Tag Archives: educational reform

Dear Parents – A Principal Tells it Like it Is

Here is a phenomenal back to school e-mail sent by a principal willing to put his neck out in order to speak the truth! His courage is admirable and his honesty is necessary.

September 4, 2012

Dear Parents,

On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.

We are all enthusiastic about the arrival of our new superintendent, Mr. D’Angelo, and the promise of a fresh vision for the academic well-being of our school district. Also, Mrs. Chowske will be joining our WES staff, functioning as our school’s Elementary Supervisor [aka, Assistant Principal]. The future is bright as we move forward with the implementation of our Writers’ Workshop program expanding into our fourth grade and kindergarten. This year we will also initiate a new K-5 math program called enVisionMATH. This program not only meets the national Common Core standards for Math but does so with enhanced technological experiences for our children.

One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing. This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for allkindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy. When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.

Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.

This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole. Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.

You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well. As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions:

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes?

Do you read to your child every day?

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night?

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep?

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised?

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?

We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before.

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.


Test Prep Season From a Student’s Perspective

I used to love school. I used to skip there every morning after breakfast. I used to run as fast as I could to get to my classroom (except when an adult was in the hall – then I walked as fast as I could).

I used to wait outside the classroom reading a book or finishing homework. When the teacher opened the door, he used to have a big smile on his face, brighter than the sun. He used to say, “Come in and let’s learn together today!” I used to smile back and say, “Good morning!” knowing I was going to have a wonderful day with my wonderful teacher in my wonderful class at my wonderful school.

I don’t love school anymore. I don’t think I even like it anymore, to tell the truth. I don’t skip there anymore (but sometimes I think of skipping it altogether). I don’t run to my room (but sometimes I want to run away).

The teacher isn’t happy anymore. He doesn’t say, “Let’s learn together” very much. He only says, “We have an article to read. Let’s get moving.” Most of us wish we could move. Far, far away.

Everyday, we read, but not from books. Sometimes they’re called articles. Sometimes they’re called passages. Sometimes they’re called stories. I still don’t know why the teacher calls them different things. Maybe in the morning they’re one thing and in the afternoon they’re something else. We read them, whatever they’re called, and they’re very hard! I keep asking the teacher to let us read books, but he says there is no time.

Sometimes after we read, we have to write a little bit. That’s not so bad. I just write whatever I think I’m supposed to write. I always show it to my teacher because I never know if it’s right, and I want to make sure I am putting what he wants to see.

Sometimes we answer questions with an A, B, C, or D. A is the first letter in my name so I usually pick A for most answers. Bubbling is actually kind of fun, though. One time, we took a practice test and when I bubbled in the answers, I made a pattern. It looked like a staircase on the scantron!

Sometimes, when I’m reading a story, article, or passage, I start staring at something in the room and I forget to stop. Then the teacher is tapping on my desk and saying my name. I say, “Sorry,” but as soon as he walks away, I’m staring at something else. Then he starts getting upset and I just keep staring at that something else. When I remember I’m in school, I just pick an answer and then find something else to stare at. This happens everyday for like, 2 hours, I think.

It’s not so bad. I don’t have to think and I like that because thinking makes my head hurt. Anyway, I don’t think I’m supposed to know what to do because the words in these passage article stories are really big. So I’m really not sure why we’re using them but it must be because the teacher is so unhappy that he wants to punish us for it.

A lot of the kids try to get the answers right. They want the teacher to be proud of them. I see those kids looking back in the passage article stories to find answers, but I know them all, so I never look back. When the teacher says I should look in the passage article stories, I say, “But I know it!” and he says, “They don’t want to know what you already know. They want to see if you can read the passage” and I say, “BUT I KNOW IT!” By now, I’m getting really mad so I start to slam my pencil down, and I stand up to walk around the room. It is weird, though. Every time I think I do know it, I get the answer wrong. But still, I’m not going to look back in the passage article story. It’s so boring. I’ll just pick an answer. Maybe I’ll get it right and maybe I’ll get it wrong.

At the end of the day, I am happy to have the fresh air on my face after being trapped in passage article stories all day. I say, “Bye” to the teacher and go home, where I pick answers by myself. When my mom asks me if I’m going to read books tonight, I tell her, “There is no time.” She says, “Okay. Do what the teacher says. You have to do well on the test.”

When I go to sleep I see grey bubbles in my head. When I dream, I see a passage article story opening it’s mouth and swallowing me. When it closes its mouth, I know there is no way to escape, so I wake up screaming, terrified that when the test comes, it too will swallow me whole.

What Does a Know-it-All Know, Anyway?

I’ve heard people suggest that, since I’m a special education teacher, I am also a saint. People have told me, “Those kids need someone like you,” and, “They need a good male role model.”

Of course, none of these people are political types or billionaires. The way these influencers see it, I’m exactly the kind of teacher my kids don’t need because I don’t add enough value. Full disclosure: I typed that sentence with a smirk on my face.

Instead of honoring my commitment to teaching a high-needs cohort (or the commitment of others who teach special ed, ESL, or in high poverty areas), the know-it-alls use the choice I’ve made to label me a poor teacher. It is both upsetting and laughably idiotic that they have perversely twisted the notion of good teaching so that the teachers who take on the hardest assignments are made to look like the worst teachers.

Which shows you just how little these know-it-alls know.

The Evolution of Testing in My Career

Since my career began, here’s a sample of what I have heard from politicians, colleagues, others in school, and those joining in the discourse around the country regarding standardized testing:

As a pre-service teacher: Nothing.

I was left to assume the tests were an inconvenient nuisance at the end of the year that just had to be done – kind of like filling out a survey and receiving a prize.

As a first-year fifth grade teacher: “He took summer school because he failed the test.” “There are only __ days left until the test!” “Just do the test prep and don’t complain.” “We don’t even get the scores until July.” “The test doesn’t mean anything, they all get promoted, anyway.” “New York’s test scores are higher than ever!”

As a second-year fifth grade teacher: “This year is going to be really rough because we have one test and the next week we have the other one.” “We’re going to do a test practice passage every month so they know what’s coming.” “There are only __ days left until the test!!!” “These tests don’t show anything. It’s so easy to get a 3.” “We removed a whole class set of tests for having the exact same answer on an essay*.” “New York continues to raise test scores.”

As a third-year first/second grade teacher: Since I wasn’t in a testing grade, I’ve blocked it all out, except for me saying to colleagues, “I don’t miss the tests.” (Though this is the year I became a lot more keenly aware of the political dialogue around testing and the tremendous and unrelenting pressures of NCLB and Race to the Top.)

As a fourth-year third grade teacher: “We really have to make sure these kids do well.” “We’re doing six weeks of test prep and have to cover 50 indicators in math.” “We don’t want teachers teaching to the test.” “You know, this is important for your tenure and your job – you want to be able to show good test scores.” “Your test scores will count for at least 20% in our new teacher evaluation system.” “These test scores are so meaningless, why do they print them in the paper?” “It’s just not fair to the kids.”

*I heard this from someone who scored tests. In New York, teachers score tests from other schools.

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Deep in the heart of Texas, it seems the delicious taste of a people’s revolution is hanging in the air. Indeed, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is firing salvos against testing that someday might earn him the distinction of being, “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World.”

His army is responding. According to the Washington Post, “more than 100 districts” have passed a resolution condemning an “over reliance” on standardized testing.

It is wonderful to imagine what adults can accomplish when they put aside their selfish greed and instead, act in the best interests of students (who are our future, after all). Let’s hope Texas becomes a model for other states – including my own – on how to stand up and demand an end to the insanity of forcing students to take tests that are essentially meaningless. Let them be the model for demanding students have rich, meaningful learning experiences that promote our country’s best possible future.

This is the kind of courageous and intelligent behavior that seems to have been eroded from the landscape, so kudos to the folks in for Texas standing up and thinking with their own brains!

I am posting the resolution here in the hopes that you read it, feel inspired, and spread it. It’s the start of a revolution!

WHEREAS, the over reliance on standardized, high stakes testing as the only assessment of learning that really matters in the state and federal accountability systems is strangling our public schools and undermining any chance that educators have to transform a traditional system of schooling into a broad range of learning experiences that better prepares our students to live successfully and be competitive on a global stage; and

WHEREAS, we commend Robert Scott, Commissioner of Education, for his concern about the overemphasis on high stakes testing that has become “a perversion of its original intent” and for his continuing support of high standards and local accountability; and

WHEREAS, we believe our state’s future prosperity relies on a high-quality education system that prepares students for college and careers, and without such a system Texas’ economic competitiveness and ability and to attract new business will falter; and

WHEREAS, the real work of designing more engaging student learning experiences requires changes in the culture and structure of the systems in which teachers and students work; and

WHEREAS, what occurs in our classrooms every day should be student-centered and result in students learning at a deep and meaningful level, as opposed to the superficial level of learning that results from the current over-emphasis on that which can be easily tested by standardized tests; and

WHEREAS, We believe in the tenets set out in Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas (TASA, 2008) and our goal is to transform this district in accordance with those tenets; and

WHEREAS, Our vision is for all students to be engaged in more meaningful learning activities that cultivate their unique individual talents, to provide for student choice in work that is designed to respect how they learn best, and to embrace the concept that students can be both consumers and creators of knowledge; and

WHEREAS, only by developing new capacities and conditions in districts and schools, and the communities in which they are embedded, will we ensure that all learning spaces foster and celebrate innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication and critical thinking; and

WHEREAS, these are the very skills that business leaders desire in a rising workforce and the very attitudes that are essential to the survival of our democracy; and

WHEREAS, imposing relentless test preparation and boring memorization of facts to enhance test performance is doing little more than stealing the love of learning from our students and assuring that we fall short of our goals; and

WHEREAS, we do not oppose accountability in public schools and we point with pride to the performance of our students, but believe that the system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate their instructional time and block our ability to make progress toward a world-class education system of student-centered schools and future-ready students; therefore be it

RESOLVED that the _____________ ISD Board of Trustees calls on the Texas Legislature to reexamine the public school accountability system in Texas and to develop a system that encompasses multiple assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, and more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success, enhances the role of teachers as designers, guides to instruction and leaders, and nurtures the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students.

Let Your Voice Be Heard

This week, I had the opportunity to travel with a colleague – as a representative of my school district – to Albany for the chance to meet with state legislators and share concerns about public schools, students, and public workers.

The negative dialogue about teachers and public worker rights is frequently overwhelming. This blog, and others I read, are outlets for our frustration, but I have often felt we are just preaching to the choir. Most people choose to read what speaks to them – things that validate what they believe. There is value in our community of empathy and common thinking, sure, but usually it’s not each other’s minds we need to work to change.

For this reason, I was grateful to spend time in the offices of three legislators who represent my school district. At times, our value as teachers was affirmed by our hosts’ teary stories about the teacher that impacted their lives the most. At times, we found ourselves stridently articulating our stances on what we feel is best for students, schools, and teachers.

I’m so glad I had a copy of my colleague’s post about the true value a teacher adds. The release of data and the evaluation deal currently being negotiated are of particular interest to me and I assumed responsibility for passionately speaking against the public defamation of teachers on the basis of irrelevant data. I left Donna’s post in the hands of two aides and one senator, urging them to read and share it.

It was empowering to speak with these people. The hope is that they take our concerns to heart act morally to support students and public workers.

Writing and reading blogs is great and valuable, but that practice can only take us so far. We need to be active participants in government outside of voting. We have a voice that should be heard. Moving forward, I plan to make a more concerted effort of articulating my points to elected officials. I hope you’ll o the same.

How Should We Define Success?

In 2014, No Child Left Behind says that every student must be proficient in math and reading. Um, yeah.

No Child Left Behind ignorantly suppresses the beauty of what needs to be the focus of education: improvement.

You know what? None of my third graders will be proficient by the end of this school year in reading or math. Kids with disabilities are at an inherent disadvantage in this type of system, which assumes that if it’s the law, everyone will just have to abide by it – no excuses. Um, yeah.

Meanwhile, all of my students are making progress, and I have cases in which it’s quite significant. One student started September reading on a level E. This week he was promoted to level J – a gain of five levels (with three months to go).

Is it realistic for all students to achieve proficiency when a disability precludes them from retaining information or focusing or when a health issue causes them to miss over 100 days in two years? No. It is only realistic to expect and demand improvement.

Defining success in a narrow way consigns too many to failure. I refuse to do that. Anyone who improves in my class (and that’s everyone) is a success. Everyone develops at their own rate, irrespective of time tables and expectations. Why must children be shoved into holes that don’t fit them?

You will never catch me calling any of my students a failure, because as long as they bust their butts to improve, they will. I’m not sure I can think of a more accurate depiction of success.

Which Side Are You On?

Today, I am reimagining Florence Reece’s classic protest song, “Which Side Are You On?” in consideration of ed reform in the United States.

They say in the U.S.A. that teachers are what ails.

They’re overpaid and underworked, they’re why our students fail.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


It’s oh so clear to many that this is all a game.

Political and dangerous to treat all kids the same.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


If you’re a billionaire then it’s obvious to me,

You’re not someone who should influence ed policy.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


You take away our teachers and close our public schools.

The end result of this is that the country goes to fools.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


What is this land we live in where teachers are the root

Of every single social ill? Why do they get the boot?


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


It’s not about the students from your tower ivory.

You want to help the students? You must listen to me.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


My mother was a teacher. Now I’m a teacher, too.

There are people who know teaching, and Mister, that ain’t you.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

How Reformers Have Hijacked “Data”

This is my response to the letter I recently received from a colleague, with whom I am exchanging letters on various education-related issues. The original text of her letter can be found on her blog.

Dear Donna,

Long time, no write! I was very happy to read your letter and look forward to using this space to debunking the myth of data that has been perpetrated upon teachers.

There are two types of data.

You have data, which, when properly interpreted and used, encourages individualized, relevant, and urgent teaching. This is the kind of data we should all – reformers, traditionalists, principals, and parents – embrace. Here, “data” is a term that ought to frighten us on the scale of words like “puppy,” “kitten,” and “rainbow.”

The other type of data has become so important, and its use so encouraged, that its status can only be expressed thusly: Data. “Data” sounds like “data” (with the short a or the long a!) and it even looks like “data.” Where Data and data part ways, though, is in their use to students and teachers. It is Data that is undermining teachers like you. In fact, that this four-letter word is allowed to be uttered about and around children as frequently as it is is one of the great annoyances of education reform in this country.

Any dedicated teacher who truly wants to inspire the greatest achievement in her students understands the value of good data. I get this kind of data from quizzes, conversations with students, observations of what they’re saying and doing, homework, and exit slips. When I interpret the data, I am able to determine what my next steps should be for individuals and the whole class. This is what is meant by “data-driven instruction.”

You see how nice it is? Don’t you want to cuddle up with some data and figure out how it’s going to help you better teach your students? Of course, you already do, and you do it reflexively. I know you do because you understand its value. Any teacher who uses data would be considered in tune with student needs and is actively considering every student’s unique situation. This takes skill and dedication and teachers who use data to figure out next steps ought to be celebrated because they are truly tailoring their instruction to meet students where they are.

Data with a capital d serves a whole other purpose and has an entirely different value, neither of which have been determined yet! It seems that Data is mainly used to point out just how awful teachers like you and me are. That’s because Data essentially amounts to student standardized test scores. Unfortunately, too many know-it-alls in the reform dialogue don’t know what to you, me, and most is self-evident: all students are not the same!

Based on the Data on you, a teacher of beginner ESL students brand new to the country, published by New York’s papers, you are one of the worst teachers in the school, if not the city. I suspect if any Data was available on me, a teacher of self-contained special education, I’d be right there with you. The incredible fallacy of Data is that it doesn’t account for student needs and environmental factors the way the data we collect does. So that makes Data a prickly issue for those of us who know the term has been hijacked.

Now we have clarified the differences between “data” and “Data.” For a teacher who wants to encourage the greatest in her students, there are few tools that she has at her disposal that are more important than “data.” Unfortunately, when a reformer says “data,” they really mean, “Data,” and it is their failure to understand the difference that harms students and teachers.

Interpreting data is part of our job, but being chastised for Data shouldn’t be.


A Call to Action: Spread the Word About “Value”

My colleague Donna and I exchanged a volley of texts this weekend trying to figure out the next steps that could follow her post I dare you to measure the “value” I add, which, I guess you could say, has gone certifiably viral. That is to say, if you haven’t read it, read it now. Close to 10,000 people did this weekend.

As Donna considers the best ways to seize on the popularity of this inspiring and timely post by spreading it further, I ask that you do your part to spread it. The more people who read it, the better.

Donna has articulated a stand that teaching and results can’t be crunched into numbers. If you agree, please retweet, post to Facebook, e-mail to colleagues and administrators, and share on Google Plus. This message needs to be shared if we want to take back our profession!

Just for good measure, here’s the link again! Share it with everyone! I dare you to measure the “value” I add.