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.

Remaking Public Education in Pittsburgh

A group of 10 Pittsburgh citizens, representing educators, parents and community members, collaborated online to write Artisans and Inventors of a New and Brighter World: Remaking Public Education in Pittsburgh. The 41-page report, presented to Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane on Oct. 17, 2013, outlined five key recommendations and 25 actionable solutions for improving the student experience and teaching environment in PPS.

Download full report as a PDF

The 10-person Writing Collaborative represented more than 180 educators and community members who participated in the first phase of the online VIVA Pittsburgh Idea Exchange that began in late July.

The overarching theme of the recommendations is Pittsburgh parents and community members welcome an increased partnership with the school district to improve the curriculum, rebuild trust, improve school climate, and supplement resources.

The five recommendations in the report are:

  1. Assure systemwide delivery of a relevant, coherent curriculum that makes learning a joy for students.
  2. Provide educators with the tools and support they need to effectively use the curriculum.
  3. Establish practices and communication infrastructure that promote trust among parents, students, educators, and public officials.
  4. Create a nurturing social-emotional climate in all schools to allow students to develop as productive members of a democratic society.
  5. Take innovative approaches to budget reporting and planning to build community trust and be transparent about the use and impact of public funds.

The 25 specific solutions identified by the Writing Collaborative include several concrete action items, such as

  • Make free play the main teaching tool with young students. Shorten periods of instruction in early grades to allow more time for free play. Incorporate play into the daily school routines. Look to community partners to augment opportunities for creative play.
  • Train teachers to use new curricula until they are confident they can use it in the classroom. Create a repository that houses all curricula that is easily accessible to teachers and families.
  • Survey the community and provide opportunities for community members to share their unique knowledge in the schools, and structure partnerships with organizations that already engage children and families to access talent in a way that maximizes students’ educational opportunities.
  • Provide comprehensive wraparound services for all students, particularly those who are isolated or have experienced trauma.
  • Implement restorative justice models in which older students take responsibility for their actions rather than receive punishment, with companion programs that prepare elementary students for these approaches.

The Writing Collaborative also outlined detailed strategies for creating Learning Resource Centers, in partnership with parents and community organizations, to extend learning resources beyond the school day and into the neighborhoods where students study and work, as well as attracting new public and private resources to support public schools. For example, the group proposed engaging local businesses and professionals to create supplemental programs for students, “especially for lower-income students who do not have access to all the support and experiences that contribute to higher academic achievement.”

Education Reform: Teachers Have Always Been at the Forefront

By Mary Cathryn Ricker

I was intrigued by Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column that proclaims “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms.” I do appreciate that he points out he has never once written about unions hindering reform, even if he back-hands the compliment withthat is not the same as saying the unions have worked hard to make all teachers more successful in the classroom.”

That is where I part very good company with him.

I appreciate the parsing of teacher’s feelings toward current education hot topics in the research he sites by Teach Plus and Education Sector. As the current president of my teacher’s union in St. Paul, Minnesota it is helpful to learn what teachers are saying and thinking both, individually and locally, and in the aggregate.

However, I have a fairly unique view, as a teacher serving as a local union president and a third generation teacher in my family, which leads me to a couple questions and a couple points I would like to make about teachers “leaning in favor of reforms.”

Supporting Education Reform

Because this research is a snapshot in time, it is impossible to say whether these attitudes captured by Teach Plus and Education Sector are new or not. In my family and in the historic local teacher’s union I have the privilege of serving, these attitudes are not new.

Someday we will have longitudinal research that either proves this group of newer teachers is somehow unique, or it will prove what I have experienced anecdotally: that teachers, and our unions, have always had a bias for improving teaching and learning conditions. Indeed, it was because I saw up close these examples of acting within a union to improve teaching and learning that I ran for president of my union, rather than get an administrative credential or take some other job, when I felt ready to lead with new ideas of mine and my colleagues’.

My Dad, Union President and Reformer

I saw my dad, and his generation, fight for adequate preparation time so I could build on that by advocating for increased professional learning time. His generation built salary schedules that honored years of expertise and graduate specialties so that we could come along and create leadership opportunities that don’t force a teacher to choose between leading or teaching.

The work done by teachers in their unions before me to recognize National Board Certification paved the way for others to design other differentiated pay structures. We can entertain a serious discussion about the AFT’s bar exam idea precisely because of the professional ideas to improve teaching and learning brought to the table year after year by many leaders who have come before us raising the bar for teacher standards over time from high school diploma to some college to a full credential. There wouldn’t be this notion of rethinking tenure, or due process, if there hadn’t been progress from capricious, political, sexist at-will status to fair due process in the first place.

Examples of Union-Supported Reforms

In the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers we have been doing things like:

  • Designing our own alternative licensure program to diversify our profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas
  • Expanding the professional development opportunities we started offering more than 25 years ago
  • Expanding our parent/teacher home visit project
  • Negotiating contract language to strengthen our peer assistance and review program and evaluation
  • Offering alternatives to seniority to protect the integrity of programs we offer our students.

We’re doing all of that with our ultimate goal of making our contract the most powerful document our district has to attract, support and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that knows how to meet the needs of our students and families.

None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the teacher union leadership that came before us. None of it.

I appreciate the acknowledgement that Jay Mathews was trying to offer, but I caution him about painting the last 150+ years of St. Paul teachers (and others) as stagnant, versus a recently discovered fountain of youthful teachers suddenly leaning toward reform. The teaching profession has been evolving since it started. Each generation has added something, built on the work of the generation before.

Teachers have always leaned toward reform except, of course, for those times when we’ve been leading it.

NBC Teacher Town Hall, a Meeting of Convergent Volume

 by Wade Sutton

“…And thus the Native hue of Resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought

And enterprises of great pitch and moment,

With this regard their Currents turn awry,

And lose the name of Action.”

- Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1)

You would expect a national Teacher Town Hall to ask for change and action. You would think it would encourage divergent thinking. You would be wrong.

If MSNBC’s Education Nation had been honed to actually get 300 teachers to talk substance and seek resolution, here is the script I would have handed to Brian Williams:

Is it the place of the public school system to provide “wraparound services” that include medical care and breakfast? How does this really serve parents? Does it take away from the mission of schools? Are we creating dependence by filling these voids? Discuss.

Will structuring our teaching to a Common Core drive us further into a box and force us to teach to a test? What are other options that keep power at the state level? Discuss.

Why are universities failing to train educators fully? What needs to change? Should teachers only graduate and be licensed after at least three years’ experience in the classroom? Discuss.

Only master teachers with at least 10 years classroom experience should be allowed to begin an administrative degree program. How can we narrow the field to only accept the best as our instructional leaders? Discuss.

How does nurturing the culture of antagonism between teachers’ unions and administration harm our school system and our students? How can this vicious cycle be stopped? Discuss.

Why do teachers see unions as the strongest advocates for education instead of parents? Parents are the strongest advocates for their children, why the disconnect? Discuss.

But these questions demand time. These questions require careful thought and want divergent thinking. These questions depend on quiet contemplation and creativity. None of these powerful, progressive skills were in evidence at Education Nation. Instead, volume ruled the day.

The Pale Cast of Thought

Sitting in front of me were four teachers I thought cloned from one another. They exemplified the tone in the room: filled with what Yeats would describe as “passionate intensity,” the loudest and worst of the consensus, sadly more loyal to their union than to the art of education. They yelled and booed and cheered, entitled to be heard. One spoke to the camera and refused to stop. She solved nothing with her volume. The tone from the audience was not to hear and discuss, it was to display a unified direction. And to shout down dissent with “sound and fury signifying nothing” near to a solution. Good educators know that the loudest may not be the most dynamic. Their filibuster flares quickly and dies while we crave the silent solutions and strength that is caste in a slow hot fire.

And Lose the Name of Action?

This is why I walked away inspired to act with a consistent, powerful force in my own community to inspire change at the local level. I hope in the future that the national stage will mature to seek real solutions and next year I look forward to representing rural schools again. It is a game with a tone that limits our national dialogue on education. This must change. Progress cannot remain pressed aside in comfortable silence. Although quiet solutions were diminished and a real exchange was lost in the tempest, I am encouraged. It will be your unnoticed educator, the quiet and steady servant to parents, who will lead to change and actionable ideas.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minnesota. He has taught in private and in public school and was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report called 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.
 

It’s Time for Parents to Take Control of Education Conversation

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera tells us in his Sunday column, “Addressing Poverty in Schools,” that poverty is the elephant in the public education room   I agree that the name of the elephant in the room begins with a P. But it’s not poverty, it’s parents.

Almost all of our public discussions about how well our government is serving its citizens happen in a weird closed loop of “insiders” or “stakeholders.”  Over time, they develop their own language, their own set of fixes and a pattern to their debates.

This dynamic has permeated every crevice of public education — our policy discussions focus on whether you are “for” or “against” reform; administrators use terms like “best practice,” “multiple measures,” and “value added growth” that sound good but are not what they seem.  Add in a testing system that isn’t designed to do what we want  it to do (give us a legitimate picture of student learning) and isn’t clearly explained (or explained at all), and we’ve got an insiders’ mess on our hands.

It’s time for parents and guardians to take back control of the conversation. We parents—and our children—are the only real education insiders. It’s time for us to step into this conversation in a meaningful way. How? By partnering with teachers who are empowered to be the official translators and ambassadors to the public.

With parents, guardians and teachers as a united front, we will get much closer to the goal of giving each and every child a chance to learn, those who languish in poverty and those who languish in mediocre schools.

Absolutely we have to talk about the plague of poverty—and its effect on every facet of our society, from housing to health care. Yes, education too.

But we cannot make education policy solely through the prism of poverty, which inevitably leads to blame and questions of moral judgment that don’t lead us to solutions.

Instead, we must talk about public education in terms of opportunities and skills development so we can bring a greater focus to the business of public education: Giving young people the skills they need to be productive citizens.

When we talk only about poverty, we let lots of people off the hook. And it becomes a conversation about “those kids” rather than our kids. And make no mistake: They are all our kids.