of course we at Indus can always improve, and trust is built over time. But autonomous teamwork among teachers is what makes good education become great. In the 21st century, schools must be “flexible” and “collaborative.” Good leadership nurtures and encourages this, and, if it is the common practice, your school is serving you. Your son or daughter will benefit. When students, parents, educators, and administration commonly rely on each other’s strengths we become the real core of education.

Autonomous collaboration makes education work. Literacy standards begin at home and great student achievement is the result of school staff and parents working together. This has struck me consistently in my conversations with educators whom I respect from across the country working in schools I admire. As an educator at Indus School who values an extended team, I am not alone in feeling the desire for more parental involvement. This is not a criticism; it is a request that parents accept our respect for what they do. Parenting is difficult and a good school seeks involvement in the learning community. Parents are the foundation for successful literacy. I trust parents more than the Common Core because that trust is key to a successful education.

The Common Core itself will not raise standards of education, but excellent educators, trusted and trained, will. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, said at MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall last October, “Teachers need training; teachers need respect; teachers need autonomy.” As an educator, every day I consider how I am working in unity with my peers. The responsibility that comes with professional trust within a school can drive me toward high standards far more than any directive could. Over the years I have experienced how a professional team of autonomous educators can leverage basic education and transform it together to meet literacy needs throughout the day. While literacy begins at home, the Common Core at least recognizes that reading is not isolated in English class but is taught “in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” A hallmark of a school implementing Common Core literacy well is a team that works together. Classes are not islands and teachers are not overwhelmed with classroom sizes so unmanageable that they are not able to be flexible according to the needs of your son or daughter.

As a parent can we evaluate whether teaching is done as a community? I believe yes. You can judge your child’s school by how well they listen to you and by how much time is created for educators to educate themselves, improve and work together. One of the exemplar educators at the MSNBC Common Core Workshop confided in me that her school does not provide time to work together. It is a major failure in her district while at the same time it is necessary to meet the literacy standards. At your next parent/teacher meeting ask your teacher what the atmosphere is like for them: Is there an atmosphere of professional trust? How do they collaborate with other subjects? How is administration nurturing and valuing time to collaborate among professionals? If your child’s school organization provides time for educators to meet, plan and teach together then they are on the right track and ready to work for you, the parent. If it does not, then speak to its leaders to encourage them.

Find out how often teachers meet to match the reading and exploration in their class with another: At Indus we keep learning. Our science teacher and FACS teacher collaborate on the topics of food safety and sanitation and scientific principles related to biology and chemistry. Best of all, they work together on the school garden project. We have created a working timeline in our hallway where students from all grades post responses to informational texts and topics in their classrooms. Our history teacher has recruited me to grade the essays on her World and American History tests according to what students learn in English and I organize my subject matter according to her timeline to streamline the literacy and student learning. In science students practice similar methods for reading and understanding texts as in other classrooms to meet Common Core Literacy standards. Our art teacher critiqued the rough drafts of the World Literature projects for visual communication and I use art to teach text interpretation. She is also having the seventh and eighth grade illustrate their own short stories for publication. And the ninth grade class at Indus is mentoring the 5th grade in composition which helps both grades. As a parent I like what I see. As a teacher I have learned that this works and hope to keep improving together.

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

wadeWade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

 

View the original postings on Wade’s blog, ProspectiveEducation, and The Journal 

The Next Generation of Cheating: Improving Academic Integrity in the Age of the Common Core

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

Another day, another cheating scandal. Students at Stuyvesant and Harvard, teachers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, adults on K Street and Wall Street. Dishonesty is rampant in American society.  The ultimate consequences are significant: the IRS estimates the tax gap to be around $300 billion in any given year; the National Retail Federation reports their members lose approximately $30 billion to shoplifters each year.

An Unabated Concern for Schools

Cheating starts young, and academic dishonesty is pervasive.  A 2012 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics reported that about three-quarters of American high school students admitted to copying another student’s work and around one-half had cheated on a test in the past year. The picture does not improve much at the college level. Surveys of tens of thousands of university students elicited admission of cheating on tests, exams, and written assignments. Since the student respondents were self-reporting, the data around faculty perception of cheating versus students who actually admitted cheating are quite stark: Faculty reports of cheating behavior were generally 20-30 percent higher than student admission of the behavior.

Putting the prospect of graduating the next Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong aside, educational institutions need to address academic integrity directly for two reasons. First, cheating eats away at their central mission: student learning. Second, integrity itself is a learned behavior. It needs to be modeled, practiced, and discussed to become habitual. School is one important place for that learning to occur.

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

Since 1919, Wellesley College has asked students “to act with integrity, honesty, and respect” in their academic and personal conduct. David Haines, a Chemistry professor there, notes that Wellesley’s honor code allows him to assign open-ended, challenging work with the assumption that collaboration allows each student to develop her own best ideas. He says,“when the honor code is working, it’s because the community has bought into it,” but that can only happen when “the code is externally defined.” Research backs up his experience. Cheating is reduced significantly when a school has a clearly articulated and accepted academic integrity policy, when students perceive that infractions will be reported and penalized, and when students perceive their peers are honest. All schools will benefit from putting resources into cultivating their communities’ relationships with integrity.

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

David Haines also notes that underclasswomen at Wellesley often experience “a difficult transition [to the Honor Code environment], because high school is so focused on grades and credentials, rather than authentic learning.” His perception is borne out by numbers. Students who view their education as a “means to an end” are almost 40 percent more likely to be academically dishonest than those who view education as a path to “personal development.”

The Common Core places strong emphasis on performance-based assessment. In theory, this type of test should promote integrity. However, it can’t be fostered unless the new curricula and tests truly promote critical thinking and relevant application. This requires an iterative and time-consuming development process. Unfortunately, the rollout of Common Core has been rushed, resulting in myriad problems and complaints. The authentic problems in new math curricula are often just rebranded word problems, while complexity in ELA is mostly manifested in confusing wording. In the realm of testing, a recent Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education report asserts, “the progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purpose.”

States and districts need to invest in more thoughtful curriculum development and truly authentic assessment if we want the scores to reflect what was learned and not how much someone can cheat. As the Wellesley honor code points out: if you cannot trust someone, respect is even more difficult to give. Poorly designed curricula and weak assessments are already losing teachers’ trust. If teachers don’t trust the standards and curriculum, we can’t expect them to respect the test.

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch warns that Common Core represents the “Walmart-ization” of American education. Walmart is most certainly a means to an end, not a destination for personal development. If the ultimate goal of K-12 education is for Americans to be college, career, and citizenship ready, they need opportunities to learn and practice integrity every day of their K-12 experience.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

 

 

 

A Year Without: Building Hope for a Safer Future in Newtown

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember … It’s about keeping our future alive.

Newtown’s first snow fell yesterday and I felt the sensation that my year of mourning has waned. For the first time in nearly 365 days, our grey world seemed illuminated and the day seemed to linger, as the ice-trapped light refracted through the soft snowflakes. Although the recent release of an investigative report on the Sandy Hook massacre and the 911 tapes chafed at the scabs, I can look to the future knowing that, though the road to recovery is long, there is light at the end of this dark journey.

Last December 14 was sunny, snowless and fairly warm. I drove to work at 7 a.m., with thoughts of the weekend and holidays. Two hours later, a babysitter walked my two little girls through our backyard to Hawley School. The school day that started happily quickly became a nightmare: a morning was spent in lockdown, listening to sirens screaming past their school to get to Sandy Hook. When I picked them up from school that afternoon, I couldn’t hold back tears when I explained that a bad man went into the school down the street and hurt many, many children. Twenty of their peers were dead, six of their teachers’ colleagues, at least 10 of whom we knew as friends or neighbors, and I had no idea how to tell them this.

I didn’t sleep that night. As dawn broke on December 15, I knew the only way I could get out of bed that day, or any day soon thereafter, was if I devoted myself to helping correct what it was that created this disaster. I soon understood that there was not one easy answer. The investigative report made it clear that the shooter Adam Lanza behaved bizarrely for almost his entire adult life, and that his family was concerned but enabling. While his motive will never be known, his easy and legal access to guns and large ammunition magazines made December 14 the massacre that it was.

United by grief

I took my daughters to Washington D.C., at the end of January, to march and rally on the National Mall. The group of Newtowners who went quickly formed into the Newtown Action Alliance, devoted to strengthening laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. A few weeks later, a bipartisan committee from the Connecticut Legislature was in Newtown, listening as citizens from all walks of life and every political stripe asked for laws to prevent what happened to us from happening in another town. Around the same time, I worked  with 10 other teachers from across the country to collaboratively write the VIVA Idea Exchange report, “Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The Connecticut Legislature was able to pass major gun violence prevention measures in early April with bipartisan support.  Twenty-one other states, including Florida and Texas, enacted some sensible legislation in 2013.  The effects are real. A graphic in the new Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard: Why Gun Laws Matter, clearly shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The tipping point begets a cultural shift

For awhile, it seemed that the massacre at Sandy Hook School would be the “tipping point” that would compel even the U.S. Congress to act.  Members on both sides of the aisle wore green and white Sandy Hook ribbons during President Obama’s State of the Union address. As the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on expanding background checks and bans on assault weapons, high capacity magazines and straw purchases of guns, I called congressional offices around the country, telling them about my family, friends and neighbors’ intense grief at losing our innocent loved ones.

We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

It was discouraging when the federal bill failed in a cloture vote on the Senate floor, but we were not very surprised. The journey to making our country safer so that kids can grow up without being shot will be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s as much, and probably more, about changing our culture as changing our laws. We are making incremental and significant changes. When Starbucks became a magnet for “open-carry enthusiasts” this summer, CEO Howard Schultz changed company policy and requested that patrons not bring their guns into its shops. NASCAR recently rejected NRA sponsorship of its races, and the NFL has refused to air a pro-gun commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.

Will it take another elementary school massacre for Congress to move beyond business as usual? Safety from gun violence goes beyond the partisan divide: 80 percent of the American public supports background check legislation. This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember. Speak out. Call or write to your members of Congress and tell them to act to reduce gun violence.  Remind your neighbors, family and friends why you care. It’s about keeping our future alive.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

In a recent VIVA Teachers blog, Design Lessons for Students, Not Standards, Adam Heenan wrote about his distaste for the Common Core standards. He described a lesson he uses to teach his high school social studies students financial literacy, and said, “No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.”

I disagree with Adam’s dismissal of the Common Core – I think it is a valuable tool. My perspective on this has developed very slowly, beginning with a rabid mistrust of the standards and moving to a moderate admiration. I’ll try to break it down my thoughts, but if you desire a concise opinion, this entire post can be summarized thusly: Excellent, student-centered teachers don’t need the Common Core, but everyone else does.

Adam is clearly a wonderful teacher. The lesson he talks about does, in his own words, prioritize “relevant and valuable ideas shared by students in the room.” This is the main purpose of education: to help youth uncover their truths, share their ideas, and build skills relevant to their lives.

Unfortunately, many – especially new teachers with no experience beyond textbooks – do not agree with this. These are the “drill and kill” teachers who place the holy grail of content above all other goals, and who are egged on by administrators who seek high scores instead of competent students.

The Common Core is a set of standards for good teaching. Good, effective, thoughtful teachers already hit dozens of standards in their everyday lessons. They integrate reading, writing, thinking, questioning, and numeracy into their classes, just as the Common Core suggests.

However, many growing teachers do not. For them, the Common Core – combined with reflection and pedagogical evolution – provide a road map to success. Hitting those standards means that they must teach questioning, analyzing, modeling, presenting, evaluating, thinking about perspective, and more skills that an intellectual agent for change would need.

The standards are not the issue here. The implementation is.

Just as many people the world over grab hold of the New Testament’s message of charity and forgiveness, so too can educators grab on to critical thinking and writing to learn. On the other hand, just as many zealots choose to focus on the text’s mentions of death to sinners and perpetuating slavery, so too can administrators, bureaucrats and companies focus on “meeting standards.”

I am reminded of the following exchange from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

Tommy: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Hedwig: “No, but I love his work.”

In this case, the Common Core is Jesus. (How’s that for a soundbite?)

Or, in other words: Adam’s blog post let readers into his classroom, a place where fantastic lessons unfold… lessons designed for youth, not for tests. And, as it happens, it is also a Common Core ready lesson. Based on just a quick skim of the standards, it covers at least the following 14 (and probably more, if you’re inclined to look):

HSN-Q.A.1-3 (Reason quantitatively and use units to solve problems
Standard Set: Modeling (An aggregate standard about creating and using models)
All ES and MS standards dealing with basic functions and data analysis
RI.11-12.7 (Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information)
RI.11-12.4/5/6 (Analyze the intent of authors and determine their validity)
SL 11-12.1/2/3 (Discussion and response, using diverse info, using diverse media)
SL.11-12/4/5/6  (Present information, make use of digital media, adapt speech to tasks)

The phrase I once heard and held onto (at, full disclosure, a Gates Foundation conference last year) was: common is not the same, and standards are not curricula.

The standards are not a checklist, and districts that use them as such are flat-out wrong.

In my mind, adopting the Common Core should mean doing away with standardized tests. Instead of whatever the PARCC is, students should be rated on these standards with a portfolio and performance assessment. Have they written critical papers (W.11-12.112)? Developed ideas influenced by historical thinkers (RH.11-12.6)? Solved real life math problems like Adam’s, or crafted their own scientific investigations? Are they ready to move out of the protective walls of our schools and into the more rigorous halls of academia? Or onto the even harsher world where the only thing between them and homelessness is their wit and ability to survive our biased capitalist economy?

These questions should be thriving under the new standards, caring administrators, and talented teachers. They should not be displaced by some sort of artificial checklist tied to our professional lives as educators.

These standards are no panacea. We have known what will “fix” education for years – more support for students, more community involvement, more funding, professional communities and benefits for teachers, a robust public education system instead of corporate charters – and this is not that. But in a political climate where real reform is an uphill struggle at best, these standards are a step in the right direction.

Using the Common Core as direction, combined with the right sorts of development, induction and training for teachers, has the potential to change classrooms from drill and kill hellholes into oases of discovery. Inspired teachers – like Adam, our colleagues, and that one high school teacher who really got you all those years ago – can create transformative spaces under this model. We can still help our students become agents of change, fires burning for the fuel of knowledge.

Teachers, students, bureaucrats, and community members need to cooperate to let education flourish; I think the Common Core has the potential, more than any other standards, to let that happen.

I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.

The Common Core should provide direction, not punishment, to those who use it.

So, to Adam and all of my colleagues who might read this – take these standards in the spirit meant by the teachers who sat on the advisory panels, not the profit-hungry test-makers.

We will dismantle this testing culture. Piece by piece, student by student, day by day, with or without the Common Core. A good teacher – reflective, positive, endlessly dedicated, masterful – is a good teacher. You do the same thing regardless of the bureaucracy: take what you want, sneak in the rest, stay subversive, stay strong, and always stay true to yourself and your youth.

Not that you needed reminding.

jkobialka2013James Kobialka teaches science and English in Worcester, Mass. He was a member of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative.